Page 10, 5th September 2008

5th September 2008
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Page 10, 5th September 2008 — What would Newman make of the Church today?

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Locations: Rome, Oxford


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What would Newman make of the Church today?

Ian Ker says the cardinal would be dismayed by our failure to harness the energy of Vatican II

ith the approach of Cardinal John Henry Newman's beatification we can hope soon for his canonisation, an important event for the universal Church because Newman will certainly then become a Doctor of the Church. Often referred to as "the Father of the Second Vatican Council", Newman will surely become the Doctor or Teacher of the postVatican II Church.

The disintegration of the Church in this county since the Council, about which Bishop Patrick O'Donoghue's Fit for Mission? Church bravely tells the truth, would not have come as a great surprise to Newman. During and after Vatican!, Newman set out a mini-theology of Councils in his private letters, drawing not only on his experience of the contemporary Council but also on his expert knowledge of the early Councils.

Above all, Councils are followed by peat confusion and dissension. History showed that there would be a small minority who would reject Vatican U, as well as a large party that would grossly exaggerate the meaning and scope of the conciliar texts. At Vatican I, both the German church historian Johann Joseph Ignaz von DollingerÔÇ× who was excommunicated for refusing to accept the definition of papal infallibility, and the extreme Ultramontane party were in close agreement about the revolutionary nature of the definition, an interpretation which Newman rejected as being untrue to the text. That both Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and Hans Kiing agreed about the revolutionary nature of Vatican Tt would not have surprised him.

At the beginning of the Council there were two parties, the reformers and their conservative opponents. But before the Council had finished, the reformers had split into two groups: the extreme reformers like Kling and the moderate reformers, whose most important theologian was the great Henri de Lubac, and who included Pope Paul VI and his successors Karol

Wojtyla and Joseph Ratzinger. That, without any question, is where Newman would have belonged. And insofar as the Church here, as elsewhere, has leaned towards the extreme reformist position so far it has collapsed in the ways admirably described by Bishop O'Donoghue.

A reformer ahead of his time, Newman always emphasised the importance of continuity and tradition as well as obedience to the Magisterium. He predicted the "creeping infallibility" that came in the wake of Vatican I just as he could have predicted the appeal to the so-called "spirit of Vatican Ir. He knew very well that the texts of Councils need interpretation and that false interpretations are predictable. He knew that conciliar texts are open to exaggeration both as to their meaning and their relative importance. After Vatican I the scope of papal infallibility was greatly exaggerated. After Vatican II it seemed the Church had no interests or concerns apart from justice and peace and ecumenism. And that takes us to the second general observation that Newman made about the aftermaths of Councils: the significance of what Councils fail to talk about. At Vatican I it was the lack of a comprehensive ecclesiology. at Vatican II it was evangelisation that was missing from the agenda. As Newman put it. one Council does one thing and another another, often "in contrary directions... perfecting, completing... each other".

The liturgical reforms of the Council led to a widespread unauthorised desacralisalion of the Mass "the greatest action... on earth". according to Newman. They also led to an unintended reaction against Eucharistic Adoration with the widespread relegation of the tabernacle to a corner in churches, a reaction that would have profoundly upset Newman since the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament was what most impressed him when he became a Catholic. As for the now largely forgotten Sacrament of Reconciliation, he wrote: "If there is a heavenly idea in the Catholic Church... surely. next after the Blessed Sacrament. Confession is such.Let's turn to the Vatican II documents that Newman anticipated if not influenced. Vatican ll's Constitution on Revelation's insistence that revelation is primarily God's personal self-revealing in Christ is absolutely Newmanian. But Newman would have utterly deplored the consequent downplaying of doctrinal propositions that followed the Council how, Newman asked, can you love someone if you know nothing about them? and which was responsible for the failure to teach the Catholic faith in Catholic schools and for what John Paul U deplored as "the memoryless desert of catechesis-. Newman's story about the Irish peasant boy who reduced some sophisticated Oxford dons to silence simply by knowing by heart his catechism would no doubt be deeply shocking to the kind of Catholic educationalist who has by now deprived several generations of Catholics of even the most rudimentary knowledge of their faith.

In his own day Newman was an ecumenist but the utter indifferentism that followed the Council that made priests even discourage people from becoming Catholics'would have deeply shocked him. Newman anticipated the decree on non-Christian religions when he daringly spoke of "the dispensation of paganism", but he would have deplored the loss of missionary dynamism that followed that decree.

No one deplored the siege mentality of the 19th-century Church and its refusal to engage with the modern world more than Newman, who would have welcomed the general thrust of Gaudiurn et Spes. But he would have had distinct reservations about the overly optimistic tone of the document and would have immediately realised the dangers inherent in the notorious phrase (article 36) "the autonomy of earthly affairswith all its secularising implications, and the importance of its being interpreted strictly in the light of article 22 which states unequivocally that "it is only

in the mystery of the Word made flesh that the mystery of man truly becomes clear", since it is Christ who "fully reveals man to himself'. The hugely exaggerated emphasis on justice and peace since the Council calls out for the Newmanian corrective that it is unacceptable to identify "Christ's Kingdom with mere human civilisation" which is "a second-rate perfection of nature, being what it is, and remaining what it is, without any supernatural principle".

The key document of a Council overwhelmingly about the Church is the Constitution on the Church, the first two chapters of which define the nature of the Church in the scriptural and patristic terms of Newman's own ecclesiology. These chapters on the organic community of the baptised have attained concrete realisation in the new ecclesial communities and movements so important for evangelisation but largely igiored or opposed by bishops and clergy in this country a religious phenomenon that illustrates both Newman's view that conciliar documents become clearer in their significance in the course of time and also his view that what Councils are silent about leads to unexpected developments. As for the hierarchy, Newman believed in episcopal collegiality rather than papal autocracy but he did not think that collegiality means working against rather than with the head of the college.

Finally, any perceived "semi-autonomy" of the English Church from Rome. which Bishop O'Donoghue deplores, would have shocked Newman, who had had enough of national churches as an Anglican and who called himself an Ultramontane in the original sense of one who looks beyond the mountains (the Alps) to Rome as the centre of Catholic unity. He would also have seen it as a gross betrayal of our Catholic history and an insult to our martyrs.

Ian Ker's John Henry Newman: A Biography is shortly to be re-issued fry Faber and Faber

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