It seemed fitting to attend to St. John Henry Newman, in service of the topic of Catholic liberal education, after his recent canonization and the more recent installation of his image in our sanctuary. There is something of a mystery in that choice, by the way, for the donors who proposed it, in their magnificence supporting the conversion of our beautiful chapel, have wished to remain anonymous. But I take it that we have, in effect, been asked as a College to regard Newman as another patron — not equal in importance for our self-understanding to St. Thomas Aquinas, yet of a real and broad significance which has perhaps lain hidden (given how little Newman figures in our curriculum). Praying that it was a providential invitation, I will attempt to show one manner in which the choice is fitting.
Now it would have been obvious to take up one of Newman’s works tonight — the one, in fact, his statue represents him as holding, for the eagle-eyed — The Idea of a University. This is a classic tract precisely on liberal education, as understood in light of the British university system. But I have chosen for my central text instead An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine ; for three reasons. First, not a noble one, a kind of necessity: I have thought about the Essay longer and more frequently than any other of Newman’s works, and knowing my limitations I chose to talk on what I know better, and trust that I could work in Catholic liberal education somehow. Second, the Essay on Development is the one work of Newman that we read in the program. Now that’s keener, but it cuts both ways. We read Newman midway through the second semester of senior seminar. So I am lecturing on a text that no student here has yet read and discussed in our program. That is not ideal: it’s easier, of course, to follow a lecture on a text you’ve read; moreover, for our program especially, a summary account from the podium could, when you do come to it together, dampen the open inquiry we so desire — I could become the hated “outside source.” I make bold to do so nonetheless. For if this were an insuperable obstacle, we could never have an opening lecture on Newman; and even as the last lecture of the year, only the seniors would have read him. Moreover, for this to affect your reading and discussion of the text, you’ll actually have to remember what I say tonight in late February, senior year. Time is on my side. Indeed, when you come to it, your thesis will be due in a few weeks; and Newman’s famous prose, though one of the glories of the English tongue, is not brief. Time will not be on your side. There may be pressure to give this reading short shrift. So, one thing a ‘preview’ lecture might do is to make you want to read it more, and if I do only that, for any reason, I’ll be content.
One reason to want to dig deeply into the Essay, to consider carefully what Newman really meant by ‘development’ — and the third reason for my choice of topic — is that its effect on the view of Catholic doctrine taken by many both within the Church and without has been enormous; I would be surprised if anyone here were untouched by it — at least in name. For the mere reputation, or the ‘spirit’ of development, or frankly the abuse of the notion, has also been rampant in the Church, as many through will or neglect have abandoned his own careful teaching. So we stand in need of clarification, and of fidelity to what Newman really meant, for the good of the Church, as well as to see how he is fittingly taken as a patron of our form of Catholic liberal education.
1.2 Division of the whole
So I proceed in two parts. First, in the bulk of the paper, I will give an account of what Newman really meant by the development of Christian doctrine in the Essay, clarified by an effort to understand what has gone wrong in the reception of this idea. Second, with this restored notion of development in hand, I will briefly consider our theology sequence here at TAC, the classes which most of all make our liberal education Catholic, properly speaking, and show how useful I think a faithful notion of development may be for our self-understanding of all four years of theology.
2 What is development, as Newman meant it?
2.1 Narration of the Essay : context, central idea, reception
2.1.1 A conversion story
Late on the 8th of October, 1845, an Italian priest of the Passionist order, Fr. Dominic Barberi,1 was travelling south in England towards the Channel, in an uncovered seat beside a coach, in the pouring rain. Some years earlier he had been sent to England to establish a monastery in Aston, and he had long felt a call to try to bring Anglicans back to Rome. He was at this time, however, on his way to Belgium for a chapter of his order; given the conditions, perhaps he was daydreaming of Italy and the Mediterranean sunshine. By the time they reached Littlemore, just outside Oxford, where he meant to stay the night with a friend, it was very late indeed and he was soaked through. He writes: “We reached Littlemore about an hour before midnight, and I took up my position before the fire to dry myself. The door opened — and what a spectacle it was for me to see at my feet John Henry Newman, begging me to hear his confession and admit him into the bosom of the Catholic Church!”2
Let us back up one week. On October 1st, in Littlemore, John Henry Newman — who was already famous throughout England and beyond as a brilliant and prolific Anglican preacher, writer, and controversialist, the spearhead of the Oxford Movement who gained a great following and became a lightning rod in a struggle for the soul of the Anglican church amidst a great tide of liberalism, who had frustrated friends and foes alike by withdrawing from that same movement into seclusion at Littlemore, under constant speculation for months and years that he was planning to ‘leave for Rome’, to become Catholic, at any moment, but insisting to his friends that he was not yet sufficiently clear in his mind — on October 1st, Newman put down his pen and stopped writing a work of which he had completed more than 400 pages, and determined to see Fr. Dominic when he passed through, for he was at last sufficiently clear in his mind. That work was An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine.3
It was not by chance that the process of writing this work led him to that pass; he had undertaken it precisely to put an end to his indecision. A man of great learning in the Scriptures, the classics, the Church Fathers, and the history of the Church, Newman had once convinced himself that the Anglican Church could be a via media between Catholicism and Protestantism. Protestantism he had rejected long since, as soon as he had recognized the principle “that the sacred text was never intended to teach doctrine, but only to prove it,”4 and that thus if we would learn doctrine we must have tradition and an institutional Church; and after he had likewise come to see the importance of Apostolic Succession. Yet for long he also saw the Catholic Church at the opposite vicious extreme — a church whose ‘tradition’ had added to their doctrine many propositions which could not be proved by Scripture, nor evidenced as part of early Apostolic tradition. The via media, while it lasted in his mind, was the Anglican Church as a true branch of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church, having Apostolic Succession and the fullness of Apostolic Tradition, but without the accretions and abuses of Rome over the centuries.
But by the beginning of 1845 Newman had become convinced that his hopes for a via media were irretrievable, and that he must cease to be an Anglican; and by the same researches and arguments he had become less and less hostile to Rome. Yet the question remained, for this man of such refined and conscientious mind, how can I be sure? “What test had I, that I should not change again, after that I had been a Catholic? … However, some limit ought to be put to these vague misgivings; I must do my best and then leave it to a higher power to prosper it. So, I determined to write an Essay on Doctrinal Development; and then, if, at the end of it, my convictions in favour of the Roman Church were not weaker, to make up my mind to seek admission into her fold.”5 And so it proved. …
This is the first point, then, to keep in mind: the Essay was written by Newman when he was still outside the Church, although his heart was nearly there already; and it was intended as a justification of Catholic teaching exactly as it had been and was in his day, by answering an objection: how has the Church really been saying the same thing over the centuries? How has she preserved the Apostolic faith intact, without corruption, and without foreign admixture? She teaches transubstantiation, the Immaculate Conception, Purgatory; at least as far as the words go, these are not to be found in Scripture (neither is the word ‘Trinity’, by the way), nor in the earliest extant writings of the Fathers or other early Church documents. Some of these are only formally taught by the Church many centuries after the Apostles. Yet she professes to be handing on the Apostolic faith, and rejects the notion of ongoing revelation. Certainly she has added words to what the early Christians professed, it would seem. Must we not admit that she has simply added new teachings? That Catholic doctrine simply changes? The Essay responds: what the Church teaches now is what she had from the beginning, yet new words can be needed to say the same thing in new circumstances; this is development.
2.1.2 The central idea of the Essay
The power of Newman’s response derives largely from the breadth of his approach, the deep principles from which he begins. He does not suppose that he is positing anything new in the Essay ; he says, indeed, “The view on which it is written has at all times, perhaps, been implicitly adopted by theologians”; but he renders this view explicit, and its foundation more general than theology:
… from the nature of the human mind, time is necessary for the full comprehension and perfection of great ideas … the highest and most wonderful truths, though communicated to the world once for all by inspired teachers, could not be comprehended all at once by the recipients, but, as being received and trans- mitted by minds not inspired and by media which were human, have required only the longer time and deeper thought for their full elucidation. This may be called the Theory of Development of Doctrine.6
Though he refers here to the inspiration of the teachers — a point to which we shall return later — the principle or axiom is not limited to Christian doctrine or to any inspired doctrine; it is just as wide as human thought and history.
Indeed, on this view, we would do a great injustice to the power and richness of Christian revelation if we were to suppose that one generation after another of human minds could simply grasp it entire, and pass on to the next, in an easy, rote manner — to say nothing of “summing it up” in a phrase, as is so common today when Christianity comes up in a public dispute (“Didn’t Jesus teach love?”). The like can hardly be done fairly with a merely human idea, let us say, the Platonic philosophy (though textbooks are not ashamed to try); and shall we encapsulate a divine revelation in this way?
Nay rather, we must see any great idea only over time and through many aspects, none of which exhausts its content. Often we do not see all the force and implications of an idea we already hold, until it enters into dialectic, when it is challenged, misunderstood, or taken apart — in the process of expressing what has gone wrong, in defending the original, we see in the original what we had not seen before. Hence there is, of the very nature of the case, a process, and something analogous to life: “When an idea … is of a nature to arrest and possess the mind, it may be said to have life, that is, to live in the mind which is its recipient.”7 It spreads, it grows, it interacts.
Thus in time it will have grown into an ethical code, or into a system of government, or into a theology, or into a ritual, according to its capabilities: and this body of thought, thus laboriously gained, will after all be little more than the proper representation of one idea, being in substance what that idea meant from the first, its complete image as seen in a combination of diversified aspects, with the suggestions and corrections of many minds, and the illustration of many experiences.8
Here then is the second point to keep in mind: Newman’s argument is so powerful a defense of Catholic teaching because it has in view so much more than Catholic teaching, it stands on such a broad ground of human thought — thereby completely shifting the ground of controversy. If this is the character of all great ideas as they play out in human minds over time, not only is it no objection that Catholic doctrine should have gradually added many things which are not found in so many words from the first, but we should have expected nothing less, if Catholic doctrine is passing on a true and great idea. How else could revelation live in the minds of men? The opponent assumes that the only pure Christianity is the aboriginal — if you can’t find it exactly as you would now have it in the sources, then it is a pollution. Newman’s broad view simply explodes that presumption; and he finishes it off with a rhetorical coup de grˆace that is probably the most famous passage in the work:
It is indeed sometimes said that the stream is clearest near the spring. Whatever use may fairly be made of this image, it does not apply to the history of a philosophy or belief, which on the contrary is more equable, and purer, and stronger, when its bed has become deep, and broad, and full. It necessarily rises out of an existing state of things, and for a time savours of the soil. Its vital element needs disengaging from what is foreign and temporary … In time it enters upon strange territory; points of controversy alter their bearing; parties rise and fall around it; dangers and hopes appear in new relations; and old principles reappear under new forms. It changes with them in order to remain the same. In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.9
Finally, Newman must narrow or focus the consideration of the development of ideas in general, to the issue at hand, the development of Christian doctrine. This is no mere application of the universal to the particular. Grant that any great idea must develop, must interact with many minds and many environments, nothing in human terms prevents corruption — that the process should become not the true unfolding of the original idea but its betrayal, or infiltration. Such is precisely what the critics of the Catholic Church have said — that it has betrayed the original Gospel idea with corruptions foisted upon it as if they belonged to it; and shifting the ground to show that true development is to be expected does not, on its own, give any answer to that accusation.
Hence the bulk of the Essay addresses the development of Christian doctrine properly, the development within the Church of the original deposit of faith conferred upon the Apostles. First, Newman shows how Scripture itself confirms the mode of development just described, giving us confidence not only from the nature of human ideas but the character of super- natural revelation as we have it that legitimate development was intended all along by the author of Christianity. Second, Newman argues that, since that saving truth must needs develop, and therefore be exposed to the risk of corruption, we should have expected from the first that an infallible authority should be part of that gift, an authority itself divinely guided to discriminate and confirm true developments. Newman goes so far as to say that if the infallible developing authority be not given, then the revelation itself has virtually not been given.10 Third, Newman runs through historical evidence for the continuity of doctrine on certain disputed instances like papal supremacy, “… drawing out the positive and direct argument in proof of the intimate connexion, or rather oneness, with primitive Apostolic teaching, of the body of doctrine known at this day by the name of Catholic.”11 Fourth and finally, in order to respond most directly to the charge of corruption, he presents and applies seven notes, by which genuine developments may be distinguished from corruptions.
I cannot engage all of these specifications now. Let me instead concretize the theory by one historical example, among many that Newman lays out: the Council of Chalcedon, in 451. How does the Church understand and faithfully pass down the saving truth that the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us? By the fifth century there had already been plenty of controversy and struggle over that question; in the fourth, the Nicene Creed, which you all know from the Mass, was the fruit of the defense of our Lord’s divinity against a tide of Arianism which threatened to overrun the Church, a defense led especially by St. Athanasius. Hence the dogmatic formulae, which already expanded upon Scriptural language: begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father. But Chalcedon was needed because further doubts had arisen: the Son who is true God became man; what then is he, after he became? We all know that the answer should be, ‘both God and man’; but there is an ineluctable mystery in that answer, and new heresies had arisen from the effort to wrangle that mystery into something more comprehensible — in particular, one Eutyches had argued that after the Incarnation, there was but one nature, in which humanity was absorbed into Christ’s divinity. He appealed precisely to the Nicene Creed, as well as to Scripture, and insisted that nothing should be added to that creed — which, as he took it, implied only one nature (hence the heresy was called ‘Monophysite’.) There was so much support for this heresy among Eastern bishops that a council called in Ephesus affirmed Eutyches in the view of one nature after the Incarnation, condemned any who would speak of two natures, refused to read a letter from Pope Leo, and had the archbishop of Constantinople, loyal to the Pope, beaten as he clung to the altar; soon after he died of his wounds.12 But another council was called, this one truly ecumenical, for Chalcedon, with the legates of Pope Leo allowed to speak. Let Newman take it from here:
Such was the state of Eastern Christendom in the year 449; a heresy, appealing to the Fathers, to the Creed, and, above all, to Scripture, was by a general Council, professing to be Ecumenical, received as true in the person of its promulgator. If the East could determine a matter of faith independently of the West, certainly the Monophysite heresy was established as Apostolic truth in all its provinces from Macedonia to Egypt. There has been a time in the history of Christianity, when it had been Athanasius against the world, and the world against Athanasius. The need and straitness of the Church had been great, and one man was raised up for her deliverance. In this second necessity, who was the destined champion of her who cannot fail? Whence did he come, and what was his name? He came with an augury of victory upon him, which even Athanasius could not show; it was Leo, Bishop of Rome.13
The Bishops at Chalcedon rejected the proceedings of Ephesus as a Latrocinium, a robber council, and approved Leo’s own Tome defending two natures in Christ, crying out “This is the faith of the Fathers; this is the faith of the Apostles: we all believe thus.” Yet they were disinclined to add anything to the Nicene Creed. But Leo insisted; and so, the acts of the council read, “ ‘This Creed were sufficient for the perfect knowledge of religion, but the enemies of the truth have invented novel expressions;’ and therefore it proceeds to state the faith more explicitly,”14 that is, to determine the profession of faith to two natures. What the bishops wanted was to keep saying the same thing; but as directed by the Pope, they granted that in the face of “novel expressions” it was necessary to add words and determine thoughts, in order to keep on saying the same thing, in order to preserve the mystery revealed to us in the words, “the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.” They had to change in order to remain the same; and they may have failed, had it not been for the Pope.
So let us make a third touchstone, or point to remember, about the Essay, before turning to its reception. The general theory of the development of ideas must be contracted and completed by elements which are by no means as general as that theory, in order to become an account of development as Newman really meant it in the work, the development which belongs to the teaching Church. That development is, as he says, an account of the oneness with primitive Apostolic teaching of that body of doctrines which goes by the name Catholic: a oneness which is only guaranteed by a divinely-guided, infallible authority, but can also be brought out by an historical investigation which shows how later doctrines can indeed be found to be anticipated in earlier stages of the Church, and even to be proven from Scripture — not as if we could have deduced them from Scripture alone, but insofar as we see them there once we already know them.
2.1.3 Reception and abuse of the notion of ‘development’
How was Newman’s great account of development received? That is a very big story, and even if time were no matter, I could not tell it properly. For now, I mean only to distinguish, with very broad brushstrokes, two basic types of reception, two kinds of audience.
The first is that of other Anglicans or of Protestants. As you can imagine, this reception was varied, not at all uniformly applauding. Some argued that the Essay simply failed to acquit Rome of the charge of novelty in her teaching; they might grant Newman’s subtlety and brilliance in argument, but continued to doubt that in the end he could avoid positing a continuing revelation as the implicit claim of the Catholic Church, a notion which Rome herself would explicitly abhor.15 For others, however, the reading of the work had an effect similar to what the writing had in the author’s own mind — that is, it tore down an obstacle to joining the Catholic Church. The Essay certainly retains that power; I have myself known of a case or two of conversions facilitated thereby.
But I must pass this category quickly by, stopping only to note that we may fairly call this Newman’s intended audience. Although he wrote it for himself, he wrote it to address objections to Roman Catholic doctrine just as it had been and was at his time; and his chief interlocutors mentioned in the text are Protestants or other Anglicans — including his own past self. Yet this reception, by the intended audience, has been by far the less momentous.
The reception of the Essay of far greater influence has been within the Catholic Church.16
Not that the magisterium immediately took Newman’s account of development to claim it as her own; that is the impression you would get now, by and large, but it took some decades for approval to be won. But more immediately, starting in the late 19th century and continuously through the 20th, individual Catholic theologians, one after another, made much of the notion of development, and for many it has been a key to resolving a great question of that era in the Church, the question of how to reckon with a new historical awareness in learned society and new historical researches that upset many assumptions about the equable course of doctrine over the centuries. Indeed ‘development’ can be seen in the background of most of the great controversies among Catholic theologians in the 20th century, and it was of great importance for Vatican II; it continues to feature in the teachings of recent popes.
Now it is hard to overstate how great a difference is made between the first kind of reception and the second, quite apart from the differences among various individual theologians. For Newman, in writing the Essay, the view was retrospective and the aim apologetic — that is, to repeat, the aim was a defense of what is, by showing its unity with what was. As the notion enters the mind of Catholic theologians, it becomes not a defense but a self- understanding, which invites a prospective, forward-looking consideration. Instead of an apologia for doctrine just as it has been, development can be taken as an apology for doc- trine as it is now, according to the promise of what it might soon become. See how doctrine looks now, compared to what it looked like in the past; yet it is now Catholic teaching, it is the teaching of the one Church — what then might it not become, and be no less true doc- trine? What are the possibilities for future development — and how might we be involved? “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”
And let us not forget that, at just the same time that Newman’s theory of development was beginning to circulate, Darwin’s theory was about to take the world by storm, prompting in its own way doubt and turmoil in almost every intellectual sphere — with or without sufficient reason — and raising in each sphere the spectre of evolution, of an essentially historical process undermining the fixity of essences, a growing view of the past as necessarily primitive, and fodder for the future.
Just before the turn of the century there was a monumental case of reception of the Essay, in Alfred Loisy, a French abb´é and theologian. This is, on the one hand, an extreme case, so I do not present it strictly as representative. On the other hand, it was the sort of extreme case that is like a Great Book — it creates a following, it shapes future thought, whether by imitation or reaction; and Loisy came to be called the “Father of Catholic Modernism.” ‘Modernism’ is hard to define here, but I am sure in present company it will be known as a bad thing. Loisy had already other influences, to be sure, shaping his mind according to the new historical criticism of Scripture and Tradition — giving a radical priority to that criticism over the self-presentation of the New Testament and the traditional self- understanding of the Church; eventually, decades into a career of increasing controversy, Loisy would formulate such questions (perhaps now all too familiar) as whether we can really know anything about the historical Jesus under all the propaganda of the Gospels.17
Early on, before this skepticism was so pronounced, when perhaps he still meant to work within the Church, he received Newman’s Essay, and found it after his own heart. He wrote articles expanding, on his understanding, Newman’s thought, articles which “intended to lay the foundation of ‘a new programme of Catholic renovation’.”18 Newman was for Loisy the great doctor the Church needed in the modern age. Needed for what — to convert Anglicans? No, but to combat an “ill-judged conservatism” which cannot brook the tide of new historical researches; to be a doctor of a living doctrine, which has indeed always been living, “because Christianity is a living reality and not an intellectual concept.” “If all this development is animated by the spirit of the Gospel, if it is necessary for the Gospel’s conservation and diffusion, if it is useful in promoting the religion of Jesus, what objection can we have to it? To reproach the Catholic Church for all these things, is not that to reproach it for having lived and for being alive today?”19 “What is truly evangelical in today’s Christianity is not that which has never changed for, in a sense, everything has changed and has never ceased to change.”20
Loisy was condemned by Pius X, and eventually excommunicated vitandus ; you will read as seniors the encyclical connected with the condemnation of Modernism, Pascendi Dominici Gregis. That seemed only to harden his resolve, and he continued to drift further from orthodoxy to a final “religion of humanity,” all the while apparently believing himself to be, or at least presenting himself as, a priest who had been faithful to his call to serve the Church, had taken up Newman’s lead to preserve the true essence of Catholic doctrine, in the face of a backwards, hidebound hierarchy.
‘Modernism’ thus became a lightning rod; and if Loisy is an extreme case, the spectre of Modernism, along with accusations of such against theologians who were by no means so patently disobedient to the Church, cast a shadow over a great deal of 20th-century theology. You may have heard of the names of Henri de Lubac, and Karl Rahner; some of you will know them as theologians much better than I, who am merely name-dropping. What they have in common is that they worked to put Church teaching in radically new terms in the 20th century, that they were accused of Modernism, justly or unjustly; and that from early on in their careers they were thinking and writing about development, with Newman as the central figure, and taking the notion of development as a key to their projects.
2.2 What went wrong? Division of the argument
Now, I do not think anyone who would make Newman the grandfather of Modernism, because of his influence on Loisy and his camp, has a very serious argument. There were other and powerful intellectual currents flowing at the time; and Newman can hardly be blamed for everything done in the name of development, especially when it abandons clear aspects of his teaching, as we will see.21 So the question is: what went wrong? What did the reception of the Essay fail to receive, so that ‘development’ has been the watchword for so many theologians dissatisfied with the state of Church teaching in their day?
There are many ways that one could address this. One factor of inestimable importance I will not try to address, for it does not have to do directly with the theory of development, but with the philosophical atmosphere in which 20th-century theologians viewed earlier Church teaching, which then definitively colored the possibilities for development in their minds. That factor was the widespread agreement that Aristotelian philosophy is dead, and that prior Church teaching cast in Aristotelian terms thus could only continue to live if radically reconceived. Correcting this error would be quite another and massive project, and thank- fully needless for this community, because of course our curriculum is the best correction going — this is precisely why, as our Founders saw clearly, we cannot renew real discipleship to St. Thomas unless we renew appreciation for Aristotle’s perennial philosophy, the reports of whose demise have been greatly exaggerated. Let me just add a word from Newman’s The Idea of a University to show that, although no one would call him a thoroughgoing Aristotelian, he was on the right side here too:
Do not suppose, that in thus appealing to the ancients, I am throwing back the world two thousand years, and fettering Philosophy with the reasonings of paganism. While the world lasts, will Aristotle’s doctrine on these matters last, for he is the oracle of nature and of truth. While we are men, we cannot help, to a great extent, being Aristotelians, for the great Master does but analyze the thoughts, feelings, views, and opinions of human kind. He has told us the meaning of our own words and ideas, before we were born. In many subject- matters, to think correctly, is to think like Aristotle; and we are his disciples whether we will or no, though we may not know it.22
But as to what has been missed in the reception of the theory of development itself, I will try to make three points, answering three questions. First, intention: what are men intending to do when doctrine truly develops? Second, the beginning: when does development begin, and in particular, what is the status of the Apostles? Third, thought and life: where, and how, is Catholic doctrine most truly alive? I hasten to add that everything I will bring out of Newman’s own texts has been said before, and better; I feign no discovery here, only promulgation of what deserves to be better known.
2.2.1 First part of the argument: Intention in development (and evolution)
It has been said (by a good authority)23 that Newman’s idea of the passing on of doctrine is not like the handing off of a football, a dumbly external sort of motion, but like the growth of a tree from seed to sapling to mature plant, or like the tossing of a diamond from one to another, which catches the light in different ways and reveals new facets — so that, unlike the football, the receiving of it is not just a catching but a seeing. I think these points are well taken, and Newman certainly uses both the analogy of organic life, in many places, and the language of facets or aspects, suggesting a precious stone. Yet I think also that there is a danger of misunderstanding Newman if we make too much of a dichotomy between development as growth — with its newness, or newness of vision — and an allegedly dead notion of the transmission of doctrine which emphasizes the mere handing on of exactly what one has received. Even the lowly metaphor of the football might have something to show us about true development — for example, the reminder that a faithful handing off is something that one might have to fight for, that may occur under the duress of an opponent.
If we dismiss too readily tradition as a mere passing down, perhaps we are underestimating what a great challenge it may be to keep on saying the same thing. Of course, as we are talking about words and thoughts, not a football, truly we cannot suppose that passing down could fail to involve the mind — like the old definition of lecturing (the process by which words pass from the lecturer’s notebook to the student’s notebook, without passing through the mind of either). We must make doctrine our own, if we are to take part in handing it down — it must enter into our minds, and in that very reception, development may be afoot; for our minds are not the minds of our forefathers who handed it down to us, nor are our times and milieux theirs. And if in our times novel expressions have been invented, we may face hard choices in the effort to receive and hand down just what our forefathers gave us. Yet this will not be the result of an intention to develop.
Newman confirms such a view, even when using metaphors of life for doctrinal development; regarding the parable of the mustard seed, he notes, “it is observable that the spontaneous as well as the gradual, character of the growth is intimated … [development] is not an effect of wishing and resolving, or of forced enthusiasm, or of any mechanism of reasoning, or of any mere subtlety of intellect; but comes of its own innate power of expansion within the mind in its season, though with the use of reflection and argument and original thought, more or less as it may happen. …”24
I want to suggest another metaphor for development, one that might capture these distinctions in a particular way. I want to rehabilitate biological evolution as an analogy, in spite of how much it has served to distort Newman’s doctrine (John Senior speaks of ‘evolutionism’ as the very opposite of development in Newman’s mind).25 I think it is in fact a most illuminating analogy for development rightly understood; but only if evolution be rightly understood. If what we mean by evolution is that the more perfect being is always further down the line; that change is driven by external forces and by chance, with no higher, guiding causality required; that any amount of contradiction may occur between an earlier stage and a later; then of course what we are thinking of is toto coelo apart from development well understood, and no use as an analogy — but we are also thinking of nonsense, just as biology, as an account of nature. What of a philosophically-responsible theory of evolution, one from which (as I think) a Catholic has nothing to fear?
I think it is safe to say these few things. If there is evolution — if more perfect species come to be whose ancestors are those of less perfect species — it is certain that the more perfect does not simply arise from the less perfect as such, but the less perfect can at most provide a material preparation; the more perfect species must come from what is already more perfect — it must come ultimately from God, whether directly or through some created ministration. Second, if there is evolution, above and beyond and behind any chance involved, there is purpose through and through — above and beyond, insofar as we grant that any new species must come from God; but also behind the chance that may be involved in mutation, there is also purposeful action — for what is the engine that drives evolution, even on the atheist’s account? Reproduction.
I want to put this as plainly as possible. If there is evolution, what are those creatures doing, what are their proper actions, by which they are subject to evolution? They are generating. What is generation? The act of producing one’s like, of reproducing — handing on to the next generation, so far as it lies in the creature’s power, exactly the nature that it received. Where is evolution in the long line of like generating like? Not in any act that stands apart from generation — as if creatures could do one thing called generating, and thus beget their like, or opt for another thing called evolving, and thus beget something else. No, if there is evolution, even though what we mean by it is that eventually what is generated is not entirely alike, it happens through the acts which are ordered to bringing about exactly one’s like — it happens because, as the generations roll on, nature and nature’s God are doing other things with the whole than any agent within what is evolving can aim to effect.
Now you might object — can’t man deliberately help to bring about evolution? What about Mendel and his pea plants? What about gene editing, and all the rest? Yes, a man can act so as to aim at facilitating not the reproduction of like but variation, to aim by his action at something new — but note carefully what this implies about his position. In such an act he is outside of what evolves; and his actions, aimed at variation, at the new — even supposing he is aiming at a newly robust form of life — these actions are properly called
‘mutilation’, or ‘killing’. That is just how a man can act so as to bring about evolution as the distinct aim of the action, instead of merely being subject to evolution, by acts which are properly aimed at the propagation of life. If we are dealing with pea plants, then that is perhaps no cause for concern, just a distinction. If the subjects of the intended evolution are themselves men, watch out. You know a name for that — eugenics. We rightly have a horror of this — not because it is necessarily a horrible notion that man should evolve; I abstract from this. But we rightly recoil at what it means for man to try to take this into his own hands. If it is in God’s plan that we should evolve, our job has not changed from the beginning — be fruitful and multiply, and God will take care of the results in his good time. Try to precipitate it, and you set yourself outside humanity, and hack at it.
The message for the question of development should be clear. Of course, it is just an analogy, it proves nothing; but I hope it suffices to give a warning, to give food for thought. I would that theologians would have almost a horror of spending their efforts on what they conceive and intend as development, that is, at the saying of new things, even if they are most earnestly intended as newly robust formulations of the ancient faith, out of fear lest by the very fact that they aim their thoughts at the new, they should put themselves outside what develops — that is, outside the Church — and, willy-nilly, be agents of corruption, all because they were not content to intend merely to pass on what they had received, having made it their own in their own minds and times and communities as they could, and leaving it to God to prosper the ‘development’.
Of course, this must be qualified. A theologian could intend to do just as I urge, and yet conceive of his task under the name of ‘development’. Moreover, in Vatican II, Dignitatis Humanae declared that the synod “intended to develop [evolvere ]” the teachings of recent popes — not merely, as Dei Verbum does, affirming progress in the Church’s understanding of the faith as a matter of historical retrospective, but in essence asserting that they are developing right in front of our eyes, deliberately bringing forth something new (that is in harmony with the old).26 But it is one thing for an ecumenical council to speak thus; for the Holy Spirit will guarantee that that the result is no corruption, regardless of how the human authors conceive of their task. But this is an exception that should reinforce the rule for individual theologians. So again I say, if you are not an ecumenical council, beware of intending development; do not disdain to pass on just what you have received, trusting more to its innate power to answer the needs of your time than to your own.
2.2.2 Second part of the argument: The Apostolic beginning
Now analogies are always imperfect, and even if you accept the force of this one, there is something crucial that the analogy of evolution cannot capture about the development of Christian doctrine as Newman conceives of it. The last thing we would expect of any theory of evolution, and perhaps any general theory of development, is to find that the best and most perfect thing came first, within the order of evolution or development. Truly, the most perfect must come first absolutely speaking, above and beyond the whole process of evolution or development; but within the process, almost by definition, it would seem that the beginning must be the most primitive, the least perfect.
What of Christian revelation? If there has been development, and if this is only the nature of the thing over time, must not the earliest grasp of the Gospel have been the most imperfect? Does not gradual explication over time imply that the later is always better?
Now the Church has always insisted that the beginning is different. Of course, no one within the pale of orthodoxy would say that our Lord’s own understanding of revelation was primitive, that is, imperfect (although it is significant that Loisy did go so far).27 Indeed our Lord is, in his own incarnate person, the fullness of God’s revelation, as St. Paul puts it at the beginning of the Letter to the Hebrews. But the Church has always assigned preeminence to the Apostles as well, as possessors, recipients of that revelation. This is why she speaks of handing on an Apostolic faith — not just that it was held by the Apostles first, but definitively, in its fulness, and through that fulness the cause of the availability of that revelation to the rest of the Church. St. Thomas Aquinas responded to those in his own time — shall we call them proto-Modernists? — who spoke of the dawning of the Age of the Holy Spirit in their own time (how convenient), a definitively new and more perfect stage of the Church, her maturity of doctrine and her possession of the gifts of that Spirit. St. Thomas responds that there is no more perfect state of the Church on earth that we are awaiting than that which was enacted at Pentecost: the promised Spirit was fully given, to the Apostles. Yes, over the ages men may partake more and less perfectly in the Spirit, and grasp more or less of the revelation handed down; “nevertheless, we should not expect that there will be any future state in which the grace of the Holy Spirit will be had more perfectly than it has been had until now, and above all by the Apostles, who received the first-fruits of the Spirit : that is, both prior in time, and more abundantly than the rest.”28 The modern ‘historical sense’ says that the first is the most primitive; St. Paul says, we have received the ‘primitias’, the first-fruits: the first is the best. And such is the teaching of St. Thomas.
What then of Newman, and the theory of development, in which he so memorably turned around the saying that the water is clearest nearest the spring? You could easily miss this from many a popular presentation of Newman’s theory; but there is not a shred of doubt that Newman held exactly the traditional teaching on the knowledge of the Apostles, before, during, and after the writing of the Essay. To take just one example: “Thus, the holy Apostles would without words know all the truths concerning the high doctrines of theology, which controversialists after them have piously and charitably reduced to formulae, and developed through argument.”29 Indeed this is a sort of precondition of the argument of the Essay, as we have heard: development is a theory to explain how later doctrines are precisely Apostolic.
So for Newman too, the beginning is fundamentally different from any later stage explained by development. If we are to return to the image of the spring and the river, then the minds of the Apostles are not the outlet of the spring but the underground reservoir, massive though hidden, and having a purity and self-consistency unmatched even by the river when it has become broad and full.
The difference is that of inspiration. The Apostles were inspired, and this effects “what the Divine Fiat effected for herbs and plants in the beginning, which were created in maturity.”30 Development describes what happened, and indeed must happen, to the revelation possessed by and handed on by inspired minds when received by minds not inspired. Inspiration is supernatural; it is not subject to the natural need of the human mind to tease out implications gradually. The process of development, guided by an infallible authority, takes the place of inspiration in the post-Apostolic Church. What the Apostles had habitually, the Church in later times has when needed to keep the process of development true to the Apostolic deposit.31
Hence we can see more keenly why it is fitting, apart from the analogy of evolution, that development in the Church should proceed only by faithful handing down of what has been received, under the guidance of the Spirit which works more than repetition out of this handing down, using the exigencies which must attend it to bring out faithfully what was present by its inspiration in the beginning. What we receive from the Apostles, especially in the Scriptures, is everything: it possesses everything we can hope to reach by development. It does not present it in such a way as to make everything distinctly accessible and articulable to our minds — its richness exceeds the natural mode of our minds. Hence the spiritual senses. We cannot simply deduce from revealed premises either; if that were so, no infallible guide would be needed — the canons of syllogistic reasoning would suffice for infallibility. And this is far from being the case. Yet it is all there.
You know the passage, from the Last Supper discourse: “I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.” (John 16:12-13) It is not surprising that this text has been associated with the notion of development. It is surprising, at least to me, that many seem to take the text as referring immediately to development, to the later Church. I am far from denying that this meaning is present in the text; but our Lord was speaking first to the Apostles, and we can read in the Scriptures themselves how this promise was fulfilled for them. The Apostles were led into all the truth; it has been done. Indeed we are only able to read this because St. John, the Galilean fisherman, was led into all the truth — he knew what he was writing. What Newman’s account of development shows us is just how this Scripture can bear both meanings, by bearing them in order — because the Apostles were led into all the truth, the Church, in the Spirit-led process of development, faithfully handing on the Scriptures and oral tradition of the Apostles, can grow gradually into that same fullness of truth.
2.2.3 Third part of the argument: Thought and life
I have been summarizing a two-part, disparate ‘process’: first inspired fullness, which supernaturally preempts the natural human mode of learning; then, development, the natural working of the human mind on the revelation once received. We might be troubled by the incongruity between these, and we might wonder if the first is not just beyond our natural capacity but incompatible with it. That is, we may be wondering how grace perfects nature in this case. And such a consideration might also cut more to the quick of certain errors about Newman. For what I have said about the Apostles is plain to see for eyes that would see it, in his work; nonetheless, brilliant minds have wrested development from that account and dragged it into Modernism; and surely to some extent that must arise, not from ignorance of Newman’s and the whole tradition’s claims for the Apostles, but a failure to see coherence between that claim and the account of development, so apt for historical verisimilitude. What this comes down to, I think, is the relation between thought and life.
We have seen this very saliently in Abb´é Loisy — for him, the overriding principle in the history of Church teaching is simply life; and the Church must live, even at the expense of consistency of thought. That is, in short, life and thought are opposed. “The question, therefore, is not one of knowing how to define the essence of Christianity or of the Gospel. An absolute definition is not possible because Christianity is a living reality and not an intellectual concept.”32 And we can see hints at least of this opposition not just in a full- blown Modernist like Loisy but in many more moderate theologians. To be fixed in a concept or a dogmatic formula is contrary to life, to a living idea about a rich reality; if we want Christian doctrine to be alive, we must accept that it must always, inevitably change. And indeed was this not in Newman — that is, however much he may restrict and control this mutability of an idea when it comes to Christian doctrine, as we have seen, can we not lay the broad notion of the desirability of endless change at his feet, who told us that “here below, to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often”?
I hope you caught what I did there — I didn’t quote the whole sentence. That is a very bad habit; I advise that you shun it in your classes. Always quote whole sentences. Let me try again. “In a higher world, it is otherwise, but here below, to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” In a higher world, it is otherwise — now what of that? In a higher world, to live is not to change, apparently. Can we put that aside, because it is here only for contrast, and our concern now is how things are ‘here below’ ? I think not — for what we are talking about ‘here below’ is our participation in a higher world, by means of this living doctrine. “Now this is eternal life: that they may know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.” (John 17:3) Eternal life is knowing, knowing God. Yes, to live here below is to change — most of all in biological life, the life of plants and animals and ourselves insofar as we are living bodies, only through constant change is the individual and the species preserved. And yes, even in our intellectual life here below, which rises above all purely biological life, still the life of the mind is had chiefly through change, and that is Newman’s point in this famous passage: we develop ideas, we syllogize, we learn from others and pool our thoughts. Yet it is not so much so as the life of the body: in intellectual life, we do have a taste of something different; we understand not just through a never-ceasing process of arguing and developing, but most of all when we rest in a conclusion, in the vision of something profoundly true, when we behold it in its unity. We cannot stay long on such heights, but they are real, and — here is the crucial point — they are life. Understanding is living, the highest living of which we are capable; we are so made as to be capable of such a thing, even if we must be lifted up to it with great effort for fleeting glimpses.33 That is why knowing God could be eternal life for us.
It is perhaps understandable that some of Newman’s followers, in spite of all Newman’s own care, should have been led to oppose thought and life, at least to some extent — to regard the formulation of dogma as exterior to, even a threat to, the life of Christian truth. Certainly the various formulations which the Church has produced over the centuries do not always wear their consistency with one another on their face; how much easier to suppose that all formulae are historically-conditioned encumbrances that are necessary in any given time but of no lasting, universal import for the sacred reality which they conceal even as they attempt to express. Truly, formulation can be the occasion for ossification, in which the mere repetition of technical terms actually takes the place of thought, and thus can even be an obstacle, though accidentally, to this or that soul actually perceiving and coming to grips with the sacred reality so far as it can. But that is an abuse or falling-away; in itself, formulation is precisely a sign of life, and a stage of life: like the rings in a tree, marking some definitive growth in intelligibility. And shall a Christian, for whom the saving truth is the Incarnation of the Word, be scandalized by the imperfect, historically-conditioned, all-too-human character of words, and doubt that God’s truth can be put into words that shall not pass away? Newman had ever in mind what he calls “The principle of dogma, that is, supernatural truths irrevocably committed to human language, imperfect because it is human, but definitive and necessary because given from above.”34 Elsewhere he expresses by way of contrast the lifelessness of heresy through its dogmatic sterility: “Its formulae end in themselves, without development, because they are words, they are barren, because they are dead. If they had life, they would increase and multiply … [a heresy] creates nothing, it tends to no system, its resultant dogma is but the denial of all dogmas, any theology, under the Gospel.”35 Whereas the life of orthodoxy is seen in its dogmatic fecundity, its tendency to produce more dogma — adding, without loss or reversal, to the intellectual life of the Church, her understanding of her faith, giving herself more words which are not mere words, but abidingly true aspects of the unchanging truth.
So how it can be that here below, the nature of the human mind with great ideas is just as Newman said, and nonetheless, with the Christian revelation, there was a perfect, supernatural gift of an idea, received in its fullness by the Apostles, so as to exceed at the beginning all that subsequent development can bring out in its own manner? We may respond that the vision of an intelligible whole was ever what our minds were made for; and so we can receive what we could never produce. And words were ever the means by which our thought is fixed and perfected; if, in our hands, they do so chiefly in the mode of development, that is, distinguishing, putting in order, and answering just one question at a time, still words, under supernatural inspiration, can also be the vessels of a concentration of thought, of a richness of meaning packed into a small space through a multiplicity of senses.
2.2.4 Summary of the argument
Here then is our purified notion of development, as Newman meant it. The Apostles received the fullness of the revelation intended by our Lord, as an inspired gift, which they possessed habitually, and passed on through the Scriptures and their oral tradition. But the Church receiving it from them could only receive that fullness according to the human mode of realizing a great idea, bringing out that fullness over time, through interaction with secular influences, through combatting heresy, through long mediation on the sacred texts, and above all through the infallible authority of the Church which alone makes possible its secure possession. As a consequence, to keep saying the same thing, to preserve exactly the faith handed down by the Apostles, must needs entail a gradual systematization, a growth in the number and formality of statements to be believed, a technical vocabulary, and so forth; for this is the human mode of coming into the possession of what the Apostles had in a better mode — better because supernaturally unified. And Scripture must therefore always remain superior to the systematization, and its measure, in a sense — even as the system cannot be simply deduced from Scripture, and for our minds, can do what Scripture cannot. It is indeed a living teaching — which grows into what it always had. It is life from life.
3 Development in Catholic liberal education (at TAC)
Many objections could be raised to the claims I’ve made, simultaneously over-ambitious and threadbare as they are. But perhaps the doubt most troubling you right now is: when are you going to talk about Catholic liberal education? Look at the time! Be not afraid; the second part will be very short by comparison. If you have overlooked the weaknesses in my arguments, and stayed with me anyway, this part will also be easy — it was a set-up.
Our program deserves to be called Catholic liberal education chiefly because of the theology tutorial — not just its presence in the curriculum, but the fact that the whole rest of the curriculum is ordered to it. I will just state that; if you want a defense, you cannot do better than to go to the Blue Book. I want to see now how this purified notion of development — one true to what Newman meant — is a very intelligible light in which to view our theology curriculum, and therefore to see just why, in its head and cornerstone, this curriculum is effective as Catholic liberal education.
3.1 The order of theology
The order of that curriculum is straightforward; it will strike you as roughly historical, although clearly the aim is not historical coverage as such. As freshmen, you simply read Scripture — all of it. As sophomores, you read some of the great early Fathers of the Church — Athanasius, Augustine, John Damascene, Anselm — and chiefly St. Augustine; you begin with his On Christian Doctrine, which tells you how to read Scripture, and end with the City of God, which could be seen as a great compendium of Christian teaching. These writings, especially Augustine’s, might be characterized by their closeness to Scripture, in their very words and in their mode of thought, while nonetheless none of them are Scriptural commentaries ordered according to the sacred text, but are each in some way thematic. You might say that they are ordered rather around certain questions raised by Scripture, and around the controversies that have in turn arisen within the Church surrounding those questions and the Church’s previous answers. As juniors and seniors, your course in theology culminates with the study of St. Thomas’s Summa theologiae, which presents sacred doctrine as a science — ordered, articulated, all sorts of distinctions made, questions and answers given as clearly and determinately as possible, a technical vocabulary deployed consistently, shunning ambiguity at every turn, and all presented according to a plan which is laid out beforehand, follows the order of the material, and is immediately intelligible, explaining why every part is exactly where it is. It is, in a word, not very much like Scripture. And the Scriptural citations which were rife in St. Augustine, simply woven into his prose, will seem few and far between in St. Thomas, sometimes confined to the sed contra, the citation of authoritative judgment on a question which precedes St. Thomas’s own scientific answer, and is quickly forgotten by most readers. And this, the Summa, is the culmination of our sequence, its study is more than anything else what we are here for; and we are following the guidance of the Church in making St. Thomas our teacher in this fashion.
I’m sure you can see where this is going: this arrangement, which is a very wise one, nonetheless is apt to raise some doubts or some presumptions about Scripture. Looking at the sequence in the light of development should help to set these straight.
3.2 What the Blue Book said
But first an historical note: if you read the Blue Book right through to the end, you will notice that the initial programme for the theology tutorial differs slightly from what actually developed (if you’ll pardon the term). Here is what the Blue Book says about the theology tutorial: “The order of study will be primarily doctrinal rather than historical, that is, based on the natural order of learning and on the differences among the various theological topics.”36 And if we look at the four-year scheme sketched thereafter, we will see that while Freshman and Sophomore years are drawn out nearly as they are now in practice, in the Junior year, the initial plan was to have texts of St. Augustine and St. Thomas on grace and free will read in parallel, and in Senior year, to do something similar for the mysteries of the Trinity and the Incarnation — i.e., to read Thomas, Augustine, and other Doctors of the church in parallel, according to the topic. Now I certainly do not point out this change as a criticism; of course an initial sketch of a program of study not yet in existence is going to be subject to adjustment in the execution; and such a difference in detail is overwhelmed by the astounding congruity of the whole vision of the Blue Book with the actual practice here. There is little so remarkable in the landscape of Catholic higher education over the last half-century as how closely this College has in fact cleaved to its founding document, even down to the structure of the curriculum. But I will risk impertinence in guessing at an underlying reason for this adjustment, though I was not there when it was made; I presume that the superiority of the plan we actually follow in the latter years of theology, over this initial conception of a doctrinal order rather than historical — which is perfectly defensible in theory — consists especially in the implicit regard for development, as giving shape to Catholic theology in no accidental way. As Newman said, development gives “a character to the whole course of Christian thought.”37 Indeed, with experience in the more developmental order we now follow, it is not hard to imagine what would be the consequences of doing a parallel reading, in a single course, of, say, Augustine and Thomas on grace and free will. In such a topical approach, and given our commitment to St. Thomas, I have little doubt that Augustine would fare poorly in the minds of our students — and the same would go, more or less, for Athanasius, Damascene, and Anselm. For Thomas would always seem clearer, more satisfying and definitive, would seem always to give an answer or make a distinction where the earlier teacher was ambiguous. This would be a great disservice. Now in the approach we do have, such reactions are possible, but much less likely; for we are allowing different eras of development each to have their time, and in that time to show, each in its own way, a perfection of the teaching of Christian doctrine; for there is a perfection that belongs to the less scientific, the rawer, the closer to Scripture in language and thought, the closer to controversy with heretics, and another that belongs to the scientific, the cool, the delineated, the articulated, and the one takes nothing away from the other — so long as they come in that order, which is the necessary order of development. There are many questions in St. Thomas that will seem artificial, needlessly abstract, dead, if we have not already known in ourselves the prior development that has wrung each of these questions out of the original revelation, that connects them to the fundamental revelation of the Incarnation of Christ; and that goes through the Fathers, who will hold our noses to the Scriptures so as to see doctrines that are contained in them more distinctly than we could on our own, which will in turn, in the further questions those doctrines engender, give real life and need to the articulations of St. Thomas.
3.3 Scripture the first-fruits
Now let us take this all the way back to Scripture. As I mentioned, the order of our theology curriculum may give rise to a doubt, or to a presumption, about the role and place of Scripture.
The doubt is likely to be felt most by freshmen and sophomores. If the freshmen have not already felt it, I am sure the time is coming in your exploration of the Holy Scriptures together when you look around the room and think, “We don’t know what we’re doing.” That may happen in all of your classes; but you may feel the insufficiency more keenly when you consider the sacredness of the text with which you are making whatever mess you are making at the time. You might doubt that you are doing things in a good order. When you are sophomores, and well into On Christian Doctrine, in which, as I have mentioned, St. Augustine teaches you how to read Scripture, you may think, “This order is perverse. Why didn’t we do this first?”
Now you upperclassmen are more likely to feel a presumption. Basking in the clarity of St. Thomas, you might find yourself making this judgment, more or less explicitly: it made sense to read Scripture first, because that is the messy, imperfect beginning of theology. You’ve learned that we usually have to start with what is messy and imperfect, but closer to the senses, and then render it into scientific order and clarity. So perhaps you will begin to regard Scripture as a fitting starting-point to be left behind by the Catholic, or at least held in a definitively subordinate position, once he possesses, according to his level of learning, either a Summa, or at least a Catechism.
So let us set these straight with a proper notion of development. What is Scripture in theology? It is the Alpha and the Omega. It is indeed the necessary beginning, because theology is about what God has revealed to us of himself, and Scripture is that revelation, not exclusively, but preeminently, outside of the very incarnate person of our Lord. We can be united to our Lord more closely indeed in the Holy Eucharist, but not by way of understanding; in Scripture we have the intelligible words by which the Word chose, through the Spirit, to reveal himself to all the generations of the Church. It is also a revelation with more depth than we could ever plumb. St. Thomas himself says that the Holy Spirit who ultimately authored the sacred text can understand by one word of that Scripture more than all theologians will ever grasp.38 If he were here, and heard you express your gratitude for the Summa as putting an end to our need to deal with the messy primitiveness of Scripture, I think he would be running to find the nearest fire, so that he could grab a burning brand (as in the incident with the hussy), and take the flame to you, or his Summa, or both.
Scripture is more than just the beginnings of theology. It puts in a phrase the whole vision of a truth which in the mode of later theology can only be grasped by painstaking distinction and technicality. “I am who am.” “The Father and I are one.” “This is my body.” “Hail Mary, full of grace.” These are not rough-hewn beginnings; they are perfect. They are strong wine, rich and heady, so full of meaning that they all but burst the wine-skins of our words; and if all of us must have much milk besides, relying on the Church to fulfill this need maternally though teachers like St. Thomas by adding words and distinctions, concocting formulas, making it all much more digestible by our minds, it is all well and good, it is as God intended, and doctrinal development has done for us what Scripture alone could not — but let us never look at the first-fruits and call them ‘primitive’.
So it is eminently worthwhile to wrangle with Scripture at the start of your studies here; never mind the vast imperfection of your treatment — you could never treat it perfectly anyway. What would be an inestimable loss would be always to hold it at arm’s length, never encounter its unmixed potency. Here in fact the Great Books method shows up best, even where a Catholic might at first be shocked at the approach — by setting aside, just for the discussion, the Catechism, and everything that commentary and criticism, new or old, might have to say, we are insisting that you have that encounter, which is irreplaceable, and would be watered down if we began anywhere else.
On the other end, it is also perfectly fitting that our study should culminate not in Scripture but in St. Thomas, for after all we are not inspired, and our own grasp of Christian doctrine will be far more perfect when we have been docile to the Angelic Doctor’s ordering and articulating mind, and moreover we will be better prepared to integrate that grasp with our grasp of the human arts and sciences, because this stage of development of doctrine has so fully incorporated the human order of learning.
My hope is that if you see your progressive study in terms of development, as Newman meant it, you will see and enjoy the sweetness and perfection of each year; see the continuity of the Summa with the earlier years, as being truly the passing on of the same doctrine, under the changes that must be wrought by centuries of interaction with secular learning and heresies; and see the need to return to Scripture, constantly, in your own study and spiritual life, even when the curriculum has of necessity left it behind; and never to give short shrift to the places were St. Thomas does use it. And if you should go on to further study after this place, if you should feel the very lofty calling of a theologian, my hope is that you will never tire of turning to what has been handed down to you in the trust that it has what the times need, if you will but give yourself more completely to it, so that you might hand it on faithfully; and listen not to the temptation of novelty, always knocking at the scholar’s door, nor imagine that only in the unprecedented are great deeds to be done, that preservation is an easy matter which lies in our power, and for which dull minds suffice; but rather rejoice if, at the end of much labor, you will have been found worthy to go on saying the same thing.
1 As of 1963, he is Blessed Dominic Barberi. For a wonderful account of his life and the providential preparation for his role in bringing Newman into the Church, see John Senior, “Dark Night of the Church,” in The Death of Christian Culture (Harrison, NY: RC Books, 1978), pp. 144-60.
2 Dominic Barberi in England: A New Series of Letters, ed. and trans. by Fr. Urban Young, as quoted by John Moody in John Henry Newman (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1945), p. 113.
3 All citations of the Essay on Development are according to the edition heavily revised by the author in 1878, reprinted by the University of Notre Dame Press (sixth edition), 2010.
4 John Henry Cardinal Newman, Apologia pro vita sua (New York: Doubleday, 1956), p. 132.
5 Apologia, p. 310.
6 Essay on Development, pp. 29–30.
7 Ibid., p. 36.
8 Ibid., p. 38. Note that this process cannot be reduced to pure deduction, as if a Euclidean demonstration; in the same passage, Newman explicitly contrasts that sort of formally deductive reasoning, fully possessed by an individual mind in an individual moment, with development, which is “carried on through and by means of communities of men and their leaders and guides; and it employs their minds as its instruments, and depends upon them, while it uses them.”
9 Ibid., p. 40.
10 Ibid., pp. 88–89: “The most obvious answer, then, to the question, why we yield to the authority of the Church in the questions and developments of faith, is, that some authority there must be if there is a revelation given, and other authority there is none but she. A revelation is not given, if there be no authority to decide what it is that is given.”
11 Ibid., p. 169.
12 The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, s.v. “Latrocinium”, “Flavian, St.”, ed. F. L. Cross (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press: 1957).
13 Essay on Development, pp. 306–7.
14 Ibid., pp. 309, 311. This is Newman’s summary, with his quotations from the Acts of Chalcedon; q.v. The Seven Ecumenical Councils of the Undivided Church, ed. and trans. Henry Percival, in The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd series, vol. 14, ed. Phillip Schaff (Oxford: James Parker and Co., 1900), pp. 263–65: “[After reciting the Creeds of Nicea and Constantinople:] This wise and salutary formula of divine grace sufficed for the perfect knowledge and confirmation of religion … But, forasmuch as persons undertaking to make void the preaching of the truth have through their individual heresies given rise to empty babblings … This one and the same Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son, must be confessed to be in two natures, unconfusedly, immutably, indivisibly, inseparably, and that without the distinction of natures being taken away by such union, but rather the peculiar property of each nature being preserved and being united in one Person and subsistence, not separated or divided into two persons, but one and the same son and only-begotten, God the Word, our Lord Jesus Christ, as the Prophets of old time have spoken concerning him, and as the Lord Jesus Christ hath taught us, and as the Creed of the Fathers hath delivered to us.”
15 See, e.g., Owen Chadwick, in From Bossuet to Newman, 2nd ed. (Cambridge 1987), esp. p. 195: “The
question then for those who think Newman’s theology is Catholic, is this: these new doctrines, of which the Church had a feeling or inkling but of which she was not conscious — in what meaningful sense may it be asserted that these new doctrines are not ‘new revelation’ ?”
16 For an overview of this reception, throughout this section I have relied heavily upon Aidan Nichols, OP, From Newman to Congar: The Idea of Doctrinal Development from the Victorians to the Second Vatican Council (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1990).
17 Cf. Alfred Loisy, The Birth of the Christian Religion, trans. L. P. Jacks (New York: University Books, 1962). For an earlier, more moderate skepticism, see his J´esus et la tradition évangélique (Paris: Émile Nourry, 1910).
18 Nichols, From Newman to Congar, p. 85, quoting Loisy’s ‘Firmin Articles’, by way of E. Poulat, Histoire, dogme et critique dans la Crise Moderniste (Paris 1979), pp. 74-88.
19 Ibid., pp. 88, again quoting the ‘Firmin Articles’.
20 Ibid., p. 101, now quoting Loisy’s The Gospel and the Church, trans. Christopher Home (New York 1907). Beyond what Nichols quotes, the whole passage is instructive for the present purpose: “It is a pitiful philosophy that attempts to fix the absolute in any scrap of human activity, intellectual or moral … The truly evangelical part of Christianity to-day, is not that which has never changed, for, in a sense, all has changed and has never ceased to change, but that which in spite of all external changes proceeds from the impulse given by Christ, and is inspired by His Spirit, serves the same ideal and the same hope.”
21 Not a dozen pages into the Essay on Development, Newman very briefly dispatches an hypothesis that clearly anticipates Modernism: “Christianity has even changed from the first and ever accommodates itself to the circumstances of times and seasons.” He dispatches it as a position that simply abandons the supernatural claims of Christianity, and so “it need not detain us here” (p. 10).
22 The Idea of a University (London: Longman, Greens, and Co., 1907), pp. 109–10.
23 Most Rev. Robert Barron, “This Great Unfolding of Truth Under the Guidance of the Holy Spirit,” homily given at Thomas Aquinas College, California, August 22, 2016, accessed at: https://www.thomasaquinas.edu/news/bishop-barron-homily-mass-holy-spirit, August 25, 2021.
24 Essay on Development, pp. 73–74. Much later, in considering the third ‘note’ of authentic developments (the “assimilating power of dogmatic truth”) on pp. 363–34, he sees Tertullian’s fall into the heresy of Montanism as the result of a forced attempt to bring about developments so-called, even those which, when allowed to come in their due season, were indeed true developments, yet in willful hands seeking to pluck the fruit before it was ripe, were rendered heresy: “The doctrinal developments and the ecclesiastical usages of the middle ages are the true fulfillment of its [i.e., Montanism’s] self-willed and abortive attempts at precipitating the growth of the Church.”
25 The Death of Christian Culture, pp. 3–4: “This is the basis for religious evolutionism — often confused with Newman’s exactly contrary view of the development of doctrine — in which the whole of creation is forever hoisted on its own petard.” My attempt to deploy evolution as an analogy should not be taken as any argument against Senior and his reading of Newman, to which in fact I am deeply indebted, for so long a time and in so deep a way that all citation is inadequate.
26 Pope Paul VI, Declaratio de libertate religiosa Dignitatis Humanae, accessed at: https://www.vatican. va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_decl_19651207_dignitatis-humanae_ lt.html, August 31, 2021: “Insuper, de hac libertate religiosa agens, Sacra Synodus recentiorum Summorum Pontificum doctrinam de inviolabilibus humanae personae iuribus necnon de iuridica ordinatione societatis evolvere intendit.”
27 See, e.g., The Birth of the Christian Religion, passim.
28 Summa theologiae, Leonine edition, 1-2 q. 106 a. 4, citing Romans 8:23, and the Gloss on the same; translation mine.
29 Essay on Development, pp. 191–92.
30 Ibid., p. 57.
31 See, e.g., “Letter to Flanagan, 1868,” in The Theological Papers of John Henry Newman on Biblical Inspiration and on Infallibility, ed. J. Derek Holmes (Oxford: Clarendon, 1979), pp. 157–58: “… why is an Apostle, why is the Church able to decide the point? because each, in his or her own way, is a perfect theologian — the difference between them being that the Apostle answers promptly, the Church uncertainly, at intervals, for what the Apostle is in his own person, that the Church is in her whole evolution of ages, per modum unius, a living, present treasury of the Mind of the Spirit of Christ.”
32 See note 17 above.
33 Many passages in Aristotle could be cited in support of these claims, but perhaps the richest is Meta- physics 12.7.
34 Essay on Development, 325.
35 “Sermon XV,” in Fifteen Sermons Preached before the University of Oxford between A.D. 1826 and 1843 (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1909), p. 318.