Vatican II - Voice of The Church
Vatican II - Voice of The Church

Newman and the Second Vatican Council

By B. C. Butler, OSB

The idea of making Newman a bishop had been abandoned long before the First Vatican Council, and he would not consent to attend it in the capacity of an advising theologian. It is hardly likely that he would have felt at home in the atmosphere of a Council where Italian and Neo-Ultramontane influences were, together, so predominant, and where the official theology was the scholasticism of days before Leo XIII initiated the revival of Thomism. It says much for the moderation of the Council itself and for Newman too that, four years after the definition of papal infallibility, he was writing his open Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, defending the new decisions on the papacy against the attacks of his old friend Gladstone.

Newman's was a voice in the wilderness in the English Catholicism of his day. Some may have realised already that it was a prophetic voice; and we may claim that the Second Vatican Council has proved the fact. It is too early to give a final judgement on the work and significance of this Council; but it is already possible to draw attention to some of its dominant motifs and to compare them with positions held a century ago by Newman[1].

1. A determined and partially successful effort was made in the Second Vatican Council to recover a more biblical theology. It may sound strange today that such an effort should have been necessary. St Thomas Aquinas himself grounded his theology on biblical data. But in modern times the practice had grown up of making scriptural study and dogmatic theology into two separate disciplines, and of giving priority to the latter whenever disputes arose between them. Appeals to Scripture were of course not absent from the treatises of dogmatic theology, but they were not always such as scriptural scholarship would approve. During the Council itself the biblical experts have had to keep an eye on the use of Scripture, to prevent the dogmatists from 'proving' positions by the quotation of texts which do not really bear the meaning required for the proof.

Perhaps the shortest way to satisfy oneself that this Council really tried to be genuinely biblical is to examine one of its key documents, the Constitution Lumen Gentium on the Church. The first chapter of this constitution deals with the Church as a mystery, and it illustrates this mystery by a variety of biblical images: the Church as God's flock, as his vineyard, his field; the Church as the Body of Christ. No mystery can be adequately conceptualised, and it is as though, in this chapter, the Council were saying to us: meditate on these biblical images; remember that they are images, not arguments, and that they cannot be directly synthesised into a sort of super-image or a concept.[2] But, if you take them together, you may catch through them an insight which will be worth more than any concept and be more convincing than any argument.[3]

The same biblical approach is carried over into the second chapter of the Constitution, where however the Church is more closely examined under the single image of the People of God. But the biblical tension of the chapter appears already in its first paragraph, in which God's plan of universal human salvation through the association of all men in this People is set over against the biblical assurance that the one sufficient ground of acceptance with God is - not membership of God's people, but - that one should 'fear God and work justice'. Such fidelity to the Bible leads on to a doctrine of 'belonging to the Church' which, though it is nowhere fully elaborated in the Constitution, is yet very much richer and more plastic than the rather rigid doctrine of Church membership emphasised by Pius XII.

It is hardly necessary to remind ourselves that Newman's theology was based almost uniquely on the Bible. Its real foundations emerge in the Parochial and Plain Sermons and the University Sermons of his Oxford days, which embody a dialectical progress rather narrow biblicism of traditional Protestantism to that evolutionary vision which comes to light in the last University Sermon, on the 'Principle of Development'.

Precisely in the great work which marked Newman's move from the Church of England to the communion of the Roman See occurs a remarkable statement of his view of the Bible:

It is in point to notice also the structure and style of Scripture, a structure so unsystematic and various, and a style so figurative and indirect, that no one would presume at first sight to say what is in it and what is not. It cannot, as it were, be mapped, or its contents catalogued; but after all our diligence, to the end of our lives and to the end of the Church, it must be an unexplored and unsubdued land, with heights and valleys, forests and streams, on the right and left of our path and close about us, full of concealed wonders and choice treasures. Of no doctrine whatever, which does not actually contradict what has been delivered, can it be peremptorily asserted that it is not in Scripture; of no reader, whatever be his study of it, can it be said that he has mastered every doctrine which it contains.[4]

Such was Newman's position about Scripture just before he had decided to become a Roman Catholic. Nearly twenty years later, we find him arguing against Pusey that a Catholic is not bound to hold that the extent of revealed doctrine is greater than the real - as distinct from the discovered - extent of that doctrine as contained in Scripture; he suggests that the function of tradition is to guide and enlighten us in our understanding of the inspired word.

The issue of the material sufficiency of Scripture was hotly contested in the Council. One of the reasons for the rejection of the original draft document on the 'Sources of Revelation' was, that it seemed to wish to commit the Church to the view that Scripture is materially insufficient as regards doctrine. Repeatedly, in the ensuing three years, the attempt was made to secure that the substituted document should not fail to carry this implication. The attempts were successfully resisted, if we may presume that even Newman would not object to the statement that it is through tradition that we know the extent of the biblical canon.

The dispute is thus not over, since the Constitution on Revelation has been equally careful not to affirm the sufficiency of Scripture. Newman, had he been alive, would surely have welcomed this conciliar respect for living theological discussion.

2. I have referred to the Essay on Development. I think Newman might have been equally pleased with the following passage from the Constitution on Revelation:

The Tradition which comes from the Apostles thrives under the assistance of the Holy Ghost in the Church: the understanding of the things and words handed down grows, through the contemplation and study of believers, who compare these things in their heart (cf. Luc. 2, 19 and 51), and through their interior understanding of the spiritual realities which they experience. The Church, we may say, as the ages pass, tends continually towards the fullness of divine truth, till the words of God are consummated in her. [art. 8.]

Very manifest in this passage is the notion that the Church's understanding of revelation is a progressive one, never complete during her earthly pilgrimage. But some may find more in it than that. The official reporter of the Doctrinal Commission, in presenting this chapter of the Constitution to the Council, took up the word 'thrives' (proficit), here applied not to the Church's understanding of her tradition, but to the Tradition itself. What does this mean? According to this spokesman, representing, however, it must be remembered, not the Council itself but the Doctrinal Commission, it means, not indeed that there can be any substantial addition to the contents of the Deposit of Faith, but that the Sacred Tradition is subject to a law of internal progress, like any other living reality, a progress which does not change its substance and yet really adds a perfection to the living reality. The increased understanding of the things and words handed down does not remain extraneous to them, but rather becomes a proper element of them. One can almost hear the echo of Newman's words:

[A great idea] in time enters upon strange territory; points of controversy alter their bearing; parties rise and fall around it; dangers and hopes appear in new relations; and the old principles appear in 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.[5]

3. How does the development of doctrine, and the evolution of theology, in fact proceed? The question brings us to one of the most important contributions made by Newman to Christian thinking, and it was a contribution made easier by the fact that he had not been educated himself in the contemporary Roman Catholic seminary system. Since the days at least of Aristotle, it has been held in the West that the natural development of our human grasp of truth is from data supplied by the senses through rational judgement to rational inference and rigorously logical conclusions. The description Newman gives of the development of an idea is widely different. Like the traditionalists, he starts off, indeed, from given data. But the development which he foresees for the idea to which the data give rise is far more historically conditioned than guided by a priori logic. The initial idea itself is not reducible, in his view, to a single proposition. As he says:[6]

With all our intimate knowledge of animal life and of the structure of particular animals, we have not arrived at a true definition of any one of them, but are forced to enumerate properties and accidents by way of description.

And he remarks, with some irony, that

the attempt to determine the 'leading idea', as it has been called, of Christianity [is] an ambitious essay as employed on a supernatural work, when, even as regards the visible creation and the inventions of man, such a task is beyond us.

This being its initial nature and condition, the idea is carried forward through the lives of those who accept it and its evolution is shaped by a thousand circumstances that are accidental to its intrinsic nature. This notion of the life of an idea, with its implied depreciation of formal logical process as dominant in the real history of the human mind, is the major theme of the Grammar of Assent, where the resultant 'real assent' is contrasted with the conclusions of purely logical inference.

The drama of the Second Vatican Council may be said to have been in large measure governed by the challenge of logical inference to the demands of historical development. It has been suggested that the Council was a trial of strength between essentialism and existentialism.[7] There is much to be said for this view, but one may remark that the implied opposition is at the level of philosophy, not of theology strictly so-called. Again it has been suggested[8] that the conflict was between the notions of an Open Church on the one hand and of Non-historical Orthodoxy on the other. This analysis is certainly confirmed by the experience of the conciliar debates. What in effect the Council did was to open up the Church, to turn her eyes and desires outwards from a somewhat unhealthy introspection to the challenge and the needs of a world tremendously alive and in a phase of incalculable swift evolution. As one listened to some able theological discourses from conservative speakers in the debates, one was overtaken by the sense that they were giving admirable answers to questions which had long ceased to be relevant; but as regards the real questions of contemporary man they were dumb oracles.

I venture, however, to suggest that one of the deepest currents in the Council was immanently directed towards the substitution, as basically relevant categories for Christian thinking, of the principles of history and historical appreciation for those of Greek idealism. Two features mark the thought of modern man: natural science, and the sense of history or of duration. Although we are usually told that we are living in a scientific age, I am not sure that the latter insight, the sense of duration, is not more deeply and comprehensively operative than the former. It is to the everlasting honour of St Thomas Aquinas that, in the face of much ecclesiastical opposition, he met the revived Aristotelianism of his age not with condemnation but with welcome, showing that all its legitimate demands could be met by the Gospel and could in fact be made ancillary to the preaching of the Gospel. The Second Vatican Council has largely sanctioned the efforts of a number of modern theologians to meet the demands of the historical outlook with a similar welcome. Indeed it can be argued that historical categories are more apt for a religion of incarnation than are those of Greek idealism.[9] In adopting this attitude, the Council has in fact endorsed the general viewpoint which inspired Newman's thinking from the days of the Oxford Sermons to the publication of the Grammar of Assent, the one great work which he wrote in answer less to the immediate challenge of circumstances than to an inner need to express himself and his deepest intuitions, in a working of abiding significance.

4. It is characteristic of 'real assent' that, whereas the conclusions of logical inference have a universality which is also impersonal, real assent is a fully personal commitment within a unique and incommunicable vital situation. Some men seem incapable of locating truth elsewhere than in the impersonal conclusions of a strict logic. One of the ablest opponents of the Council's declaration on the Jews has argued that it is legitimate to speak objectively, 'in the external forum', of the Jews as guilty of deicide, while leaving their possible subjective ignorance of their crime to the judgment of God (Bishop Luigi Carli, in La palestro del Clero). The argument is clear and the ideas are distinct. We know, on the authority of the Council of Ephesus, that Jesus is God. We know, on the authority of St Paul, that the Jews killed Jesus. Ergo. But I imagine that I am not the only one who feels personally quite uncommitted by this example of inference.

Christianity has two poles: the objective, once-for-all, redemption of mankind accomplished in the Paschal event; and the act and habit of faith. Faith, as the Council has emphasised[10], is precisely a fully personal commitment made in responsible freedom, or with free responsibility. Among the fairly small group of conciliar speeches which really got to the heart of the Council's basic motivation was one by Bishop Ancel, auxiliary of Lyons, on the declaration on religious freedom. He argued that we should see not freedom but responsibility as the fundamental notion in this area. It is because man is responsible that he must be, and is, free. It is rewarding to examine the Council Acts and to see how pervasive is the concern which they express for responsible freedom, a concern which goes back to the insistence, found for instance in the decree on The Church in the World of Today, on the dignity of the human person and the respect which is owing to it. Such respect gives rise to the Christian courtesy, a part of charity, that assumes that those who differ from us are yet men of good will and good faith. It may be illustrated by the avoidance of the words 'heretic' and 'schismatic' and the refusal to impute blame in the Decree on Ecumenism; or by the determination in the Declaration on non-Christian religions to consider not their errors but whatever is good and noble in them. It explains the religious freedom which the Council claims from the State both for the Church and for all other respectable religious groups, and the suggestion that civil authority should make reasonable provision for conscientious objectors. It may have had something to do with the observation that proper freedom of thought and expression should be granted not only to laymen but to clergy who engage in scholarly or scientific work.

The locus classicus in Newman for the primacy of conscience is, I suppose, the great passage in the open Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, in which he says that he will join with the best of you in drinking the health of the Pope - but of conscience first; a passage most appropriately cited by the English Cardinal in his fourth-session speech on religious freedom.

5. Newman suffered years of misunderstanding and official distrust during his Roman Catholic days as a consequence of his essay On Consulting the Faithful. He had, it seemed, dared to suggest that when the episcopate failed in its God-given role of guarding the true faith, its work might be done by the laity. A century later, the Second Vatican Council has acknowledged the evidential value of the 'sense of faith' of the universal People of God, and has virtually compared it with the infallibility of the Pope. It has also, in its paragraph on charismatic gifts (Lumen Gentium, art. 8), indicated the whole People of God, in the persons of the baptised, irrespective of their hierarchical status or lack of it, as the recipient of those motions or inspirations of the Holy Ghost which constitute, if one may paraphrase the Constitution, the dynamic element in the Church over against the static element which is the hierarchy as such. It is hardly necessary to remark that this Constitution devotes a whole chapter to the laity, and that for the first time in Church history a Council has now published a decree[11] wholly concerned with the laity's part in the Church's mission. The Council's teaching on the laity, on the People of God as a whole, on the ministerial character of the hierarchy and the ordained priesthood, and on charismatic gifts should lead to a new burst of initiative from below. The Council does not, of course, forget the guiding role of the bishops, but it is significant that our Fathers in God are reminded that they should not 'quench the Spirit'.

6. It is greatly to be hoped that this teaching, together with the new emphasis on freedom, including scholarly freedom, will help theology in two connected ways. The Roman Catholic Church has for too long been dominated by a single theological tradition, broadly to be described as scholastic, and more particularly as Thomistic. One may be a fervent admirer, even disciple, of St Thomas Aquinas, without selling one's soul to those who are called Thomists.[12] One of the most valuable fruits of membership of the Council for me has been the realisation - if I may use this word in Newman's sense - that the scholastic theological tradition is not co-extensive with Catholic theology; that the Eastern Rites, which have full droit de cité in the Church, are not merely complexes of liturgical, not to say rubrical, usage, but are also theological traditions. It may be that, as a result of the Council - and partly perhaps in consequence of its recognition that clerical formation must be adapted to the various localities in which the Church lives - there will be a gradual return to something of the theological pluralism which Newman admired in the schools of the Middle Ages and which would be a natural outcome of putting into practice his own ideas about university education.

The second theological benefit which might reasonably be expected to proceed from the Council's teaching on the People of God, on the laity, and on charismatic gifts, is a great increase in the number, and an improvement in the quality, of lay theologians.

[As a result of the breach in modern times between culture and theology] the actual functions in the people of God - the clergy and the laity - took shape in a simple relation of subordination of the latter to the former; the state of discipleship (docibles) became more and more assimilated to that of subjects .... Theology was changed into a peculiar training of the clergy .... [It] developed its own technical language, more and more remote from the mind, the intelligence, and the cultural life of the generality.[13]

From the evils of this divorce between theology and culture it may be the special task of lay theologians to deliver us. And should this come about, not only will it be in full harmony with the dominant motifs of the Second Vatican Council, but it will fulfil a hope which was undoubtedly dear to the heart of Newman, however far he may have thought it to be from the possibility of early realisation. Things, he held, would have to get worse before they could get better.[14]

7. If one stands back from the details of the comparison which has been attempted here, and takes a broad look at Newman on the one hand and the Council on the other, what does one see? In Newman, as I have already remarked, one sees a voice crying in the wilderness. There were, of course, other such voices on the continent of Europe. There was Döllinger in Germany. There were the opponents in the First Vatican Council of a definition of papal infallibility, with Dupanloup and some great German and central European prelates among them. But the strains and stresses to which Catholicism was subject in the revolutionary and liberal nineteenth century had thrown up a neo-Ultramontane type of Catholic protest and defiance which identified loyalty to the Church with extremist esprit de corps. And especially in the decade which culminated in the fall of the papal temporal power this 'aggressive and insolent faction', as Newman called it, seemed to be the very spokesman of genuine Catholicism. The threat to the temporal power was viewed as an attack on the person of an aging, politically enfeebled pontiff, and party fanaticism was allied with something like a personality cult. In England itself, the Archbishop of Westminster was a champion of advanced infallibilism. And the greatest Catholic mind after Newman himself, W. G. Ward, was using The Dublin Review as a platform for neo-Ultramontane theology; every papal Encyclical, every papal Bull, almost every Brief, must be held to be an infallible document, and those who denied this view were only to be excused from heresy on the grounds of invincible ignorance (like the Jews who 'killed God'). To stand apart from this powerful party required courage and faith.

Now after a hundred years, we have had another Council, marked like the first by the emergence of two broadly contrasting wings of opinion and aim. But this time, it is those who can be considered the heirs of the neo-Ultramontanes who have constituted the minority, and have been forced back on their defences - though they have had, on the other hand, the immense advantage of strong curial support, not to say leadership–which, however, has been insufficient to bring victory to their cause. The tide has been turned, and a first, immensely important, step has been taken towards the vindication of all the main theological, religious, and cultural positions of the former Fellow of Oriel.

Such a reversal could hardly have occurred if the conclusions of the First Vatican Council had been such as to ratify the full demands of the neo-Ultramontanes; but an ecumenical council, despite appearances, is not a democratic parliament in which one party may win total victory over the other. A believer may be allowed to hold that above the contending factions in a Council there is the overruling guidance of the Holy Ghost - whose presence at the Second Vatican Council was at times almost palpable. After 1870, dialogue within the Church was still possible; and so it is after the Second Vatican Council. Largely through the persistent, patient, and gentle vigilance of the bishop who now sits in the place of Pius IX, the two wings of opinion retain their right to exist, after the Council as before, and the dialogue can continue. Newman, I think, would have approved of this result. And how warmly would he have approved of the other result of the Council: the fact that the Roman Catholic Church is now able to invite those outside her visible allegiance to a similar dialogue, based - as regards our fellow Christians, on fraternal respect for those who are our brothers in basic belief and usually in a common baptism; based, as regards the rest of mankind, on a common recognition of the dignity of the human person and respect for responsible freedom - a recognition which, for ourselves, is reinforced by our faith that all men are potentially members of the People of God, the mystical body of Christ.

The question whether Newman's thought influenced the Second Vatican Council in any discernible way merits an investigation of which I am not capable. My impression is, that such influence cannot be found to have been deep or determinative. But if this is so, it perhaps strengthens the case for regarding Newman as possessing a sort of prophetic charisma, as one who, because he knew of only two absolutely luminous realities, God and his own soul, was able not only to diagnose the evils of his own day but to see beyond them to the abiding purposes of the God of our salvation. Cor ad cor loquitur - not only, nor primarily, the heart of the religious man to the heart of God, but the heart of God to the heart of his faithful servant. This was Newman's motto; if ecumenical councils were given mottoes, this is the motto which I would propose for the Second Vatican Council. Cor ad cor loquitur: the heart of God to the heart of his Church; the heart of the Church to the heart of her God, and therefore to the hearts of all men of good will.


[1] I gladly acknowledge my debt to Heinrich Fries, 'Newman im Licht des Konzils', a lecture which, so far as I know, has not yet been published.

[2] That this, too, was Newman's method is demonstrated by Mgr Davis, 'Newman's influence on England', pp. 229-30 above.

[3] Contrast Pius XII's great Encyclical on the Church, Mystici Corporis, which picks out one image of the Church, that of the Body of Christ, treats it as a concept, and draws out a whole body of logical consequences from this concept.

[4] J. H. Newman, Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine London 1800, 71.

[5] Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, 40.

[6] Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, 35.

[7] E. Schillebeeckx, Vatican II: The Real Achievement London 1967, 7ff.

[8] Novak, The Open Church London 1964.

[9] See Laberthonnière, L'Idéalisme Grec et le Réalisme Chrétien.

[10] Dei Verbum, art. 5.

[11] Apostolicam Actuositatem.

[12] See a remarkable conciliar speech by the new Archbishop of Turin.

[13] Quoted from an Italian newspaper's article on The Rediscovery of Theology (L'avvenire d'Italia, 4 November 1965)

[14] For a fuller discussion of these issues and their implications see John Coulson (ed.), Theology and the University: An Ecumenical Investigation London 1964.