That Blessed John Henry Newman was one of the great influences on Vatican II is “a commonplace,” as Newman’s biographer, Fr. Ian Ker, puts it. But what does that mean? What influence did Newman have on a Council that opened seventy-two years after his death? And from this side of history, what might we learn from Newman about the proper way to “read” Vatican II, as we anticipate the fiftieth anniversary of its conclusion on December 8?Even as a substantial devotee of Cardinal Newman, I confess to having become a trifle suspicious regarding how his notion of "development" has been used in recent decades, if not also regarding Newman's own understanding of the matter. Our understanding of the Apostolic Deposit of Faith may gain in profundity over time, but may just as easily slacken and grow more forgetful and superficial and confused. I'm not at all convinced that all that passes under the attribution of "development" today is at all credible. Orestes Brownson has written extensively about this in the 14th volume of his collected works, where he takes to task Newman's own theory of doctrinal development. One of the projects to which I've promised to devote myself in the months ahead is a personal study of this issue.
... That Newman had considerable influence at Vatican II is ... evident in the Council’s seminal Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum). There, the Council Fathers teach that the Great Tradition “that comes from the apostles makes progress in the Church, with the help of the Holy Spirit ... as the centuries go by, the Church is always advancing toward the plenitude of divine truth, until eventually the words of God are fulfilled in her.” Thus did Vatican II vindicate Newman’s great work on the development of doctrine, which grew from a theological method that brought history, and indeed life itself, back into play as sources of reflection and growth in our understanding of God’s revelation.
That Newman could make this contribution to the Catholic future was due to the fact that he was neither a traditionalist, who thought the Church’s self-understanding frozen in amber [I have yet to meet someone who fits this description - G.N.], nor a progressive, who believed that nothing is finally settled in the rule of faith. Rather, Newman was a reformer devoted to history, who worked for reform-in-continuity with the Great Tradition, and who, in his explorations of the development of doctrine, helped the Church learn to tell the difference between genuine development and rupture.
I was therefore forcibly struck by the note that accompanied the message sent to me by my trusted correspondent, Guy Noir, along with the link to Weigel's article. Noir wrote:
My bone of contention with modern Church apologists -- or apologists for the modern Church -- has always been this: they talk and talk and talk about Development of Doctrine, but do not give concrete examples of it positive demonstration or of its abuse in contemporary circles.
Is condemnation of capital punishment a DOD? Because it seems like a reversal. And if it is not, why can't gay marriage be another DOD? And so on, and so on. The modern Church does not seem to be able to expand on doctrines without reversing previous policy, and that is what I think makes the whole appeal to Newman seem vague and unconvincing. If Dei Verbum and the Two Sources Theory is what Development of Doctrine is about, I think it affects most laity very little. If downplaying Hell and condemning capital punishment are examples of DOD, I think it confuses the faithful quite a bit. Everyone talks about change and development, but no one will give clearly defined illustrations. Instead it is used to justify excursions into ambiguity. As a convert from Protestantism, I very much embrace Development of Doctrine. As a concerned Catholic, also I don't see any modern instance where it is convincingly invoked.
"The trials that lie before us are such as would appal and make dizzy ... courageous hearts." And I really [question whether] "development of doctrine" as it is now understood does anything other than add to the disorientation. I guess when you allow development of something that is already generally distorted, you can't expect to like the hybrid new thing.