The Personalist Project

In a comment under my last post, Freda asks what John Henry Newman might have thought about the recent Synod on the Family in Rome. Specifically, she worries that some of the suggestions made by some of the bishops represent not  developments of what came before, but radical departures from it.

I will say a few things about Newman’s distinction between developments and corruptions of doctrine, but the thrust of what follows is a critique of the conservative critics of Pope Francis.  I draw heavily on Newman to formulate this critique, but I do not pretend speak for Newman. Rather, I turn to him for help and insight in clarifying and articulating my own thoughts.

If, then, some of the suggestions made during the Synod (Freda does not give specifics) are radical departures from the tradition, Newman would surely call them corruptions instead of developments. The idea of doctrinal development is not only that doctrine changes over time, but that it changes “in order to remain the same.”  But are these suggestions radical breaks? Would they alter rather than develop the faith? That is the important question. Unfortunately Newman can't help here, since he has written next to nothing about the theology of marriage and family. He does, however, make a few points about the development of doctrine that we should keep in mind while we're thinking about it.

Looks can be deceiving

First: what looks at first like a break with the past, may really be a genuine development of it. The Christian Faith, like any “living idea,” can remain essentially the same, while undergoing major, and even shocking changes in expression, practice and appearance.  In his Essay on Development Newman draws an analogy with the animal world:

…unity of type, characteristic as it is of faithful developments, must not be pressed to the extent of denying all variation, nay, considerable alteration of proportion and relation, as time goes on, in the parts or aspects of an idea. Great changes in outward appearance and internal harmony occur in the instance of the animal creation itself. The fledged bird differs much from its rudimental form in the egg. The butterfly is the development, but not in any sense the image, of the grub…

To illustrate the point further, let's recall the Church’s position on religious liberty as a relatively recent and well-known example. An old article by an old friend describes the striking contrast between the Church’s pre- and post-Vatican II positions:

Numerous pre-Vatican II popes addressed the question in encyclicals and elsewhere. In almost every instance they explicitly and forcefully oppose the notion that doctrines contrary to Catholic teaching have a right to exist and to be spread on the basis of a so called “liberty of conscience.” Gregory XVI calls this “indifferentism,” “insanity” and “the most contagious of errors.”  Among the propositions condemned by Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors was the following: “that every man is free to embrace that religion which, guided by the light of reason, he shall consider true.”  Leo XIII, St. Pius X and virtually every pope until the council follow suit in their unambiguous condemnations of such an understanding of religious freedom.

How are we to make sense of the apparent contradiction, then, when Vatican II declares that “Religious communities have the further right not to be prevented from publicly teaching and bearing witness to their beliefs by the spoken or written word…to deny man the free exercise of religion…is to do an injustice to the human person and to the very order established by God for men.”?

The contradiction is only apparent of course. But it looked real enough back then to cause considerable difficulties, even crises of faith, for many traditional Catholics.

Looks can be deceiving (reversed)

Second: The reverse is also true. An idea or practice may look very similar to what came before, while being in fact a radical departure. This time Newman uses a political illustration:

…real perversions and corruptions are often not so unlike externally to the doctrine from which they come, as are changes which are consistent with it and true developments. When Rome changed from a Republic to an Empire, it was a real alteration of polity, or what may be called a corruption; yet in appearance the change was small.

Newman then adds a point I wish some conservative Catholic critics of the Synod and of Pope Francis would take to heart, namely that

…one cause of corruption in religion is the refusal to follow the course of doctrine as it moves on, and an obstinacy in the notions of the past.

False conservatism

In one of his Historical Sketches, Newman describes a false conservatism by which religiously serious persons are often tempted. It consists in being overly-attached “to the ecclesiastical establishment, as such”, including “to traditional lines of policy, precedent, and discipline,—to rules and customs of long standing.” The great popes, however, Newman says, “have never been slow to venture out upon a new line, when it was necessary”

They have have never found any difficulty, when the proper moment came, of following out a new and daring line of policy (as their astonished foes have called it), of leaving the old world to shift for itself and to disappear from the scene in its due season, and of fastening on and establishing themselves in the new.

Naturally “when the proper moment came” is a key line in that paragraph. There are other moments in which a great pope will hold fast and stay the course. In what sort of a moment do we live now? I’m grateful I do not have to lead the Church, and that nothing very important rides on my sense of the situation. But to me it seems obvious that the world around us, especially in the area of marriage and family, has radically changed in recent decades, and that we as Catholics urgently need to find better footing on which to stand and from which to act. I am grateful, therefore, to Pope Francis, for calling the Synod on Marriage and the Family, and urging the participants to speak honestly and from their own experience and perspective. I am glad that controversial opinions are openly raised and discussed, even those that will ultimately be rejected as incompatible with the Faith. I am looking forward to the outcome with faith and confidence.

Faith vs. Private Judgment

What has disturbed me more than anything else about the Synod and its surrounding controversy is the lack of trust and receptivity toward the Pope so prevalent "on the right."  All too often his words and gestures are met with a cold, critical, even skeptical attitude, as if our primary task is not to listen and learn and be challenged by his words, but to test them for theological correctness and clarity. Such critics remind me unpleasantly of the contrast Newman draws between Faith and Private Judgment, in this passage in particular:

in spite of so much that is good in them, in spite of their sense of duty, their tenderness of conscience on many points, their benevolence, their uprightness, their generosity, they are under the dominion (I must say it) of a proud fiend; they have this stout spirit within them, they determine to be their own masters in matters of thought, about which they know so little; they consider their own reason better than any one's else; they will not admit that any one comes from God who contradicts their own view of truth.

The doctrine of Private Judgment is usually associated with Protestantism. But the essential element in it is not Sola Scriptura, but an excessive self-reliance together with an unwillingness to submit our reason and will to a living authority in the here and now. Whether I make my interpretation of the Bible or my interpretation of Tradition or my interpretation of the Catechism the measure of all things makes little difference.  The point is that I start with my own judgment rather than with faith in the word of another. I behave like an “editor of the word” rather than a “hearer” of it.

Some will say I am overlooking the difference between rational and blind faith, or between true obedience and slavish submission. But that's a misinterpretation of my point. The fault lies not with reason, but with the arrogant use of it. Attentive listening and understanding are no less rational than teaching and correcting. The question is who is the teacher?

Comments (18)


#1, Nov 17, 2014 10:49pm

Jules, Whoops, okay, found your new comment. I'm studying it.  But I do have a question for starters.  Why do you begin by saying that you will use Newman to answer the conservative critics of Pope Francis .  That doesn't strike me as a philosophically "neutral" place to begin.  Thanks, Freda


#2, Nov 17, 2014 11:23pm

Ju;es. I'm going to re-read your comment a few times because on first read, I do not understand it as answering the question I asked.  Perhaps I should dig out the particular paragraphs that I found disturbing -- although you may know them better than I do.  The most disturbing paragraphs in the first draft were those concerning the possible allowance of communion to divorced and remarried people while they remain in adulturous relationships and the paragraphs giving some sort of condonation to homosexual unions and unmarried heterosexuals "living together." I gather that one or another of these paragraphs was withdrawn from the final draft but at least one was reinstated at the direction of the Pope.  The issues remain on the table.  Can't we use Newman's method to determine whether these positions taken in the interim draft represent a corruption of doctrine? 

Katie van Schaijik

#3, Nov 18, 2014 4:34pm

I've been thinking about that "looks can be deceiving in reverse" point—I mean cases where keeping the outward "sameness" can mask an inward departure.

I've been listening lately to Jimmy Carter's memoirs of his upbringing in segregated Georgia, An Hour Before Daylight. Hearing him talk about his experience, it's easy to believe that there was a time when "separate but equal" seemed like a good idea to reasonable minds—a way to ease the terrible racial tensions of the post-reconstruction South.

Once that changed, though—once segregation was not only questioned, but challenged and opposed as unjust—it became something different. Upright people could no longer accept it. It could no longer be plausibly defended as a good way to keep peace between the races. It was unquestionably, and in its essence, a mode of subordinating one race another. To insist on keeping things the way they had been was to expose yourself as a bigot.

I wonder if that's an example of what Newman meant.

Katie van Schaijik

#4, Nov 18, 2014 4:37pm

Freda, I'm really glad you asked this question and really glad you're following up and pressing your questions. Thank you!

Jules was teaching today, but I'm sure he'll have a response at some point. I have thoughts of my own, but I want to wait and hear what he says before I chime in. 

Jules van Schaijik

#5, Nov 18, 2014 8:53pm

Hi Freda,

Thanks for taking the time to respond.  Let's see if I can clarify.

First, I think I answered the particular question you asked (whether certain suggestions made by the bishops were corruptions rather than developments) by saying that Newman has little to say on the topic of marriage and family.  What you are looking for is a concrete application of the theory of Doctrinal Development, to the issue of divorce & communion, and of homosexuality.  That is something you will not find in Newman.

My own sense, in case you like to know, is that allowing the divorced and remarried to receive communion, is incompatible with the Faith, and hence a corruption.  I don't expect it will be adopted in the end.  (But I am not certain.)

As to condoning homosexual unions, I haven't heard anyone suggesting that.  But that we need to appreciate the gifts that people with same-sex attraction have to give to the church, that sounds good to me.

Honestly though, I have not read any of the documents in great detail.  I'm very interested in the final results of the synod, but not so much in the whole process and the accompanying media frenzy.

Jules van Schaijik

#6, Nov 18, 2014 8:57pm

I want to add something about "neutrality".  But first: I just reread these lines in your 2nd comment:

Can't we use Newman's method to determine whether these positions taken in the interim draft represent a corruption of doctrine? 

Someone could surely do this.  Someone who knows both Newman and the theology of marriage and the family very well.  But I am not that someone.  (Plus, I fear that if two such people tried it, they might come up with different and even contradictory answers, depending on their leanings.)

Jules van Schaijik

#7, Nov 18, 2014 10:22pm

About neutrality.

I added the second paragraph to my post for a few reasons.  The main one is that I do not like to speak for Newman.  Not so much because I think he would not agree, but because 1) I want to be held responsible for my own thoughts, and 2) because I would like to stay on topic, and not get diverted into arguments about what Newman said where and when, and how to interpret it all.

Another reason is that the post is limited. Not biased or slanted I hope, but selective and incomplete.  The many negative conservative reactions to Pope Francis over the last year or so, have brought to mind, to my mind, certain observations and insights of Newman.  I used some of those in my post without any intention of giving a complete or balanced picture of Newman.

This is perfectly legitimate on a forum like this, don't you think?

Jules van Schaijik

#8, Nov 19, 2014 8:40pm

I like that example Katie.  Once a widely shared moral blindness of some sort is exposed as a blindness, insisting on it (though understandable for a while) turns into something worse than a mere blindness.


#9, Nov 20, 2014 8:47pm

Dear Jules,  I am going to put this comment into several frames because it is way over the "word limit".  

Part 1:  I've re-read your responses several times and I'm afraid I still don't understand your point.  Perhaps this is because I don't know what and who you are talking about when you speak of the "conservative" critics of the Pope.  In terms of Church doctrine (truly my only current interest)  the only names I know are Cardinal Burke on the "conservative" side  and Cardinal Kaspar on the "liberal" side.  Cardinal Burke seems to be of the opinion that to allow divorced and remarried persons to receive communion while they are living in adulturous relationships would be an abrupt reversal of doctrine, and, in Newman's terms, not be a "development" but a corruption of doctrine.  Cardinal Burke also argues that condoning same sex relationships and other sexual alliances outside of traditional marriage would also be a corruption of doctrine.  Admittedly, I base my understanding of Cardinal Burke's poisition on an interview he gave to Raymond Arroyo on EWTN.  I have not read his book (though I plan to do so).  I did not hear him criticize the Pope.  


#10, Nov 20, 2014 8:48pm

Part 2 of very long comment:

s it Cardinal Burke that you are pointing to in your comments?  Isn't it "licit" for a Cardinal -- indeed even for a layperson -- to debate a doctrinal position at odds with others in the magisterium, and even the Pope?   I have read and reread the Catechism chapters on teaching authority and papal infallibility and I do not see how Cardinals' academic debates in the context of a conclave, can be considered somehow "unfaithful" to the Pope or the Church. 

My own elementary understanding of the Church's catechism concerning the Sixth Commandment (I taught it for 10 years at the fourth grade level) tends to agree with Cardinal Burke's view, but I am aware that there are many "liberal" Catholics who think such views are passe and simplistic.  One liberal Catholic is the pastor of a church in Massachusetts where I was disinvited from teaching eighth graders as a guest lecturer on the Ten Commandments this year because I was planning to teach the Sixth Commandment in accordance with the written catechism for Children that age (i.e., chastity, and wait until marriage, and only traditional marriage).  The children were preparing for confession in advance of eventual confirmation.   Yet, I was instructed to either avoid all mention of the Sixth Commandment or to warn parents in advance that the Sixth Commandment would be taught and allow the parents to opt out their children, because such "traditional" views are now considered "controversial;" gay marriage is here to stay;--  and, I was told, the Pope's view is that at the parish level, we must not be "obsessed" with such issues.  With this encounter in mind, I would have immediately understood, Jules, if you had expressed irritation with self-described "liberal" supporters of the Pope.  My own opinion is that this one Pastor and others dealing with children who are daily inculcated with "diversity" training in public schools, have, by their withdrawal of Church teaching on the subject, done great harm to scores of young people who have been thus misinstructed (my opinion) on the catechism.

 Since the only "conservative" view on the issue among theologians that I know of is Cardinal Burke's view --your irritation at "conservatives" is a great surprise to me.  Surely Cardinal Burke is defending the Church's teaching as it has existed for more than 2,000 years.  Is that really so bad -- even if it seems to irritate the Pope -- or "liberal supporters" of the Pope?   

So, I have the impression that you may be referring to people and comments that I have not heard -- or perhaps have not paid much attention to because their comments were over my head.  And here you seem to be trying not to name names.  Still, if you can, please explain -- at least on a level that this poor fourth grade volunteer catechist can understand.  Kindest regards - I know that I can be a pain.  Freda


Katie van Schaijik

#11, Nov 22, 2014 8:52am

Freda, there is so much I want to say in response to your thoughtful comments! Among them is that my facebook feed has been flooded with "conservative" anti-popery (strange oxymoron!) in recent weeks. Some groups do not shrink from calling for schism on the ground that the Pope is likely to teach false doctrine. Some of them are pinning their hopes on Benedict XVI—even calling him "the real pope". Many of them are rallying behind Cardinal Burke, as if he is speaking the truth in the face of practically-apostate Pope. One theologian who used to teach at the seminary here in Philly, is publicly "asking" the Pope if he is the antichrist.

You can get a flavor of it by reading the comments under the article I wrote for the NCR a couple weeks ago.

The problem with this kind of attitude and talk has nothing to do with commitment to dogma.  It has rather to do with a profound lack of faith in the Church and the way truth (in the sense of its practical application in the here and now) is worked out through dialog and debate. "The collision of mind with mind," as Newman put it.

Katie van Schaijik

#12, Nov 22, 2014 9:00am

The Pope has not endorsed Cardinal Kaspar's position, much less taught it as true. Rather, he has urged him to do his best to make his case. He has called for sincere debate among the competent theologians and pastors of the Church. He is searching for creative pastoral solutions to serious pastoral problems within the boundaries of Church teaching. He is trusting the Holy Spirit to guide the process and to protect him from teaching error. (His statements opening and closing the Synod make this beautifully clear.)

The reports from the Synod are not Church teaching, nor do they pretend to be. They are reports of the state of the debate. That's all.

I find Cardinal Burke's statements worrying not because I disagree with him on doctrine, but because he seems to me to be publicly schooling the Pope, and spreading mistrust, which I think entirely unfitting and out of bounds.

If I were Pope, I'd be demoting him too, for his soul's sake.


#13, Nov 22, 2014 5:42pm

Katie,  (Part 1 of comment).  Thank you for your responses -- and for your patient tone.  In reference to conservative cricisms, you say,

"The problem with this kind of attitude and talk has nothing to do with commitment to dogma.  It has rather to do with a profound lack of faith in the Church and the way truth (in the sense of its practical application in the here and now) is worked out through dialog and debate. "The collision of mind with mind," as Newman put it.

I have not yet seen the comments,o (but I did read your article in paper copy and I was quite impressed telling all my friends -- "why, I know her!")

But even when I read the comments, I doubt that I will be in a position to know what is a genuine attempt to work out the truth and what is just a "lack of faith in the Church"  


#14, Nov 22, 2014 5:54pm

Part 2 of comment:

As a convert, I am deeply disappointed in what is going on.  I had depended on Church teaching authority for an understanding of doctrine -- and I also depended upon the magisterium when teaching others.  When in doubt, I have turned to the writings of the Saints, Newman and DVH, etc.  

Right now, I think I speak for most reacent converts (including all those hapless Anglican communities) when I say that I wonder about my own "faith" in the "Church"-at least as represented by its current teaching authority --these bishops and Cardinals -- and yes, all in authority who have deliberately created this confusion.!  I feel like a child of divorcing parents.  The bishops are ignoring the terrible harm they are doing to the faith and understanding of us little ones -- all of us and our students, all who have hoped in the Church .  I do think it is time to calm down and make up -- stop accusing one another and start focusing on the sheep.

Katie van Schaijik

#15, Nov 23, 2014 9:21am

Freda, I wish I could console you with peace! "Don't worry, be happy!"

The Church will not fail. Don't we have Our Lord's promise that it won't? Hasn't it survived much worse crises of confusion than this? How about the 4th century, when 3/4s of the bishops were professing Arianism? How about the corrupt Popes of the Rennaisance, or the time when the faithful weren't sure whether the real Pope was in Avignon or in Rome?

And then there was the Prostestant Reformation.

And, as I said before, the reports from the Synod are not teachings of the Church; they are reports. The Synod will only conclude its discussions a year from now.

Further, look at Jesus' teaching. It wasn't always crystal clear, was it? In fact, it was often open to misinterpretation and caused much confusion, even among His closest disciples. Some found it so hard to understand that they walked away.

The teaching of the Church always has been and always will be a scandal if we approach it expecting to have own views ratified. It is meant to shake us out of our complacency and challenge us to deeper faith and deeper conversion. 

Katie van Schaijik

#16, Nov 23, 2014 9:31am

Here is one of the comments under my article, calling the Pope, the Vicar of Christ on earth, "The Destroyer". 

Cardinal Raymond Burke has accused Pope Francis of causing “great damage to the Church”. At the Synod an Ukrainian Bishop held up to Pope Francis a copy of the Cathecism of the Catholic Church, calling upon him to study it. The Franciscans of the Immaculate who done absolutley no wrong were destroyed by permission of Pope Francis. Pope Francis suspended a Paragueyan Bishop without giving him a reason. Pope Francis in the words of Pope Benedict XVl, done the outrageous, “Summorum Pontificum has been wounded”. It is no secret that Pope Francis has been leaving a swath of destruction behind him. I’m sorry to say that this article, in what concerns Pope Francis is only a fantasy. St. Francis of Assisi gave the prophecy of this Pope calling him, “The Destroyer”, can’t argue with that.


#17, Nov 26, 2014 7:11pm

Part 1

Dear Katie,  Finally, I have read the comments about Pope Francis that follow your article in NCR on line.    I agree with you, the comments are brutal; and bound to hurt the feelings of those who have a special affection for Pope Francis.  But the majority of those who commented negatively identified themselves as “traditionalists.”  They express anger at certain actions and positions taken by Pope Francis -- but not at the structure of the Church hierarchy -- nor at the institution of the papacy. 

So, I think I see a reason to celebrate -- a possibility that those who are hurt by the criticism of Pope Francis, but also count themselves as loyal to the Church and the papacy, can find grounds on which to reconcile with the others.


#18, Nov 26, 2014 7:14pm

Part 2, for Katie

I think you could lead that reconciliation, Katie.  Look for common ground, common doctrinal views, and convince the others to reconcile.   You have the perfect platform in NCR, and you have the credentials: mother, a teacher,  writer,  philosopher,  loyal daughter of the Church,  devotee of DvH.  Is it worth the effort?  Absolutely.  For though you know based on history that the Church will eventually survive all this, knowing history does not provide a good reason to cooperate with those who want to simply repeat it -- nor does God’s promise to be with us excuse us from trying to live his Word, especially when our own children are involved.  Many people are being hurt by this perceived rupture: especially those who have faithfully lived up to the Church’s teaching on morality. and suffered loneliness and ostracism for their loyalty; and the children.  Imagine, Katie, the harm that is being done at this very moment to the many children and teenagers who are not receiving any instruction from the Church on morality and marriage.  I think you are capable of helping -- and you should.  End of begging.  Freda

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