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.
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?