John Everett Millais, Portrait of Newman, 1881

It’s been a tough few years for those who’ve had to learn from Pope Francis that they’re not the ultramontanists they thought they were. Those who could, from 1978 to 2013, point to papal teachings as non-negotiable supports for what they knew to be core doctrines of the faith now often can’t. Their habit of pointing to Rome, as if to say, “Look, if you disagree with me, you disagree with the rock upon which Christ himself built the Church,” is now fraught with cognitive dissonance. Now, as often as not, the people pointing to Rome are on the other side—people who, in the eyes of yesterday’s ultramontanists, have no business defending the doctrine of the church.

I’d like to suggest that this new tension with the institutional church is—or has the potential to be—a healthy one. We need only look to Blessed John Henry Newman for a good account of the theological fruit that can ripen in conditions of conflict. It’s a uniquely Catholic gift, according to Newman, to have the capacity for such conflict. And it’s precisely this gift that allows the real idea of Christianity to take root and develop organically in history.

Newman often speaks of real ideas as living things that grip both the intellect and the imagination. Sometimes they may also give rise to conflicts between the work of theologians and the teaching authority of the Catholic Church. It’s fitting that “life” is Newman’s term of art for what causes a real idea to seize those who encounter it. This vital principle is at the heart of his thinking on the creative theological impulse. The active mind cannot help being changed by the ideas that take root in it. Far from stifling this natural tendency toward development, the church’s authority encourages it. More importantly, it creates a space for it to flourish.

But encouraging its growth also involves pruning. Left without care, shoot after shoot of new green stems appear until nothing but a tangled mess remains. To use another analogy, the church’s authority acts like the boundaries and rules of fair play for a game of baseball. Without rules or boundaries, there is no game. Without any boundaries, it’s not clear what would count as a correct solution to a theological problem, just as it’s not clear what would count as “safe” if one couldn’t find the bases or home plate of a baseball diamond.

For this reason, Newman writes in his Apologia Pro Vita Sua that the church must “denounce rebellion as of all possible evils the greatest” while at the same time affirming that “the energy of the human intellect ‘does from opposition grow’; it thrives and is joyous, with a tough elastic strength, under the terrible blows of the divinely fashioned weapon, and is never so much itself as when it has lately been overthrown.” Here Newman is sketching a grammar of theological conflict. To be authentically Catholic, that conflict cannot involve rebelling against the church’s proper authority. The word “rebellion” suggests a rejection, an active attempt at overthrow, subversion, or destruction. On the other hand, “opposition” need not mean anything so pernicious. While it’s possible to oppose an enemy, it’s also possible to be on opposing sides in a game of chess, or to find oneself opposing a friend in a debate. Such opposition implies no enmity, but it does involve confrontation—and we are better for it. Our games, our arguments, are never as finely honed as they are in the face of opposition. Being beaten back and defeated in a game or an argument is often as invigorating as victory. The pronouncements of a pope should be received even if—perhaps especially if—they knock us back. It’s no test of fidelity to the church if you find yourself continuosly in agreement with it. It’s in those moments when a person finds her judgment to be opposed to church teaching that we can take the measure of her fidelity.

Newman writes, “It is the vast Catholic body itself, and it only, which affords an arena for both combatants in that awful, never-dying duel.” And why is it that this can only take place within the bounds of the Catholic Church? Mainly because within its bounds it isn’t necessary to always begin at the beginning. The authority of the church itself is the guarantor of our starting point in theology, which for Catholics begins in medias res. The case for the Protestant theologian is quite different, and Newman believed it is ultimately unsustainable. The key distinction comes early in his An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, when he begins building the case for the antecedent probability of an infallible authority. There he says: “The absolute need of a spiritual supremacy is at present the strongest of arguments in favor of the fact of its supply. Surely, either an objective revelation has not been given, or it has been provided with means of impressing its objectiveness on the world.” In short, the church must be capable of saying what is and is not revelatory. A foundational claim of Christianity is that the Triune Lord has revealed himself to us, and that this is an objective state of affairs. The church’s authority serves an adjudicating role that guarantees the objective content of this revelation.

The question of objective revelation is critical. Revealed doctrines serve as first principles for all subsequent theological reasoning. It is the mistake of “liberalism,” as Newman defines it, to subject “to human judgment those revealed doctrines which are in their nature beyond and independent of it.” Taken to its logical conclusion, this kind of theological liberalism arrives in the same place as “natural religion.” Both rely on the subjective authority of private judgment. The principle of private judgment is one Newman develops more fully in a sermon titled “Faith and Private Judgment,” in which he argues that the infallible authority of the church has an apostolic origin.

Either the Apostles were from God, or they were not; if they were, everything that they preached was to be believed by their hearers; if they were not, there was nothing for their hearers to believe.... The world had either to become Christian, or to let it alone; there was no room for private tastes and fancies, no room for private judgment.

The appropriate Christian response to this revelation is submission, not judgment. Without submission, there is no faith. To judge for oneself what constitutes revelation is not faith, according to Newman.


A necessary precursor to anything we might call theology is the presence of a living authority capable of handing on the faith. With that authority established, the work of theology can begin.

Understanding Newman’s distinction between faith—a submissive response to an objective reality transmitted by a living authority—and private judgment returns us to the question of creative opposition within the Catholic Church. If we take the classic definition of theology as fides quaerens intellectum (faith seeking understanding), then a necessary precursor to anything we might call theology is the presence of a living authority capable of handing on the faith. With that authority established, the work of theology can begin. Because of the revelation’s objectivity, its reality, theology must continually develop. As Newman writes in Development of Doctrine, “There is no one aspect deep enough to exhaust the contents of a real idea.” The reality of an idea, its life, is inexhaustible. The authority of the church imposed upon theologians does not inhibit rational inquiry into the truths of Christianity. It makes such an inquiry possible precisely by presenting the theologian with something real upon which she can work. 

But it’s also true that “theology is the fundamental and regulating principle of the whole Church system,” as Newman puts it in his Preface to the Via Media. Theologians have the responsibility of working out what’s meant by the church’s doctrinal teachings. This is what Newman means when he says that the church has “originated nothing” in the way of doctrinal developments. Its authority acts instead “as a sort of remora or break in the development of doctrine.” Theologians take their starting point from the church’s doctrines as they receive them and then exercise their reason upon them. History shows, Newman argues, that the church encourages this independence of mind. This independence is instrumental in the way the church goes about defining doctrine, gradually making more explicit what had been implicit in revelation. The church allows theological disagreements to smolder, to be passed around and reflected on by theological faculties and then judged by lesser authorities. Only then does Rome weigh in. “Meanwhile, the question has been ventilated and turned over and over again, and viewed on every side of it, and authority is called in to pronounce a decision, which has already been arrived at by reason.”

This motion—the back and forth of theological extension and magisterial definition—is what gives the church its distinctive dynamism without undermining its original identity. Theologians receive the deposit of faith from the church as an objective reality. They then reason from it, developing and clarifying the Catholic tradition as they go. The church then beats the bounds, so to speak, of this reasoning from faith, discriminating between what is a genuine development of that faith and what is a departure from it. The living authority guarantees that what it will then pass on remains the objective Christian revelation. Authentic Christian theological development—faith seeking understanding—requires both an authoritative body and a freedom of rational inquiry.

For this very reason, the formerly ultramontane should take heart while also being prepared to have their judgments overthrown. Even if no longer prepared to invoke the pope in defense of their own doctrinal purity, they should be prepared to give what Lumen gentium §25 calls religiosum voluntatis et intellectus obsequium to his teaching. It seems a minimum requirement of the church’s doctrine of religious submission to papal teachings is the presumption of their truth. To say doctrine demands the presumption of truth is not to say we must end there, but that is where we should begin. Theologians have a responsibility to reflect on papal teachings and to explore their implications. One can’t do this in good faith if one begins with the assumption that the teachings are false. If theological reflection is unable to reconcile the meaning of a papal teaching with a truth of the faith, the next step is to submit relevant dubia to Rome. In this case, however, it’s the theologian asking to be taught by the church how to read its teachings, not the other way around. This standard—presuming the pope is teaching the truth in both his formal and informal teachings until proven otherwise—may seem exacting, but it’s far better than the alternative. By adhering to it, Catholics safeguard their ability to continue in the dynamic, never-ending struggle to understand the implications of the Gospel.

-Philip Porter


When I was asked to respond to Philip Porter’s essay on Newman and the development of doctrine, I hesitated because it didn’t seem that he and I were playing the same game, to use one of his metaphors. My response can’t be on the terms that he has set, given his understanding of what a theologian’s proper work is and my own self-understanding as a scholar. When he writes that theologians have “a special responsibility to reflect on papal teachings and to explore their implications,” I must say in response that I never imagined that as my special duty. I owe my general theological formation to the work of Bernard Lonergan, who devoted his life to establishing a cognitional theory and a corresponding map of theological research adequate to the demands of an ever-expanding intellectual horizon—to remedy a situation in which, as he once said, “believers were always arriving on the scene a little breathless and a little late.” (As it happens, the brilliant work of Newman on judgment and personal knowing had a profound influence on Lonergan, who is said to have read Newman’s Grammar of Assent six times when writing Insight.) By training and habit, I think, teach, and write primarily as a historian, taking my cue from the role that historical research plays in Lonergan’s scheme of functional specialties. My particular interests lie in the intersection of religion and politics, the history of exegesis, and historiography. I am currently working on a book on the reception of the first history of the church, written by Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 264–339). It deals centrally with how Christians have remembered, and constructed, their history—I should say “histories,” because they are indeed plural.

Porter’s account of the development of doctrine sent me back to my marked-up copy of Newman’s Apologia, a book I once read with fascination and still find a stunning literary performance. I remember being especially struck with the fifth and concluding chapter containing Newman’s defense of papal infallibility, which has important and enduring insights. I don’t blame Porter for being drawn to Newman’s beguiling rhetoric. But it is rhetoric. Porter quotes it selectively. When he endorses Newman’s statement that the church “must denounce rebellion as of all possible evils the greatest,” one demurs and thinks of how Romans 13 has reconciled the church to all manner of brutal modern regimes, for the pragmatic sake of its own survival. Porter passes over the infamous passage that immediately follows, in which Newman goes on to say that the Catholic Church teaches that it were better for the world to end “and for all the many millions of human beings on it to die of starvation in extremest agony…than that one soul, I will not say should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should tell one willful untruth, or should steal one poor farthing without excuse.” You don’t have to be a Benthamite utilitarian to find this objectionable.

Newman’s penchant for such antitheses reflects his vertigo in the face of modern atheism and unbelief. It turns parts of the Apologia into a drumbeat of either/ors growing out of his dispiriting discovery that his idealized Anglican Via Media between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism was only a paper church, and that really-existing Anglicanism was being drained of vitality and substance. (Some of his modern readers worry that the same thing is now happening to Catholicism.) Yet his eloquent defense of the living process by which doctrine has been debated and defined in Catholicism still has plausibility. He is certainly right that we have to accept the “givenness” of tradition, be it the facticity of the biblical canon, or the unfolding of the ecumenical councils, or even the emergence of an ultimate court of appeal in the primacy of the pope. I don’t see how Catholic theology can exist without proceeding from this accumulation of tradition, always reviewing and reinterpreting it, sometimes selectively forgetting it (what else are we to do with Boniface VIII and Unam sanctam?), but never cutting off the branches on which we all sit. We’re stuck, for instance, with Vatican I, though the full story of its reception is hardly over. I recommend Francis Oakley’s account of the suppression and re-emergence of the conciliarist tradition: rather than shelved and forgotten once and for all at Vatican I, as its enemies thought, it was available to be brought out of cold storage a century later at Vatican II.


When the Vatican was confronted with a truly gigantic evil in Hitler’s Third Reich, something far worse than rationalist Liberalism, it did not act like a supereminent prodigious power.

I see two main problems with Newman’s account. One is the severity of the rhetoric. Newman himself was, to my limited knowledge, no apocalypticist but a thoroughly English conservative in politics. Nevertheless, his anxiety about revolution and the collapse of authority can feed an apocalyptic hysteria in Catholic thought that stems from the French Revolution and that has taken on fresh life in sectors of contemporary American Catholicism. Some of Newman’s language, echoed by Porter, about an “awful duel” sounds rather sententious today. When Newman writes of the church’s infallibility as “a supereminent prodigious power sent upon earth to encounter and master a giant evil,” I think of the papacy of Pius IX and the papal abduction of Edgardo Mortara, and thank God for the disarming of the papal state. (Go read Balthasar in The Office of Peter and his rueful gratitude for the loss of the Temporal Power.) When the Vatican was confronted with a truly gigantic evil in Hitler’s Third Reich, something far worse than rationalist Liberalism, it did not act like a supereminent prodigious power.

The other problem is that even Newman’s admirable effort to describe the slow-sifting process of development doesn’t do justice to the complexity and contingency that have marked doctrinal change. His theory may have sounded dangerous in the years after his death in 1890, when anything smacking of change and development was targeted by the anti-Modernist repression under Pius X. Today it has been so thoroughly assimilated that it seems almost tame and conventional. Catholic Modernist George Tyrrell read Newman eagerly but doubted whether his theory could account for genuine novelty in development, which for Newman seemed to consist of the gradual making explicit of what had previously been only implicit or unacknowledged. Jaroslav Pelikan made a similar point decades ago when he began work on his five-volume study The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine.

How would Newman have evaluated the two most hotly contested documents at Vatican II, Dignitatis humanae (the Declaration on Religious Freedom) and Nostra aetate (the Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions)? Opposition to both came in part from awareness of how much they departed from long-accepted teaching. Nostra aetate denied that all the Jews of Jesus’ time or the Jews of today were guilty for the death of Jesus. But inherited Jewish guilt had been a universal belief among Protestants and Orthodox as well as Catholics. The doctrine certainly fit the storied Vincentian canon of what was believed “everywhere, always, and by all.” Until it wasn’t—not once the full context of the Holocaust had been grasped. Nineteenth-century popes’ rejection of religious freedom because it fostered “indifferentism” (relativism) dovetailed with Newman’s hostility to private judgment in religion. The popes feared that legal religious equality could not help but relativize belief, and in democracies most of all.

Does Newman’s theory tell us how, in fact, “the church” learns? The teaching church is also necessarily the learning church. Newman knew that this process was back-and-forth and he gave an eloquent account of it—as far as he went. But can he really account concretely for how teaching changes? How, exactly, did it happen that we gave up torture? Abandoned the defense of slavery? Ceased to demand state support as the one true church of Jesus Christ? Why did it take two hundred years for the Vatican to decide after all that “the Chinese rites” were civil and not religious? Anyone who thinks the process of development is linear should read Marcia Colish’s account of the patristic and medieval debates over baptism and the tortuous efforts to define what was and what was not a “forced” baptism, an unedifying business that should make us less censorious when condemning coercive measures against apostasy from Islam. Readers of the books of the late Judge John T. Noonan can find model studies in doctrinal change that may not fit well with Newman’s scheme, such as his classic study Contraception (1965).

Newman credited the papacy with typically being a reluctant umpire and adjudicator. If, he says, in another famous passage, the theologian were to write with the constant fear that ultimate authority was watching his every move, he would be incapacitated with anxiety, and “then indeed he would be fighting, as the Persian soldiers, under the lash, and the freedom of his intellect might truly be said to be beaten out of him.” It did not take long for that hypothetical to be realized in fact. Newman wrote under a pope who is credibly reputed to have declared shortly afterwards at Vatican I, “I am the tradition.” The powerfully centralizing impetus of the modern papacy since Pius IX, fostered both bureaucratically and by the intense focus on the personal stature of the pope, only slowed down temporarily at Vatican II. Under John Paul II and Benedict XVI, it recovered its élan and has continued to reduce the mediating buffers between the individual Catholic and Rome. Whether Pope Francis’s efforts to reverse the process will succeed or, paradoxically, strengthen it because of his own charismatic stature, remains to be seen. Regardless, there is no doubt that the many delays and detours on an errant theologian’s road to Roman review have been dramatically reduced since Newman wrote those words.

-Michael Hollerich

Published in the October 5, 2018 issue: View Contents

Philip Porter is a doctoral student in theology at Duke Divinity School. Before beginning his study of theology at Loyola University Maryland, where he completed an MTS, he served as an officer in the United States Marine Corps. His primary research areas are philosophical theology, Latin Patristics, and the theology of death and martyrdom. Michael Hollerich teaches theology at the University of St. Thomas.

Also by this author
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.