Monday, March 12, 2007

Newman on Papal Infallibility

Some have claimed that John Henry Cardinal Newman denied the Catholic doctrine of papal infallibility. In actuality, he was an inopportunist, that is, one who (at the time of the First Vatican Council in 1870) favored waiting to dogmatically define the definition of papal infallibility (for fear of the Ultramontane party and their ideas and devices). This is a completely different proposition from acceptance or non-acceptance of some form of infallibility. The following is from Ian Ker's John Henry Newman: A Biography, probably the most comprehensive and scholarly recent biography of Newman (Oxford Univ. Press, 1988, 764 pages):

    Newman himself would continue to pray that there was no definition, but he would accept it if one was passed......

    Although the Council would be protected by the Holy Spirit from teaching error, it was not divinely prevented from acting inopportunely. Even that eventuality, however, Newman could believe must be in the long run be expedient in God's Providence, however inexpedient it might seem at the time.....

    On 23 July Newman saw the definition of papal infallibility which had been passed five days earlier. He was 'pleased at its moderation'; the 'terms used' were 'vague and comprehensive', and he personally had no difficulty in accepting it......

    'If the definition is eventually received by the whole body of the faithful.......then too it will claim our assent by the force of the great dictum, Securus judicat orbis terrarum.' After all, 'the general acceptance, judgment of Christendom' was not only 'the broad principle by which all acts of the rulers of the Church are ratified', but also 'the ultimate guarantee of revealed truth'................

    He was sure that it was divine intervention which had prevented the extreme Ultramontanes, including the Pope, from getting through a much stronger definition. it was a pity that Dollinger and others persisted in exaggerating what actually had been defined, however scandalous the proceedings. but it was not the first scandal at a Council, and good would come out of it.......

    Newman could not accept the validity of his [i.e., Dollinger's] arguments against the actual definition. Even if the supporting Scripture texts were not convincing (as Newman thought they were), this did not affect the truth of the actual decisions of a Council, which alone were guaranteed.......

    He continued to think Dollinger 'wrong in making the worst of the definition instead of making the best.' It was simply playing into the hands of the extremists to exaggerate the terms of the definition, which in fact had been a 'defeat' for the Ultramontanes......

    He diagnosed Dollinger's crisis as fundamentally a failure of imagination......'He ties you down like Shylock to the letter of the bond, instead of realizing what took place as a scene.' Newman could not understand how Dollinger could accept the Council of Ephesus, for example, which was notorious for intrigue and violence, and not the recent one.......

    'The more one examines the Councils, the less satisfactory they are.....[but] the less satisfactory they, the more majestic and trust-winning, and the more imperatively necessary, is the action of the Holy See.'.......

    Newman also wrote to the Guardian sharply denying the allegation of J.M. Capes that he did not really believe in papal infallibility, and citing a number of passages in his writings, beginning with the Essay on Development, for more or less explicit avowals of the doctrine...... "As regards the relation between history and theology, Newman is unequivocal in his criticism of Dollinger and his followers......'I think them utterly wrong in what they have done and are doing; and, moreover, I agree as little in their view of history as in their acts.' It is not a matter of questioning the accuracy of their historical knowledge, but 'their use of the facts they report' and 'that special stand-point from which they view the relations existing between the records of History and the communications of Popes and Councils.' Newman sums up the essence of the problem: 'They seem to me to expect from History more than History can furnish.' The opposite was true of the Ultramontanes, who simply found history an embarrassing inconvenience.......

    But he wondered why 'private judgment' should 'be unlawful in interpreting Scripture against the voice of authority, and yet be lawful in the interpretation of history?'...........No Catholic doctrine could be fully proved (or, for that matter, disproved) by historical evidence - 'in all cases there is a margin left for the exercise of faith in the word of the Church.' Indeed, anyone 'who believes the dogmas of the Church only because he has reasoned them out of History, is scarcely a Catholic.'

    (from chapter 17: "Papal Infallibility," 652, 654-655, 660-661, 665, 671-673, 684)

Edited by Dave Armstrong in 1996.

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