C. Michael Shea’s Newman’s Early Roman Catholic Legacy, 1845-1854, represents a landmark historical study in the field of Newman scholarship. While numerous studies of John Henry Newman’s life and writings continue to be churned out each year, few monographs within the field exhibit the depth of archival research and originality of argumentation that Shea’s book does. With this relatively brief study (the argument proper runs right around 200 pages), Shea offers a convincing revision of an assumption that has long held sway in Newman studies—namely, that Newman’s theory of doctrinal development was held in suspicion by Roman theologians during the years immediately following the publication of his Essay on Development (1845), and only fully emerged from this cloud of suspicion in the mid-twentieth century when it was officially vindicated at the Second Vatican Council.
As Shea demonstrates, this narrative gained traction through Owen Chadwick’s influential book, From Bossuet to Newman, which portrayed the influence of Newman’s Essay on Development as “almost wholly negative” (19). According to Chadwick’s reading of events, continental theologians, in particular, were unreceptive of Newman’s theory of development, and in Rome, even among those who were generally sympathetic to Newman, the idea landed with a thud. A key cog in Chadwick’s argument was his view of Newman’s famous exchange with the renowned Roman theologian, Giovanni Perrone, which Chadwick interpreted as a wholesale rejection of the concept of development. In Chadwick’s judgment, “Perrone laconically, but flatly, denied Newman’s thesis” (From Bossuet to Newman, 182).
In his introduction, Shea shows how Newman scholars have, for the most part, taken Chadwick’s rendering of events as definitive, and then constructed their histories of the reception of Newman’s theory around this basic narrative framework. As a prominent example, Shea points to Aidan Nichols’ From Newman to Congar, which “built upon Chadwick’s foundation” and, in so doing, “perpetuated and deepened the impression of the Essay on Development’s being neither accepted, nor influential, after it first appeared” (19). Since the publication of Nichols’ study in 1990, Newman scholars have continued to research and publish on the theory of doctrinal development, operating under the assumption that Newman’s idea followed a trajectory of early rejection and later acceptance in Roman Catholic circles.
Through a careful engagement with previously neglected sources, Shea demonstrates that the reception of Newman’s theory was exceedingly more complex than this narrative lets on. . . .