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 quoting Newman you cannot be selective, unless you wish to twist his argument to your own point of view. You must always trace his argument precisely, either quoting him or paraphrasing him carefully.