Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Newman's Dialogues on "Doctrinal Corruption": A Book Review

Matthew Levering's Newman on Doctrinal Corruption could be considered an alternative interpretation of Newman's Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. By exploring Newman's dialogues with the (deceased) historian Edward Gibbon, his friend Richard Hurrell Froude, his own younger brother Francis Newman, his erstwhile Tractarian friend E.B. Pusey, and his German contemporary Ignaz von Döllinger, Levering helps readers understand Newman's search for religious Truth and the moral certainty that he was living in the "one True fold of Christ" (as he wrote on October 8, 1845 before Blessed Dominic Barberi received him in to the Catholic Church the next day).

As the publisher, Word on Fire Academic, describes the book:

Newman on Doctrinal Corruption examines John Henry Newman’s understanding of history and doctrine in his own context, first as an Oxford student and professor reading Edward Gibbon and influenced by his close friend Hurrell Froude, then as a new Catholic convert in dialogue with his brother Francis, and finally as an eminent Catholic during the controversies over the dogmas of the Immaculate Conception (in dialogue with Edward Pusey) and papal infallibility (in dialogue with Ignaz von Döllinger).

Author Matthew Levering argues that Newman’s career is shaped in large part by concerns about doctrinal corruption. Newman’s understanding of doctrinal development can only be understood when we come to share his concerns about the danger of doctrinal corruption—concerns that explain why Newman vigorously opposed religious liberalism. Particularly significant is Newman’s debate with the great German Church historian Döllinger since, in this final debate, Newman brings to bear all that he has learned about the nature of history, the formation of Church doctrine, the problem with private judgment, and the role of historical research.

As Levering notes states in the Introduction, "Whenever Newman thinks about doctrinal development, he always has the threat of doctrinal corruption in view" (p. 5). Furthermore, "one of the Essay's [The Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine] major subplots has to do with religious liberalism's impact upon all Christian churches and traditions" (pp. 6-7) because by embracing doctrinal corruption--denying the necessity and the fact of authentic doctrinal development--"religious liberalism ultimately leaves little in Christianity worth retaining" (p. 34). So Newman's concern that he find and defend the Church that has through the centuries retained, with true development, the Deposit of the Faith, is essential to all of the following chapters in Levering's book. 

The book fulfills all the claims of the blurb: Levering does justice to each of Newman's correspondents, exploring their own efforts to understand Christian history as they sought to know how to love, worship, and serve God (except perhaps Gibbon, who imposed on his own view on history of Christians in the The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as being the source of the corruption of the that fine, humane, and tolerant culture and civilization, with Nero burning Christians like torches in the Colosseum). 

Levering describes how Newman's history of reading Gibbon's masterpiece was informed by his reading of other historians who believed in God and saw His providential action in human history, like Joseph Milner's Church History and Bishop Butler's Analogy. From the former he took his budding interest in the Fathers of the Church (as he was "nothing short of enamoured of the long extracts from St. Augustine, St. Ambrose, and the other Fathers which I found there") and from the latter the "inculcation of a visible Church, the oracle of truth and a pattern of sanctity, of the duties of external religion, and of the historical character of Revelation", as Newman described later in the first chapter of the Apologia pro Vita Sua. As Levering notes, Gibbon's religious skepticism and particular animus against the Catholic Church means he cannot be objective at all about the Christian faith during the end of the Empire. Levering concludes that Newman sees "development and truth" where Gibbon sees "corruption and fanaticism", and that Newman "is arguably much more self-aware about the impact of his antecedent beliefs than Gibbon . . ." (p. 100).

Levering next explores Richard Hurrell Froude's influence on Newman as they collaborated with Keble and Pusey in the Oxford or Tractarian movement. (R.H. Froude's younger brother James Anthony Froude and Newman would have their own dialogues on Church History!) R.H. Froude influenced Newman to accept what he had thought doctrinal corruptions: devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, admiration for "the Church of Rome", and developing belief in the Real of Presence of Jesus in the Holy Eucharist. The main Doctrinal Corruption Froude and Newman feared in the Church of England at that time was the Erastian take over of the Church by the Prime Minister and the Parliament. Levering cites, for example, a letter John Keble sent to them recounting Thomas Arnold's proposal that the Church of England just become a part of the State, "internalized as the conscience of the nation . . . superfluous . . . [becoming] the real substance of the political order." (pp. 117-118)

This letter reminded me of a poem we'd read during our December meeting of the Lovers of the Newman, "Christmas without Christ" which I'd mentioned here before. That proposal by Arnold--the reduction of the Church ("the Bride")--may be behind the stanzas:

O Britons! now so brave and high,
    How will ye weep the day
When Christ in judgment passes by,
    And calls the Bride away! {99}

Your Christmas then will lose its mirth,
    Your Easter lose its bloom:
Abroad, a scene of strife and dearth;
    Within, a cheerless home!

If the Church is just a department of the State, what do the feasts of Christmas and Easter mean? Where's the mirth, or the bloom, or the home for the Christian believer if the Church is just a political entity, a disembodied "conscience of the nation"? What will the Incarnation or the Resurrection even mean in a such a state?

[To conclude this distraction from the immediate topic: isn't this one of the joys of reading? Understanding something you've read and wondered about a little more because you've read just one more book, not expecting that recognition?]

But it's really not a distraction after all, because this extreme Erastianism proposed by Arnold is an example of how Newman, Pusey, Keble and Froude thought the doctrines--the 39 Articles, etc--of the Church of England would be corrupted either by dis-establishment or government control. And Levering proposes, in this chapter, through an examination of Newman's works on The Via Media, the "Essay on the Development", and "Anglican Difficulties" that  Newman's "Roman Catholic sense of the importance of the role of the pope and the bishops flows partly from his anti-Erastian concerns as an Anglican." (p. 104) 

In the chapter recounting Francis Newman's path away from orthodox Christianity, Levering posits that John Henry Newman was answering his own brother in the Apologia pro Vita Sua as much as he was answering Charles Kingsley, defending his integrity by detailing his religious opinions over the course of his life until he became a Catholic, owning his errors and expressing his gratitude to those who helped him in the past and from whom those opinions and his conversion had estranged him. Levering documents how Francis Newman's critical examination of Christian doctrine led him to accept only two beliefs: God loves us and we must be perfect. Questions about Who God Is, and what it means to be perfect in comparison of Who God Is are beside the point, to Francis.

Regarding Newman's answer to Pusey's Eirenicon, which Newman called an olive branch discharged "from a catapult" (p. 259), Levering provides a thorough summary of all of Pusey's criticisms of Catholic devotions and practices--a salvo Newman deflects by noting, for example, that one cannot cite the late Father Faber as the representative expression of all Catholic devotion in England--and then documents Newman's statements about the Development of "Marian Doctrines" in his famous Essay--and covers his arguments in his Letter to Pusey based on the early doctrines of Mary being the Mother of God and the New Eve. Newman thus defends the Catholic Church's doctrinal definition of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin (and, in advance, as Levering demonstrates in a book I previously reviewed, of her Assumption) as being the fitting consequence and development. 

I think of all the opponents Newman faced in his efforts to defend the Catholic Church against charges of Doctrinal Corruption, Ignaz von Döllinger may have been the most formidable, because he based his argument so much on the Fathers of the Church, the Councils of the Church and their authority vis-a-vis the papacy, and historical precedent in the Middle Ages. Until I looked him up, I did not realize what almost exact contemporaries Döllinger and Newman were. Döllinger was born on February 28, 1799; Newman on February 21, 1801; Döllinger died on January 14, 1890 (90 years old); Newman on August 11, 1890 (89 years old)! 

At least part of Newman's argument against Döllinger--and Gladstone, whom Döllinger assisted in his Kulturkampf-tinged pamphlets against Papal Infallibility--was that this doctrinal definition (which Newman thought needed another Council for greater context since the Vatican Council had been prorogued) was an important step in protecting the Catholic Church from Erastian interference. Remember that in Vatican I: The Council and the Making of the Ultramontane Church, John W. O’Malley demonstrated that the call for a definition of the pope's role in defending the Church and its teachings and discipline had begun as a grassroots movement in the context of State interference (like Gallicanism, Febronianism, and Josephinism, etc through which the state or the ruler controlled education, formation of priests, selection of bishops, monastic and religious foundations, etc.) Newman saw this centralization of ecclesiastical power as God's Providence overseeing "doctrinal development" and "the course of history so as to lead all things to Christ" (pp. 333-334) at the same time that he warned against anyone--inside or outside of the Church--taking it to extremes. As he said before, during, and the after the Council, he had already believed in papal infallibility but didn't think it was an opportune time to define it as a doctrine. Once the bishops had agreed to the definition, he, unlike Döllinger, could not in good conscience dissent from it. (Conciliar agreement was one of Döllinger's standards.)

In his Conclusion, Levering discusses Newman's thoughts on the "consensus or sensus fidelium" of the lay faithful, noting that Newman "does not mean that when the consensus of the faithful becomes difficult to perceive--as for instance during the Reformation . . . the solution is to get rid of the contested doctrines, so that only doctrines most clearly supported by a supposed "consensus of the faithful" remain in place" (p. 348) and Newman believes that "the laity is not empowered to overturn solemnly taught doctrines of prior eras". (p. 350) Thus, to cite Newman in support of lay dissent from Church teaching on abortion, artificial contraception, marriage, etc., is to misinterpret Newman's On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine.

Levering evaluates the success and failures of Newman's arguments/debates with Gibbon, Froude, Newman, Pusey, and Döllinger, and discusses David Bentley Hart's criticisms of Newman's views in Tradition and Apocalypse: An Essay on the Future of Christian Belief

The fact that John Henry Newman was alive at the time of two such great doctrinal definitions (the Immaculate Conception and Papal Infallibility) is itself a proof of Divine Providence. As the visiting priest told us at the Traditional Latin Mass this past Sunday, our being alive at this time (he did cite birth dates in the 1980's, 1990's and 2000's, revealing his own chronological bias) is not an accident: Our Lord meant us to be alive now as this is the time for each of us to be faithful and be saints. As Saint John Henry Newman's Meditation "Hope in God--Creator" declares: 

GOD has created all things for good; all things for their greatest good; everything for its own good. . . . God has determined, unless I interfere with His plan, that I should reach that which will be my greatest happiness. He looks on me individually, He calls me by my name, He knows what I can do, what I can best be, what is my greatest happiness, and He means to give it me.

Levering's book might be better for someone who has read Newman's works and is familiar with his life and times than for one reading about Newman for the first or even second time. While he does not assume great prior knowledge, it helped me to have read Newman's Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, and his Letters to Pusey and the Duke of Norfolk, and to have consulted the Apologia pro Vita Sua a few times. General familiarity with the Newmanian bibliography and the state of Newman scholarship is also helpful. I was pleased to see Levering cite and refute Pattison's The Great Dissent, which I think is a rather obscure study of Newman's life and work.

Now I'm reading Father Dermot Fenlon's book on Reginald Cardinal Pole (I'm on the fourth chapter: Pole and the spirituali are trying to figure out how to accept Luther's doctrine on justification and remain Catholic after the breakdown of the Regensburg conference of 1541) . . . Heresy and Obedience are the issues in the title . . . 

Image Credit (Public Domain): Ignaz von Döllinger (1799-1890)

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