For a truly subversive Newman?

16 12 2010

From Eamon Duffy:

But if Cornwell absolves the Vatican of trying to conceal the potentially embarrassing sexuality of a candidate for sainthood, he is inclined to think that the beatification of Newman may nevertheless represent an attempt by an authoritarian church to tame a troublesome and unconventional intellect, and to neutralize Newman’s usefulness to critics of current Vatican policy. Newman was, by nineteenth-century Catholic standards, a deeply unconventional theologian. Soaked in the writings of the Early Church Fathers, he disliked the rigidly scholastic cast of mind that cramped the Catholic theology of his day. He was one of the first theologians to grasp the historical contingency of all theological formulations. Accordingly, he resisted doctrinaire demands for unquestioning obedience to contemporary Church formulae as if they were timeless truths. He was an ardent defender of the legitimate autonomy of the theologian and of the dignity of the laity as custodians of the faith of the Church. He was scathingly critical of the authoritarian papacy of Pope Pius IX (Pio Nono), who held the office between 1846 and 1878, and he opposed the definition of papal infallibility in 1870 as an unnecessary and inappropriate burden on consciences. “We have come to a climax of tyranny,” he wrote. “It is not good for a Pope to live 20 years…. He becomes a god, [and] has no one to contradict him”…

To resolve this apparent contradiction between a religion of objectively revealed truth and the flux of Christian doctrines and practices, Newman wrote at Littlemore a theological masterpiece, the Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845). Its central claim is that the concepts and intuitions that shape human history are dynamic, not inert. Great ideas interact with changing times and cultures, retaining their distinctive thrust and direction, yet adapting so as to preserve and develop that energy in different circumstances. Truth is a plant, evolving from a seed into the mature tree, not a baton passed unchanging from hand to hand. Ideas must unfold in the historical process before we can appropriate all that they contain. So beliefs evolve, but they do so to preserve their essence in the flux of history: they change, that is, in order to remain the same. “In a higher world it is otherwise; but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”

I used to make the intellectual mistake of thinking that the Hegelian dialectic, in the triad “thesis-antithesis-synthesis”, was prone to the worst form of institutional crony idealism. The position of the current hegemonic institution is the teleological resting point toward which all of history is driven. That is not a fair reading. Really, the process is not about how the Ideal emerges from the purely contingent, but how the contingent becomes the Ideal. Or rather, how the Ideal is the contingent merely viewed after a process of double negation.
Read the rest of this entry »