The Second Vatican Council and John Henry NewmanThe Second Vatican Council and John Henry Newman
by Ian Ker
The fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council fell two years ago in October 2012. In December next year it will be the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Council. There is bound to be much discussion in the coming months of the meaning and significance of the Council, its failures, its successes, its misinterpretations, its distortion and exaggerations, its key seminal texts, and its future developments. Blessed John Henry Newman has often been referred to as ‘the Father of the Second Vatican Council’. Although Newman was certainly inspirational for the theologians who were the architects of the Council’s teachings, many of which he had anticipated in the previous century, there is only one place in the conciliar documents where his direct influence can clearly be discerned, the text in the Constitution on Divine Revelation which speaks of the development of doctrine. Even so, in this most seminal of modern theologians, the theologians of the ‘ressourcement’ found a sympathetic and eloquent precursor. The ‘ressourcement’ was a theological school that sought to retrieve the sources of Christianity in the the Scriptures and the Fathers and was anxious to escape from the dead hand of a desiccated neo-scholasticism which had lost touch with the Fathers.
Newman has often suffered from selective quotation by people on the opposing wings of the Catholic Church who seek to present him as either a liberal and progressive or as a highly conservative and even reactionary thinker. But the truth is that Newman must be seen in the full range of his thought. For Newman was neither simply conservative nor liberal but is best described as a conservative radical, always open to new ideas and developments but also always sensitive to the tradition and teachings of the Church.
As an Anglican, his radicalism disconcerted and dismayed conservative high churchmen. As a Catholic, he disappointed the liberals because of his respect for authority. He also angered the Ultramontanes with his openness to change and reform.