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  • Newman’s Idea of Development: A Note
  • Dermot Roantree (bio)

In March of this year (2023), Joseph Strickland, Bishop of Tyler, Texas, long a vocal critic of Pope Francis, accused the bishops behind the German ‘synodal way’ of using Newman’s concept of the development of doctrine as a vehicle to push false teaching forward.1 In his support, he quoted a 2017 First Things essay by Michael Pakaluk, Professor of Ethics and Social Philosophy at the Catholic University of America.2 Newman’s theory, Pakaluk wrote, had its origin in the Commonitorium of St Vincent of Lérins,3 the main preoccupation of which was to show that the contents of the faith are unalterable. The Commonitorium, written in the 430s, was the first sustained theological effort to establish criteria by which the true development of doctrine could be distinguished from heresy. It was hugely influential, especially for the two principles at its core: firstly, that the Church must ensure that it holds ‘that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all’ (quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est – often called the Vincentian canon);4 and secondly, that development in the teachings of the Church must be an advance of established teaching (profectus), not a reversal (permutatio)5.

So according to Pakaluk, the whole point of Newman’s Essay on the Development of Doctrine, as with the Commonitorium, was that ‘doctrine is given all at once in the revelation of Christ and never changes’. ‘If a simple and pious person’, he says, ‘is offered the binary choice, “Has doctrine stayed the same, or has it changed?”, the safest, best, and truest answer is that it has stayed the same.’

Newman and St Vincent of Lérins

Such an answer would be trite and misleading. It would, however, be in keeping with the tendency in recent years, as with Pakaluk and Strickland, to collapse Newman’s theory of development into that of St Vincent of Lérins and to present them as a common Catholic front of resistance to change. Thomas Guarino, for example, has called Newman ‘a kind of nineteenth-century Vincentius redivivus’.6 Both of Guarino’s books on development, in fact, take this line.7 He acknowledges that Newman took issue with [End Page 180] the Vincentian canon in his Essay, remarking on a ‘general defect in its serviceableness’ as it was just as effective a weapon against the Athanasian Creed, dear to Anglicanism, as it was against the extra-scriptural propositions of the Catholic Church’s Creed of Pius IV. But this, Guarino insists, was because Newman failed to understand the canon correctly. Afterwards Newman adjusted his view and brought his thinking on development ever more into line with Vincent.8

But this playing down of the differences hardly seems tenable. How should we account for the deep suspicion, at times even opprobrium, with which prominent Roman theologians and ecclesiastics as well as leading Catholics in Britain and in the United States viewed Newman’s theory of development in the first years after its composition? Or the cloud that hung over his historical approach to theology during the decades of the modernist crisis? Or the rejection of his theory by neo-scholastics such as the Dominican Francisco Marín-Sola, who was genuinely well-disposed to Newman but couldn’t square his thesis with Aquinas? These churchmen were thoroughly uncomfortable with Newman’s theory, even hostile to it, yet they had no such trouble with St Vincent. Clearly there was a consequential difference between them.

Imagery in Vincent and Newman

The most conclusive indication that Newman’s project differed critically from Vincent’s, however, is that Newman himself saw it that way. In his introduction to the Essay he views his theory of development as novel; and, more revealingly, in a letter just months after his conversion he complains about an attack on his theory in a high Church periodical: ‘I believe I was the first writer who made life the mark of a true Church,’ he writes, ‘yet this writer speaks as if I went to books in the first instance not to life.’9

But did Vincent not go to...