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March 12, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) – Many Catholics today, concerned about the widespread distortion of the idea of development of doctrine, have come to realize that John Henry Cardinal Newman, whose canonization Pope Francis approved on Feb. 12, may be counted as an ally.

While Newman’s own account of this development is not immune from criticism, he nevertheless clearly affirms the immutability of the apostolic deposit of faith and the requirement of complete consistency of any later definition or explanation of a truth with all that has already been held and taught about that truth. In other words, Newman adhered to St. Vincent of Lérins’s assumption that if doctrine is to grow or make progress, it can do so only “according to the same meaning and the same judgment,” in eodem sensu eademque sententia—a statement that has been repeated countless times in magisterial documents, down to recent times. Any other kind of change is a mutatio or corruption.

Newman was anxious about such corruption taking place at the First Vatican Council concerning the proposed definition of papal infallibility—a belief on which he thought the less said, the better, not because he did not accept the pope as the God-given teacher of Christians and the final court of appeal, but because he knew that a party of “ultramontanes” was busy pushing a theologically unsound, philosophically unreasonable, historically untenable, and ecclesiastically damaging version of papal inerrancy that threatened to confuse the pope’s office with divine revelation itself, rather than seeing him more modestly as the guardian of tradition and the arbiter of controversy.

Considering the fact that it may be none other than Pope Francis who canonizes John Henry Newman, we might find the following excerpt from one of Newman’s letters ironic and timely. On August 21, 1870, a little over a month after the July 18 promulgation of Pastor Aeternus, Newman wrote to his dear friend Ambrose St. John:

I have various things to say about the Definition . . . [T]o me the serious thing is this, that, whereas it has not been usual to pass definition except in case of urgent and definite necessity, this definition, while it gives the Pope power, creates for him, in the very act of doing so, a precedent and a suggestion to use his power without necessity, when ever he will, when not called on to do so. I am telling people who write to me to have confidence—but I don’t know what I shall say to them, if the Pope did so act. And I am afraid moreover, that the tyrant majority [NB: this is how Newman refers to the bishops at Vatican I who voted for the definition!] is still aiming at enlarging the province of Infallibility. I can only say if all this takes place, we shall in matter of fact be under a new dispensation. But we must hope, for one is obliged to hope it, that the Pope will be driven from Rome, and will not continue the Council, or that there will be another Pope. It is sad he should force us to such wishes. Our friends seem to me to have made the fight at Rome something of a game or prize fight—but I may be wrong.

It is striking to see a soon-to-be-canonized saint entertaining such deep misgivings about an ecumenical Council lawfully convoked, about conciliar acts lawfully promulgated, and especially about the reigning Pope, who he hopes will be driven out of Rome or be replaced by a better Pope. Those who today have misgivings about the convoking of Vatican II by John XXIII, about various and sundry elements in the sixteen conciliar documents issued under Paul VI, and about the conduct of Pope Francis may take comfort in knowing that such difficulties of mind and problems of conscience are not incompatible with the Catholic Faith or with the foundational virtues of humility and obedience. 

As we observe today the heavenly birthday of Pope St. Gregory the Great and move towards the solemnity of St. Joseph on March 19, we could fruitfully reflect on the way in which the pope plays a role not unlike that of St. Joseph towards the Virgin and Child. Christ has His origin from elsewhere; Joseph is not His natural father, but only His protector. The Virgin, image of the Church, is more exalted than her husband, but nevertheless under his care and authority. Joseph is “the Just Man” because he never exceeds or falls short of the role he has been given, which places him at once in subordination to his wife and foster child, and in a certain position of governance over them. Looking over the popes of history, we might ask ourselves which ones have acted the most like St. Joseph, and which ones the least. 

Newman, then, helps us to grasp the Catholic religion as something whole, complex, sublime, and coherent, in which, when we see it clearly and comprehensively, we do not see the papacy looming as a dominating protuberance out of all proportion with the rest of the body, but as one piece in a brightly-colored mosaic designed by the divine Craftsman. He gratefully acknowledges the pope’s crucial role but refuses to make of him the originator or measure of Christian doctrine or Christian life.

This is why I believe Newman would have had just the same reaction to Cardinal Müller’s Manifesto as Fr. John Hunwicke did:

Silence can say more than a million words. Conan Doyle’s dog, for example, that did not bark in the night. I think the most striking thing about the Manifesto given us by Gerhard Cardinal Mueller was what it did not mention . . . the Papacy.

Just consider the amount of controversy the question of the Petrine Ministry created at the time of Vatican I; how much controversy there has been between Catholic and non-Catholic polemicists. Consider the Personality Cult which has surrounded popes since, I think, roughly the last part of the pontificate of Blessed Pius IX. A cult that treats the Roman Bishop like a demi-god or a pop star. I have written about it several times. I think it is sentimental and mawkish, sickly, corrupt and corrupting. It was certainly not invented by PF and his cronies, but it has reached a new theological peak in this pontificate. Curial cronies tell us that the Holy Spirit speaks through PF’s mouth; the English bishops write letters to inform him that the Holy Spirit was responsible for his election and guides him daily; a Fr Rosica, incredibly, explains to us that the pope is free from the encumbrances of Scripture and Tradition. It is what I have called ‘Bergoglianism’. I think it is not only sick in itself, but is a dangerous poison of rare toxicity within the Church Militant.

Yet, despite all this, Cardinal Mueller did not even mention this enormous elephant in a tiny room, even in passing. I have not felt so refreshed for a long time.

Of course, the refreshment soon passes as we realize once again, with a groan, that we are living in a world and in a Church in which Newman’s wise reservations about the role of the pope, and Cardinal Müller’s serene confidence in traditional Catholic doctrine, are not shared by a large number of the bishops, especially the bishop at their head—in spite of the fact that precisely as successors of the Apostles they are most of all solemnly committed to their Joseph-like role of guarding the holiness of our Mother and providing a home worthy to be dwelt in by Christ.

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Peter Kwasniewski, Thomistic theologian, liturgical scholar, and choral composer, is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College in California (B.A. Liberal Arts) and The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC (M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy). He taught at the International Theological Institute in Austria and the Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Austria Program, then helped establish Wyoming Catholic College in 2006. There he taught theology, philosophy, music, and art history and directed the choirs until leaving in 2018 to devote himself full-time to writing and lecturing.

Today he contributes regularly to many websites and publications, including New Liturgical Movement, OnePeterFive, LifeSiteNews, Rorate Caeli, The Remnant, and Catholic Family News, and has published thirteen books, including four on traditional Catholicism: Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis (Angelico, 2014, also available in Czech, Polish, German, Portuguese, Spanish, and Belarusian), Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness (Angelico, 2017), Tradition and Sanity (Angelico, 2018), and Reclaiming Our Roman Catholic Birthright: The Genius and Timeliness of the Traditional Latin Mass (Angelico, 2020). His work has been translated into at least eighteen languages.

Kwasniewski is a scholar of The Aquinas Institute in Green Bay, which is publishing the Opera Omnia of the Angelic Doctor, a Fellow of the Albertus Magnus Center for Scholastic Studies, and a Senior Fellow of the St. Paul Center. He has published over a thousand articles on Thomistic thought, sacramental and liturgical theology, the history and aesthetics of music, and the social doctrine of the Church.

For news, information, article links, sacred music, and the home of Os Justi Press, visit his personal website,