Future Priests of the Third Millennium

A little insight into the life of seminarians from various dioceses preparing for ministry as Roman Catholic priests, including daily activities, personal interests, special events, the spiritual life, news from the seminary, and almost whatever comes to our minds!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Looking Back and Looking Ahead

I am taking a class on the writings of John Henry Cardinal Newman. Currently, we are moving through his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine which is actually an unfinished work. He started writing it in the 1840's and was eventually so convinced by his own arguments that he became a Catholic.

A key component of his argument seems to run contrary to a lot of resourcement thinking. At the end of section one of chapter one, he points out that in the realm of ideas - philosophies, religions, etc. - the earliest and most ancient forms do not always represent the best that the idea has to offer. Consider, for example, the maturation of a child. Perhaps a child of five would be seen as very intelligent were he able to draw with crayons a rough aproximation of the solar system. However, if this was still the limit of his capability at the age of fifty, employed as an astronomer, it would seem he had lost what little intelligence he had at five. Greater precision and refinement of the art is expected as the practitioner matures. Hence, Newman notes: "It is indeed sometimes said that the stream is clearest near the spring. Whatever use may fairly be made of this image, it does not apply to hte history of a philosophy or belief, which on the contrary is more equable , and purer, and stronger, when its bed has become deep, and broad, and full."

So, was Newman a fanatical progressive?

Such a conclusion seems premature. Consider his sermon on the life of St. Philip Neri. He points out that the Apostle of Rome's distinctive feature was his glance back to antiquity. He nurtured his great project of the oratory not in the boisterous practices of renaissance Rome but those of the Apostolic Age. He quotes Baronius who notes in the history of the order that it was built "on the pattern of the Apostolic Age".

So, then, was Newman simply confused or perhaps changeable in his thought. Certainly he would have admitted the development of his own ideas as much as the develoment of the Church's doctrines. But could this be evidence of an outright contradiction?

St. Philip Neri was great, as Newman has it, for his glance back, but he just as much lived among the movements of his time. Philip did not cast off the trappings of renaissance Rome but revitalized them with the touch of the Gospel. When he had discourse, as Newman recalls, with the saints of Apostolic Ages, it was to decide how to move in the present. Newman relates that Philip's decision to make Rome "his indies" and go on mission in the heart of Christian Europe was developed after consultation with St. John the Evangelist.
The point is, Philip does not represent a crazed archaelogism anymore than Newman represents an overzealous progressivism. A hermeneutic of continuity, as Pope Benedict XVI would suggest, requires that we actually find from St. Paul to St. Philip to Newman a discernible link and yet clear differences. Each responded to his age. The Gospel, lived in each, mingled with the signs of the times and yet remained distinctly what it is so that each man, speaking a different language, bearing a different face, is recognized by all as holy.