Newman’s Early Roman Catholic Legacy 1845–1854
C. Michael Shea’s many rich articles on John Henry Newman and nineteenth-century theology are well known to specialists in Newman studies, and his fine work on the mid-century Roman School was also a major contribution on a much-neglected subject. Shea ties these strands together in a remarkable book, tightly argued yet broad in import. Newman’s Early Roman Catholic Legacy forces us to substantially revise the commonly received view that, on the issue of doctrinal development, Newman was an unheeded prophetic voice crying in a desiccated Roman wilderness.
Shea’s book corrects the mistaken impression that Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845) fell upon deaf ears in the Catholic world, only to be rediscovered in the mid-twentieth century and then all but canonized at Vatican II. While Newman’s theology did indeed bear abundant twentieth-century fruit (see Ian Kerr’s 2014 book on the subject and Andrew Meszaro’s excellent article arguing that Dei verbum 8, via Yves Congar, has Newmanian roots), it bore fruit in his own day as well. What makes Shea’s book more than just an intriguing historical reappraisal is that he all but proves that Newman’s impact on the Jesuit Giovanni Perrone (1794–1876), the foremost theologian of the “Roman School” at midcentury (and a close advisor to Pope Pius IX), was an implicit but significant factor in the preparations for the promulgation of the dogma of Mary’s Immaculate Conception in 1854.
Shea’s study achieves this revision through harvesting extensive archival research (in particular a deep mining of the Birmingham Oratory Archive) coupled with a close engagement with the normally neglected work of leading Roman-based theologians of the era like Perrone and Nicholas Wiseman (1802–65). This work allows Shea to recast the Newman’s reception by Roman theologians, and particularly the Newman-Perrone exchanges and papers, in a positive light. Along the way, Shea provides us with a detailed look at the Roman School and the theology of Perrone in particular. Whatever its limitations, the Roman School was aware of the fact of development and was seeking doctrinally orthodox and rigorous explanations for the reality of such growth and change. The school of Perrone yielded a much richer theology than merely repeating and synthesizing Aquinas and past papal documents.
Shea’s thesis puts to the rest the persistent impression which arose from certain influential studies that Newman, while generally admired, was an unheeded prophet. In Shea’s convincing narrative, Owen Chadwick’s From Bossuet to Newman (1957) – while eminently readable like all of Chadwick’s work – shoulders a fair amount of the blame for this particular misappraisal. Chadwick contrasted a reigning Catholic “fixisme” which totally rejected doctrinal development (epitomized by the great Gallican, Bishop Bossuet) with the startling and new theory of Newman. According to Chadwick, Newman was considered – at least on this issue – as at best eccentric, and at worst doctrinally suspect. Shea shows that Chadwick far overestimated the impact and importance of the American convert Orestes Brownson’s polemic against Newman, and he contends that Chadwick misread the evidence regarding Newman’s encounters with Perrone, Pius IX, and others during Newman’s preparation for ordination in Rome. (One also wonders if Chadwick over-emphasized the incompatibility of the Gallican theological method with the idea of doctrinal development, since Shea points out that Henri Maret, one of the staunchest Gallican opponents of papal infallibility at Vatican I, actually affirmed development in his classic anti-infallibilist text).
I have no criticisms of substance, but I do have further questions to put to the author. Among many I would ask: can we extend Newman’s influence on Perrone and the Roman School to other doctrinal developments around this time such as Pius IX’s carefully crafted teaching (influenced, I believe, by the language and thought of Perrone and the Roman School), in 1854 and 1863, that an invincibly ignorant non-Christian could be saved (that is, one who has not culpably rejected the gospel)? Would Shea’s sketch of the neo-Thomist movement of the late nineteenth century in his conclusion be disputed by a historian of that period or by a theological devotee of such authors? I ask this while still finding Shea’s brief sketch explaining the late nineteenth-century neo-scholastic lack of interest in questions of development compelling (the reference on page 162 to truncating the method of Melchior Cano is tantalizing), but I wonder if there is more to the story than Shea had the space to tell.
Newman’s Early Roman Catholic Legacy has been widely commended and should be widely read. Due to the nature of the study, this book could probably not be easily understood by most undergraduates, and readers certainly need prior familiarity with Newman and the Essay on Development at least. But it would not be hyperbolic to consider Shea’s work required reading for academics or advanced students of Newman, the Essay, or the problem of doctrinal development from a Catholic (or Anglican) perspective. The issue of doctrinal development must concern all Catholic (and ecumenical) theologians, especially since recent decades have seen important magisterial documents self-consciously recognize doctrinal development. In some situations, the documents themselves claim to develop doctrine (e.g., Vatican II’s Dignitatis humanae, and Pope Francis' recent amendment to the Catechism on the death penalty).
One gets hints throughout the text that Shea hopes his book will help ignite a retrieval of the richness and complexity of nineteenth-century Catholic theology, which – with the exception of a few luminous figures like Newman and Johann Adam Möhler –is so often stereotyped and dismissed (as if the nouvelle théologie thinkers invented reading the church fathers and trying to solve contemporary problems!). If it does nothing else, Shea’s study should challenge any lingering stereotype of nineteenth-century Catholic theology as static or monolithic. Shea’s work invites us to reconsider the dynamism of a century that saw continuity, change, advancement, and regression. Shea has revised our understanding of a pivotal period (1845–54) in Newman’s extraordinary life. We have good reason to hope that his career will further illuminate the richness of nineteenth Catholic theology.