Newman famously said, “In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” (Essay on Development, Section 1, n. 7. This quote is often used by those who wish to enlist the respected English thinker to endorse doctrinal changes but without regard to the tests or notes identified by Newman to safeguard the integrity of an idea. What did Newman actually teach about Tradition, doctrinal change, and the sensum fidelium? And what can we learn from him to examine claims about valid changes in doctrine?
Newman studied changes that happened in doctrine in the fourth century and looked for a criteria to distinguish truth from error or heresy in that time. Initially he thought the dictum of St. Vincent of Lerins was the determining criteria: “what is believed everywhere, by all and at all times”, but he realized that it was not sufficient because councils decided against councils, popes against popes, and saints against saints.
The Oxford thinker looked next to the testimony of antiquity, that is, the testimony of the early Church to decide when a doctrine is authentic. But this also posed difficulties because, for example, Christological and Trinitarian doctrines were formulated and settled some centuries after the very first Christians.
Newman grappled with specifying what is called Apostolical Tradition, which St. Paul had called the “deposit of the Faith.” These were fundamental truths delivered by the Apostles to their successors and, in turn, to Christians.
While studying heresies of the fifth century, that of the Monophysites, he came upon an article by Nicholas Wiseman on the Donatist heresy of the fourth century. At the same time Newman struggled on how to account with various developments in Church doctrine: namely papal authority, devotion to saints, and the doctrine on purgatory. He found in the study of the Monophysite and Donatist heresies that the deciding factor had been the authority of the Roman See. (This is the Catholicity of the Church).
This wise scholar, John Henry Newman, understood the various notes of the Church were all important: Apostolicity, Antiquity, Holiness and Catholicity. These notes or characteristics of the Church help us to understand Tradition in the Church. This Tradition with a capital T is constituted by the truths contained in the Creeds and by the sacramental truths and practices of the Church. By Tradition we do not refer to traditions such as local processions and cultural events celebrating the faith.
The Tradition of the Church is a living Tradition; it develops over time and grows to maturity like a seed becoming a sapling and later a tree. This is the reason for his sentence: “to live is to change.” But faced by changes in doctrine Newman looked for a theory to account for these changes. This theory will be discussed further in another post.
Newman, like some other theologians, believed that the faithful exercise the sensum fidelium or spiritual instinct to distinguish between truth and error. The faithful could be consulted like a barometer is consulted to gauge the atmospheric pressure.
The faithful (clergy and laity) are witnesses of the Church’s Tradition. The members of the Church through their knowledge of revelation and Church teaching and their practice of the faith are able to recognize what is Catholic and what is not.
The Synod on Synodality plans for a discussion of the Church’s teaching regarding marriage and its moral teaching on sexuality. Such discussion calls into question settled doctrines or Tradition in the Church.
In the preparation for this synod, and in the German Synodal Path, the blessing of homosexual unions has been discussed and promoted by participants. However, from the first century, the Tradition of the Church has considered that adultery and sodomy are gravely sinful. How is it possible to bless unions which are not only contrary to natural law and the nature of marriage, but that are also sinful acts?
The Sensum fidelium is not the majority opinion nor is it the public expression of the needs of Christians who are living in situations of sin. Nor is the sensum fidelium giving voice to interesting theological ideas advanced by some or even many. The sensum fidelium is a judgment about the conformity or nonconformity of developments in doctrine with the deposit of Faith.
Tradition in the Church is a Living Tradition because as Newman explains “to be perfect is to have changed often.” However without safeguards, changes can be corruptions of an idea. Newman’s theory of development provides seven notes which help the hierarchy to ascertain what is an expression of this Living Tradition and what is a heresy. We will examine these notes in the next podcast.