10 October 2019
I imagine many people, like myself, are preparing for the canonisation by rereading Fr Ker's biography of Blessed John Henry Newman, which deserves all the praise which Henry 'Patrimony' Chadwick heaped upon it in his review.
But many might find it a trifle long and daunting to read ab initio usque ad finem. The answer is: to dip and delve. I have recently reread the section on Newman, Infallibility, and Vatican I. As so often with Newman, it is striking how frequently his instincts coincide with those of Pope Benedict XVI. It has become a bit of a yawn-making commonplace to say that Newman's comments on Vatican I (how it needed to be 'balanced') prepare the way for Vatican II. Rather more interesting is the way in which his experience of living through the conciliar years of Vatican I increasingly reminded him of the embarassing historical fact that Councils - although a merciful God may protect them from the formal teaching of error - are commonly nasty, messy, and unpleasant phenomena. Joseph Ratzinger came to a very similar conclusion as a result of living through the conciliar years of Vatican II.
So I particularly commend Ker's account of Newman's attitude to this question (and perhaps also Dom Gregory Dix's masterly vindication of the decrees of Vatican I). Newman's quiet faith that the Holy Spirit would prevent the rabid ultramontanes from writing their absurdities into a conciliar decree; his satisfaction when he read the final text ("nothing has been passed of consequence") and realised that the ultras had been as comprehensively beaten as the Gallicans; his profound historical perspective: should reassure any open-minded enquirer. I was interested to be reminded of an often forgotten anxiety of Newman; that the Gallicans would succeed in extending the concept of the infallibility of the Church to matters far beyond Faith and Morals; and that the Ultramontanes would then attempt to secure a decree attributing such an inflated infallibility to the pope. Part of Newman's greatness was this: his unease at the activities of the Wards and the Mannings did not blind him to the even greater dangers looming on the Gallican side. (An unease about inflated versions of papal power is another feature common to Newman and Ratzinger.)
Off at a bit of a tangent here ... Not much is known this side of the water about a close Irish friend of Newman's: David Moriarty, Bishop of Kerry. A fascinating man; the British Government's favourite Irish bishop because of his fiece opposition to republican violence. He was, I believe, the only bishop who never actually formally subscribed the conciliar decrees on infallibility and primacy. He was responsible for Killarney Cathedral, one of Ireland's loveliest until an adulterous liberal bishop gutted it in the 1960s.