John Cornwell's Hijacking of John Henry Newman by the Rev. Robert Barron

What is perhaps most annoying about Cornwell's article is his tendency to see Newman as an anti-Roman "dissenter," an opponent of the pope and ecclesiastical authority. Even the most cursory acquaintance with Newman's writings shows that this is not the case. Newman consistently argued that doctrine develops and unfolds over time, much like a living organism or a flowing river. As theological ideas are, across the centuries, weighed, assessed, turned over and around by lively minds, their various aspects come to light and their implications and consequences appear more clearly. Dogmas are not dumbly passed on like footballs from one generation to another; rather, they live.

This, by the way, is the context for Newman's celebrated remark, mentioned by Cornwell, that "to live is to change and to be perfect is to have changed often." However, precisely as living things, doctrines can develop in unhealthy ways, just as trees can send off branches that eventually wither or organisms can give rise to cancers. Newman identified the many heresies that have beset orthodox Christianity from its earliest days -- from Arianism to liberalism -- as types of this devolution or corruption of doctrine. And it is because doctrines can unfold in this problematic way that a living voice of authority is required, someone who can determine disputed questions.

On Newman's reading, a church without a clear teaching authority would be as dysfunctional as a baseball game without an umpire. He definitely encouraged the lively play of the theological conversation, and he was indeed impatient with a fussy, interventionist exercise of Roman authority; however, none of this makes him a "dissenter" in the contemporary sense of the term. He defended the Pope's infallibility as a bulwark against indifferentism and doctrinal drift.

Given the complexity and nuance of Newman's thought, it is not surprising that he is claimed by both "liberals" and "conservatives" today, but I think that a disciplined reading of the whole of Newman reveals that he cannot be caught in either of these simplistic categories. What should especially give Cornwell pause is the fact that Benedict XVI -- one of the most theologically astute popes in history and someone who has read Newman for many years -- is presiding with enthusiasm over the great man's beatification. This in itself should cause Cornwell to question his interpretation of both John Henry Newman and Joseph Ratzinger himself.

The Rev. Robert Barron is an Archdiocesan priest of Chicago since 1986, a professor at University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary, a prominent theologian, and an author of numerous books, DVDs, CDs, and essays. His global media ministry called "Word On Fire" reaches millions of people through its Web site,, its TV and radio programs, YouTube videos and other media outlets.

Barron, a Chicago-area native, received a master's degree in philosophy from the Catholic University of America in Washington in 1982 and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Institut Catholique de Paris in 1992. Chicago's Francis Cardinal George recognizes Barron as "one of the church's best messengers."

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