John Henry Newman at the synod Print
Word on Fire
Written by Fr. Robert Barron   
Thursday, Nov. 06, 2014 -- 12:00 AM

Controversies surrounding the recent Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family have put me in mind of Blessed John Henry Newman, the greatest Catholic churchman of the 19th century.

Newman wrote eloquently on many topics, but the arguments around the synod compel us to look at his work regarding the evolution of doctrine.

The development of doctrine

When he was at mid-career and in the process of converting from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism, Newman penned a masterpiece entitled On the Development of Christian Doctrine.


In line with the evolutionary theories that were emerging at that time, Newman argued that Christian doctrines are not given once for all and simply passed down unchanged from generation to generation.


Rather, like seeds that unfold into plants or rivers that deepen and broaden over time, they develop, their various aspects and implications emerging in the course of lively rumination. It is not the case, for example, that the doctrine of the Trinity was delivered fully-grown to the first disciples of Jesus and then passed on like a football across the ages.

On the contrary, it took hundreds of years for the seed of that teaching to grow into the mighty tree of Augustine's formulations in the De Trinitate or Aquinas' complex treatise in the first part of the Summa Theologiae.

Newman felt that even those definitive theological achievements develop and unfold as they are mused over, turned around, questioned, and argued about.

It is in this context that Newman penned the most famous line of On the Development of Christian Doctrine: “In a higher world, it is otherwise; but here below, to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” Ideas change because they are living things.

Is doctrine up for grabs?

I realize that many upon considering this view will get nervous -- as did many in Newman's day. Does this mean that doctrine is up for grabs? Should we keep our dogmatic statements, as one cynical wag put it, in loose-leaf binders?

To get some clarity, I recommend that we delve further into Newman's great book and examine the criteria that he laid out to determine the difference between a legitimate development (which makes the doctrine in question more fully itself) and a corruption (which undermines the doctrine). Newman presents seven in total, but I should like to examine just three.

Preservation of type

The first is what he calls preservation of type. A valid development preserves the essential form and structure of what came before. If that type is undermined, we are dealing with a corruption. Mind you, type can be maintained even through enormous superficial changes, as, to use Newman's own example, "a butterfly is a development of the caterpillar but not in any sense its image."

By the same token, superficialities can remain largely unchanged even as the type morphs, as happened in the transition from the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire.

Conservative action upon its past

A second criterion is what Newman refers to as "conservative action upon its past." An evolution that simply reverses or contradicts what came before it is a corruption and not a development. An authentic development "is an addition that illustrates, not obscures; corroborates, not corrects the body of thought from which it proceeds."

Thus Christianity could be seen as the development of Judaism, since it preserves the essential teachings and practices of that faith, even as it moves beyond them.

The power of assimilation

A third criterion Newman puts forward is what he calls "the power of assimilation." Just as a healthy organism can take in what it can from its environment, even as it resists what it must, so a sane and lively idea can take to itself what is best in the intellectual atmosphere, even as it throws off what is noxious.

Both total accommodation to the culture and total resistance to it are usually signs of intellectual sickness.

Application to the synod

How does all of this apply to the synod? Let’s consider the proposal made by Cardinal Walter Kasper regarding Communion for the divorced and remarried. Is it an authentic development or a corruption of Catholic moral teaching and practice?

Might I suggest that all of the disputants in that argument take a step back and assess the matter using Newman's criteria?

Would Newman be opposed in principle to change in this regard? Not necessarily, for he knew that to live is to change. Would he therefore enthusiastically embrace what Cardinal Kasper has proposed? Not necessarily, for it might represent a corruption.

As the conversation continues to unfold over the coming months, I think all sides would benefit from a careful reading of On the Development of Christian Doctrine.


Fr. Robert Barron is the founder of the global ministry, Word on Fire, and is the rector/president of Mundelein Seminary near Chicago. Learn more at