PopeWatch: Francis v. Newman

P.J. Smith notes at First Things how the Pope’s view of development of doctrine clashes with that of Newman:



These remarks provide an interesting window into how the pope thinks about doctrine, and about his relationship to doctrine. Such windows have been hard to come by since Amoris laetitia was issued in the spring of 2016. Francis has so far refused to answer the dubia submitted by some cardinals about Amoris laetitia. And, while Pietro Cardinal Parolin, the secretary of state, and Gerhard Cardinal Müller, formerly prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, have called for dialogue in the wake of the filial correction released a few weeks ago, it is unlikely that Francis would participate personally in such a process. The speech to the Catechism conference may be, for now, the clearest vision we get from Francis about the developments he favors.

Perhaps showing how closely he follows the debates that have exploded over his various pronouncements, Francis devoted some time in his remarks to demonstrating that his new position on the death penalty is part of a “harmonious development” of doctrine. Francis explains that, when the Church’s traditional doctrine is “clearly contrary” to a “new understanding of Christian truth,” we have a duty to “cease to defend” that doctrine. Francis argues that, today, we understand that any taking of human life is contrary to the dignity of life, and therefore we can now say that it is contrary to the Gospel. The argument is simple enough, but its implications are profound.

How profound? For that we need to turn to Bl. John Henry Newman. The pope’s remarks come just a couple of days after Newman’s feast. It is a little surprising that Francis did not mention Newman, since Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine has long been the locus classicus for an orthodox discussion of the development of doctrine. Or maybe not so surprising. In the Essay, Newman identifies several “notes” (he does not go so far as to call them “tests”) of an authentic development of doctrine. Among these notes is “conservative action” upon a doctrine’s past. Newman writes that a true development “is an addition which illustrates, not obscures, corroborates, not corrects, the body of thought from which it proceeds; and this is its characteristic as contrasted with a corruption.” In other words, Newman tells us that an authentic development will never result in black becoming white or up down.

When Francis talks about doctrine becoming “clearly contrary” to a “new understanding of Christian truth,” it seems that he rejects Newman’s notion that a development of doctrine is conservative of the doctrine’s past. He seems to believe that authentic developments can correct, not corroborate, the body of thought from which they proceed. Perhaps this approach reflects the principle articulated in Evangelii gaudium, the programmatic exhortation he issued in 2013: “Realities are more important than ideas.” Recall that Francis taught that “angelic forms of purity,” “objectives more ideal than real,” and “ethical systems bereft of kindness” were all “means of masking reality.” One could, therefore, read Francis’s theory of development as an implementation of this principle. Realities can change, and therefore the idea can become contrary to the reality. Under these circumstances, the idea—especially if it is an objective more ideal than real—gives way.


Go here to read the rest.


Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, among his many other services to the Church, clarified the concept of development of doctrine as opposed to corruptions of doctrine that occasionally fasten on the Church and are shed off by the Church over time.

Newman posited seven notes, I would call them tests, for determining whether something is a development of doctrine or a corruption.

1.  Preservation of Type

2.  Continuity of Principles

3.  Power of Assimilation

4.  Logical Sequence

5.  Anticipation of Its Future

6.  Conservative Action upon Its Past

7.  Chronic Vigour

Each of these notes are explained by Newman in detail.  The concepts aren’t simple either in theory or in application, at least to PopeWatch, but Newman does a first rate job of explaining them.  The note that has always fascinated PopeWatch is number six, no doubt because PopeWatch has always found history fascinating, and the history of the Church especially so.

Newman is quite clear that under the Sixth Note a Development of Doctrine does not reverse what has gone before:

A true development, then, may be described as one which is conservative of the course of antecedent developments being really those antecedents and something besides them: it is an addition which illustrates, not obscures, corroborates, not corrects, the body of thought from which it proceeds; and this is its characteristic as contrasted with a corruption.

As developments which are preceded by definite indications have a fair presumption in their favour, so those which do but contradict and reverse the course of doctrine which has been developed before them, and out of which they spring, are certainly corrupt; for a corruption is a development in that very stage in which it ceases to illustrate, and begins to disturb, the acquisitions gained in its previous history.

Go here to read more about Newman’s seven notes regarding development of doctrine.

More to explorer


  1. A tree must indeed grow (develop) by increasing it’s branches and leaves, but one cannot rationally call one of the fallen and rotting leaves the tree.

  2. .Absolution absolutely and absolutely absolution, only absolution, in the Sacrament of Penance at the request of the penitent, and only at the request of the penitent, no bartering the informed consent of the sovereign person, no partaking in the discord and division of the devil. Absolutely absolution as Jesus Christ did to raise the dead, heal the diseased and reform souls.
    If Pope Francis is the Vicar of Christ on earth, then Pope Francis is bound by his vocation to absolutely absolve penitents of their sins if and only when they seek absolution in the Sacrament of Penance.
    General absolution must be followed by particular absolution.
    In Amoris Laetitia Pope Francis grants general absolution to all sodomites, adulterers and fornicators and hopes that the sodomites, fornicators and adulterers will avail themselves of absolution in the Sacrament of Penance.
    The Holy Father can hope and pray as all people hope and pray for change.
    The Holy Father is to be the Vicar of Christ on earth for the faithful and absolve absolutely only those who have sought out penance in the Sacrament of Penance and have fulfilled the requirements to accept absolution…before reception of the Sacred Species, the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ. How does mankind accept divinity?

  3. Thank you for further introducing us to the wisdom of this Pope. I was particularly struck by the concise clarity of his statement “Realities are more important than ideas.”

    If we were to edit this just a tad to “reality is more important than ideas” we would seem to arrive at an ever deeper truth. Reality is God’s creation. Ideas are the creations of men. The best “holy book” is nature itself, for it is here that God expresses himself in a manner uncontaminated by human confusion and weakness.

  4. “The best “holy book” is nature itself, for it is here that God expresses himself in a manner uncontaminated by human confusion and weakness.”

    Except, of course, that that book, too, is read through the eyes of fallen and self-interested humanity. And given that nature is indifferent and red in tooth and claw, all sorts of bad lessons have been drawn from it by those same fallible humans.

  5. “Pascendi has some rather useful notes about the evolution of dogma.”

    “28. Thus then, Venerable Brethren, for the Modernists, both as authors and propagandists, there is to be nothing stable, nothing immutable in the Church. Nor indeed are they without precursors in their doctrines, for it was of these that Our Predecessor Pius IX wrote: These enemies of divine revelation extol human progress to the skies, and with rash and sacrilegious daring would have it introduced into the Catholic religion as if this religion were not the work of God but of man, or some kind of philosophical discovery susceptible of perfection by human efforts. On the subject of revelation and dogma in particular, the doctrine of the Modernists offers nothing new – we find it condemned in the Syllabus of Pius IX., where it is enunciated in these terms: Divine revelation is imperfect, and therefore subject to continual and indefinite progress, corresponding with the progress of human reason; and condemned still more solemnly in the Vatican Council: The doctrine of the faith which God has revealed has not been proposed to human intelligences to be perfected by them as if it were a philosophical system, but as a divine deposit entrusted to the Spouse of Christ to be faithfully guarded and infallibly interpreted. Hence the sense, too, of the sacred dogmas is that which our Holy Mother the Church has once declared, nor is this sense ever to be abandoned on plea or pretext of a more profound comprehension of the truth. Nor is the development of our knowledge, even concerning the faith, impeded by this pronouncement – on the contrary it is aided and promoted. For the same Council continues: Let intelligence and science and wisdom, therefore, increase and progress abundantly and vigorously in individuals and in the mass, in the believer and in the whole Church, throughout the ages and the centuries – but only in its own kind, that is, according to the same dogma, the same sense, the same acceptation.”

  6. This brings up a question I have had ever since reading it. It concerns the understanding of Mt. 25, 31-46. The U.S. bishops use v35 to validate their position on “immigration” especially illegal immigration. -“…I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” “Then the righteous will answer him and say, “Lord when did we see you a stranger, and welcome you…? (v 37) “And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” (v 40)

    The footnote for this chapter and vrs says and ask: “The criterion of judgement will be the deeds of mercy that have been done for the LEAST of Jesus’ BROTHERS (40). (emphasis footnote author) A difficult and important question is the identification of these LEAST BROTHERS (etc). Are they all people who have suffered hunger, thirst, etc (35,36) or a particulate group of such sufferers?? Scholars are divided in their response and arguments can be made for either side. But leaving aside the problem of what the traditional material that Matthew edited may have meant, it seems that a stronger case can be made for the view that in the evangelist’s sense the sufferers are Christs, probably Christian missionaries whose sufferings were brought upon them by their preaching of the gospel. The criterion of judgment for ALL THE NATIONS (etc.) is their treatment of those who have borne to the world the message of Jesus, and this means ultimately their acceptance or rejection of Jesus himself: cf 10, ‘Whoever receives you, receives me.'”

    I agree with the footnote writer’s understanding. There are several times Jesus sent out his disciples to preach the word and told them to not take anything with them, no food, different clothing, etc. Therefore implying their reliance of the people to care for them, also implying that those people will be listening to God’s voice inside them as they are being preached to, which in turn will lead them to taking care of the Christian missionaries.

  7. Man is an interesting creature whose place on the evolutionary ladder is precisely half way between his wife and the family dog. Arf, Arf, Arf!!!

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