Saint John Cardinal Newman: Development of Doctrine-Sixth Note-Conservative Action Upon its Past

Saint John 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 me, but Newman does a first rate job of explaining them.  The note that has always fascinated me is number six, no doubt because I have 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.

Newman sums up the Sixth Note as follows:

And thus a sixth test of a true development is that it is of a tendency conservative of what has gone before it.

We live in a time of massive change for the Church.  Change there has always been in the Church, but change on the scale since the calling of the Second Vatican Council is unprecedented.  Newman gives us an analytical tool in his theory of Development of Doctrine to try to discern what changes represent true developments of doctrine and what changes are mere corruptions fastened upon  the Church due to popular intellectual and political movements and prejudices of our time, or reactions to such movements and prejudices,   rather than organic developments from the past history of the Church.

An example of an organic development of doctrine and what I think is a corruption will now be given.  An organic development is illustrated by Pius XII’s proclamation of the doctrine of the Assumption of Mary.  In Munificentissimus Deus Pius XII took pains to show how the doctrine had developed over the centuries.  An example of a corruption I think is the Syllabus of Errors of Pius IX.  Although a defense of the Syllabus can be mounted, and I have done so in the past, and there is much in the Syllabus that is still held by the Church,  it is also fairly obvious that Pio Nono was writing largely in reaction to intellectual and political trends in his time with which he was not in sympathy.  Pio Nono was deeply wedded to an intellectual and political world view that was dying before his eyes.  He sought to enlist the Church in support of what he cherished.  Time has demonstrated that, great Pope though he was, the attempt of Pius in the Syllabus of Errors to outline how the Church should deal with the modern world has proven transitory and a corruption that the Church today merely ignores.  Pope Benedict, before he became Pope, referred to Gaudium et Spes as a “counter-Syllabus”.  What new bedrock doctrines and teachings of the Church, which have made an appearance over the last few pontificates, will be totally ignored by popes a century or more hence, only time will reveal, although Newman and his Development of Doctrine analysis may give us hints.

A caveat here is in order.  Like any tool of analysis, Newman’s Development of Doctrine must be used in an intellectually honest manner.  Just because we may find a new current teaching of the Church personally uncongenial, does not mean that it does not represent an authentic development of doctrine.  Likewise a new teaching of the Church that we find congenial may be a corruption if that is what an honest use of the Development of Doctrine analysis indicates.  The Notes must also be read in pari materia, all together.  Applying one Note in isolation from the rest departs from the system’s utility as a mechanism for looking at both developments of doctrine and corruptions of doctrine within the Church.


Newman on the Sixth Note:

It is the rule of creation, or rather of the phenomena which it presents, that life passes on to its termination by a gradual, imperceptible course of change. There is ever a maximum in earthly excellence, and the operation of the same causes which made things great makes them small again. Weakness is but the resulting product of power. Events move in cycles; all things come round, “the sun ariseth and goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.” Flowers first bloom, and then fade; fruit ripens and decays. The fermenting process, unless stopped at the due point, corrupts the liquor which it has created. The grace of spring, the richness of autumn are but for a moment, and worldly moralists bid us Carpe diem, for we shall have no second opportunity. Virtue seems to lie in a mean, between vice and vice; and as it grew out of imperfection, so to grow into enormity. There is a limit to human knowledge, and both sacred and {200} profane writers witness that overwisdom is folly. And in the political world states rise and fall, the instruments of their aggrandizement becoming the weapons of their destruction. And hence the frequent ethical maxims, such as, “Ne quid nimis,” “Medio tutissimus,” “Vaulting ambition,” which seem to imply that too much of what is good is evil.

So great a paradox of course cannot be maintained as that truth literally leads to falsehood, or that there can be an excess of virtue; but the appearance of things and the popular language about them will at least serve us in obtaining an additional test for the discrimination of a bonâ fide development of an idea from its corruption.

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.


For instance, a gradual conversion from a false to a true religion, plainly, has much of the character of a continuous process, or a development, in the mind itself, even when the two religions, which are the limits of its course, are antagonists. Now let it be observed, that such a change consists in addition and increase chiefly, not in destruction. “True religion is the summit and perfection of false religions; it combines in one whatever there is of good and true separately remaining in each. And in like manner the Catholic Creed is for the most part the combination of separate truths, which heretics have divided among themselves, and err in dividing. So that, in matter of fact, if a religious mind were educated in and sincerely attached {201} to some form of heathenism or heresy, and then were brought under the light of truth, it would be drawn off from error into the truth, not by losing what it had, but by gaining what it had not, not by being unclothed, but by being ‘clothed upon,’ ‘that mortality may be swallowed up of life.’ That same principle of faith which attaches it at first to the wrong doctrine would attach it to the truth; and that portion of its original doctrine, which was to be cast off as absolutely false, would not be directly rejected, but indirectly, in the reception of the truth which is its opposite. True conversion is ever of a positive, not a negative character.” [Note 10]

Such too is the theory of the Fathers as regards the doctrines fixed by Councils, as is instanced in the language of St. Leo. “To be seeking for what has been disclosed, to reconsider what has been finished, to tear up what has been laid down, what is this but to he unthankful for what is gained?” [Note 11] Vincentius of Lerins, in like manner, speaks of the development of Christian doctrine, as profectus fidei non permutatio [Note 12]. And so as regards the Jewish Law, our Lord said that He came “not to destroy, but to fulfil.”


Mahomet is accused of contradicting his earlier revelations by his later, “which is a thing so well known to those of his sect that they all acknowledge it; and therefore when the contradictions are such as they cannot solve them, then they will have one of the contradictory places to be revoked. And they reckon in the whole Alcoran about a hundred and fifty verses which are thus revoked.”

Schelling, says Mr. Dewar, considers “that the time has arrived when an esoteric speculative Christianity ought {202} to take the place of the exoteric empiricism which has hitherto prevailed.” This German philosopher “acknowledge that such a project is opposed to the evident design of the Church, and of her earliest teachers.”


When Roman Catholics are accused of substituting another Gospel for the primitive Creed, they answer that they hold, and can show that they hold, the doctrines of the Incarnation and Atonement, as firmly as any Protestant can state them. To this it is replied that they do certainly profess them, but that they obscure and virtually annul them by their additions; that the cultus of St. Mary and the Saints is no development of the truth, but a corruption and a religious mischief to those doctrines of which it is the corruption, because it draws away the mind and heart from Christ. But they answer that, so far from this, it subserves, illustrates, protects the doctrine of our Lord’s loving kindness and mediation. Thus the parties in controversy join issue on the common ground, that a developed doctrine which reverses the course of development which has preceded it, is no true development but a corruption; also, that what is corrupt acts as an element of unhealthiness towards what is sound. This subject, however, will come before us in its proper place by and by.


Blackstone supplies us with an instance in another subject-matter, of a development which is justified by its utility, when he observes that “when society is once formed, government results of course, as necessary to preserve and to keep that society in order.”

On the contrary, when the Long Parliament proceeded to usurp the executive, they impaired the popular liberties  which they seemed to be advancing; for the security of those liberties depends on the separation of the executive and legislative powers, or on the enactors being subjects, not executors of the laws.

And in the history of ancient Rome, from the time that the privileges gained by the tribunes in behalf of the people became an object of ambition to themselves, the development had changed into a corruption.

And thus a sixth test of a true development is that it is of a tendency conservative of what has gone before it.

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