Newman and Darwin

In an ebook Another Look at John Henry Cardinal Newman, Richard Sartino discusses Newman’s view of Darwin:

Darwin’s theory did not shock Newman; he told a correspondent he was willing “to go the whole hog with Darwin.”

It is important to understand Newman’s frame of mind concerning the false theories of evolution in order to understand his notions of development. Darwin’s book, Origin of Species, appeared in 1859, a time when educated men and society in general scoffed at the idea of human evolution, leaving such notions to the few mad scientific theorists, but Newman’s empirical mind and distrust of rational philosophy disposed him to accept whole-heartedly the notions of evolution. He had been contemplating the evolution, not of man, but of religion, long before the appearance of Darwin’s book; his first sermon on the development of Christianity was preached in 1843 while he was still an Anglican and within two years the Development of Christian Doctrine was published, with Newman entering the Church at the same time.

He goes on to compare Newman’s theory with the theory of evolution:

Newman was a pioneer of this new doctrine which shocked both Anglicans and Catholics alike. Theologians until then had never considered his ideas of development, although many before him justly contemplated the mystical and supernatural increase of the treasures of the Church. The difference between Newman and earlier theologians in this matter is that Newman considered only the material aspect of the Church’s growth, not going beyond the temporal history of Her life on earth. Earlier theologians, on the other hand, had considered the formal aspect of the Church, a viewpoint which is vital to the believer who is obliged to view things with a supernatural eye.

Newman saw the Church in the light of history, whereas Catholics see history in the light of the Church. Immersed in an academia of the staunchest historicists whose scepticism imbued the thinkers of that time, Newman followed their lead and often kept up a correspondence with the worst of them, as Dollinger and Acton. Their position confined the Church to Her history, and Her history to their sceptical and critical minds. For these men the work of the Catholic mind is not to meditate upon and adore Christ in the eternal truths of the Church but to subject these truths to historical analysis. What is important for them is not the Incarnation but the development of the idea of the Incarnation. All this, of course, is nothing but that age-old pride whereby the mind of man becomes the measure of religion.

With this in mind we can understand why Newman accepted so easily the errors of Darwin, for there was nothing incompatible between the evolution of man and the evolution of religion and doctrine. On the contrary, both complement one another to form a harmonious view of the whole of creation. In fact, just as all errors begin in the highest part of the soul before they exercise their universal influence on the subordinate faculties and sciences, thus does the evolution of eternal doctrine precede the less radical errors about the evolution of man and social institutions. It is understandable, and appropriate, therefore that Newman’s novel thesis should have preceded Origin of Species by sixteen years. As long as the mind of man is firmly rooted in the immutable and eternal truths of the Faith the occasion will never arise to fall into any kind of evolutionary errors.

Several authors bear testimony of Newman’s evolutionary ideas. A certain Mark Pattison who knew Newman said he saw the whole development of human reason from Aristotle to Hegel as a closed book, and in Studies in Modernism Alfred Fawkes also believes that the essay on Development “is a striking anticipation of the Evolution philosophy; the application of this to theology marked a turning-point in religious thought.”

And another author, Percy Gardner in Modernism in the English Church, asserts that “it shows the greatness of Newman, that before Darwin had set forth his theory of evolution, a foretaste of it appears in Newman’s Development of Christian Doctrine.” So serious were Newman’s aberrations that one of the greatest living Roman theologians at that time, Fr. Franzelin, S.J., wrote an entire treatise, De Divina Scriptura et Traditione, in order to combat what he considered Newman’s departure from the Faith.

He then discusses Newman’s theory directly:

The full force and implication of Newman’s thinking are found in his doctrine known as Development of Christian Doctrine. Characteristic of his personal qualities and life, this specific teaching of Newman contains his ambiguity and ambivalence, in toto, so much so that it allures the most opposed camps of thinkers. Its appeal is universal; to liberals and orthodox, to Protestants and Catholics, to believers as well as infidels. Men of every persuasion find their opinions voiced in this doctrine, for it is as pliable and flexible as Newman’s supposedly transcendent and personal logic.

The essence of Newman’s position consists in reconciling two contradictory propositions: first, that Christianity is unchanging, and second, that Christianity is changing. Apparent contradictions can always be reconciled by a legitimate rational distinction, but Newman does not attempt to do this. His Doctrine of Development does not assert that Christianity is unchanging in one respect, and changing in another, and then delineate the consequent differences and properties from the various distinctions. On the contrary, Newman’s position admits simultaneously and in the same respect that Christianity is changing and unchanging. To accomplish such a formidable task is not really very difficult, at least for a mind enamoured with concrete living experience.

Of course, Newman says no such thing. Rather, he asserts that there have been various changes in Christianity throughout history and it is a question of explaining them. He says, as we quoted earlier:

Here then I concede to the opponents of historical Christianity, that there are to be found, during the 1800 years through which it has lasted, certain apparent inconsistencies and alterations in its doctrine and its worship, such as irresistibly attract the attention of all who inquire into it. They are not sufficient to interfere with the general character and course of the religion, but they raise the question how they came about, and what they mean, and have in consequence supplied matter for several hypotheses.

Of these one is to the effect that Christianity has ever changed from the first and ever accommodates itself to the circumstances of times and seasons; but it is difficult to understand how such a view is compatible with the special idea of revealed truth, and in fact its advocates more or less abandon, or tend to abandon the supernatural claims of Christianity; so it need not detain us here.

A second and more plausible hypothesis is that of the Anglican divines…

It is worthwhile considering the hypothesis that Newman passes over here, that “Christianity has ever changed from the first and ever accommodates itself to the circumstances of times and seasons.” Why is it difficult to understand how such a view is compatible with the special idea of revealed truth? Basically, the position in question is that everything in Christianity is changeable. Christians currently believe that Christ is God, but a thousand years from now, they may all believe that Christ was a mere man. The difficulty is, of course, that both of these cannot be true, so that if the belief of Christians varies from time to time in this way, then the beliefs of Christians cannot be believed to come from divine revelation.

In fact, this position would not be entirely inconsistent with the idea of a particular revelation, but such a revelation would be more like the kind that the Catholic Church considers to be a private revelation. In other words, one would say that the true beliefs, when they are present, are ones that came from a revelation, but that God does nothing to prevent people from abandoning these beliefs and adopting other ones. In this case, of course, the problem would be that there does not seem to be a good way to distinguish between beliefs that are actually revealed, and others which are not. It would be for this reason that people holding this position would “abandon, or tend to abandon the supernatural claims of Christianity.” Consequently, since Newman is not here attempting to argue for the truth of Christianity, he does not care to give this particular theory any lengthy treatment.

We should notice the order of evidence here: changeableness without any limit would be good evidence for an absence of revelation, and for a similar reason, complete absence of changeableness would be good evidence for the presence of a revelation. Newman acknowledges the presence of some changeableness, and he does this without demonstrating the existence of any limit on this changeableness, but only assuming it.

It seems to me that we can see here the reason for Sartino’s rejection of Newman’s theory. Newman certainly does not hold that Christianity is both changeable and unchangeable in the same respect. He simply admits that it is changeable to some extent, and wishes to explain this. But for Sartino, this is a problem in itself, because it opens the door to the possibility that there is no real divine revelation. If Christianity is changeable to some degree, and we have not yet shown that there is any limit on this, then the first rejected hypothesis might turn out to be true, and Christianity might not be supernatural.

The problem with Sartino’s thinking is the same one I pointed out earlier. If Christianity is changeable in some ways, that may leave the door open to the possibility that Christianity is false, and may make this more likely relative to the situation where Christianity is actually unchangeable in every way. But you cannot change these facts by asserting that Christianity is actually unchangeable, because asserting something does not make it so. Both the evidence and the facts will remain just as they are, regardless of what you say about them. In this way, it makes sense that Sartino rejects both Newman’s theory of development and Darwin’s theory of evolution. He is using the same strategy in each case, one which seems to him to make his religion more certain to be true, but which actually has no effect whatsoever.

In reality, Darwin was not responsible for the theory of evolution. The facts were responsible, and as I noted here, if Darwin had not come up with his theory, others would have. In a similar way, the Catholic Church accepted Newman’s theory of development because it was necessary in order to account for the facts of history, and some such theory would have been developed and accepted even if Newman had never existed. You can ignore history just as you can ignore the rocks, but ignoring things does not change them. Newman noted, in fact, that certain real facts tended to open the door to the possibility that his religion was in error, saying, “Not only has the relative situation of controversies and theologies altered, but infidelity itself is in a different,—I am obliged to say in a more hopeful position,—as regards Christianity.”

Ross Douthat, commenting on the recent controversy over the possibility of communion for the divorced and remarried, says:

When this point is raised, reformers pivot to the idea that, well, maybe the proposed changes really are effectively doctrinal, but not every doctrinal issue is equally important, and anyway Catholic doctrine can develop over time.

But the development of doctrine is supposed to deepen church teaching, not reverse or contradict it. This distinction allows for many gray areas, admittedly. But effacing Jesus’ own words on the not-exactly-minor topics of marriage and sexuality certainly looks more like a major reversal than an organic, doctrinally-deepening shift.

At which point we come to the third argument, which makes an appearance in your letter: You don’t understand, you’re not a theologian. As indeed I am not. But neither is Catholicism supposed to be an esoteric religion, its teachings accessible only to academic adepts. And the impression left by this moving target, I’m afraid, is that some reformers are downplaying their real position in the hopes of bringing conservatives gradually along.

What is that real position? That almost anything Catholic can change when the times require it, and “developing” doctrine just means keeping up with capital-H History, no matter how much of the New Testament is left behind.
As I noted earlier, the columnist’s task is to be provocative. So I must tell you, openly and not subtly, that this view sounds like heresy by any reasonable definition of the term.

Now it may be that today’s heretics are prophets, the church will indeed be revolutionized, and my objections will be ground under with the rest of conservative Catholicism. But if that happens, it will take hard grinding, not just soft words and academic rank-pulling. It will require a bitter civil war.

And so, my dear professors: Welcome to the battlefield.

What Douthat calls the “real position” of the reformers, of course, is exactly the first hypothesis which Newman dismisses. It seems to me that there can be no reasonable doubt that this is in fact the position of many, although they might wish to conceal it, in order to better bring about the ends that they seek. Whether or not they therefore abandon the idea of special revelation is unclear, but it would seem the most reasonable position for someone who believes that there is no limit to the changeableness of the Church.

Neither Newman in the text cited, nor Douthat here, say that they can disprove the first hypothesis, but that they do not accept it, because of the implication that there is no real revelation. But they both recognize that they live in the real world, where there is evidence against what you believe, and where you might actually be wrong. Richard Sartino, on the other hand, seems to live in an imaginary world.


2 thoughts on “Newman and Darwin

  1. […] difference, of course, is that the evolution of doctrine which is condemned in Pascendi is the first theory Newman mentions, which tends to imply the absence of a real revelation, and which R…” In this sense, Newman’s theory of development is quite different. However, there is a […]


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