At the end of the previous posting on this subject, we noted that some people with agendas had found what they wanted in John Henry Newman’s book, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. The problem was that what they claimed to have found was the opposite of what Newman had actually written.
Nevertheless, religious doctrine (Christian or otherwise) is not our affair. Our interest is social doctrine, which pertains to the natural law, not to revelation. Revelation pertains to the supernatural world, not the natural world, although this discussion employs religious terminology and is generally framed within the parameters established for religious society.
|John Bernard Fitzpatrick|
Just before the controversy arose regarding what Newman meant in his book, Bishop John Bernard Fitzpatrick of Boston (1812-1866) had with some reservations received Orestes Brownson into the Catholic Church. Perhaps as a test of the new convert’s devotion and obedience, Fitzpatrick encouraged Brownson to critique Newman’s concept on the development of doctrine.
A number of U.S. bishops, Fitzpatrick among them, were of the opinion that because variation and change in doctrinal matters were characteristic of Protestantism, development of doctrine was the equivalent of change and variation and therefore itself an error. (Carey, Orestes Brownson, op. cit., 171.) The fact that Brownson’s own — temporarily — repudiated “Doctrine of Communion” which he had derived from the thought of the socialists Henri de Saint-Simon (1760-1825) and Pierre Leroux (1797-1871) resonated reasonably well with Newman’s concept of the development of doctrine only served to convince Brownson that the American bishops had read the situation accurately. As far as Brownson was concerned, Newman’s concept was not merely Protestant, but socialist. (Ibid., 97-133.)
|John Henry Newman|
Brownson’s usual irascibility combined with the militant fervor of a new convert, and he set to work. For two-and-a-half years the battle raged until the American bishops, now uneasy over the situation they themselves had in large measure created and that was taking on the nature of a scandal, managed to persuade Brownson to drop the issue of “Developmentism” — for a while. (Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Orestes A. Brownson: A Pilgrim’s Progress. New York: Octagon Books, Inc., 1963, 202.)
As had quickly became evident to thoughtful observers, however, the real difference between the two was not in what they said, but in their respective approaches to apologetics. Both Newman and Brownson, of course, sought the truth. Where Newman had taken the approach dictated by his background and experience and stressed the similarities among the different forms of Christianity, however, Brownson was equally formed by his background and experience and targeted the differences among the various sects.
|Isaac Thomas Hecker|
Both men, therefore, were of essentially the same mind and in fundamental agreement about the teachings of the Catholic Church, but each was taking a diametrically opposed road to truth — in form, that is, not in substance. Newman did not really care whether he won an argument as long as he persuaded someone, while Brownson, as his friend Father Isaac Hecker noted, could defeat an opponent, but never convince him. (Joseph McSorley, Father Hecker and His Friends. St. Louis, Missouri: B. Herder Book Company, 1953, 221.) Newman, in fact, believed that to be argumentative was to be irreverent. (Chadwick, The Mind of the Oxford Movement, op. cit., 47.)
Very, very briefly, Brownson, in common with those of the U.S. bishops who took his side in the affair until it became too embarrassing for them, confused revelation (which comes from God) and doctrine (which is developed by man from revelation), and even in some instances with discipline (a specific policy or practice to implement doctrine).
To explain, revelation is the unchanging general principle, while doctrine consists of specific interpretations of revelation and must develop if people are to be able to continue their faith journeys as knowledge of this world and of the human condition expands and deepens. Where revelation is the general truth, doctrine is a particular principle, statement, or position that is taught or advocated to apply truth to a specific set of circumstances.
|Christ came to fulfill the Law of Moses|
This needs to be taken one step further, into the area of discipline, or man-made regulations by means of which doctrine is actually and formally implemented or a group handles administration of itself. Thus, revelation must be consistent with what people believe about God and at the same time not contradict reason, doctrine must be consistent with revelation, while discipline can be anything that does not contradict doctrine.
Again, our concern here is not religious doctrine, however, but social doctrine. Examining the specific theological issues that divided Brownson and Newman in any depth is far, far beyond the scope of this study, and would serve no useful purpose in any event. The simple fact is that the major Christian bodies have from the beginning accepted the validity, even the necessity of doctrinal development, e.g., Christ’s declaration that He came to “develop doctrine” by fulfilling the Law of Moses, not abolishing it.
So why even bring it up? Because it might explain in part why the concept of social justice was so easily hijacked by the socialists, modernists, and New Agers in what was arguably the most democratic and genuinely liberal country on Earth — the United States of America.
|Opening of the First Vatican Council|
Brownson’s notion of the infallibility of the Catholic Church (formed decades before the formal definition of the infallibility of the teaching office of the pope at the First Vatican Council) was that all Catholic doctrine — which he considered the same as revelation — was as unchangeable as it was free from all error, and vice versa. That this bears little resemblance to the doctrine of infallibility as defined by the Council Fathers mattered little to Brownson, even as he firmly believed that what the Council defined was fully consistent with what he believed. That is because, in common with many people even today, Brownson simply assumed that his understanding of a doctrine was the only possible one.
Thus, the institutions (doctrines) of the Catholic Church were not merely free from error, but also not subject to change or “development” of any kind. To admit that doctrine could “develop” was to Brownson tantamount to an admission that it was not perfect. As far as Brownson was concerned, Newman was therefore a Protestant. (Brownson changed his mind later, after the damage had been done.)
|Orestes A. Brownson|
Similarly, in the civil sphere American institutions were perfect, precisely as the Constitution proclaimed. Why else would the Preamble to that document have referred to “a more perfect union”? (Brownson’s complicated rationalizations of the chattel slavery he detested but needed to fit within what he believed to be a perfect system are . . . interesting.)
As something of a Platonist, Brownson saw the duty of the citizen to conform himself to his institutions, not to modify those institutions to conform to human wants and needs within the broader parameters of the natural law. Brownson’s opinion of amendments to a constitution is not clear, although there had been fourteen added to the U.S. document since its adoption by the time of his death. As he declared in what many consider his greatest work, The American Republic (1865) — and incidentally letting slip a bit of his Anglophobia,
The English are great constitution-mongers — for other nations. They fancy that a constitution modeled after their own will fit any nation that can be persuaded, wheedled, or bullied into trying it on; but, unhappily, all that have tried it on have found it only an embarrassment or encumbrance. The doctor might as well attempt to give an individual a new constitution, or the constitution of another man, as the statesman to give a nation any other constitution than that which it has, and with which it is born. (Orestes A. Brownson, The American Republic: Its Constitution, Tendencies and Destiny. Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2003, 100.)
Unfortunately for Brownson’s opinion and the new field of social justice (in the 1840s the term was just coming into use in the Catholic sense, and then only vaguely), the task of any member of society when his institutions do not meet his needs and those of his fellows is not to change human nature. Rather, it is to organize with others to change his institutions.
Reforming institutions is not only permissible, but essential if institutions are to continue to be useful social tools instead of barriers to full human development. The caveat with any civil institution, of course, is similar to that of religious institutions (doctrines): the underlying principle must never be violated, i.e., revelation in the case of a religious doctrine, the natural law and respect for essential human dignity in the case of a civil institution.
Institutions and doctrines must grow and develop, not remain static, as long as they remain consistent with the original principle. Newman, the individualist and solitary scholar, somehow understood this rule. Brownson, who had developed a theory that came close to solidarism, did not.
And that is the paradox we will look at in the next posting on this subject.