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Welcome candor from the US bishops’ conference

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Nov 16, 2023

As the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) wraps up its meeting in Baltimore, I see two encouraging signs.

First, the American bishops joined with the bishops of England and Wales in asking Pope Francis to name St. John Henry Newman a Doctor of the Church. Could any plea be more timely? At the Synod on Synodality, delegates stumbled through a morass of confusion about development of doctrine: a topic on which Newman’s treatment is masterful.

Calling attention to Newman, by proclaiming him a Doctor of the Church, would mean calling attention to his clear explanation that Catholic doctrine develops the way any other living thing develops: by growing, by maturing, by sending out new branches. But doctrine never develops by becoming something else. (Nor do people: another point on which 21st-century sophisticates need a reminder.)

The Church may look at a particular doctrine from a new perspective, and draw out new insights. She might realize implications of the doctrine that had not been previously recognized. She might even conclude that previous interpretations of the doctrine were misleading. But the Church will never say that a defined doctrine was wrong and must be changed—that whereas the Church solemnly pronounced X in the past, she will now teach Not-X in the future. That would not be a development in doctrine but a change in doctrine. And if doctrine can change, then it is not what the Church claims it to be, namely revealed truth. The truth does not change because the truth is revealed in Jesus Christ, “the same yesterday and today and forever.” [Heb 13:8]

A fresh look at the work of St. John Henry Newman could also straighten out the many kinks in the Synod’s discussion of the sensus fidelium. Yes, the sense of the faithful—the beliefs held by the great mass of ordinary faithful Catholics throughout history—can provide a sure guide. But note carefully that this is the sense of the faithful, which is neither found in, nor governed by, public-opinion polls and faculty seminars. Writing recently in The Catholic Thing, Father Thomas Weinandy explained:

Pope Francis is keen on consulting the faithful in the doing of theology. “The faithful,” however, appears to entail all people—even those who have false images of God. The sensus fidelium is composed, by its very nature, of those lay people who are faithful to what the Church teaches. Because they believe what the Church teaches, they are authentic guides and witnesses to the faith and its future authentic development.

Those who do not believe, or hold erroneous positions, or desire to change the doctrinal and moral teaching of the Church are, ipso facto, not part of the sensus fidelium. Francis appears to refuse to make this crucial distinction—everyone is to have a voice in the synodal Church regardless of whether they have authentic faith.

In his recent motu proprio on the study of theology (which, I might note, is written in a style suspiciously similar to that of Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernandez, the new prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith), Pope Francis calls for a “paradigm shift” in theological approach. “To promote theology in the future,” he argues, “one cannot limit oneself to abstractly re-proposing formulas and schemes from the past.” What school of theology is the Pontiff criticizing here? What is the outdated paradigm that needs to be shifted?

In that document, Ad Theologiam Promovendam, Pope Francis insists that theology should be rooted in experience rather than done from a desk in an ivory tower. Fair enough. But doesn’t St. Augustine write from a wealth of experience? Doesn’t St. John Henry Newman? The subtext of the papal document, it seems, is the attitude that theology should pay more attention to the trends of contemporary thought and less to the ancient teachings of the Church. As Larry Chapp put it, also in The Catholic Thing, “In other words, the experiential tail is going to wag the Christological dog.”

The second encouraging sign from the USCCB meeting was the address by Archbishop Timothy Broglio, the president of the bishops’ conference, in which he fairly openly challenged the negative views of the American Church recently expressed by Cardinal Christophe Pierre, the papal nuncio to the US. Countering the notion (which seems to be popular in Rome) that the American Church is backward, the archbishop called attention to the lively faith of the American people and “the many synodal realities that already exist in the Church in the United States.”

Archbishop Broglio did not draw out the conclusion, but it was there to be drawn: If you want a theology based on experience, the experience of a lively American Church, for all its problems, is a better guide than the experience of, say, the Church in Germany, where hundreds of thousands of Catholics formally desert the faith each year.

Beyond the merits of the archbishop’s argument, the mere fact that he disagreed with the Pope’s representative is itself a sign of hope. During this era of painful confusion about the faith, the best way to restore clarity is through a candid exchange. The history of the Church is marked by disagreements among bishops—often heated disagreements—that have brought about new understandings and, yes, even development of doctrine.

What a difference a generation makes! In the 1990s, American Catholics who cherished the perennial teachings of the Church looked to Rome to correct centrifugal tendencies within the American hierarchy. Now the roles are reversed, and we count on our American bishops to protect us from the confusion spreading across the Atlantic. May St. John Henry Newman assist them!

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: dkmayernj8551 - Nov. 17, 2023 7:44 AM ET USA

    While I dearly love St John Henry Newman, and have learned much from him, I am skeptical that his designation as Doctor of the Church at this time will do anything more than provide further ammunition (i.e., ostensible justification) to those who are already distorting his writings and thought to justify stark departures from perennial Catholic teachings.

  • Posted by: mverner1960 - Nov. 17, 2023 7:07 AM ET USA


  • Posted by: padre3536 - Nov. 16, 2023 10:28 PM ET USA

    Here's a real simple but easy to digest explanation of how it mirrors modernism as Pascendi spoke, it came from a Catholic forum from the Portugese....explains well but simply sentiments and experience and so on...blessings

  • Posted by: Fr Eric Lepanto - Nov. 16, 2023 4:16 PM ET USA

    What are the top 5 dioceses in the USA for number of seminarians? Compare that to France, Germany, Ireland, Belgium, Spain, and Portugal (even Italy). What fruit is born of the JP II Institute in DC compared to that of the JP II Institute in Rome?

  • Posted by: kdrotar16365 - Nov. 16, 2023 3:31 PM ET USA

    Hear, hear, Mr. Lawler. And it would fit with God's often surprisingly unexpected and creative style to have an originally-non-Roman-Catholic like the good Cardinal Newman becoming even more of a model and touchstone for authentic, faithful Roman Catholicism. As always, your thoughts are appreciated.