RORATE CÆLI: “The Church’s Newman Problem” — Article by John Byron Kuhner

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RORATE CÆLI: “The Church’s Newman Problem” — Article by John Byron Kuhner

The Church’s Newman Problem

John Byron Kuhner

Most people are aware of the general outline of St. John Henry Newman’s intellectual and spiritual quest. A gifted scholar and priest of the Church of England, Newman took it upon himself to prove, by historical researches, that the Anglican Via Media, or Middle Way, between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, represented the true path of Christ’s Church through the ages. 

Newman’s own inquiry had the opposite effect of what he intended, however: after much research, writing, and debate, he came to the conclusion that the Roman Catholic Church was the true Church, the tradition passed down to us from the Apostles. His researches into the past so convinced him of this fact that he came up with the pithy statement – which from his pen was completely serious – “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.”

Newman’s word was not the final word on the problem, of course. There have been many deep historians since Newman who have remained Protestant. It is true, however, that his intellectual path to the Catholic Church has proven to be a well-trodden one. Many intelligent and devoted members of the Church of England, after much thought, have converted to Catholicism. I met many such men while I was at Oxford. Indeed one may almost presume, at places like Oxford, that intelligent, thoughtful Anglicans of a traditionalist sort, who hear the Latin sermons at St. Mary’s and love the old polyphony of Englishmen like Thomas Tallis, have at least considered converting to Catholicism. Many dislike the thought of actual conversion, but suspect that it would be intellectually honest of them if they did so. Their minds are following a logical sequence of thoughts Newman described long ago. I take Newman, then, as an example of an intellectually serious person who is led to embrace the Catholic Faith by what he considers to be his intellectual duty.

Why do I bring him up? For one, his feast day – he was canonized by Pope Francis in 2019 – comes on October 9th. But I also believe that the Church today has a new Newman problem.

As every reader of these pages knows, Pope Benedict, with his motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, in 2007 allowed the unlimited use of the Traditional Latin Mass, as expressed by the 1962 Missal. Pope Francis, by his own motu proprio Traditionis Custodes, claiming that this Latin Mass has proven divisive, has expressed his intention to return the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church to a single form of Mass and single liturgical book, by banning the Traditional Latin Mass.

It may not be so easy to go back to life before Summorum Pontificum, however. Why? In the fifteen years since Summorum Pontificum, many people have taken advantage of the availability of the Latin Mass. Many have found it spiritually more satisfying. Many have asked themselves why; which leads to another question: if the old Mass can be more satisfying, why is the new Mass less? The presence of the Latin Mass, in other words, has driven interest in what went wrong with the reform.

The result has been hundreds – thousands – of articles comparing prayers, music, the calendar, the lectionary, and much more. Many of these articles have grown into excellent, thoughtful books. They are the work of a group of people who call themselves the New Liturgical Movement. Countless details of the reform, and countless details of the traditional Latin Mass, have received scrutiny. The historical record has also received attention. Knowing that the second Eucharistic Prayer was rewritten on a twenty-four-hour deadline by two men in a Trastevere trattoria does not mean it is bad, but it certainly cannot claim the kind of authority possessed by the Roman Canon, which has remained almost unchanged for fifteen hundred years. The problem is this: to be deep in the history of the reform is to lose much of one’s affection for the New Mass.

For most Catholics, this is no problem. They are not going to read a biography of Fr. Annibale Bugnini, the individual most intellectually responsible for the Roman Catholic liturgy as it is today. They are not upset about the removal of the word “soul” from the Mass on All Souls’ Day, as a term outdated and unfit for modern man – they’re not even aware this was done. They do not know that the beginning of the Gospel of John used to be read at every Mass, forcefully presenting to the faithful that “the Word became flesh, and lived in us” is the very meaning of the Mass. They are not going to compare the various collects for the Sundays after Pentecost, to see if someone important has been lost. They are about as likely to be concerned about these things as the average Anglican is concerned about the Catholic Church’s rebuff of Monophysitism (the issue that drove Newman’s historical researches). You can live a good, Christian life steering well clear of these debates.

However, what I see among the select few who do care about these things is consistent: they believe that the liturgical reform conducted after the Second Vatican Council, and largely in contradiction to its statutes, represents an attempt for the Catholic Church to occupy the middle ground between tradition – with its Latin, Gregorian chant, and preservation of tradition – and Protestantism. It represents, in other words, precisely that Via Media which Newman at first found so appealing about the Church of England – and then, on deeper investigation, found it his intellectual duty to abandon.

One of the most distressing recent developments was Pope Francis’s comment in Desiderio Desideravi: “I do not see how it is possible to say that one recognizes the validity of the Council — though it amazes me that a Catholic might presume not to do so — and at the same time not accept the liturgical reform born out of Sacrosanctum Concilium.” In other words, the Pope, with a staff of liturgists and ghostwriters, is not even willing to address what his own predecessor called “the problem of the new Missal,” which, Pope Benedict stated, “lies in its abandonment of a historical process that was always continual, before and after St. Pius V” – precisely the thing which so attracted Newman to the Roman Catholic Church. Benedict continues: “I can say with certainty, based on my knowledge of the conciliar debates and my repeated reading of the speeches made by the Council Fathers, that this does not correspond to the intentions of the Second Vatican Council.”

In other words, we have a Newman problem. We have a Christian tradition broken in the name of a Via Media with immediate appeal but insufficient depth. We have people deeply versed in the history of the reform who find themselves intellectually compelled to admit that the liturgical reform was botched, and the Church lost something of importance as a consequence of it. And we have intellectuals crossing the Tiber to unite themselves with the Rome of tradition, and finding the pope on the other side, vehement in his opposition to them, and refusing even to engage with their concerns.

It’s an entirely new situation – one that makes us cry out, “Sancte Ioannes Henrice Newman, ora pro nobis.”

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