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Prophet of the people of God

16 January 2015

Robert Nowell on the conciliar themes in Newman; and Rome's latest English missal

Newman on Vatican II
Ian Ker
Oxford University Press £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

THIS is essentially a reading of the Second Vatican Council in the light of John Henry Newman's efforts to understand and expound both Christianity and the complex history of Christian thought, and how this has found expression in the Church.

It is a rather conservative exposition: Ian Ker quotes with approval Pope Benedict XVI's distinction between a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture and a hermeneutic of reform in understanding and implementing that Council, and cites Newman as explaining that "councils generally acted as a lever, displacing and disordering portions of the existing theological system," and, in Ker's own words, "leading to acrimonious controversy" - "a very apt description of what happened after the Second Vatican Council", he adds.

He brings out well the way in which, more than a century earlier, Newman was grappling with the questions that the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church faced in the years between 1962 and 1965. What is particularly rewarding is his exposition of Newman's developing understanding of the Church, and especially his anticipation of the striking way in which the Council saw the Church first and primarily as the undifferentiated people of God, before going on to consider matters of ministry and hierarchy.

Ker is similarly eloquent in exploring the links between Newman and Vatican II's "other most important document", the constitu-tion on revelation. But both he is - and, in his view, Newman would be - a little unhappy with the constitution on the Church in the world of today: while Newman would have had no difficulty with the laudable aim of promoting justice and peace in the world, he would have feared "the danger of justice and peace becoming a kind of rival gospel to, or a substitute for, the gospel of the crucified and risen Christ".

There is the inevitable odd misprint: "castes" comes out as "casts", and Manzoni's novel emerges as I Promesi rather than Promessi Sposi. It also seems a little dangerous to describe the fourth century as "long before clericalization had produced the concept of a Church divided into clergy and laity": in the third-century pseudo-Clementines, the Church is likened to a ship with Christ as its helmsman, the bishop the lookout in the bows, the presbyters the sailors, and the deacons the pursers, while the ordinary faithful are the passengers who are to remain firmly seated lest they upset the ship's balance.

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