Last Updated: Tuesday - 01/04/2011
October 29, 2001
Newman dedicated to traditional Christian belief
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER
EDMONTON — Cardinal John Henry Newman's life and work are relevant for us today, a Montreal-based theologian told close to 40 people at Newman College, Oct. 19.
"What Newman teaches us today is the importance of tradition and history," said Father Ray Lafontaine, who also gave a presentation to more than 100 people the previous day.
"(He) was very profoundly traditional. He believed that there were revealed truths," Lafontaine added.
But he also believed that the Church needs to confront its tradition with historical scholarship, the 35-year-old chaplain at Montreal's Concordia University, told the WCR.
Newman wrote during the mid-19th century at a time when historical scholarship was just beginning to be applied to studying Scripture and Church history.
Skepticism was rampant among the scholars but Newman said history would bear out the traditional Christian belief.
"Newman's sense of the tradition was strong enough that he wasn't afraid of history," Lafontaine said. "But his theology was very existential."
"He reflects on the significance of personal experience but he always tries to read that personal experience in the light of the tradition," said Lafontaine, who holds a doctorate in moral theology from the Gregorian University in Rome.
Newman did not see the principle of conscience, which is very personal, and the principle of authority, which is ecclesial or structural, as conflicting, he said.
Newman's toast to the conscience first and then to the papacy became popular. "But he sees these two principles as complementing one another, Lafontaine added.
Newman's life was an extraordinary spiritual journey. He is remembered as an Anglican priest, who scandalized the mid-19th century Church by converting to Roman Catholicism at the age of 44, at the time when there was a great deal of hostility towards Catholics in England.
Lafontaine's talk on the Role of Conversion and Development in the Thought of John Henry Newman is part of the celebration of the 200th anniversary of the birth of the college's patron.
Newman's experience of conversion drew him to the Catholic Church that led him to understand how the Church's doctrine and practices have developed over history, said Lafontaine.
"He said that here below to live is to change and to be perfect is to have changed often," said Lafontaine, who is coordinating the upcoming Continental Congress on Church vocations for the Canadian bishops.
In his presentation, Lafontaine highlighted Newman's influence on the writings of 20th century Canadian theologian Bernard Lonergan.
Lonergan wrote extensively on conversion and reflected on it as the most important task confronting post-conciliar Catholic theology.
Lonergan said the profound change in Catholic theology dates back not from Vatican II, but rather from 1845 when Newman completed his essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine.
It is believed that Newman's ideas so anticipated those of the 20th century that he is often called the father of Vatican II.
The famous cardinal, writer and poet saw that because the Church is a growing body, it would not be normal for the Church to be stagnant and to be absolutely identical all the time.
Lafontaine considers this as one of the strengths of Newman's theology.
"Newman was writing his essay as a manner of justifying his position to become a Catholic," Lafontaine said.
"Consequently his judgment on his past religious tradition, which is Anglicanism, can look a little bit harsh," said Lafontaine.
Newman was trying to find an intellectual justification for his growing attraction to the Catholic Church when he began to write his essays, said Lafontaine.
This led to some stretching on how teachings are to be interpreted, according to Lafontaine.
The first part of Newman's essay on the theology of development, which is theoretical, is very compelling, Lafontaine said. But in the second part, where he applies the theory to actual historical instances, his examples stretched credulity.
Lafontaine's talk, co-sponsored by NTC Alumni Association, was part of Newman's Fall 2001 Lecture Series.
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