Today is the Feast of St. John Henry Cardinal Newman, an English Cardinal and theologian, and one of the most incisive thinkers about tradition and change of the last two centuries. I reproduce below some selected portions of Cardinal Newman’s wonderful essay, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. In the work, Cardinal Newman describes the nature of “doctrinal development” as an essential feature of the elaboration of eternal truths for finite minds like ours. In Part II, Chapter 5, he proposes seven criteria to determine whether a particular development is genuine, or instead a “corruption” or “perversion,” of the original. I’ve found these categories and insights illuminating over the years in thinking about tradition and change in American law. But do read the whole essay to honor the day.
I venture to set down seven Notes of varying cogency, independence and applicability, to discriminate healthy developments of an idea from its state of corruption and decay, as follows:—There is no corruption if it retains one and the same type, the same principles, the same organization; if its beginnings anticipate its subsequent phases, and its later phenomena protect and subserve its earlier; if it has a power of assimilation and revival, and a vigorous action from first to last…
PRESERVATION OF TYPE: every calling or office has its own type, which those who fill it are bound to maintain; and to deviate from the type in any material point is to relinquish the calling. Thus both Chaucer and Goldsmith have drawn pictures of a true parish priest; these differ in details, but on the whole they agree together, and are one in such sense, that sensuality, or ambition, must be considered a forfeiture of that high title. Those magistrates, again, are called “corrupt,” who are guided in their judgments by love of lucre or respect of persons, for the administration of justice is their essential function. Thus collegiate or monastic bodies lose their claim to their endowments or their buildings, as being relaxed and degenerate, if they neglect their statutes or their Rule. Thus, too, in political history, a mayor of the palace, such as he became in the person of Pepin, was no faithful development of the office he filled, as originally intended and established…
CONTINUITY OF PRINCIPLE: …A development, to be faithful, must retain both the doctrine and the principle with which it started. Doctrine without its correspondent principle remains barren, if not lifeless…On the other hand, principle without its corresponding doctrine may be considered as the state of religious minds in the heathen world, viewed relatively to Revelation; that is, of the “children of God who are scattered abroad.”
POWER OF ASSIMILATION: …[D]octrines and views which relate to man are not placed in a void, but in the crowded world, and make way for themselves by interpenetration, and develope by absorption. Facts and opinions, which have hitherto been regarded in other relations and grouped round other centres, henceforth are gradually attracted to a new influence and subjected to a new sovereign. They are modified, laid down afresh, thrust aside, as the case may be. A new element of order and composition has come among them; and its life is proved by this capacity of expansion, without disarrangement or dissolution. An eclectic, conservative, assimilating, healing, moulding process, a unitive power, is of the essence, and a third test, of a faithful development.
LOGICAL SEQUENCE: Logic is the organization of thought, and, as being such, is a security for the faithfulness of intellectual developments; and the necessity of using it is undeniable as far as this, that its rules must not be transgressed…Each argument is brought for an immediate purpose; minds develope step by step, without looking behind them or anticipating their goal, and without either intention or promise of forming a system. Afterwards, however, this logical character which the whole wears becomes a test that the process has been a true development, not a perversion or corruption, from its evident naturalness; and in some cases from the gravity, distinctness, precision, and majesty of its advance, and the harmony of its proportions, like the tall growth, and graceful branching, and rich foliage, of some vegetable production…
ANTICIPATION OF ITS FUTURE: …[S]ince developments are in great measure only aspects of the idea from which they proceed, and all of them are natural consequences of it, it is often a matter of accident in what order they are carried out in individual minds; and it is in no wise strange that here and there definite specimens of advanced teaching should very early occur, which in the historical course are not found till a late day. The fact, then, of such early or recurring intimations of tendencies which afterwards are fully realized, is a sort of evidence that those later and more systematic fulfilments are only in accordance with the original idea.
CONSERVATIVE ACTION UPON ITS PAST: As developments which are preceded by definite indications have a fair presumption in their favour, so those which do but contradict and reverse the course of doctrine which has been developed before them, and out of which they spring, are certainly corrupt; for a corruption is a development in that very stage in which it ceases to illustrate, and begins to disturb, the acquisitions gained in its previous history…A true development, then, may be described as one which is conservative of the course of antecedent developments being really those antecedents and something besides them: it is an addition which illustrates, not obscures, corroborates, not corrects, the body of thought from which it proceeds; and this is its characteristic as contrasted with a corruption.
CHRONIC VIGOUR: Since the corruption of an idea, as far as the appearance goes, is a sort of accident or affection of its development, being the end of a course, and a transition-state leading to a crisis, it is, as has been observed above, a brief and rapid process. While ideas live in men’s minds, they are ever enlarging into fuller development: they will not be stationary in their corruption any more than before it; and dissolution is that further state to which corruption tends. Corruption cannot, therefore, be of long standing; and thus duration is another test of a faithful development.
Si gravis, brevis; si longus, levis; is the Stoical topic of consolation under pain; and of a number of disorders it can even be said, The worse, the shorter.