Newman's Early Roman Catholic Legacy


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C. Michael Shea
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , December
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The central subject matter of C. Michael Shea’s Newman’s Early Roman Catholic Legacy 1845-1854 is the early reception of John Henry Newman’s famous Essay on the Development of Doctrine (EDD),originally published in 1845. In this well-researched and lucidly argued work, Shea advances a revisionist account of the reception, especially by Roman theologians, of the EDDin the first decade after its publication. Here is the punchline of Shea’s fascinating cumulative argument: by way of the writings of Rome’s most important dogmatic theologian of the day, Giovanni Perrone, S.J., who received Newman’s idea of development very positively, Newman’s EDDhad a tangible, albeit indirect influence upon the thinking that helped prepare the promulgation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary on December 8, 1854.

The book falls into seven chapters that successively make this cumulative case in form of a complex narration of the reception of Newman’s concept of development in the Catholic context of the England and the Rome of the late 1840s and early 1850s. 

In chapter 1, Shea helpfully reconstructs the Catholic theo-political context in England and in Rome in the decades preceding Newman’s conversion from Anglicanism to the Roman Catholic Church in 1845. He offers a useful introductory sketch of the most important and influential Roman theologian during that period, Giovanni Perrone, S.J., founder of the Roman school of theology. Shea narrates the central roles the English Catholics Nicholas Wiseman, then rector of the English College in Rome, and Charles Baggs, his successor as rector, played in communicating news about the Oxford Movement to Roman authorities and thereby fostering strong hopes among the latter of an impending significant missionary success of the Catholic Church in England.

The second chapter focuses on the period immediately following Newman’s conversion in 1845 and the mixed reception the EDDreceived in Catholic circles with, from the famous and ferocious attack by the American convert Orestes Brownson to the largely unknown but crucial role Nicholas Wiseman played in assuring that the EDDwas accepted by the most influential theologians and curial officials in Rome.

In chapter 3, Shea turns to the activities Newman was engaged in during his Roman seminary studies from 1846 to 1847 and offers a nuanced account of the central theological issues at stake during this period—issues pertaining to the relationship between faith and reason that had absorbed Catholic theology controversially since the beginning of the 19thcentury. These debates constitute the intellectual context into which the EDDwould be received and in light of which it would be judged by Roman theologians.

With this general background in place, Shea turns in chapter 4 to what is one of the most interesting topics of the book: a detailed account of Perrone’s theological curriculum and of the theological movement he initiated, the Roman school of theology. This chapter contains one, if not the best, recent presentations of this important but largely forgotten 19thcentury dogmatic theologian and of the formative debates he was engaged in.

In chapter 5, Shea returns to Newman and narrates how, during his stint as a Roman seminarian, Newman engages and comes to terms with the predominant Roman theological concepts, in light of which some key ideas of his EDDmight be associated with positions that had come under magisterial scrutiny.

Chapter 6 delivers the argumentative pay-off prepared for in the narrative account of the complex reception of Newman’s EDD. Shea advances a compelling revision of the established understanding of what has come to be known as the “Newman-Perrone Papers on Development.” The conventional view rests on the supposition that Perrone held a fundamentally critical attitude toward Newman’s idea of development, an attitude over against which Newman in his Latin theses attempted to justify his approach to Perrone. Shea, however, makes the convincing case that Newman’s theses must be read in light of Perrone’s fundamentally sympathetic attitude toward the EDD. Newman’s theses must therefore not be read as the first “apologia” of his views, but rather as part of an open, congenial, and constructive exchange of ideas with Rome’s leading dogmatic theologian about a theological topic of deep mutual interest.

In the seventh and final chapter, Shea deepens and expands this revisionist understanding of Perrone’s position. Perrone not only continued to advocate Newman’s position in the EDDafter the latter’s departure back to England; he also drew upon Newman’s insights into the development of doctrine in his own writings in relation to the forthcoming definition of the Immaculate Conception of Mary on December 8, 1854. 

Newman’s Early Roman Catholic Legacyis an original contribution to Newman studies. It breaks considerable new ground toward a deeper understanding of the early Roman school of theology and the crucial role Perrone played in an early constructive reception of Newman’s EDD. Shea thoroughly revises the predominant standard account established by Owen Chadwick in From Bossuet to Newman(Cambridge University Press, 1957) and consolidated by Aidan Nichols in From Newman to Congar(Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 1990). This standard account holds that there was no positive reception of Newman’s EDDin Catholic theological circles at all in the years after Newman’s conversion. Shea successfully demolishes the standard account and opens an instructive window onto the still profoundly relevant reception of Newman’s EDDin the early phase of the Roman school of theology and its indirect impact on the theological thinking that helped prepare the way for the 1854 dogmatic definition of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. This excellent study is a “must read” for any serious Newman scholar as well as for scholars of 19thcentury Catholic theology and of the development of doctrine.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Reinhard Hütter is Ordinary Professor of Fundamental and Dogmatic Theology at the Catholic University of America's School of Theology and Religious Studies.

Date of Review: 
April 27, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

C. Michael Shea is a post-Doctoral Fellow, Seton Hall University. Shea completed his doctorate in Historical Theology at Saint Louis University in 2013, and is currently a postdoctoral fellow at Seton Hall University.


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