Pentecost Lectures: Newman on Vatican II

The 2016 Pluscarden Pentecost Lectures – given by Fr Ian Ker

Senior Research Fellow at Blackfriars Hall, Oxford


 17th – 19th May 2016 at Pluscarden Abbey, near Elgin

  1.  1. Tuesday 17th May at 3.00 pm
    “Newman and the Hermeneutic of Reform in Continuity”
  2. Wednesday 18th May at 10.30 am
    “Newman’s Theology of Councils”
  3. Wednesday 18th May at 3.00 pm
    “Newman and the Ecclesiology of Vatican II”
  4. Thursday 19th May at 10.30 am
    “Newman on what Important Vatican II Documents Actually Say and what they Don’t Say”

Each year the Abbot and Community of Pluscarden Abbey sponsor a series of four lectures by an invited Theologian on an aspect of Catholic Theology. Previous Lecturers have included Professor John Haldane, Fr Aidan Nichols OP, Fr Anthony Meredith SJ, Fr Paul McPartlan, Fr Tom Herbst OFM, Professor Carol Zaleski and Abbot Erik Varden O.C.S.O. The Lectures are held on the Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday after Pentecost in St Scholastica’s Retreat House at the Abbey. They are open to all who wish to attend and are free. Limited accommodation is available at the Abbey and those who wish to stay should book as soon as possible. There are also many places to stay in the Elgin area: contact the local tourist office: 01343 542666.

The Lecturer

Fr Ian Ker is a parish priest who has taught both English literature and theology in universities in both the United States and Britain where he is currently a Senior Research Fellow at Blackfriars Hall and a member of the theology faculty. He is regarded as the world expert on John Henry Newman and is the author and editor of 25 books, including John Henry Newman: A Biography, The Catholic Revival in English Literature 1845-1961, G. K. Chesterton: A Biography, and Newman on Vatican II. He is the editor of the Oxford critical editions of The Idea of a University (1976) and An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (1985), as well as co-editor of The Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman, vols. 1-4 (1978-80). In 1989 Oxford University published his John Henry Newman: A Biography, generally considered the standard biography of Newman. He is also the editor of the Penguin selection of Chesterton’s Father Brown stories (2001), as well as the Everyman Library selection of Chesterton’s works (2011). He holds a Ph.D. in English literature from Cambridge, plus three honorary doctorates.


The Lectures: Newman on Vatican II

John Henry Newman is often described as “the Father of the 2nd Vatican Council”. He anticipated most of the Council’s major documents, as well as being an inspiration to the theologians who were behind them. His writings offer an illuminating commentary both on the teachings of the Council and the way these have been implemented and interpreted in the post-conciliar period. Fr Ker makes the first sustained attempt to consider what Newman’s reaction to Vatican II would have been.    

Fr Ker argues that Newman would have greatly welcomed the reforms of the Council, but would have seen them in the light of his theory of doctrinal development, insisting that they must certainly be understood as changes but changes in continuity rather than discontinuity with the Church’s tradition and past teachings. He would therefore have endorsed the so-called “hermeneutic of reform in continuity” in regard to Vatican II, a hermeneutic first formulated by Pope Benedict XVI and subsequently confirmed by his successor, Pope Francis, and rejected both “progressive” and ultra-conservative interpretations of the Council as a revolutionary event. Newman believed that what Councils fail to speak of is of great importance, and so the final lecture considers the kind of evangelization—a topic notably absent from the documents of Vatican II – Newman thought appropriate in the face of secularization.


Lecture 1: “Newman and the Hermeneutic of Reform in Continuity”

This lecture begins with considering whether Newman as a theologian is best regarded as a conservative or liberal. It then considers Pope Benedict XVI’s insistence that Vatican II must be interpreted in accordance with the principle of reform in continuity with tradition in the light of Newman’s theory of doctrinal development.


Lecture 2:  “Newman’s Theology of Councils”

After considering whether Vatican II’s most controversial document should be seen as an authentic development of doctrine in the light of Newman’s seven notes or tests of development, this lecture looks at Newman’s reflections on Councils and how they evince both change and continuity and their aftermaths.


Lecture 3:  Newman and the Ecclesiology of Vatican II

The understanding of the Church as the organic community of the baptised that the Council set out in its most importance text represents the same ecclesiology that Newman had gained from his reading of the Eastern Fathers. He would also have appreciated the importance of the rediscovery of the charismatic dimension of the Church in the first two chapters of Vatican II’s Constitution on the Church. 


Lecture 4:  “Newman on what Important Vatican II Documents Actually Say and what they Don’t Say”

Newman’s writings not only anticipate Vatican II’s teachings on revelation, conscience, and non-Christian religions, but they also provide a corrective hermeneutic where these have been misinterpreted, as well as where the conciliar documents on the Church in the modern world and the liturgy have been exaggerated and distorted. Well aware of the significance of what Councils fail to say, Newman would have been struck by the Council’s silence on the subject of evangelisation.  He would have seen the rise of the ecclesial movements and communities as a likely development in view of both this silence and the Council’s ecclesiology. The lecture ends by considering Newman’s own view of the kind of new evangelisation needed to confront secularisation. 



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