“In your opinion, what is the best book of Catholic apologetics?”
Although that question, put to me unexpectedly several years ago by someone I was chatting with, took me by surprise, I didn’t have to spend much time searching for the answer.
“Cardinal Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine,” I said confidently—just as I would do now if someone asked me the same thing.
I remembered this incident recently as I thought about John Henry Newman’s upcoming canonization as a saint, scheduled to take place October 13 in Rome. What is it, I asked myself, that makes this scholarly 19th century British churchman an object of continuing interest to so many people 129 years after his death?
The answer, I believe, is that Newman was and remains first and foremost a great defender of the faith—something we’re much in need of now.
A critic who hadn’t read the book might object that the Essay on Development is a poor example of defending the faith, since in the years following Vatican Council II “development” has often been used as cover for changing settled doctrine.
But a comment by theologian Father Louis Bouyer, like Newman a convert to Catholicism, deals neatly with that objection. In his foreword to the Ignatius Press volume of Newman’s Parochial and Plain Sermons, he remarks that the Essay is “not in the least an apology of change for the sake of changing but a most careful delineation between change which means real growth and change which is only corruption.”
It’s worth recalling, too, that Newman, an Anglican clergyman at the time, spent much of 1845 writing the Essay on Development. Finishing the project late in the year, he hastened to seek admission to the Catholic communion, having, one might say, written his way into the Church with this book.
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