John Henry Newman is one historical Christian figure of whom there is no lack of scholarship on his life and theology. A comprehensive bibliography of the secondary literature related to Newman could easily occupy a few hundred pages. Moreover, given the amount of interest in Pope Benedict XVI’s recent beatification of Cardinal Newman, the rate of scholarly output on this pivotal nineteenth century theologian shows no signs of abating. Considering the wealth of material available, if one is going to make a mark in the field of Newman scholarship, one has produce a work that stands out in some way, either by charting new territory or by producing a study of uniquely high quality. Unfortunately, Thomas J. Norris’ latest monograph, Cardinal Newman for Today, fails to stand out in either of these ways.
This remark should not altogether deter the interested reader from purchasing Norris’ work, which is not without its merits. For one thing, Norris does an excellent job of bringing Newman’s theology into conversation with the contributions of key twentieth-century figures, such as Hans Urs von Balthasar, Henri de Lubac, and Bernard Lonergan. By doing so, Norris highlights the remarkable staying power of Newman’s thought, demonstrating the way in which central motifs from Newman’s theology continued to weave their way through the major currents of Catholic theological investigation long after Newman was gone. Moreover, Norris helpfully draws upon Scripture as a resource for illuminating Newman’s theological ideas. In light of how biblically saturated Newman’s own theology was, it’s disappointing to see the Bible all but recede into the background in some historical studies of Newman’s thought, and Norris should be commended for avoiding this omission.
In spite of these strengths, however, Norris’ study ultimately fails to impress. While Cardinal Newman for Today might serve as a helpful introduction to Newman’s theology for beginners, it does not strike me as a work that serious Newman scholars will continue to draw upon in the years to come. One weakness of the book that particularly stands out is Norris’ tendency to make broad-sweeping assertions without pointing the reader to references that would corroborate his claims. For instance, in chapter 5 (“The Flowering of Newman’s Theology of Tradition in the Second Vatican Council”), Norris constructs a caricature of the preconciliar understanding of tradition (e.g., 100-101, 105-107), so as to laud the achievements of Dei Verbum, the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation. Unfortunately, in the process, Norris fails to take the time to cite actual sources that would demonstrate the charges he levels against the preconciliar conception of tradition. Because of shortcomings such as this one, I can give only a halfhearted recommendation of Norris’ work. For a more nuanced and careful introduction to Newman’s theology, I would more readily extol the late Avery Dulles’ 2002 monograph, Newman, which in its own way effectively demonstrates Newman’s relevance for today while at the same time recognizing the continuity of Newman’s most important insights with the tradition that preceded them.