Newman’s Mariology and his personal development

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Sr. Lutgart Govaert FSO

“If Mary is the Mother of God, Christ must be literally Emmanuel, God with us. And hence it was, that, when time went on, and the bad spirits and false prophets grew stronger and bolder, and found a way into the Catholic body itself, then the Church, guided by God, could find no more effectual and sure way of expelling them than that of using this word Deipara, ‘Mother of God” against them; and, on the other hand, when they came up again from the realms of darkness, and plotted the utter overthrow of Christian faith in the sixteenth Century, then they could find no more certain expedient for their hateful purpose than that of reviling and blaspheming the prerogatives of Mary, for they knew full well that, if they could once get the world do dishonour the Mother, the dishonour of the Son would follow close. The Church and Satan agreed together in this, that Son and Mother went together”[1].

From our knowledge of Newman’s life, we may gather that he did not always think about Mary in this way. We may ask what happened from the days of his Anglican boyhood, when the ten-year-old John Henry drew a Rosary in his verse-book, until the convert spoke in such clear words about the necessity of Mary in the life of the Church. In replying to this question, we will trace the development of Newman’s Mariology and the influence it had during his Anglican days.

When Newman was fifteen, he “fell under the influence of a definite Creed and received … impressions of dogma, which, through God’s mercy, have never been effaced or obscured”[2] .

Among the dogmas Newman then accepted were the doctrines of the Holy Trinity and of the Incarnation. Holy Scripture had been the source of his religious knowledge since his childhood[3], and this scriptural principle was completed by the doctrine of Tradition. In the early 1820s, he learned from Dr. Hawkins that Holy Scripture “was never intended to teach doctrine, but only to prove it. In order to learn doctrine we must have recourse to the formularies of the Church.”[4] At that time, Tradition meant to Newman the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, the Prayer Book and the Book of Homilies, as wel1 as the Anglican Divines, and also through them, the Fathers of the Church.

Newman’s reflective faith in the Incarnation led him to assent to the doctrine of the Creed on Mary the Virgin and Mother of God. In 1832, Newman – then Fellow of Oriel College and Vicar of St Mary the Virgin in Oxford – preached a sermon on the reverence due to Our Lady. The Feast of the Annunciation inspired him. What he said, however, aroused the indignation of his congregation and he was accused of holding the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.[5] Newman’s offensive words read as follows:

“Who can estimate the holiness and perfection of her, who was chosen to be the Mother of Christ? If to him that hath, more is given, and holiness and divine favour go together (and this we are expressly told), what must have been the transcendent purity of her, whom the Creator Spirit condescended to overshadow with his miraculous presence? What must have been her gifts, who was chosen to be the only near earthly relative of the Son of God, the only one whom he was bound by nature to revere and look up” to; the one appointed to train and educate Him, to instruct Him day by day, as He grew in wisdom and stature? This contemplation runs to a higher subject, did we dare to follow it; for what, think you, was the sanctified State of that human nature, of which God formed his sinless Son; knowing as we do, ‘that which is born of the flesh is flesh’, and ‘none can bring a clean thing out of an unclean ‘ ? . . . “[6].

What Newman said is scriptural. Yet his congregation did not accept the consequences he indicated, because at that time the revealed truths tended to be neglected among a great many Anglicans. However, Newman remained faithful to the great Christian doctrines which had gained such a hold on his mind since his first conversion in 1816. His sermons expounded them in a really balanced way and Newman became more and more influential during the 1830s, not only by what he said in the pulpit, but also by the strictness and holiness of his life which gave authority to his words.

In his sermons, Newman insisted on the “Catholic doctrine of the Incarnation of the Eternal Word”[7]. “The Word was from the beginning, the Only-begotten Son of God”[8]. Christ is true God.

With the same insistence, he stressed his becoming true Man. It was not enough for Newman to explain that Christ was the eternal Word of God who became the Son of Man. Christ was one Person. This means that the Blessed Virgin, “the Mother of Christ, is the Mother of this Person, who is truly God and Man, the Word of God made Man.

Newman sees a safeguard for the doctrine of the Incarnation in the doctrine of Our Lady as the Mother of God, as he preached in 1832:

“Nothing is so calculated to impress on our minds that Christ is really partaker of our nature, and in all respects man, save sin only, as to associate Him with the thought of her, by whose ministration He became our brother”[9].

Mary’s title as Mother of God implies all her privileges; in the first place, her virginity. Newman found that “Christ is conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary”[10] in the Creed and he had no doubt about it. It was even necessary and fitting, because – as he said in 1834 –

“When the Only-begotten Son stooped to take upon Himself our nature, He had no fellowship with sin. It was impossible that He should. Therefore, since our nature was corrupt since Adam’s fall, He did not come in the way of nature. He did not clothe Himself in that corrupt flesh which Adam’s race inherits. He came by miracle, so as to take on Him our imperfection without having any share in our sinfulness”[11].

As early as 1828, Newman was reading the Fathers of the Church. Should we then be surprised to hear that they inspired him when he made an allusion to the theme which would become fundamental for his Mariology: Mary as the Second Eve? This he also did in his sermons on Our Lady in 1831 and 1832. Newman said,

“As in the beginning, woman was formed out of man by Almighty Power, so now, by a like mystery, but a reverse order, the new Adam was fashioned from the woman”[12]

This image of Mary as the Second Eve will constantly develop in Newman’s Mariology and become the basic theme of his “Letter to Pusey”, Newman’s only really Mariological work, published in 1866. From this idea of Mary as the Second Eve, he will derive all her privileges, her holiness, her dignity, her Immaculate Conception, her divine Motherhood, the power of her intercession.

In the 1830s Newman had not yet reached this fullness. His doctrine is clear and will not change in these essential points: Mary is the Mother of God, the Ever-Virgin, the Second Eve, the purest and holiest of all creatures, who was free from sin. These privileges enable her to fulfil her own role in the salvation of mankind, as Newman put it so meaningfully in 1832:

“And when sorrow came upon her afterwards, it was but the blessed participation of her Son’s sacred sorrows, not the sorrows of those who suffer for their sins”[13].

It is an important idea in Newman and the secret of his holiness of life and influence that faith should show itself in daily life and be developed as a consequence of being lived. In his Marian sermon of 1831, Newman complained that this was not so in the Church of England – there was hardly any devotion to her.

“Yet alas, in these latter times, it cannot be denied, we have in great measure forgotten to fulfil her meek anticipation of her own praise (‘From henceforth all generations shall call me blessed’) … Why should we not devoutly pay that honour which is promised as the Virgin’s reward? Why not honour Our Lord in our respectful mention of his Mother? Why, because some Christians exceed in their devotion, become irreverent? Yet so it is. We do not think of St. Mary as we ought.”[14]

These words lead us to ask whether Newman himself was devoted to Mary and how he saw this. Devotion is a consequence of faith and as faith in Christ was the centre of his life, so his faith in Mary brought him to a true devotion which he at once set out to practice in the Anglican Church.

The important question here is: how did the Anglican Newman express this devotion? Newman advocated that reverence to Our Lady had to be expressed within certain limits. In 1831, he stated that we are safe in following Christ’s example,

“When we estimate the reverence which her Son showed her, then we may know how fitly to honour her memory.”[15]

In addition, one year later, he laid down a similar principle, based on the fact that Scripture does not say much about her.

“Had the Blessed Virgin Mary been more fully disclosed to us in the heavenly beauty and sweetness of the spirit within her, true, she would have been honoured, her gifts would have been clearly seen; but, at the same time, the Giver would have been somewhat less contemplated … She would have been seemingly introduced for her sake, not for his sake.”[16]

In these words, the position of the Anglican Newman with regard to Marian devotion is summarised. He accepted all the great doctrines on Our Lady and had a personal devotion to her, remembering her for Christ’s sake. At the same time, he was faithful to the teaching of the Church of England, not to give undue worship to Our Lady and the Saints at the cost of the Creator, as was believed to happen in the Church of Rome. In the “Apologia pro Vita sua”, we read,

“The more I grew in devotion both to the Saints and to Our Lady, the more impatient was I at the Roman practices, as if those glorious creations of God must be gravely shocked, if pain could be theirs, at the undue veneration of which they were the objects”[17].

Newman’s attitude concerning devotion was dictated by several doctrines he found in the Church of England, a few of them allowing for some form of devotion, others restricting it. Let us have a closer look at some of them. The Oxford Movement started by Newman and some of his friends in 1833, which aimed at the doctrinal and liturgical renewal of the Anglican Church, resorting to the Early Church, also revived doctrines maintained by the great Anglican divines of the 17th Century. Among these doctrines, one of the most important was the doctrine of the visible Church, which for Newman did not exist without a strong link to the supernatural reality of the invisible Church. This doctrine embraces the sacramental principle and the article of the “Communion of Saints”. Preaching about this latter doctrine in 1837, Newman expressed his conviction that there a relationship exists between the Church on earth and the Saints in heaven, that the Saints are not useless to the visible Church. His question was: What can they do for us? The Anglican divines Newman consulted did not give a clear answer. One of them, Pearson, in his “Exposition of the Creed” mentioned “desires and supplications on their side”. Newman found numerous examples of intercessory prayer in Holy Scripture. Though the legitimacy of intercession was not generally accepted in the Anglican Church, Newman felt safe. Looking closer at the Thirty-Nine Articles of his Church, he discovered that the invocation of Saints is condemned as dangerous, only because it may easily lead to undue worship of creatures at the cost of the Creator. But nothing is said about intercession. Consequently, Newman distinguished between invocation, which he rejected, and intercession, which he accepted. He rejected invocation because the Anglican Church teaches that it is not primitive, but an addition, because he was told by his Church to pray to God only and because he thought that the Saints act as a body and not individually. As early as 1836, Newman had started to pray the Offices of the Roman Breviary regularly. There was not so much in them that seemed corrupt; he only hesitated to use the antiphons to the Blessed Virgin, ancient and simple as they were, and devoted as he was to her. It was not – as we have already seen – Anglican usage to address her directly, and he felt it would be disloyal to do so without authority[18]. The question of invocation, however, remained on Newman’s mind.

There are still other principles which caused Newman to condemn the Roman devotion to Our Lady and the saints. His great argument against Rome was that it had added to the primitive teaching of the Church. Newman distinguished between an episcopal tradition and a prophetic tradition. The episcopal tradition hands all the doctrines down to us from the Apostles through the Bishops. This tradition teaches the faithful the Creed, all the truths they need for their salvation. The prophetic tradition is a more popular form of tradition, which may lead to corruption, if the Church does not carefully, continually, watch over it. Newman considers this tradition partly to be a legitimate and therefore acceptable Interpretation of the Creed, and partly an innova­tion. Moreover, these innovations are to be condemned according to the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Anglican Church, which teach that Holy Scripture contains all that is needed for salvation. Following the Articles and the divines, especially Bishop Bull, a 17th century Anglican theologian, Newman at this time also accepted a mere verbal development of the doctrine contained in Holy Scripture; this means that the words may change, but nothing can be added to the contents and no real growth or development is possible. Thus Newman condemned the Roman practices saying:

“Surely, we have more reasons for thinking that the Roman doctrines concerning Images and Saints are false, than her decision that they are Apostolical is true”[19] .

In January 1841, Newman tried to show in “Tract Ninety” of the “Tracts for the Times” that the Catholic views of the Oxford Movement could be reconciled with subscription to the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, and that, although certain Roman doctrines were censured in the Articles, these were mainly directed against the actual popular belief and usage of Roman Catholics, which constituted an addition to the teaching of the Church. In “Tract Ninety”, Newman approved of various forms of invocation: for instance as addressed to invisible beings, since this is done daily in the Liturgy and the Psalms. Newman found examples in Holy Scripture: e.g., the seven spirits before God’s throne, who send us grace and peace, and it is then only natural that we should make our wishes known to them. Nor do the “Homi1ies” – which are of authority in the Church of England – reject invocation to beings who cannot hear, as long as we do not pray for anything definite.[20]

While Newman gave a Catholic interpretation of the Thirty-Nine Articles in “Tract Ninety”, he maintained that the practical Roman teaching on Purgatory, Indulgences, the honours paid to images and relics, the invocation of Saints and the Mass could not be reconciled with primitive doctrine. This Tract was intended to be a remedy and to prevent some from going over to Rome, but it was condemned, firstly by the Oxford University authorities and later on by the Anglican bishops.

“Tract Ninety” also had a happy consequence for Newman. Dr. Russell, a young professor of Maynooth in Ireland, read it and wrote to Newman to remonstrate against his misinterpretations of Catholic doctrine contained in it, especially Transubstantiation. Newman answered by making his distinction between the Roman doctrine – which he accepted in many points – and the “traditionary system” which he considered to be a corruption. He complained especially about the excesses in the Roman devotion to Our Lady. Dr. Russell then recommended that he study Catholic devotional writings on Our Lady in order to see whether or not they forget the honour due to God, and to Him alone. In addition, he sent Newman a volume of St. Alphonse’s Sermons. Newman already knew quotations from them, but reading the whole, he did not find in them the idolatry he had expected. He was even more astonished to find that in one of the Sermons on Our Lady, there were omissions. This fact made it clear to him that some devotional manifestations may be suitable for Catholics in Italy, but therefore not necessarily for Catholics in England. After having read St. Alphonse’s Sermons, Newman had all the elements for the distinction between doctrine and devotion, which he would make the first point of his “Letter to Pusey”. Doctrine is always and everywhere the same; devotion is the personal expression of faith and may vary according to person, time and place. He began to understand that devotion to the Saints is not an interference with the honour due to God, as he wrote in the “Apologia”:

“The devotions then to Angels and Saints as little interfered with the incommunicable glory of the Eternal as the love which we bear our friends and relations, our tender human sympathies, are inconsistent with that supreme homage to the heart of the Unseen which really does but sanctify and exalt, not jealously destroy, what is of earth”[21].

Newman was quite astonished to find how little there was to which he could object in the cheap books of devotion sent to him by Dr. Russell. Nevertheless, he had not yet quite overcome his difficulty on the score of the devotion paid to the Saints. It took him until 1844 before he got over it.

It was at this time, from the end of 1842 till 1844, that Newman applied his mind to the principle of doctrinal development in the Christian Church. He was interested in whether a true development, a true growth, is possible and how to discern it from an innovation and corruption. This question was of crucial importance, since Newman still suspected the Church of Rome of having added new doctrines and practices to the original Creed.

In the “Apologia pro Vita sua” Newman suggested that there is a link between his new insight in Marian doctrine and devotion in the Roman Church and his study of doctrinal development. He wrote:

“The idea of the Blessed Virgin was as it were magnified in the Church of Rome, as time went on, – but so were all the Christian ideas; as that of the Blessed Eucharist. The whole scene of pale, faint, distant Apostolic Christianity is seen in Rome, as through a telescope or magnifier. The harmony of the whole, however, is of course what it was”[22].

Newman made the development in religious doctrine the subject of his last University Sermon, preached on February 2nd, 1843, the feast of the Purification. He chose St. Mary as our example in both receiving divine truth and in developing it:

“She does not think it enough to accept, she dwells upon it; not enough to possess, she uses it; not enough to assent, she develops it; not enough to submit the reason, she reasons upon it; not indeed reasoning first, and believing afterwards, with Zacharias, yet first believing without reasoning, next from love and reverence, reasoning after believing. And thus she symbolizes to us, not only the faith of the unlearned, but of the doctors of the Church also, who have to investigate, and weigh, and define, as wel1 as profess the Gospel; to draw the 1ine between truth and heresy; to anticipate or remedy the various aberrations of wrong reason; to combat pride and recklessness with their own arms; and thus to triumph over the sophist and innovator”[23].

In these same years, Newman translated some writings by St. Athanasius. He did not find there anything explicitly on Our Lady, but he discovered the theological principle of devotion to the Saints, as he explained in his “Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine”, a work he wrote in 1845, while finding the answers to his last doubts concerning the Church of Rome, and which he left unfinished on being received into the Roman Catholic Church. Newman realised that, as a consequence of the Incarnation and Redemption, those who believe in Christ are given power to become sons of God in Him (Jn 1:12), and he concluded from this that

“those who are formally recognized as God’s accepted sons in Christ, are fit objects of worship on account of Him who is in them; a doctrine which both Inter­pret s and accounts for the invocation of Saints, the cultus of relics, and the religious veneration in which even the living have sometimes been held, who, being saintly, were distinguished by miraculous gifts. Worship then is the necessary correlative of glory; and in the same sense in which created natures can share in the Creator’s incommunicable glory, are they also allowed a share of that worship which is His property alone”[24].

Newman also discovered how the image of Our Lady became ever clearer in the first centuries of the Church. After the condemnation of the Arians, it was shown that

“to exalt a creature was no recognition of its divinity”[25],

because, as Newman said,

“Arius or Asterius did all but confess that Christ was the Almighty; they said much more than St. Bernard or St. Alphonso have since said of the Blessed Mary; yet they left Him a creature and were found wanting”[26].

It fascinated Newman to realize that, when Arianism was condemned, the high place which the Arians had ascribed to Christ – the place of the most exalted creature – was left open. He recognized that this was the place of Mary, the Mother of God.[27] The formal ecclesiastica1 decision about her dignity was only given in the fifth century, when the Council of Ephesus called her the “Theotokos”, the Mother of God. As such, she had always been present in the spontaneous or traditional feeling of Christians. This title, given her by the teaching authority of the Church – at that particular moment in the Church’s history – served a purpose, as Newman said:

“In order to honour Christ, in order to defend the true doctrine of the Incarnation, in order to secure a right faith in the manhood of the Eternal Son”[28].

Thus, Newman had overcome all difficulties he once had with regard to the Roman devotion to Our Lady. He recognized in her the role in which he will honour her so much, that is, as the “Seat of Wisdom”: the safeguard of true faith in Christ, our model for the reception of faith and its development in the soul.”[29] The Catholic Newman will keep Our Lady before the eyes of the faithful as an example, a guide on their way to Christ. He preached:

“Her glories are not only for the sake of her Son, they are for our sakes also. Let us copy her faith, who received God’s message by the angel without a doubt; her patience, who endured St. Joseph’s surprise without a word; her obedience, who went up to Bethle­hem in the winter and bore Our Lord in a stable; her meditative spirit, who pondered in her heart what she saw and heard about Him; her fortitude, whose heart the sword went through; her self-surrender, who gave Him up during his ministry and consented to his death”[30].

After having sketched Newman’s changing and developing views concerning devotion to Our Lady, we can conclude with some thoughts on the place of Marian devotion in his teaching during his Catholic days.

Newman saw the relation between devotion to Mary and adoration of Christ and between the work of Mary and that of Christ as founded on Mary’s “Fiat” at the Annunciation, when she uttered her readiness to serve and her wi1lingness to contribute to God’s plan of salvation. Newman repeatedly defined this relation as “service”. In the history of the Church, Mary had shown herself not the rival, but the minister of her Son:

“She has protected Him, as in his infancy, so in the whole history of the Religion.”[31]

The character of service in Mary’s work had been clearly shown in the history of the Church. In 1849, Newman had preached once again on the fact of the gradual realisation of Mary’s greatness, as he had already maintained in his “Essay on the Development of Christian doctrine”. In this light he said:

“When she and the Apostles had left this lower scene, and she was a Queen upon her Son’s right hand, not even then did she ask of Him to publish her name to the ends of the world or to hold her up to the world’s gaze, but she remained waiting for the time, when her own glory should be necessary for his. He indeed had been from the very first proclaimed by Holy Church and enthroned in his temple, for He was God; … but it was otherwise with Mary. It became her, as a creature, a mother and a woman, to stand aside and make way for the Creator, to minister to her Son, and to win her way into the world’s homage by sweet and gentle persuasion. So when his name was dishonoured, then it was that she did Him service; when Emmanuel was denied, the Mother of God (as it were) came forward.”[32]

This truth is not exemplified in history alone. Newman showed how it can be maintained not only from the written sources of the Church’s tradition; it is also conveyed by the Church’s daily life. Newman brought together some examples of the distinction made in the understanding of the faithful regarding Christ and Mary: the reverence shown by Catholics in their churches flows from the Real Presence of Christ, not from the images of Our Lady, crucifixes, and so on. The Mass, too, conveys “the same lesson of the sovereignty of the Incarnate Son”, the sacrifice of Calvary ever renewed, where Mary truly withdraws into the background. So, too, is Holy Communion:

“a solemn unequivocal act of faith in the Incarnate God …; and the most gracious of admonitions, did we need one, of his sovereign and sole right to possess us.”[33]

Newman always remained conscious of the proper place devotion to Our Lady has with regard to the adoration and honour due to her Son. This in no way implies that this devotion to Mary was lacking in quality and depth. These concluding words of one of his sermons prove it:

“The Church gives us Jesus Christ for our food, and Mary for our nursing Mother … Prove to the world that you are following no false teaching, vindicate the glory of your Mother Mary, whom the world blasphemes, in the very face of the world, by the simplicity of your own deportment, and the sanctity of your words and deeds. Go to her for the royal heart of innocence. She is the beautiful gift of God, which outshines the fascinations of a bad world, and which no one ever sought in sincerity and was disappointed. She is the personal type and representative image of that Spiritual life and renovation in grace, ‘without which no one shall see God.’[34]

[1] Newman John Henry, Discourses addressed to Mixed Congregations (Mix) 348.

[2] Newman John Henry, Apologia pro Vita Sua (Apo) 4.

[3] Ibid. 1.

[4] Ibid. 9.

[5] Newman John Henry, Meditations and Devotions of the late Cardinal Newman (MD) 79.

[6] Newman John Henry, Parochial and Plain Sermons (PPS) II 131/132.

[7] Ibid. 32-33.

[8] Ibid. 30.

[9] Ibid. 136.

[10] Ibid. 31.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid. 137.

[14] Govaert Lutgart, Kardinal Newmans Mariologie und sein persönlicher Werdegang, Salzburg 1975, 136.

[15] Ibid. 139.

[16] PPS II 134 .

[17] Apo 53.

[18] Trevor Meriol, Newman. The Pillar of Cloud. New York 1962, 195.

[19] Newman John Henry, The Via Media (VM) II 265.

[20] Ibid. 305.

[21] Apo 196.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Newman John Henry, Oxford University Sermons, 313-314.

[24] Newman John Henry, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (Dev) 142.

[25] Ibid. 144.

[26] Ibid. 143.

[27] Cf. ibid. 143-144.

[28] Ibid. 145.

[29] Cf. Murray Placid, Newman the Oratorian. Dublin 1969, p. 79, n. 3.

[30] Mix. 374-375.

[31] Newman John Henry, Certain Difficulties felt by Anglicans in Catholic teaching (Diff) II 93.

[32] Mix 376.

[33] Cf. Diff II 93-96.

[34] Mix 376.