NEWMAN AND DEVOTION TO OUR LADY
by Fr Thomas McGovern
It is not surprising that the recent advance in the cause of beatification John Henry Newman has generated interest in the spirituality of the great English cardinal. While Newman's biographers have studied in detail many aspects of his personality and intellectual qualities, only limited attention would seem to have been given to his reputation for holiness and to the devotional aspects of his works.
The Holy Father has emphasised Newman's great love for the Church.  One could also refer to his devotion to the Passion of Christ, to his love for the martyrs of the nascent Church, for the Fathers and the saints, and to his devotion to the guardian angels. In this article I will draw attention to some aspects of his devotion to Our Lady, as witnessed primarily by his own writings on this topic.
In 1826 John Henry Newman was appointed a tutor at Oriel College, Oxford. About the same time Hurrell Froude, a High Church Anglican with Roman Catholic sympathies, was elected a Fellow of the same college. The two became close friends, and it was from Froude that Newman first learned to have devotion to the Blessed Virgin.  That this devotion progressed rapidly, and was based on a solid doctrinal foundation, is clear from a sermon he gave on the Feast of the Annunciation, 1832. The following extract from that sermon shows how much Newman the Anglican honoured the Mother of God:
After Froude's death in 1836, Newman was given his Roman Breviary. He began to recite it daily, but omitted the prayers directly invoking Our Lady, as this practice was against the teaching of the Church of England.  Although he had often been accused of 'teaching popery' during the Oxford Movement in the 1830's, Newman's perception of the Catholic Church at that time was still a very defective one. In Tract 15 he wrote of Catholicism: 'their communion is infected with heresy; we are bound to flee it as a pestilence'. He complained of her 'lying wonders', including statues of Our Lady. 
Professor C. W. Russell of Maynooth, who took a keen interest in Newman's progress towards the faith, wrote him in 1841, after the publication of Tract 90 on the Thirty Nine Articles, explaining that his interpretation of Catholic doctrine on Transubstantiation was deficient. Newman replied graciously, saying he effectively accepted this doctrine but that 'the extreme honours' paid to our Lady was still a big stumbling block to his acceptance of Catholic doctrine. Russell assured Newman that if he had a fuller knowledge of Church teaching on the Blessed Virgin, his fears and reservations would disappear, pointing out to him how the Rosary was but 'a series of meditations on the Incarnation, Passion and Glory of our Redeemer',  and in no way derogated from the worship due to God alone. To assure him that there was no ground for the opinion which accused Rome of excessive devotion to Mary, in October 1842 Russell sent Newman a copy of St Alphonsus Liguori's book of homilies on Our Lady. The Maynooth professor commented that, although he could hardly think of anyone who spoke more strongly about the prerogatives of the Mother of God, he hoped Newman would see from a reading of these homilies how he had been misled by appearances into thinking that the Catholic Church gave too much honour to the Blessed Virgin at the expense of the Holy Trinity. 
It is interesting to note that when Newman came to write his celebrated Apologia pro Vita Sua, almost twenty years later, he recalled with gratitude the very significant part played by Dr Russell in his reception into the Church: 'He had, perhaps, more to do with my conversion than anyone else'. One of the most important factors in Russell's contribution to Newman's conversion was his clarification of the Catholic position in relation to devotion to the Blessed Virgin. 
Essay on Development of Doctrine
As Newman drew closer to Rome, he felt the need to justify rationally to himself the differences, as he saw it, between the doctrine of the primitive Church and that professed by the Catholic Church of his time. This was the origin of one of Newman's greatest theological works, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. He finished it in September 1845, and was received into the Church a few days later, on October 8. 
The sixth of Newman's seven criteria, outlined in the Essay, for assessing the authenticity of a doctrinal development, reads as follows:
This is the context in which Newman reflects on the nature and scope of Marian devotion shortly before he took the final step to enter the Church. He poses the question whether the honours paid to Our Lady, which have grown out of devotion to her Son, do not in fact tend to weaken that devotion to Christ. A related question also presented itself: was it possible so to exalt a creature without withdrawing one's heart from the Creator?
Newman replied that the issue was to a large extent answered by the Fathers of Ephesus when they declared Our Lady to be the Theotokos, or Mother of God, 'in order to protect the doctrine of the Incarnation, and to preserve the faith of Catholics from a specious humanitarianism'.  And he goes on to make the telling point that a survey of religious practice in Europe confirmed 'that it is not those religious Communions which are characterised by devotion to the Blessed Virgin that have ceased to adore her Eternal Son, but those very bodies which have renounced devotion to her'. 
In the Apologia Newman explains how in the process of conversion he had gradually come to see how 'the Catholic Church allows no image of any sort, material or immaterial, no dogmatic symbol, no rite, no sacrament, no saint, not even the Blessed Virgin herself, to come between the soul and its Creator'.  And so in coming to the Church, he was able to state with full conviction: 'I had a true devotion to the Blessed Virgin, in whose College I lived, whose Altar I served, and whose Immaculate Purity I had in one of my earliest sermons made much of'. 
A few years after his conversion, Newman published his Discourses Addressed to Mixed Congregations.  This volume contains two homilies on Our Lady of great theological richness. In the first of these he deals with (i) the doctrine of Mary as Mother of God and her role as chief witness to the Incarnation, and (ii) her intercessory power.  The second homily focuses on the Assumption.  We will now examine each of these doctrines in turn as seen from Newman's point of view.
For Newman, confessing that Mary is Deipara, or Bearer of God, is a doctrine which copper fastens St John's affirmation that 'the Word became flesh' (Jn 1:14), and protects it from any evasiveness or any possible misinterpretation:
While Newman's mariology emphasises the particular privileges of the Mother of God, at the same time it is always firmly anchored in her role as chief witness to the Incarnation. The Incarnation had brought about the possibility of a new, more intimate relationship with God; 'as soon as it was understood that the incarnate God had a mother', a new focus of devotion was opened up to mankind. 'To her belongs, as being a creature', Newman tells us,
Professor Leo Scheffczyk, the German theologian, takes up the point Newman raised about Mary as witness to the Incarnation. 'One cannot be surprised', he says, 'that the specifically Catholic faith regresses and atrophies precisely where the understanding of Mary as the highest witness to the Incarnation of God dwindles'.  It is because of this latter perception that she holds a special place in salvation history.
Our Lady's Intercession
When Newman speaks about Our Lady's intercessory role, he is conscious that he is dealing with a sensitive issue from the point of view of his Anglican friends. To put this prerogative of the Blessed Virgin into perspective, he shows, by means of an analysis relating to Abraham, Job and Moses in the Old Testament, and to Philip and Andrew in the New, how personal intercession was part of the economy of salvation sanctioned by God. If this is so, he asks, how could there be anything strange about the Mother having influence with the Son:
Newman finds support for the doctrine of the intercessory power of Mary in two other truths of the faith: firstly that, as the Council of Trent affirms, it is good and useful to invoke the saints and to have recourse to their prayers; and secondly that the Blessed Virgin is singularly loved by her son Jesus Christ.
It is not that Newman is trying to provide intellectual proof of this and other marian doctrines for those who might be reluctant to accept them; ultimately we have to assent to them on the authority of the Church. Rather his purpose is to show the harmony of what the Church teaches, which is no more than 'what the Apostles committed to her in every time and place'.  In saying this Newman is here anticipating one of the ideas articulated by Vatican II in the constitution on Divine Revelation, namely, that the Church is not above Revelation, but is its servant; that it can teach no more than what it has already received through apostolic tradition. 
One of the aspects of divine revelation which impressed itself on Newman's mind was its consistency, the fact that all of its truths hang together. By means of the principle of the analogy of faith, what is taught now fits into what has already been received, a principle which, he affirms, is exemplified in many different ways in the structure and the history of doctrine.
This principle he applies particularly to marian doctrines, especially to the Assumption of Our Lady into heaven.  It is a truth which he says is received on the belief of ages, but even from a rational point of view the very fittingness of it recommends it strongly. Mary's assumption into heaven is, for Newman, in perfect harmony with the other truths of Revelation. It is also perfectly fitting that she, who had provided God with the elements of his human body, should not know death and decay. 'Who can conceive', he asks, 'that that virginal frame, which never sinned, was to undergo the death of a sinner? Why should she share the curse of Adam, who had no share in his fall?'  It is in harmony with the substance of the doctrine of the Incarnation, and without it, Newman avers, Catholic doctrine would in some way be incomplete.
Defence of Mary
In 1865 Newman's former colleague at Oxford, E.B. Pusey, published An Eirenicon,  in which he affirmed that exaggerated Catholic devotion to the Blessed Virgin was one of the chief obstacles to church unity. Newman considered Pusey's case unfair and, in 1866, he published a reply: Letter to Pusey on the occasion of his Eirenicon. His purpose in this letter is to demonstrate that the patristic doctrine on Our Lady is essentially the same as that held by Catholics of his day. He points out to Pusey that he cannot condemn the Catholic doctrine on Our Lady without condemning also the doctrine of the Early Fathers. 'The line cannot logically be drawn', he says, 'between the teaching of the Fathers concerning the Blessed Virgin and our own'.  He is categoric about the authority he grants to the Fathers:
Newman's objective is to show that Catholic devotion to Our Lady is a logical consequence of Catholic marian teaching. He builds his case around a consideration of the following doctrines: Mary as the Second Eve, and the consequences this has for her dignity; and Our Lady as the Theotokos.
He begins by distinguishing clearly between belief and devotion; belief about Our Lady, and devotion to her. What people have believed about Our Lady has been in substance one and the same since the beginning; marian devotion, however, has increased with the years and has varied from one place to another. 
Mary as the Second Eve
In his exposition of the Catholic doctrine about Mary in the letter to Pusey, Newman's point of departure is the Fathers' teaching on Our Lady as the Second Eve. Eve, who was 'mother of all the living', played an important role in the fall of the human race. She was an 'active cause' of it and, in the sentence pronounced on her, is recognised 'as a real agent in the temptation and its issue'. The text of Genesis, 'I will put enmity between thee and the woman and between thy seed and her seed' (3:15) has always been interpreted as the promise of a future Redeemer. The seed of the woman is the Word Incarnate and the Woman whose seed or son He is, is the Virgin Mary. Newman goes on to demonstrate how this was the interpretation of the Fathers, who draw out from it the parallel between Mary and Eve. 
He draws on the witness of three of the early Fathers - St. Justin, St Irenaeus and Tertullian - to illustrate this doctrine, and makes the significant point that these writers do not speak of the Blessed Virgin merely as the physical instrument of Our Lord's incarnation, 'but as an intelligent and responsible cause of it'. As a consequence of faith and obedience Mary became the Mother of the Redeemer; Eve by her failure in these two virtues brought about the fall of the human race. As Eve was a cause of ruin for all, so Mary was a cause of salvation for all; just as Eve freely co-operated in bringing about a great evil, Mary co-operated with grace in achieving a much greater good. Newman makes a very convincing case to show that this was the received doctrine of these second century Fathers in both the East and the West, and that its origin is the johannine tradition about Our Lady. 
Our Lady's Dignity
From this patristic teaching on the role of the Blessed Virgin in salvation history, Newman draws a particular inference. Mary's dignity, he affirms, arises from her association with the mysteries of the Redemption and her present state of blessedness in heaven. She anticipated that veneration which future generations would show her when, in response to Elizabeth's greeting, she exclaimed in her hymn of thanksgiving to God, 'all generations shall call me blessed'.
Newman finds the scriptural basis for the dignity of the Blessed Virgin in the vision of the Woman and Child in the twelfth chapter of the Apocalypse:
In support of his position, he points out that the Virgin with the Child is not just a modern idea; it is a representation which occurs again and again in the catacombs: 'Mary is there drawn with the Divine Infant in her lap, and she with hands extended in prayer, He with His hand in the attitude of blessing. No representation', Newman adds, 'can more forcibly convey the doctrine of the high dignity of the Mother, and, I will add, of her influence with the Son'. 
It is only natural that we should go to the author of the Apocalypse to teach us about Mary, the Beloved Disciple to whose care she was committed by our Lord on the Cross, and with whom, tradition tells us, she lived at Ephesus until the end of her earthly sojourn.
Our Lady as Theotokos
Our Lady's divine maternity is for Newman the highest of all her prerogatives:
Newman reminds us that we first come across this title of Theotokos in the writings of Origen (185-254 AD), who witnesses that it was in use before his time. The idea, if not the term, is explicit in writers of the apostolic and sub-apostolic age. Thus Ignatius of Antioch who was martyred in 106 AD: 'Our God was carried in the womb of Mary'. It was not long before the doctrine was transmitted into devotion. Each successive insult offered her by individual heretics drew out more fully the deep individual affection with which Mary was regarded by the Christian faithful.
Devotion to Mary
Since for Newman Catholic doctrine on Mary is substantially that of the Fathers, he does not see how the high Anglicans, who also claim to draw their marian doctrine from patristic sources, can have any basis for criticising Roman Catholic teaching on Our Lady. However, he does allow that some Catholic expressions of devotion to Our Lady could be misinterpreted.
In a delightful passage, in which he analyses with great sensitivity the affective aspect of religious belief, he makes the following point:
Logic is a blunt instrument when applied to devotion; it can abuse it and manhandle it. And thus Newman is very reluctant to get involved in public debate about something which is so personal and intimate as devotion to the Mother of God. He only ventures to do so because he feels called on to defend it. Thus he can affirm that:
'when once we have mastered the idea, that Mary bore, suckled, and handled the Eternal in the form of a child, what limit is conceivable to the rush and flood of thoughts which such a doctrine involves? What awe and surprise must attend upon the knowledge, that a creature has been brought so close to the Divine Essence'. 
While he recognises that there may be a basis for some of Pusey's comments, Newman is not slow to point out to him that his approach to Our Lady in the Eirenicon is seriously deficient:
However, Newman finishes off his reposte to Pusey on a kindly note:
Newman's writing on the dogmatic truths about our Lady such as her divine maternity, her assumption and her role as intercessor, give us a perspective on the deep theological foundations of his marian doctrine. This teaching, as we have seen, was grounded on the faith of the early Fathers, to which he added his own not inconsiderable insights.
However, to get a broader perspective on his personal love for the Blessed Virgin we need to take a closer look at some of his devotional writings about the Mother of God. In 1894, four years after his death, Newman's Meditations and Devotions was published. This volume contains some moving commentaries on several of our Lady's titles from the Litany of Loreto. They are a testimony to his devotion to Mary, which is at once tender and profound, though without any trace of sentimentality.
The central decoration in the dome of the apse of Newman's University Church in Dublin is a painting of Mary as Sedes Sapientiae. Obviously he considered that this was a very appropriate advocation under which to draw the students at his newly founded university to a deeper Marian devotion. He explains that Mary had this title because the Son of God, who in Scripture is called the Word of the Wisdom of God,
But he goes on to explain that Mary was not just the physical throne of the Wisdom of God. Because of her unique sanctity and the clarity of her intellect, her intercourse with Jesus during those thirty years of hidden life was so profound that as a consequence her knowledge of creation, the world, and the things of God must have excelled that of the greatest philosophers and theologians. 
Why, he asks, is May traditionally the month of special devotion to our Lady? He offers several reasons why this should be so. Apart from the fact that climatically it is the month of promise and hope, from the perspective of the liturgy it is the most festive and joyous part of the year. The whole of May commonly falls within the Easter season and normally boasts of the feasts of the Ascension and Pentecost. It is a time then when there are frequent alleluias because of the resurrection of Christ. Because Mary is the first of God's creatures, the most acceptable child of God, it is fitting, Newman reasons, that his month should be hers in which we especially rejoice 'in our redemption and sanctification in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit'. 
Due to failing sight, in the last years of his life Newman was unable to read the Breviary and substituted it with the Rosary. He had always been deeply attached to saying the daily Office, even as an Anglican, so we can imagine how much the Rosary came to mean for him when he could say that it more than made up for the Breviary. Indeed, the ageing Cardinal used to comment that the Rosary was the most beautiful of all devotions, and that it contained all in itself.
His understanding of the significance of the Rosary in Christian piety is best explained by himself:
When he was not engaged in writing or reading, he is remembered as most frequently having the Rosary in his hands. 
From what we have seen of Newman's writing on Our Lady, it is clear that in terms of doctrine he owes much to the Fathers of the Church. He knew their writings intimately, and it is perhaps because of this that his commentaries on the scriptural passages relating to the role of the Blessed Virgin in God's plan of salvation always have a certain originality. We also notice that his doctrine on Mary is very much in tune with the teaching of Vatican II as developed in Chapter VIII of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. 
He showed courage and magnanimity in overcoming his initial prejudices about devotion to Mary, and then made a considerable effort to help his former Anglican friends get over theirs.
Newman's deep devotion and veneration for the Mother of God stand out clearly in all that he writes about her, even while still an Anglican. There is nothing cerebral or merely intellectual in his approach. On the contrary, he writes about her with a warmth of feeling which is unusual for a man of his background and culture. Nevertheless, it is not surprising that this should be so in somebody who has been declared by the Church to have practised the Christian virtues to an heroic degree.
1. Decree of Holy See (22 January 1991) on heroic virtues of John Henry Newman; cf. L'Osservatore Romano, 28 January 1991.
2. Address, 27 April 1990.
3. Dessain, C. S; John Henry Newman, London 1971, p. 9.
4. Newman, J. H., Parochial and Plain sermons, Vol II, London 1836, pp 143, 147-148, 151-152.
5. Cf. Dessain, ibid., p. 37.
6. Cf. ibid., p. 38.
7. Letter Newman to Russell, 13 April 1841, in Correspondence of John Henry Newman with John Keeble and Others 1839-1845, Edited at the Birmingham Oratory, London 1917, pp. 122-123.
8. Cf. Macauley, A., Dr. Russell of Maynooth, London 1983, pp 83-84.
9. Cf. ibid., p. 90.
10. Newman, J. H., Apologia pro Vita Sua, London 1886, p. 194.
11. Cf. Macauley, ibid., p. 96.
12. An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, London 1920.
13. Ibid., p. 200.
14. Cf. ibid., p. 425.
15. Ibid., p. 426. The title Theotokos, or Mother of God, was familiar to Christians from primitive times and had been used by several of the early Fathers such as Origen, St Athanasius, St Ambrose, and St Gregory of Nyssa.
17. Apologia, p. 195.
18. Cf. ibid., p. 165.
19. Newman, J. H., Discourses addressed to Mixed Congregations, London 1886.
20. Discourse no. XVII, entitled The Glories of Mary for the sake of her Son, pp 342-359.
21. Discourse no. XVIII, entitled On the Fitness of the Glories of Mary, pp 360-376.
22. Ibid., p 348.
23. Letter to Pusey, in Difficulties of Anglicans, vol II, p.85.
24. Cf. Scheffczyk's essay, Mary as a Model of Catholic Faith, in 'The Church and Women: A Compendium', ed. Helmut Moll, San Francisco 1988, p. 87.
25. Discourses, ibid., p.355.
26. Discourses, ibid., p.357.
27. Cf. Flannery, A., (ed), Vatican II: The conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, Dublin 1981, p. 756 (Dei Verbum, no.10).
28. Cf. Discourses, ibid., pp 360-376.
29. Ibid., pp. 371-372.
30. The full title of this work was: The Church of England a Portion of Christ's One Holy Catholic Church, and a Means of restoring Visible Unity. An Eirenicon.
31. This was published in Difficulties of Anglicans, Vol II..
32. Difficulties, p.78.
33. Ibid., p.24.
34. Cf. ibid., pp. 26-28.
35. Cf. ibid., pp. 31-33. Newman is particularly taken by the following affirmation of Irenaeus: 'As Eve, ... becoming disobedient, became the cause of death to herself and to all mankind, so Mary too, having conceived the predestined Man, and yet a Virgin, being obedient, became cause of salvation both to herself and to all mankind' (Essay, p.417).
36. Ibid., p. 35.
37. Cf. ibid., pp 37-38.
38. Ibid., p. 55.
39. Ibid., p. 62.
40. Ibid., p. 80.
41. Ibid., pp 82-83.
42. Ibid., p.116.
43. Ibid., p.118.
44. Cf. Meditations and Devotions, London 1894, ibid., p. 48.
45. Cf. ibid., pp 6-7.
46. Sayings of Cardinal Newman, London 1890, pp 44-45.
47. Cf. Ward, W., Life of Cardinal Newman, Vol II, London 1912, p. 553.
48. Cf. Flannery, ibid., pp 413-423.
First published in Homiletic & Pastoral Review, May 1997, pp 8-18
This version: 30th October 2019