All Things New: An Analysis of John Henry Newman’s Mariology and its Ecumenical Significance

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Maddie Sanders, The Catholic University of America

“Enriched from the first instant of her conception with the splendour of an entirely unique holiness, the virgin of Nazareth is hailed by the heralding angel, by divine command, as ‘full of grace’ (Lk. 1:38), and to the heavenly messenger she replies: ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done unto me according to thy word’ (Lk. 1:38). Thus the daughter of Adam, Mary, consenting to the word of God, became the Mother of Jesus…impeded by no sin… she devoted herself totally, as a handmaid of the Lord, to the person and work of her Son, under and with him, serving the mystery of redemption, by the grace of Almighty God.” These were the words that concluded Pope Paul VI’s dogmatic constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium; words that provide both a reflection on, and a summary of, the significance of the dogma of Mary’s Immaculate Conception. Pope Paul VI’s words suggest two specific truths: First, that Mary possessed a “unique holiness” that can be understood as a fullness of grace, and second, that Mary’s Immaculate Conception was the instrument through which the Incarnation became a reality. In other words, Mary’s Immaculate Conception – her preservation from all sin  – was not simply for her own good, but in order that she would be the vessel through which God Himself became Man. Therefore, it is Mary – the Immaculate Conception – who Catholics venerate, and her Son – the fruit of it – who Catholics worship and adore. This is the “starting point” to begin to understand the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. Such a doctrine must not only be accepted in faith, but understood through a faith-filled intellect, both of which Saint John Henry Newman possessed and exercised, therefore making him the ideal “instrument” to articulate the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. Writing with both a sharp intellect and a reverential devotion, Newman, in his Letter to Pusey effectively argues for the truth of the Immaculate Conception through discussing Mary under the title “The New Eve” and, in doing so, suggests the ecumenical significance of embracing the doctrine. 

Newman’s argument for the truth of the Immaculate Conception is best characterized as a response, as it is presented in a letter addressed to his former colleague and friend, Protestant Dr. Edward Pusey. At the time the Letter was written, Newman had known Pusey for several years. Having both been members of the Oxford Movement, the theology of both Newman and Pusey overlapped in several respects. For Dr. Pusey – an Anglican – Catholics practiced what he termed an “excessive mariolatry”, or, in other words, an “idolatrous worship of Mary” (Huetter). More specifically, Pusey claimed that Marian devotion had no Scriptural backing or patristic support. Newman both respectfully acknowledges and deeply understands the Protestant misunderstanding that Mary is an object of worship among Catholics, but Pusey’s insistence on proving this point serves as the catalyst for Newman’s Letter. It is at the claim that Catholics have made an idol of the Mother of God that Newman directs his response. 

Recognizing that referencing patristic thought is common ground between himself and Pusey, Newman’s response is rooted in the mariology of the Church Fathers and employs an apologetic tone throughout. In utilizing both tactics, Newman is able to effectively argue that whatever points he posits regarding the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception are no different from those that were put forward by the early Church Fathers. In other words, Newman’s “current” mariology aligns perfectly with patristic thought and, consequently, if Pusey trusts – to whatever extent – the writings of the Church Fathers, so too can he at least acknowledge Newman’s effort to reiterate that which they have made clear. 

Newman begins his response by drawing a distinction between faith and devotion, in order to prove that, “…devotion towards the blessed Virgin has increased among Catholics with the progress of centuries; I do not allow that the doctrine concerning her has undergone a growth, for I believe that it has been in substance one and the same from the beginning.” (Letter to Pusey). Newman proceeds to define “faith” as “the Creed and assent to the Creed” and “devotion” as “…such religious honours as belong to the objects of our faith, and the payment of those honours” and explains the relationship between the two in stating: “Faith and devotion are as distinct in fact, as they are in idea. We cannot, indeed, be devout without faith, but we may believe without feeling devotion” (Letter to Pusey). This distinction, when applied to Mary, clarifies the fact that to acknowledge Mary is not necessarily to be devoted to Mary. In this, a further distinction is implied between fluctuating devotion and stagnant doctrine. While devotion as a practice manifests itself differently among the faithful and to different degrees throughout Church history, there has never been a time in Church history when Marian devotion as a precept or as a doctrine has not existed. “…in the Catholic Church it is the one Virgin Mother, one and the same from first to last, and Catholics may have ever acknowledged her; and yet, in spite of that acknowledgement, their devotion to her may be scanty in one time and place, and overflowing in another.” (Letter to Pusey). Marian devotion, Newman explains, is not only fluctuating but also largely a matter of “private judgement” (Letter to Pusey), meaning that it manifests itself in different practices in different places (evidenced by Marian devotion under specific titles as well as as in specific personal devotions such as the Rosary or devotion to the Immaculate Heart). Differences in devotional expression come about “according to their religious taste and prospect of personal edification” (Letter to Pusey). In acknowledging the “private judgement” aspect of Marian devotion, Newman, in a sense, concedes to Pusey by acknowledging that it is entirely possible for certain Catholic individuals to have an excessive mariology but not the Church as a whole. Any excess in Marian devotion among the faithful results not from Marian devotion in itself but solely from the human tendency to “tend to extremes” (Huetter), a result of original sin. 

Acknowledgement of Marian devotion serves as part of the foundation of Newman’s argument for the truth of the Immaculate Conception, but the dogma of the Immaculate Conception as a whole must be further grounded in both Scripture and doctrine. Thus, Newman proceeds in the first part of his Letter to establish that which is most essential to understanding the Immaculate Conception – and most strongly supported by both Scripture and patristic writing – that Mary is the “New Eve”. Presenting Mary as the “New Eve” is the center of Newman’s argument for the truth of the Immaculate Conception, and one that must therefore be thoroughly elaborated upon. 

The Scriptural foundation of the title “New Eve” is first evidenced in the Old Testament, specifically in the Book of Genesis. Genesis presents a brief yet deeply significant description of Eve that not only gives the reader a deeper understanding of her, but further establishes the validity of acknowledging Mary as the “New Eve”: “The man gave his wife the name ‘Eve,’because she was the mother of all the living.” (Genesis 3:20). Eve, the first “mother of all the living” through her disobedience, brought sin and death into the world. Consequently, the first “mother of all the living” lost that blessedness that had once been hers – and, by virtue of that title –  all mankind’s. Eve’s disobedience proved to be the impetus for a future “mother of all the living” – a “New Eve” – who, through her obedience, would play as active a role in the redemption of mankind as Eve had in its destruction. Turning to the New Testament, this reality is evidenced in the Gospel of John.  

Among Christ’s last words from the Cross were those to the Beloved Disciple: “Behold Your Mother” (John 19:27), granting to mankind in that moment a second Eve. As Newman states, “She is the Second Eve. Now let us consider what this implies. Eve had a definite, essential position in the First Covenant…though Eve was not the head of the race, still, even as regards the race, she had a place of her own; for Adam, to whom was divinely committed the naming of all things, named her ‘the Mother of all the living,’ a name surely expressive, not of a fact only, but of a dignity; but further, as she thus had her own general relation to the human race, so again had she her own special place, as regards its trial and its fall in Adam…she co-operated not as an irresponsible instrument, but intimately and personally in the sin: she brought it about.” (Letter to Pusey). Newman proceeds to explain that, just as Eve both comprehended fully and cooperated willingly in the fall of the human race, so too did Mary comprehend fully (at the Annunciation) her role as a moral instrument in the redemption of mankind. Therefore, considering Mary under the title of “The New Eve” leads one to consider that Mary is not – as many Protestants believed – merely a “physical instrument of the Incarnation” (Huetter) but a “moral” one as well. In explaining Mary as the “New Eve”, it becomes clear that she is the “antitype” of the first “mother of all the living” (Huetter). The antitypical relationship between Eve and the “New Eve” are beautifully summarized in words from modern-day scholar Brant Pitre. In his work Jesus and the Jewish Roots of Mary, Pitre too discusses Mary as the New Eve, pointing out that Catholics profess the truth that Mary is the New Eve with each recitation of the Ave Maria (Hail Mary), for  “Ave” is the reverse of “Eva”. 

Recognizing Mary as the “New Eve” is not a new understanding nor an understanding unique to Newman. As Newman himself acknowledges, this title was understood and elaborated upon by several Church Fathers, including St. Justin Martyr, St. Irenaeus, and St. Cyril of Jerusalem, among others. Newman quotes each of the aforementioned, and, in doing so, is able to further articulate the meaning and validity of the title. After establishing the foundations of the title “New Eve”, Newman continues to elaborate on the correlations between Eve and Mary by explaining the theological mechanics behind Mary “undoing” what Eve had done. 

Newman first considers the fact that what underlies each of the Fathers’ reflections is the understanding that, as the Second Eve, Mary would have to have been as Adam and Eve – before the fall – once were: namely, in right relationship with God. As British lay mystic Caryll Houselander once reflected, Mary is “innocent humanity in all its primal loveliness; humanity with which the Spirit of God is in love” (The Reed of God). As the “New Eve”, Mary would have had to receive “at least what Eve had received” (Huetter) including original justice, original righteousness and sanctifying grace.  Newman summarizes this truth in saying: “If Eve was raised above human nature by that indwelling moral gift which we call grace, is it rash to say that Mary had even a greater grace? And this consideration gives significance to the Angel’s salutation of her as ‘full of grace’ … [grace] is, as the Fathers teach, a real inward condition or superadded quality of soul. And if Eve had this supernatural inward gift given her from the first moment of her personal existence, is it possible to deny that Mary too had this gift from the very first moment of her personal existence? … this is simply and literally the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.” (Letter to Pusey).

Building on these truths, Newman proceeds his argument by clarifying that the Immaculate Conception – a doctrine well supported by the early Church Fathers – should not be an obstacle for non-Catholics. Considering Mary as the “New Eve” naturally gives way to accepting the reasonable doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. As Newman argues, “I do not see how any one who holds with Bull the Catholic doctrine of the supernatural endowments of our first parents, has fair reason for doubting our doctrine about the Blessed Virgin. It has no reference whatever to her parents, but simply to her own person; it does but affirm that, together, with the nature which she inherited from her parents … she had a superadded fullness of grace, and that from the first moment of her existence…Mary may be called, as it were, a daughter of Eve unfallen.” (Letter to Pusey). 

A consideration of Mary’s reception of original righteousness, original justice, and sanctifying grace begs the further question of how it was possible for Mary to be conceived without original sin. Newman recognizes that this has often been a cause for Protestant misunderstanding, resulting from different definitions among Catholics and Protestants respectively regarding original sin. Newman clarifies this by stating, “Our doctrine of original sin is not the same as the Protestant doctrine. ‘Original sin,’ with us, cannot be called sin, in the mere ordinary sense of the word ‘sin;’ it is a term denoting Adam’s sin as transferred to us, or the state to which Adam’s sin reduces his children.” (Letter to Pusey). Newman continues, “…by original sin we mean, as I have already said, something negative, viz., this only, the deprivation of that supernatural unmerited grace which Adam and Eve had on their first formation, – deprivation and the consequences of deprivation.” (Letter to Pusey). To profess that Mary is “conceived without sin” is simply to reiterate that there is no deprivation of grace in her. Further, Mary did nothing to earn the restoration of that “supernatural unmerited grace” but only received it “by God’s free bounty, from the first moment of her existence”. As aforementioned, this pure gift of grace was granted not for her own sake but  “…in order to fit her to become the Mother of her and our Redeemer…so that, by the aid of the first grace, she might so grow in grace, that, when the Angel came and her Lord was at hand, she might be ‘full of grace,’ prepared as far as a creature could be prepared, to receive Him into her bosom.” (Letter to Pusey). 

To be “full of grace” suggests not only Mary’s preservation from sin, but a simultaneous “emptiness or lack”. To be full of grace, in other words, is to be entirely empty of the corruption of sin. Knowing from all eternity that the Incarnate Lord could only be made so by being formed through an instrument as grace-filled as He Himself, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is one that must be understood as being ordered to the redemption of all mankind. Caryll Houselander’s words again serve to emphasize that which Newman established thoroughly. In her book The Reed of God, Houselander dedicates much of her writing to discuss Mary’s “virginal emptiness” – that emptiness which lent itself to Jesus’ conception. “To be filled with God’s presence, one must be empty. The requisite emptiness, however, is not formless, but like the virginal emptiness of Our Lady: “It is emptiness like the hollow of a reed, the narrow riftless emptiness, which can have only one destiny: to receive the piper’s breath and to utter the song that is in his heart.”

In writing to Pusey, Newman’s intention proved to be more than to simply provide a well-supported and well-reasoned argument for the truth of the Immaculate Conception. For Newman, Mariology properly considered should be a unifying dogma between Catholics and Protestants rather than a cause and source of division. In other words, Newman recognized that the intention of correcting Protestant errors in understanding the Immaculate Conception and Mary’s role in both the Church and the lives of individual Catholics, wasn’t only to prove that the Church possessed an entirely reasonable mariology, but, when embraced, had ecumenical significance. 

As aforementioned, Newman recognized that at the heart of Protestant misunderstandings regarding Mary’s Immaculate Conception was the commonly held belief that Catholics profess an excessive mariology. Newman emphasizes throughout his Letter that the Church as a whole recognizes and venerates Mary only as that which she herself proclaimed to be: “Behold, I am the handmaiden of the Lord…” (Lk. 1:38). 

For Newman, the only way by which to address this wrongly held idea of “excessive mariology” was to clarify what is meant by the term “divine”. “He who charges us with making Mary a divinity, is thereby denying the divinity of Jesus. Such a man does not know what divinity is…To her belongs, as being a creature, a natural claim on our sympathy and familiarity, in that she is nothing else than our fellow…She has sketched for us her own portrait in the Magnificat.” (Letter to Pusey). Newman’s words draw Pusey to remember that divinity is a term belonging to God alone; that Mary is a creature, endowed with original righteousness and sanctifying grace – with that “unique holiness” –  but she remains a creature and not God. Newman acknowledges that it would be entirely irrational for God Himself to endow Mary with divinity, and instead, He created Mary and gave her as a gift to humankind. “…did not the All-wise know the human heart when He took to Himself a Mother? Did He not anticipate our emotion at the sight of such an exaltation in one so simple and so lowly? If He had not meant her to exert that wonderful influence in His Church, which she has in the event exerted, I will use a bold word, He it is who has perverted us… If it be idolatry in us to let our affections respond to our faith, He would not have made her what she is or He would not have told us that he had so made her… we have the same warrant for hailing her as God’s Mother, as we have for adoring Him as God.” (Letter to Pusey). The God whose last words from the Cross were “I thirst”, the God who thirsts for the particular love of every unique soul He created would not have given humanity a Mother who would utter those same words, but one who, in her continual ‘fiat’, would only seek to satiate His. 

Even in understanding the meaning of “divinity”, the non-Catholic will likely still question the extent of the ecumenical significance of accepting the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. Newman rightly anticipates this, replying: “On Him we solely depend. He alone is our inward life…He is ever renewing our new birth and our heavenly sonship. In this sense He may be called, as in nature, so in grace, our real Father. Mary is only our mother by divine appointment, given us from the Cross; her presence is above, not on earth; her office is external, not within us. Her name is not heard in the administration of the Sacraments. Her work is not one of ministration towards us; her power is indirect.” (Letter to Pusey). 

To discuss the ecumencial significance of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception is, for Newman, to discuss the reality of intercession and namely the reality of intercessory prayer. Newman’s conversion again serves him well in this, as he is able to recognize that intercessory prayer provides another ground for mutual understanding.  In the same manner that Protestants seek the prayers of those on earth, invocation of Mary (as well as the saints) for Catholics can be understood in the same light. Newman references the Raccolta, and argues that, “It [the Raccolta] commonly uses the phrases ‘gain for us by thy prayers,’ ‘obtain for us,’ ‘pray to Jesus for me,’, ‘speak for me, Mary,’ ‘carry thou our prayers,’ ‘ask for us grace.’ ‘intercede for the people of God,’ and the like, marking thereby with great emphasis that she is nothing more than an Advocate, and not a source of mercy.” (Letter to Pusey). Emphasizing Mary’s intercessory role through the aforementioned words not only offers further evidence for the Protestant to understand the distinction between God as Creator and Mary as creation, but considers that her intercession is that which should unite all Christians. Though non-Catholics have not always invoked Mary’s intercession, Mary has not ceased, from the moment she became Mother at the foot of her Son’s Cross, to pray for all people – the Catholic and non-Catholic alike. 

Newman emphasizes that Mary’s intercessory power lies simply in the fact that she is “singularly close to her Son” (Huetter), and not at all because she is in any respect Divine as Her Son is. Mary is simply “alive with God” in Heaven, desiring only that, by bringing prayers to her Son and trusting fully in Him as she did on earth, that intercessory prayer would be that which unites Christians together. As Newman summarizes, “It is her prayers that avail, and her prayers are effectual by the fiat of Him who is our all in all.” (Letter to Pusey). 

Since the early days of the Church, Mary has been rightly referred to as the “Theotokos” or “God-bearer”. This title summarizes all that Newman argued regarding the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. Mary, by her Immaculate Conception, bore God through her womb; she was the instrument by which God became man for “all generations.” As Newman concludes, “In the Catholic Church Mary has 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” (Letter to Pusey).  In arguing for the truth of the Immaculate Conception and the ecumenical significance of accepting such a dogma, a greater truth is recognized: that defining who Mary is is never done apart from defining who Christ is. The profundity of Mary’s intimacy with her Son lies in the fact that she cannot be understood apart from Him, an intimacy comprehended – as far as it can be on this side of Heaven – in the simultaneous ‘fiat’ professed by the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady and the Incarnation of the Christ. 

Bibliography: 

Newman, John Henry. “Letter to Pusey.” The National Institute for Newman Studies, The Newman Reader. https://newmanreader.org/works/anglicans/volume2/pusey/section3.html

Newman, John Henry. “Letter to Pusey.” The National Institute for Newman Studies, The Newman Reader. https://newmanreader.org/works/anglicans/volume2/pusey/section4.html

Newman, John Henry. Letter to Pusey.” The National Institute for Newman Studies, The Newman Reader. https://newmanreader.org/works/anglicans/volume2/pusey/section5.html

Huetter, Reinhard. “Newman on the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Immaculate Conception – Correcting a Protestant Counterfeit.” Lecture. The Catholic University of America. 20 April 2021. 

Huetter, Reinhard. “Newman on the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Immaculate Conception – Correcting a Protestant Counterfeit.” Lecture. The Catholic University of America. 22 April 2021. 

Luke 1. USCCB. New American Bible.

John 19. USCCB. New American Bible. 

Genesis 3. USCCB. New American Bible. 

Houselander, Caryll. “The Reed of God.”  Notre Dame, IN, Ave Maria Press, 2020.

Pitre, Brant. “Jesus and the Jewish Roots of Mary.” New York, NY, Crown Publishing, 2018. 

Pope Paul VI. “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church – Lumen Gentium.” Vatican: the Holy See. Rome, 21 Nov. 1965. Web. 30 April 2021. http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19641121_lumen-gentium_en.html

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