John Henry Newman on the pre-eminent place of the Blessed Virgin in Christianity

John Henry Newman on the pre-eminent place of the Blessed Virgin in Christianity

Leo Madigan

THE VIRGIN MARY in the Life and Writings of John Henry Newman
Edited with an Introduction and Notes by Philip Boyce

(Gracewing Publishing, UK), HB, 439pp, $62.95. Available from AD Books

Buried treasure, that staple of boyhood imagination, doesn't fade with the years, instead it transmogrifies into something more readily obtainable and valuable, like a satisfying book. Even in these times when few of the people who can read bother to, there are writers and publishers bringing out books full of pearls with minimum praise and less monetary remuneration.

This book by Bishop Philip Boyce (ODC, formerly Bishop of Raphoe, County Denegal, Ireland, currenly Member of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments in Rome) is just such a casket, topped up with precious things, old and new, a fortune for those with the nous to appreciate it.

Pre-eminent place

The first hundred pages - hardback with a fine font on quality paper - is an essay by Bishop Boyce on John Henry Newman and his Marian writings. For learning expressed with modest clarity this essay is a treasure in itself. With a sort of effortless flow the author impresses not only with Newman's assessment of the Blessed Virgin's pre-eminent place in the Divine scheme of things, but he also focuses ours.

When Newman became a Catholic in the middle of his long life he didn't come empty-handed. Rather like Conrad arriving new to the English language, he enriched the perceptions of it. The maxim, "What is true today cannot be false tomorrow", was a splint to heal the fracture to Newman, not the weapon it was in the hands of the diehard Papists.

I fully grant that the devotion towards the Blessed Virgin has increased among Catholics with the progress of the 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.

The writer here shows how the seeds of Newman's Mariology were germinating early in his Anglican life, almost like a reversed heresy. Concepts such as Mother of the Creator, The Mother of God, The Immaculate Conception, Mediatrix, were developing well beyond anything countenanced by Anglican belief. Statements like, "It is more mysterious that Mary should be Mother of God than that God should be man", although written after his reception in to the Catholic Church, are indicative of his thought. It wasn't even a great leap of faith to him; it was a matter of human logic too.

If we deny that the title Mother of the Creator can rightly be attributed to Our Lady, we then find ourselves in difficulty with the title Son of God. Human reason may at first find it absurd and yet on further consideration we shall see that we cannot refuse the title to Mary without denying the Divine Incarnation - that is, the great and fundamental truth of revelation that God became man.

Bishop Boyce is particularly effective in his treatment of Newman's concept of Mary as the Second Eve, an aspect which is perhaps not dwelt upon enough by Catholics. To Newman it is not just an analogy, it is - and he has sound biblical support - a lens which puts everything to do with Mary into focus for us. Such teachings as the Immaculate Conception are made simpler for our minds with such explanations as, "If Eve was sinless on the day she was created, it seems appropriate that Mary should be equally free from sin at the dawn of a new creation. An important aspect of the Immaculate Conception is that it was necessary for Mary to be as sinless as Eve or the parallel would be faulty."

The author points out two very different concepts of Original Sin as held by Catholics, and those who protest against Rome. For Catholics, he says, the effect of Original Sin is a deprivation of something due, though not merited; a missing of the grace of friendship with God on a supernatural level. For Protestants, however, it is an active poison corrupting the soul. This distinction is well worth dwelling on in the interests of tolerance as it explains much, particularly the problems Protestants have with the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.

Second Eve

Newman explains many texts with reference to The Second Eve. I particularly liked this one:

"And to the seemingly harsh words of St Paul: 'women shall be saved by child-bearing' Newman gives a thought-provoking interpretation: in a spiritual reading of the text, he understands it to refer implicitly to Mary's child-bearing, 'that is, through the birth of Christ from Mary, which was a blessing, as on all mankind, so peculiarly upon the women'. Accordingly, marriage began to be restored to its original dignity and became a sign of the union between Christ and his bride, the Church: 'Thus has the Blessed Virgin, in bearing Our Lord, taken off or lightened the peculiar disgrace which the woman inherited for seducing Adam'."

He says elsewhere that Divine Motherhood preserves the faith of Catholics from a specious Humanitarianism. One would dearly love to shout that from the rooftops.

Always with Newman there is the insistence on Mary as a creature, and not just a creature but a human creature, therefore she needed a Redeemer as much as any other human person because in Adam she died as others ... that she incurred his debt; but that for the sake of her Son who was to redeem her and us upon the Cross, to her the debt was remitted by anticipation. "The poison not injected" here must prove far more problematic to Protestant theologians here than the debt of withdrawn friendship.

An interesting point suggested by Newman and raised by Bishop Boyce is that while the Immaculate Conception meant that Mary had the supernatural gifts of grace from the first moment of her existence she seems not to have enjoyed the preternatural gifts - immortality, knowledge, immunity from suffering and so forth. Neither did her Son, the Incarnate God Himself, so she, too, suffered some of the effects of Original Sin while on this earth, like to us in all things, sin excepted.

Mary was never in safer hands than Newman's, and Newman in his turn is well served by Bishop Boyce. The Bishop doesn't consider it foreign to his subject to introduce charming trivia - JHN took "Maria" as his confirmation name; we called the Virgin "Blessed" to fulfill her own prophecy voiced in the Magnificat - but there is never any distraction from sound doctrine as witnessed by this sublime quote from the convert as he saw himself in the Apologia:

"Only this I know full well now, and did not know then, that 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. It is solus cum solo in all matters between man and his God. He alone creates: He alone has redeemed: before His awful eyes we go in death: in the vision of Him is our eternal beatitude."

A treasure chest, pressed down welling up and running over.

Leo Madigan is a top-selling New Zealand author.

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