Catholic Devotion to the Mother of God: What Newman’s Letter to Pusey (1866) tells us about Mariology and Marian Piety

By Robert M. Andrews
Published in History & Spirituality & Theology
December 01, 2021
15 min read
Catholic Devotion to the Mother of God: What Newman’s Letter to Pusey (1866) tells us about Mariology and Marian Piety

Where our natural language would be, “God will do this or that,” there it seems equally natural to Roman Catholics to say, “Mary will do it.” At least, where we expect beforehand, in the unfinished sentence, to find “God,” or “Jesus,” we find “Mary.”[1] So wrote the nineteenth-century Anglo-Catholic luminary, Edward Bouverie Pusey, to his former Tractarian ally, John Henry Newman in 1865, part of a work—the Eirenicon—designed to propose the terms of reunion for the Anglican and Roman Churches. By 1865 Newman had only recently been reunited with Pusey and John Keble—the nucleus of the Oxford Movement that had so shaken the Church of England in the 1830s—since his conversion in 1845. Their meeting at Keble’s rectory at Hursley, Hampshire, on 12 September 1865, after decades of separation, was an emotional experience, yet it did not deter Newman’s desire months later to answer Pusey’s Anglo-Catholic critique of the cult of the Virgin Mary in Catholicism.[2]

Pusey’s appraisal of Mariology—a polemic containing a mixture of historical, theological and anecdotal evidence—was, on the whole, untrue and mostly a caricature; yet as Newman would be forced to admit in his formal published reply to Pusey in 1866, the Letter to Pusey, there was partial veracity to his claim that at times Mariology, in some of its devotional outpourings, has obscured devotion to God, especially God’s loving mediation brought to humanity through the Incarnation.[3] By occasionally placing Mary in a role that was akin to the one scripture so clearly proclaimed to be our Lord’s, the legitimate question of whether the Incarnation was even necessary raises itself.[4] As some overly zealous apologists for our Lady have argued at various times: if God—including Christ—is too holy for sinful humanity to directly approach, then surely mortal men need a fellow human to advocate on their behalf. As Bernard of Clairvaux put it in the twelfth century, “we need a mediator in order to reach Christ our mediator, and we can find none better than our Lady.”[5]

Partly because of the theological contribution of Newman, Vatican II and its ecumenical heritage has rightly steered Catholics back to remembering that devotion to the Mother of God must always compliment God’s love for humanity as shown in the Incarnation.[6] Nonetheless, one still finds Catholic devotions that, in places, lean in an unorthodox direction. For instance, versions of Louis de Montfort’s early eighteenth-century manual of Marian piety, A Treatise on True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin, a work that reasserts St. Bernard’s claim for the need of Mary’s intercession in light of Christ’s divinity, remain popular. This is not to claim that such works cannot be read for spiritual profit, nor that their entire content drip with heterodoxy. In fact, such a view would not only be incorrect, but would reflect a kind of theological and intellectual snobbery that Newman would have condemned as readily as he might have condemned unorthodox statements regarding Mariology. Irenicism, for Newman, went both ways—that is, charitableness towards Protestant sensitivities regarding Mariology also required charitableness towards the faithful for whom Marian devotion provides an important solace, even if such devotion sometimes may seem to skirt the edges of its own quasi-pagan cult.

One of the great contributions Newman gave to nineteenth-century Catholic theology was a genuine and honest awareness of the Catholic faith as a body of thought that exists in human space and time. Catholics are, after all, human beings; they live, grow, and die within a world that is temporal and transient. This may now seem to us a rather facile observation, but the nineteenth century—an age where Charles Darwin shattered some of the certainties of Christians in a natural world—made Catholicism’s more honest exponents confront the fact that some received approaches simply no longer worked, nor were convincing. Where Mariology was concerned, myth and legend had—at the very least—to be confronted honestly, as did Mariological assertions that sit uncomfortably when placed alongside an orthodox Christology. This, of course, merged into discussions concerning the manner in which the pious (including the learned) made their love of the Virgin known within the devotional sphere. “Here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often,”[7] Newman wrote famously in the Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845/78). But part of this sentiment also meant that change might involve the revision of certain expressions of Catholic piety—revision in light of the doctrines of the faith as they develop as part of the Christian deposit.

In the Letter to Pusey Newman responded to his old friend’s extensive quotations from contemporary writers whom Pusey regarded as promoting Marian devotions that either took away from Christ’s salvific work or mediation. For Newman, the foundation of this reply was a principle that asserted the distinction between faith and devotion. The faith of Mariology—its doctrines—could, in Newman’s view, be defended on their own ground, especially in reference to the writings of the Fathers, whose founding role in Catholic theology he regarded as indispensable. Devotion, on the other hand, was different—a transient phenomenon that grew and changed over time. If based on solid orthodox groundings, Marian devotion could naturally develop into something worthy of genuine piety. On the other hand, if not grounded in orthodoxy, Marian devotion could be corrupted into manifestations that were either on the boundaries of orthodoxy, or well outside even its most generous ambit. It was utopian to think that devotions could always be kept free of error, especially when they become the property of the unlearned or poorly catechized.[8] Moreover, making use of the affections, Marian devotions had to be understood not only in terms of the historical and cultural context in which they were being enunciated, but as the outpouring of human affections:

“What is abstractedly extravagant, may in particular persons be becoming and beautiful, and only fall under blame when it is found in others who imitate them. When it is formalized into meditations or exercises, it is as repulsive as love-letters in a  police report. Moreover, even holy minds readily adopt and become familiar with language which they would never have originated themselves, when it proceeds from a writer who has the same objects of devotion as they have; and, if they find a stranger ridicule or reprobate supplication or praise which has come to them so recommended, they feel it as keenly as if a direct insult were offered to those to whom that homage is addressed.”[9]

Given that the Virgin Mary “bore, suckled, and handled the Eternal in the form of a child,” “the rush and flood of thoughts which such a doctrine involves” could in an emotionally charged zealot, involve the enunciation of doctrinal error.[10] Like lovers who are besotted with one another, complete doctrinal soundness—rational, cautious, and systematic—can never be guaranteed. If this is true of canonized saints, it is even more true for the untrained or uneducated laity. Newman puts it in words that seem, at first glance, condescending, but which are not:

“The religion of the multitude is ever vulgar and abnormal; it ever will be tinctured with fanaticism and superstition, while men are what they are. A people’s religion is ever a corrupt religion, in spite of the provisions of Holy Church.”[11]

As I have written elsewhere: “Instead of this being a sign that there is something inherently wrong with such devotions, the presence of errors and abuses is, in fact, a sign of their underlying vitality.”[12] Newman goes on:

“That in times and places it [Mariology] has fallen into abuse, that it has even become a superstition, I do not care to deny; for, as I have said above, the same process which brings to maturity carries on to decay, and things that do not admit of abuse have very little life in them. This of course does not excuse such excesses, or justify us in making light of them, when they occur. I have no intention of doing so as regards the particular instances which you bring against us.”[13]

The Letter to Pusey, however, was much more than simply a refutation of an old friend who continued to hold religious beliefs that Newman had long ago abandoned, coupled with a defense of Marian piety, for it was additionally a commentary on a type of Catholicism then in vogue in England in the nineteenth century. It was significant to Newman that the only English writer Pusey had cited was F. W. Faber—an Anglican convert who, along with Henry Edward Manning (also a convert), had become apologists for the ultramontane school.[14] Faber had been the first English writer to translate de Montfort’s True Devotion in 1863—a work that in 1865 Newman admitted he had not heard of.[15] True Devotion had been one of Pusey’s chief bodies of evidence against Marian piety. As has been noted, it contained a repetition of Bernard of Clairvaux’s claims regarding humanity’s need for a second—more human and approachable—mediator: namely, the Mother of our Lord. This questionable Christology had led Pusey to think that some Catholics, in turn, obscured Christ through their extravagant Marian theologies.

Yet for Newman, Faber was unrepresentative of both English Catholicism and Catholicism at large. Moreover, Faber had adopted a cultural style that was unintelligible to English men and women, whose approach to theology was for Newman far more literal and sober than the exuberance of continental piety.[16] Pusey had not only confused doctrine with devotion, he had misunderstood the religious sensibility of his own nation. “I suppose we owe it to the national good sense,” Newman wrote,

“that English Catholics have been protected from the extravagances which are elsewhere to be found. And we owe it also to the wisdom and moderation of the Holy See, which, in giving us the pattern for our devotion, as well as the rule of our faith, has never indulged in those curiosities of thought which are both so attractive to undisciplined imaginations and so dangerous to grovelling hearts. In the case of our own common people I think such a forced style of devotion would be simply unintelligible; as to the educated, I doubt whether it can have more than an occasional or temporary influence. If the Catholic faith spreads in England, these peculiarities will not spread with it.”[17]

Faber had himself complained of the English Catholic approach to Mary in the preface to his translation of de Montfort. Frightened of Protestants, they had devalued Mary’s rightful place in Catholic faith and piety:

“Here in England Mary is not half enough preached. Devotion to her is low and thin and poor. It is frightened out of its wits by the sneers of heresy. It is always invoking human respect and carnal prudence wishing to make Mary so little of a Mary that Protestants may feel at ease about her. Its ignorance of theology makes it unsubstantial and unworthy. It is not the prominent characteristic of our religion which it ought to be.”[18]

Other historians have confirmed this restrained English approach to the place of our Lady in Catholic theology and piety. Inspired by centuries of Recusant piety, which had frequently been the subject of persecution, English Mariology had “kept its head low.”[19] If Faber was critical of this phenomenon, however, Newman was not. Even if Catholic emancipation had, for the most part, freed Catholic piety from its second-class status, “the English style” was born not out of persecution, but good sense and a solid commitment to orthodox Catholic tradition. It was a required attribute for English sensibilities:

“There is a healthy devotion to the Blessed Mary, and there is an artificial; it is possible to love her as a Mother, to honour her as a Virgin, to seek her as a Patron, and to exalt her as a Queen, without any injury to solid piety and Christian good sense:—I cannot help calling this the English style. I wonder whether you find anything to displease you in the Garden of the Soul, the Key of Heaven, the Vade Mecum, the Golden Manual, or the Crown of Jesus. These are the books to which Anglicans ought to appeal, who would be fair to us in this matter. I do not observe anything in them which goes beyond the teaching of the Fathers, except so far as devotion goes beyond doctrine.”[20]

But Newman went further than simply arguing that all aspects of Marian devotion could be either accepted or rejected on the basis of cultural applicability. The truth was that in his view some Catholic writers had been promoting a Mariology that was, in truth, heretical. The classic example, already discussed, was the notion—as Newman put it—"that His [Christ’s] present disposition towards sinners, as well as His Father’s, is to reject them” and that “Mary takes His place as an Advocate with Father and Son.”[21] In light of this it may be asked: what is the point of the Incarnation in such a theological scheme? How does such an idea relate to biblical passages such as Hebrews 10:19–23—especially when we approach the altar to receive the body and blood of Christ?[22] A century earlier Newman was equally as critical:

“Sentiments such as these I freely surrender to your animadversion; I never knew of them till I read your book, nor, as I think, do the vast majority of English Catholics know them. They seem to me like a bad dream. I could not have conceived them to be said. I know not to what authority to go for them, to Scripture, or to the Fathers, or to the decrees of Councils, or to the consent of schools, or to the tradition of the faithful, or to the Holy See, or to Reason. They defy all the loci theologici. There is nothing of them in the Missal, in the Roman Catechism, in the Roman Raccolta, in the Imitation of Christ, in Gother, Challoner, Milner or Wiseman, as far as I am aware. They do but scare and confuse me. … [A]s spoken by man to man, in England, in the nineteenth century, I consider them calculated to prejudice inquirers, to frighten the unlearned, to unsettle consciences, to provoke blasphemy, and to work the loss of souls.”[23]

Newman’s message is clear: though Catholics have every right to defend Mariology as being not only biblical, but in conformity with good sense and Catholic tradition, they also need to remember the admonition of Lumen Gentium to “assiduously keep away from whatever, either by word or deed, could lead separated brethren or any other into error regarding the true doctrine of the Church.”[24] Though some Evangelicals fear it, Our Lady is not another redeemer who replaces a distant and wrathful Christ.[25] She is the “handmaid of the Lord” (Luke 1:38); a human being who said “yes” to God. As Newman put it when he was still an Anglican, Mary is “our pattern of faith”[26]—a notion he would later elucidate after he became a Catholic. Like Mary we are also invited to say “yes” to God. Such an invitation is itself an act of grace, to which God not only asks us to respond, but wants us to respond. Any assistance that the Virgin Mary gives us on the way is to aid us in that journey. Our devotions to Mary need to reflect the Catholic idea of a loving God who, because of the gracious and salvific work of Christ, also desires us to love him and duly venerate the woman who brought him into this world.

[1] Edward B. Pusey, The Church of England a Portion of Christ’s One Holy Catholic Church, and a Means of Restoring Visible Unity. An Eirenicon in a Letter to the Author of “The Christian Year” (London: Rivingtons, 1865), 143.

[2] Ian Ker, John Henry Newman: A Biography (Oxford: Clarendon, 1988), 577–78; Newman to Ambrose St John (13 September 1865), LD xx, 51–53.

[3] Though published separately in 1866, the text is found within Newman, Diff ii (London: Longmans Green & Co., 1920).

[4] Yves M-J. Congar OP, Christ, Our Lady and the Church (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1957), 71.

[5] opus est enim mediatore ad mediatorem istum, nee alter nobis utilior quam Maria (J. P. Migne, Patrologia Latina, clxxxiii, Paris, 1879, 429); Congar OP, Christ, Our Lady and the Church, 72.

[6] See Lumen Gentium in Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, ed. Austin Flannery (Collegeville: Liturgical, 1975), 421–22; Donald Bolen and Gregory Cameron, Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ. The Seattle Statement of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (London: Continuum, 2006).

[7] Newman, Dev (London: Longmans Green & Co., 1890), 40.

[8] Newman, Diff, 78–79.

[9] Newman, Diff, 80.

[10] Newman, Diff, 83.

[11] Newman, Diff, 81.

[12] Robert M. Andrews, “Does devotion to Our Lady ever go too far? Newman on Marian piety in the Letter to Pusey (1866),” The Downside Review 130, no. 460 (2012): 51.

[13] Newman, Diff, 89.

[14] Newman, Diff, 98–99.

[15] Newman to John Keble (8 October 1865), LD xx, 68.

[16] Newman, Diff, 115.

[17] Newman, Diff, 99–100.

[18] F. W. Faber, “Preface,” in Louie-Marie Grignon de Montfort, A Treatise on True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin, trans. F. W. Faber (London: Burns & Lambert, 1863), ix.

[19] Robert M. Andrews, Apologia Pro Beata Maria Virgine: John Henry Newman’s Defence of the Virgin Mary in Catholic Doctrine and Piety (London & Washington, DC: Academica Press, 2017), 9–11.

[20] Newman, Diff, 100.

[21] Newman, Diff, 113.

[22] “Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful” (Heb. 10:19–23; NRSV).

[23] Newman, Diff, 114–15.

[24] Lumen Gentium 67, in Flannery (ed.), 421–22.

[25] See for example, James R. White, Mary—Another Redeemer? (Bloomington: Bethany House, 1998).

[26] Newman, US (London: Rivingtons, 1880), 313–14.

This is a revised version of an article, originally published under the title, “Catholic Devotion to the Mother of God: Lessons from Newman’s Letter to Pusey (1866),” in Compass: A Review of Topical Theology 49, no. 4 (2015): 12–16.

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Robert M. Andrews

Robert M. Andrews

Senior Lecturer, Catholic Institute of Sydney, Australia

Robert M. Andrews is Senior Lecturer in Church History at the Catholic Institute of Sydney, Australia, a member institute of the University of Notre Dame Australia and the Sydney College of Divinity. He is the author of Apologia Pro Beata Maria Virgine: John Henry Newman’s Defence of the Virgin Mary in Catholic Doctrine and Piety (London & Washington, DC: Academica Press, 2017).


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