Blessed Cardinal Newman on Mary’s Immaculate Conception

Blessed Cardinal Newman on Mary’s Immaculate Conception July 31, 2019

From my book, Cardinal Newman: Q & A in Theology, Church History, and Conversion (May 2015; available as an e-book for only $2.99). The questions are my own. All other words are from Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman (who is to be canonized this October).

Drawn from The Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman [excluding volumes 11-12, 27-30, 32]

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What Does it Mean to Call Mary the “New Eve”?

Of course the comparison between Eve and Mary is in all the Fathers ‘mystical throughout,’ not literal. Our Lord is Adam mystically – and Mary is Eve. Unless there is a likeness, there would be no mystical relation. The Lamb of God, the King of Israel, the Elias that was to come, the New Jerusalem are all mystical; but we interpret the new by the old. We say that our Lord was a sacrifice, because he was mystically a Lamb – and Mary sinless because she was mystically Eve. (v. 22; To Robert Charles Jenkins, 26 Feb. 1866)

What is the Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary?

You wished, I believe, to know what the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is :- it is this, that the Blessed Virgin is exempt from original sin.… In some rare cases, as in St John Baptist’s, this grace has been given before birth; so that St John was not born in original sin. But, since his soul existed before our Lady’s visit to his Mother, up to that time had been in original sin; therefore he was conceived in original sin, or his conception was not immaculate. By conception is meant the creation of the soul, when at once it is united to the body, and becomes a human being or person. In the first instant then of St John’s existing, or on his conception, he was at once, (as being of the lineage of Adam,) brought into the state of degradation to which Adam had reduced himself and his offspring, But, when divine grace was given him at the time of the Visitation, he was taken out, ipso facto, of that fallen state. Had grace been given to him, not merely three months before his birth, but from the first moment of his existence as a human being, then it would have been right to say of him, that he was conceived without original sin, or that he had an immaculate conception. Now this we believe to have been actually the case as regards the Blessed Virgin. At the very time that her soul was created, grace was given to her, so that she never was without grace, never under the power of sin, even original, never otherwise than immaculate. (v. 22; To Lady Chatterton, 2 Oct. 1865)

As to your question how our Lady can be immaculately conceived, yet it can be true that she sinned in Adam, you will find it explained in my Pamphlet. She sinned in Adam, but, before she actually came to be, the sin was taken off her. Thus a rebel’s children and posterity may be disinherited. They all suffer in him by anticipation, but before the great-grandchild is born the forfeiture may be reversed, and he may actually come into the property from his birth. (v. 24; To Mrs. Helbert, 28 Sep. 1869)

How was Mary’s Immaculate Conception Proclaimed in 1854?

It is remarkable that the Bull does not define the doctrine, but defines that it is revealed, and therefore of faith. (v. 16; To J. D. Dalgairns, 22 Jan. 1855)

Why Do Catholics Adhere to Mary’s Immaculate Conception?

[I]t does surprise me that you find a difficulty in the Immaculate Conception – and, as you say that ‘it presents such obstacles to Anglicans,’ I am led to assure you that I for one felt it no obstacle – on the contrary it seems to me the most natural and necessary of doctrines – and I cannot enter into the minds of those who feel it difficult.… In a Sermon published in 1835, ten years before I became a Catholic, I say, ‘What, think you, was the sanctity and. grace of that human nature of which God formed His sinless Son; knowing, as we do, “that what is born of the flesh is flesh,” and that “none can bring a clean thing out of an unclean?” I was accused of holding the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, for it was clear that I connected ‘grace’ with the Blessed Virgin’s humanity – as if grace and nature in her case never had been separated. All I could say in answer was, that there was nothing against the doctrine in the 39 Articles. St John Baptist was without original sin three months before his birth – what is then strange or unchristian in the doctrine that our Lady was free from it for nine months that is, from her conception? The grace of God in that case was given to her six months earlier than to the Baptist. Is there anything monstrous in this? If I am asked for proof of the doctrine being held in the early Church, I answer that it seems included in the general belief that the Blessed Virgin was without sin – and, while not much is said about her at all, when she is spoken of, she is spoken of in this aspect. I need not do more than remind you of the well known passage of St Augustine, in which he says that, when Mary is named, he does not wish to make any mention of sin, as if the two names were antagonistic – but what to me is, and ever has been, most striking, is the series of passages from the earliest Fathers in which Mary is contrasted to Eve, as typical contrasts. St Justin (A.D 160) St Irenaeus (A.D. 170) Tertullian (A.D 200) all enlarge on this contrast – and later Fathers hand down the Tradition. The very point indeed in which the contrast is made, is that of obedience – but, when St Irenaeus says, ‘mankind is surrendered to death by a Virgin, and is saved by a Virgin,’ he surely implies that as Eve was without sin, so was Mary. Why indeed is it difficult to suppose that Mary had at least the privilege of Eve? – and Eve had an immaculate conception and birth.… I think I am right in saying, that the only great historical difficulty of the doctrine is the opposition, if it may be so called, of St Bernard and St Thomas – yet to my mind it is clearly shown that they did not mean by the doctrine what the Church now means… the two saints in question were opposing what no one now thinks of maintaining… (v. 19; To Arthur Osborne Alleyne, 30 May 1860)

Why is the Immaculate Conception Implausible to Protestants?

The difficulty which Protestants feel in receiving the doctrine lies in this, that they consider it a substantive self dependent doctrine more than we do. There are doctrines so intimately one with other doctrines, that they are rather their parts or aspects, than distinct from them; so that to prove the one is to prove the other. On the contrary there are doctrines so distinct from each other, that each requires its own proper proof, and to prove the one is no step at all towards proving the other E.g. the doctrine of our Lord’s divinity, and that of the Holy Ghost’s, are independent of each other. This does not imply that; to prove the one is not to prove the other. Again: our Lord’s birth from Mary is one doctrine, and her sanctity is another. The one indeed tends to imply the other, but still they are independent, and must each be proved by itself, if their truth is to be ascertained by argument at all. In these two cases, to say that the second doctrine is an extension of the first, and that it is sufficient to prove the first in order to the reception of the second, few men would allow. On the other hand, if I say, ‘God is Almighty, and is Allwise;’ or ‘the Son of God, is eternal, and He is incomprehensible,’ or ‘the Holy Ghost is in the unity of the Father and the Son, and He is God,’ I put together pairs of propositions, which form parts of one idea respectively, and which are such, that to prove the one is virtually to prove the other.… In this then lies the difference of view, taken by Catholics and Protestants respectively, of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception; that Catholics do not view it as a substantive and independent doctrine, so much as one of a family of doctrines which are intimately united together, whereas Protestants consider it as separate from every other, and as requiring a proof of its own as fully as if it were the only thing that we knew of the Blessed Virgin. Catholics think it not much more of an addition to what they otherwise hold of her, than it would be to say, ‘The Son of God is God, therefore He is immensus,’ whereas Protestants think it as little connected with what Catholics themselves otherwise hold of the Blessed Virgin, as the Doctrine of our Lord’s divinity is with that of the divinity of the Holy Ghost.

Next, why do Protestants thus differ from Catholics in their mode of viewing the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception? I think it arises from the different view which the two religions take of that doctrine, out of which the Immaculate Conception arises, viz the doctrine of original sin. Protestants consider original sin to be an infection of nature, so that man’s nature now is not what it was before the fall. Accordingly, to be conceived without original sin is to have a nature different from that of other men. Hence, according to them, it is blasphemy to say that our Lord was born of the nature of fallen Adam; and it is blasphemy according to their view of that nature.… Now I do not deny that Catholics consider that the natural powers of man are enfeebled by the fall; but they do not admit any infection of nature. They consider (or, they are free to consider) that the Blessed Virgin, that our Lord Himself, though both of them were without Original Sin, still both of them had the nature of fallen Adam. For Original Sin, according to them, consists in the deprivation of the grace of God, which was a gift external and superadded to Adam’s nature. The presence of divine grace is the justifying principle, which makes the soul acceptable to Almighty God; moreover, there are degrees of justification, as there are degrees of grace. Not all the grace conceivable would, in the view of a Protestant, destroy Original Sin; it ever remains an infection, even though it be not imputed; but to a Catholic, on the contrary, the entrance of grace into the soul, as a presence, ipso facto destroys Original Sin. In the view of a Protestant it is no recommendation of the doctrine of our Lady’s Immaculate Conception to urge that St John the Baptist was within six months of such a conception himself; but to a Catholic, who believes that the entrance of grace at the moment of conception is an ipso facto reversal of Original Sin, it acts as a probable argument in favour of her having been saved from Original Sin, that the Baptist, who was below her in dignity, was sanctified three months before his birth.

This difference of view is the cause of what has seemed so strange to you. As a Protestant would think a disputant captious and unfair, who asked for a distinct proof from Scripture, that ‘the godhead and manhood were joined in one Person, never to be divided,’ so a Catholic cannot comprehend why Protestants make so much difficulty and noise about the doctrine which to them is so natural, so intelligible, as the Immaculate Conception. Any passage of the Fathers, which speaks, vaguely but largely, of the grace given to Mary, tells, in his judgment, for the doctrine; for that privilege is but the fulness of grace. On the contrary, to a Protestant it does not go one hair’s breadth toward proving it, for not all the grace conceivable can overcome, as he thinks, a fault of nature. In like manner, any passage of the Fathers, as that of St Augustine, which generally separates her off from sin, suggests to the Catholic the doctrine that she was without original Sin; whereas on the Protestant it has no such effect whatever, because OriginaI Sin, in his view, is not a state different from Adam’s, but a nature different from Adam’s. And further, to the Catholic, (at least before he plunges into past controversy,) it is as little surprising that the Church should define this point and declare it to be de fide, as that the Athanasian Creed should call the Holy Ghost God, though the Nicene does not: to the Protestant on the other hand, it is ‘an unwarranted and audacious addition to the articles of faith’ etc etc. (v. 19; To Arthur Osborne Alleyne, 15 June 1860)

What is the Historical Evidence for the Immaculate Conception?

[A]s to the antiquity of the doctrine. In the first ages original sin was not. formally spoken of in contrast to actual. In the fourth century, Pelagius denied it, and was refuted and denounced by St Augustine. Not till the time of St Augustine could the question be mooted precisely whether our Lady was without original sin or not. Up to his time, and after his time, it was usual to say or to imply that Mary had nothing to do with sin, in vague terms. The earliest Fathers, St Justin, St Irenaeus etc. contrast her with Eve, while they contrast our Lord with Adam. In doing this – 1. they, sometimes imply, sometimes insist upon, the point that Eve sinned when tried, and Mary did not sin when tried; and 2. they say that, by not sinning, Mary had a real part in the work of redemption, in a way in which no other creature had a share. This does not go so far as actually to pronounce that she had the grace of God from the first moment of her existence, and never was under the power of original sin, but by comparing her with Eve, who was created of course without original sin, and by giving her so high an office, it implies it. Next, shortly after St Augustine, the 3rd General Council was held against Nestorius, and declared Mary to be the Mother of God. From this time the language of the Fathers is very strong, though vague, about her immaculateness. In the time of Mahomet the precise doctrine seems to have been taught in the East, for I think he mentions it in the Koran. In the middle ages, when everything was subjected to rigid examination of a reasoning character, the question was raised whether the doctrine was consistent with the Blessed Virgin’s having a human father and mother – and serious objections were felt to it on this score. Men defined the words ‘Immaculate Conception’ differently from what I have done above, and in consequence denied it. St Bernard and St Thomas, in this way, were opposed to it, and the Dominicans. A long controversy ensued and a hot one – it lasted many centuries. At length, in our time, it has been defined in that sense in which I have explained the words above – a sense, which St Bernard, St Thomas, and the Dominicans did not deny. The same controversy about the sense of a word had occurred in the instance of the first General Council at Nicaea. The Nicene Creed uses the word ‘Consubstantial’ to protect the doctrine of our Lord’s divinity against Arius, which the great Council of Antioch some 70 years before had repudiated as a symbol of heresy. In like manner great Saints have repudiated the words ‘Immaculate Conception,’ from taking them in a different sense from that which the Church has accepted and sanctioned. (v. 22; To Lady Chatterton, 2 Oct. 1865)

As to the Immaculate Conception, I consider its tradition, (Quod semper) from the first, is contained in the doctrine ‘Mary is the Second Eve.’ (v. 24; To Edward B. Pusey, 4 July 1869)

Why Did the Immaculate Conception Take So Long to Develop?

You will ask perhaps, ‘Why then was there so much controversy about the doctrine or about its definition?’… I do not see any difficulty in the matter. From the beginning of the Church even good and holy men have got involved in controversies of words.… The devotion to her has gradually and slowly extended through the Church; the doctrine about her being always the same from the first. But the gradual growth of the devotion was a cause why that doctrine, in spite of its having been from the first, should have been but slowly recognised, slowly defined.… ‘The new devotion was first heard of in the ninth century.’ Suppose I say, ‘The new doctrine of our Lord’s immensity, contradicted by all the Ante-nicene Fathers, was first heard of in the creed of St Athanasius?’ or ‘The Filioque, protested against by the Orthodox Church to this day, was first heard of in the 7th Century?’ Whatever principle is adduced to explain the latter statement will avail for the first.… The Holy Ghost’s eternity is involved in His divinity; the Blessed Virgin’s immaculateness in her conception is involved in the general declarations of the Fathers about her sinlessness. If all Catholics have not seen this at once, we must recollect that there were at first mistakes among pious and holy men about the attributes of the Holy Spirit.… I fully grant that there is not that formal documentary evidence for the doctrine in question which there is for some other doctrines, but I maintain also that, from its character, it does not require it. (v. 19; To Arthur Osborne Alleyne, 15 June 1860)

Is the Immaculate Conception Rationally Difficult to Accept?

I never meant to say that I never knew of any one who required information on the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception – but that I never heard of any one who had ‘difficulties’ in receiving it when he understood what it was, who had not other real difficulties too. Did you tell me, after ‘asking counsel of me’ that your difficulties continued as they were? I assure you such a state of mind as inquires and is at length satisfied did not enter into my thoughts when I wrote, nor, as I think, is implied in my language. (v. 21; To J. T. Rodmell, 20 June 1864)

How Could Mary Have a “Savior” if She Was Immaculate?

‘In Adam all die;’ yet no man was yet in existence, when Adam fell. They died before they lived. As the whole race could die, at God’s will, before they existed, so one of that whole race could (at the same will) not only die before she was in being, but be made alive again also. And this last remark suggests to us, how it is that she is to be considered as really redeemed by her Son, though in fact she had no sin to be forgiven.… Yes: she is indisputably among those whom our Lord suffered for and saved; she not only fell in Adam, but she rose in Christ, before she began to be.… In truth, Catholics consider her as the signal and chiefest instance of the power and fulness of redeeming grace; for her Son merited for her that initial grace which was the prevention of Original Sin. (v. 19; To Arthur Osborne Alleyne, 15 June 1860)

Does Mary’s Immaculate Conception Have a Physical Element?

As to the Immaculate Conception, I am perfectly convinced Protestants don’t know what our doctrine is. Dear Robert [Wilberforce] did not, when he wrote his book on the Incarnation as I pointed out to him. There is nothing physical at all in it. The doctrine is simply this – ‘As St John Baptist’s soul was sanctified by the Holy Ghost three months before his birth, so the Blessed Virgin’s soul was sanctified, as many months as it had existed before her birth, i.e. from its very first creation.’ Physical questions do not come in at all in the doctrine – they come in only when, in controversy, we have to reconcile our doctrine with the text, ‘In sin has my mother conceived me – ‘ then we are accustomed to say, ‘The Psalmist speaks of the conception of the body – but our doctrine speaks, not of the body, but of the time when the soul is created, or begins to exist.’… Now we say, that the Blessed Virgin had from the first moment of creation the presence or gift of grace – AS ADAM HAD – and we only say that she was restored (for the sake of the Atonement which was to come) to Adam’s state, and never was in any other state. (v. 19; To William Wilberforce, 9 Dec. 1860)

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