Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman has often referred to as the greatest Catholic thinker of the nineteenth century. The following is a commentary on the nature of Catholic belief concerning the Mother of Jesus. – Ed.
I begin by making a distinction which will help to remove some of the difficulty of my undertaking, as it presents itself to ordinary enquirers—the distinction between faith and devotion. I fully grant that devotion towards the Blessed Virgin has increased among Catholics with the progress of the centuries; but I do not agree that the Church’s teaching concerning her has undergone a growth, for I believe that it has been in substance one and the same from the beginning.
By “faith” I mean the Creed and assent to the Creed; by “devotion” I mean such religious honors as belong to the objects of our faith, and the payment of those honors. 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. Of this phenomenon everyone has experience both in himself and in others, and we bear witness to it as often as we speak of realizing a truth or not realizing it. It may be illustrated, with more or less exactness, by matters which come before us in the world. For instance, a great author, or public man, may be acknowledged as such for a period of years; yet there may be an increase, an ebb and flow, in his popularity. And if he takes a lasting place in the minds of his countrymen, he may gradually grow into it, or suddenly be raised to it.
The idea of Shakespeare as a great poet has existed from a very early date in public opinion; and there were at least individuals in those days who understood him as well, and honored him as much, as the English people can honor him now. Yet, I think, there is a national devotion to him in this day such as never has been before. This has happened because, as education spreads throughout the country, there are more men able to enter into his poetical genius, and, among these, more capacity again for deeply and critically understanding him. And yet, from the first, he has exerted a great influence over the nation, as is seen from the fact that his phrases and sentences, more than can be numbered, have become almost proverbs among us.
And so again in philosophy, and in the arts and sciences, great truths and principles have sometimes been known and acknowledged for years; but, whether from feebleness of intellectual power in the recipients, or external circumstances of an accidental kind, they have not been turned to account. Thus the Chinese are said to have known of the properties of the magnet from time immemorial, and to have used it for land expeditions, yet not on the sea. Again, the ancients knew of the principle that water finds its own level, but seem to have made little application of their knowledge. And Aristotle was familiar with the principle of induction, yet it was left for Bacon to develop it into an experimental philosophy.
Illustrations such as these serve to convey that distinction between faith and devotion on which I am insisting. It is like the distinction between objective and subjective truth. The sun in the springtime will have to shine many days before it is able to melt the frost, open the soil, and bring out the leaves; yet it shines out from the first, though it makes its power felt but gradually. It is one and the same sun, though its influence day by day becomes greater. And so in the Catholic Church it is the one Virgin Mother, one and the same from first to last, and Catholics have ever acknowledged her. Yet, in spite of that acknowledgment, their devotion to her may be scanty in one time and place, and overflowing in another.
This distinction is forcibly brought home to a convert, as a peculiarity of the Catholic religion, on his first introduction to its worship. The faith is everywhere one and the same, but a large liberty is accorded to private judgment and inclination as regards matters of devotion. Any large church, with its various groups of people, will illustrate this. The church building itself is dedicated to Almighty God, under an invocation of the Blessed Virgin, or some particular saint; or again, of some mystery belonging to the Divine Name or the Incarnation; or of some mystery associated with the Blessed Virgin. Perhaps there are seven altars or more in it, and these again have their own saints. Then there is the feast proper to this or that day; and during the celebration of Mass, of all the worshippers who crowd around the priest, each has his own particular devotions, with which he follows the rite. No one interferes with his neighbor; agreeing, as it were, to differ, they pursue independently a common end, and by paths, distinct but converging, present themselves before God.
Then there are the confraternities attached to the church—of the Sacred Heart, or of the Precious Blood; associations of prayer for a good death, or for the repose of departed souls, or for the conversion of the heathen; devotions connected with the Rosary or scapular; not to speak of the great ordinary liturgy observed through the four seasons, or of the constant presence of the Blessed Sacrament, or of its ever-recurring rite of Benediction, and its extraordinary forty hours’ Exposition. Or, again, look through any manual of prayer, and you at once will see both the number and variety of devotions that are open to individual Catholics to choose from, according to their religious taste and preferences.
Now these diversified modes of honoring God did not come to us in a day, or only from the apostles, they are the accumulations of centuries; and, as in the course of years, some of them spring up, so others decline and die. Some are local, in memory of some particular saint who happens to be the evangelist, or patron, or pride of the nation, or who lies entombed in the church or in the city where it is found. These devotions, necessarily, cannot have an earlier date than the saint’s day of death or interment there.
The first of these sacred observances, long before such national memories, were the devotions paid to the apostles, then those which were paid to the martyrs. Yet there were saints nearer to our Lord than either martyrs or apostles; but these sacred persons were immersed and lost in the effulgence of his Glory, and because they did not manifest themselves, during their lifetime, in external works separate from him, it happened that for a long while they were less noticed. However, as time went on, the apostles, and then the martyrs, exerted less influence than before over the popular mind, and local saints, new creations of God’s power, took their place, or the saints of some religious order. Then, as comparatively quiet times succeeded, the religious meditations of holy men and their quiet intercourse with heaven gradually exerted an influence, and permeated the Christian populace, by the instrumentality of preaching and by the ceremonial of the Church. Hence at length those luminous stars rose in the ecclesiastical heavens, which were of more august dignity than any which had preceded them. They were late in rising, for the very reason that they were so specially glorious.
Those names, I say, which at first sight might have been expected to enter earliest into the devotions of the faithful, with better reason might have been looked for at a later date, and actually were late in their coming. St. Joseph furnishes the most striking instance of this; here is the clearest of instances of the distinction between doctrine and devotion. Who, from his prerogatives and the testimony on which they come to us, had a greater claim to receive an early recognition among the faithful than he? A saint of Scripture, the foster-father of our Lord, he was an object of the universal and absolute faith of the Christian world from the first, yet devotion to him is of comparatively late date. When once it began, men seemed surprised that it had not been thought of before; and now, they hold him next to the Blessed Virgin in their religious affection and veneration.
This article was excerpted from “Letter to Rev. E. B. Pusey” in Difficulties of Anglicans, London, 1920, Vol. II, pp. 26-31, as found in Mystical Rose, ed. Joseph Regina, Scepter, 1996.