An answer to the accusation that the Fathers claimed Mary was not sinless

May 21, 2023 • 7 min

From St. John Henry Newman’s Letter to Dr. Pusey in reply to his Eirenicon, page 135
By St. John Henry Newman

Now what do these three Fathers say in these passages?

1. St. Basil imputes to the Blessed Virgin, not only doubt, but the sin of doubt. On the other hand, 1. he imputes it only on one occasion; 2. he does not consider it to be a grave sin; 3. he implies that, in point of spiritual perfection, she is above the Apostles.

2. St. Chrysostom, in his first passage, does not impute sin to her at all. He says God so disposed things for her as to shield her from the chance of sinning; that she was too admirable to be allowed to be betrayed by her best and purest feelings into sin. All that is implied in a spirit repugnant to a Catholic’s reverence for her, is, that her woman’s nature, viewed in itself and apart from the watchful providence of God’s grace over her, would not have had strength to resist a hypothetical temptation,—a position which a Catholic will not care to affirm or deny, though he will feel great displeasure at having to discuss it at all. This too at least is distinctly brought out in the passage, viz., that in St. Chrysostom’s mind, our Lady was not a mere physical instrument of the Incarnation, but that her soul, as well as her body, “ministered to the mystery,” and needed to be duly prepared for it.

As to his second most extraordinary passage, I should not be candid, unless I simply admitted that it is as much at variance with what we hold, as it is solitary and singular in the writings of Antiquity. The Saint distinctly and (pace illius) needlessly, imputes to the Blessed Virgin, on the occasion in question, the sin or infirmity of vain-glory. He has a parallel passage in commenting on the miracle at the Marriage-feast. All that can be said to alleviate the startling character of these passages is, that it does not appear that St. Chrysostom would account such vain-glory in a woman any great sin.

3. Lastly, as to St. Cyril, I do not see that he declares that Mary actually doubted at the Crucifixion, but that, considering she was a woman, it is likely she was tempted to doubt, and nearly doubted. Moreover, St. Cyril does not seem to consider such doubt, had it occurred, as any great sin.

Thus on the whole, all three Fathers, St. Basil and St. Cyril explicitly, and St. Chrysostom by implication, consider that on occasions she was, or might be, exposed to violent temptation to doubt; but two Fathers consider that she actually did sin, though she sinned lightly;—the sin being doubt, and on one occasion, according to St. Basil; and on two occasions, the sin being vain-glory, according to St. Chrysostom.

However, the strong language of these Fathers is not directed against our Lady’s person, so much as against her nature. They seem to have participated with Ambrose, Jerome, and other Fathers in that low estimation of woman’s nature which was general in their times. In the broad imperial world, the conception entertained of womankind was not high; it seemed only to perpetuate the poetical tradition of the “Varium et mutabile semper.” Little was then known of that true nobility, which is exemplified in the females of the Gothic and German races, and in those of the old Jewish stock, Miriam, Deborah, Judith, Susanna, the forerunners of Mary. When then St. Chrysostom imputes vain-glory to her, he is not imputing to her any thing worse than an infirmity, the infirmity of a nature, inferior to man’s, and intrinsically feeble; as though the Almighty could have created a more excellent being than Mary, but could not have made a greater woman. Accordingly Chrysostom does not say that she sinned. He does not deny that she had all the perfections which woman could have; but he seems to have thought the capabilities of her nature were bounded, so that the utmost grace bestowed upon it could not raise it above that standard of perfection in which its elements resulted, and that to attempt more, would have been to injure, not benefit it. Of course I am not stating this as brought out in any part of his writings, but it seems to me to be the real sentiment of many of the ancients.

I will add that such a belief on the part of these Fathers, that the Blessed Virgin had committed a sin or a weakness, was not in itself inconsistent with the exercise of love and devotion to her (though I am not pretending that there is proof of its actual existence); and for this simple reason, that if sinlessness were a condition of inspiring devotion, we should not feel devotion to any but our Lady, not to St. Joseph, or to the Apostles, or to our Patron Saints.

Such then is the teaching of these three Fathers; now how far is it in antagonism to ours. On the one hand, we will not allow that our Blessed Lady ever sinned; we cannot bear the notion, entering, as we do, into the full spirit of St. Augustine’s words, “Concerning the Holy Virgin Mary, I wish no question to be raised at all, when we are treating of sins.” On the other hand, we admit, rather we maintain, that, except for the grace of God, she might have sinned; and that she may have been exposed to temptation in the sense in which our Lord was exposed to it, though as His Divine Nature made it impossible for Him to yield to it, so His grace preserved her from its assaults also. While then we do not hold that St. Simeon prophesied of temptation, when he said a sword would pierce her, still, if any one likes to say he did, we do not consider him heretical, provided he does not impute to her any sinful or inordinate emotion as the consequence to it. In this way St. Cyril may be let off altogether; and we have only to treat of the paradoxa or anomala of those great Saints, St. Basil and St. Chrysostom. I proceed to their controversial value.

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