How the three later Fathers can be shown to not be speaking dogmatically about Mary not being sinless

May 28, 2023 • 5 min

From A Defense of the Teachings of Mary, page 141
By St. John Henry Newman

Now to take the Three later Fathers one by one:—

1. As to St. Cyril, as I have said, he does not, strictly speaking, say more than that our Lady was grievously tempted. This does not imply sin, for our Lord was “tempted in all things like as we are, yet without sin.” Moreover, it is this St. Cyril who spoke at Ephesus of the Blessed Virgin in terms of such high panegyric, as to make it more consistent in him to suppose that she was sinless, than that she was not.

2. St. Basil derived his notion, that the Blessed Virgin at the time of the Passion admitted a doubt about our Lord’s mission, from Origen; and he, so far from professing to rest it on Tradition, draws it as a theological conclusion from a received doctrine. Origen’s characteristic fault was to prefer scientific reasonings to authority; and he exemplifies it in the case before us.

In the middle age, the great obstacle to the reception of the doctrine of the Blessed Mary’s immaculate conception, was the notion that, unless she had been in some sense a sinner, she could not have been redeemed. By an argument parallel to this, Origen argues, that since she was one of the redeemed, she must at one time or another have committed a sin.

He says: “Are we to think, that the Apostles were scandalized, and not the Lord’s Mother? If she suffered not scandal at our Lord’s passion, then Jesus died not for her sins. If all have sinned and need the glory of God, being justified by His grace, and redeemed, certainly Mary at that time was scandalized.”

This is precisely the argument of Basil, as contained in the passage given above; his statement then of the Blessed Virgin’s wavering in faith, instead of professing to be a tradition, carries with it an avowal of its being none at all.

However, I am not unwilling to grant that, whereas Scripture tells us that all were scandalized at our Lord’s passion, there was some sort of traditional interpretation of Simeon’s words, to the effect that she was in some sense included in that trial. How near the Apostolic era the tradition arose, cannot be determined; but this need not include the idea of sin in the Blessed Virgin, but only the presence of temptation and darkness of spirit. This tradition, whatever its authority, would be easily perverted, so as actually to impute sin to her, by such reasonings as that of Origen.

Origen himself, in the passage I have quoted from him, refers to the sword of Simeon, and is the first to do so. St. Cyril, who, though an Alexandrian as well as Origen, represents a very different school of theology, has, as we have seen, the same interpretation for the piercing sword. It is also found in a Homily attributed to St. Amphilochius; and in that sixth Oration of Proclus, which, according to Tillemont and Ceillier, is not to be considered genuine. It is also found in a work incorrectly attributed to St. Augustine.

3. St. Chrysostom is, par excellence, the Commentator of the Church. As Commentator and Preacher, of all the Fathers, he carries about him the most intense personality. In this lies his very charm, peculiar to himself. He is ever overflowing with thought, and he pours it forth with a natural engaging frankness, and an unwearied freshness and vigour. If he was in the practice of deeply studying and carefully criticizing what he delivered in public, he had in perfection the rare art of concealing his art. He ever speaks from himself, not of course without being impregnated with the fulness of a Catholic training, but still, not speaking by rule, but as if “trusting the lore of his own loyal heart.” On the other hand, if it is not a paradox to say it, no one carries with him so little of the science, precision, consistency, gravity of a Doctor of the Church, as he who is one of the greatest. The difficulties are well known which he has occasioned to school theologians: his obiter dicta about our Lady are among them.

On the whole then I conclude that these three Fathers supply no evidence that, in what they say of her having failed in faith or humility on certain occasions mentioned in Scripture, they are reporting the decisions of Apostolical Tradition.

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