Oxford Movement

Author: St. Louis de Montfort




I. Introduction, 1. The Movement, 2. Newman, Pusey and Montfort; II. The Marian Controversy, 1. In General, 2. The Montfort Issue; III. Newman’s Marian Apozogia, 1. The Letter to Pusey, 2. Church Tradition, 3. Christology, 4. Against Heresy; IV. Newman and Montfort, 1. Mary and Salvation, 2. Church History, 3. The Communion of Saints.


1. The Movement

The Oxford Movement is the name given to the actions and endeavors of a group of clergymen at Oxford University in the 1830s who sought to restore Catholic faith and practice within the Anglican Church. Its leaders were the professor of poetry, John Keble (1792-1866); the Regius Professor of Hebrew, Edward Bouverie Pusey (1800-1892); and the vicar of St. Mary’s and fellow of Oriel, John Henry Newman (1801-1890). Keble’s sermon on "National Apostasy" on July 14, 1833, is generally regarded as the movement’s beginning, and Newman’s reception into the Roman Catholic Church on October 9, 1845, as the end of its first phase.

2. Newman, Pusey and Montfort

Newman’s conversion was a "parting of friends," the leaving, for the sake of the truth, of almost every person and thing humanly dear to him. On February 22, 1846, he said goodbye to Littlemore, the retreat of his final Anglican years; to Oxford, in which he had hoped for a "perpetual residence"; and to Dr. Pusey, his once close comrade and friend. The two men were not to meet again for another twenty years. When they did, it would be in a tense atmosphere of controversy, and the name of Louis de Montfort would figure in the debate.


1. In General

Newman called to see Keble in his vicarage at Hursely on September 12, 1865. They did not recognize each other. "How mysterious that first sight of friends is! For when I came to contemplate him, it was the old face and manner, but the first effect and impression was different."1 Newman was taken aback to discover that Pusey was also paying a visit. "As we three sat together at one table, I had as painful thoughts as ever I recollect, though it was pain, not acute, but heavy. There were three old men, who had worked vigorously in their prime."2

At dinner Pusey was "full" of a new book, which would soon provoke a masterly rejoinder from Newman. It was a work of high polemic with the surprising title An Eirenicon.3 Pusey argued that the reunion of Canterbury and Rome was impeded by the excesses of Catholic piety, not least in relation to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Newman was astonished by the title of Pusey’s book. In a letter to Keble, he says that if Pusey "is writing to hinder his own people from joining us, well and good, he had a right to write as he has done—but how can he fancy that to exaggerate, instead of smoothing contrarieties, is the way to make us listen to him?"4 Pusey offers the bread of peace but delivers the stone of polemic.

2. The Montfort Issue

One of the authors accused by Pusey of holding extravagant Mariological opinions is St. Louis de Montfort. Pusey is shocked, among other things, by his adaptation of John 1:13: "Souls born not of blood, nor of flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God and Mary,"5 and by the bold assertion that "the Holy Ghost chose to make use of Our Blessed Lady to bring His fruitfulness into action by producing in her and by her Jesus Christ in His members."6

In letters to Pusey and Keble in October 1865, Newman says that he has never even heard of "de Montfort."7 The implication is that Pusey throws together minor devotional writers with major dogmatic theologians such as Suarez. Any "extravagances" de Montfort and others like him may have "put out" are unknown to the majority of Catholics in England. "They do not color our body. They are the opinions of a set of people—and not even of them permanently."8 Why does Pusey not refer to English Catholic books of piety, such and The Garden of the Soul, which is very widely used and "free from such extremes"?9

Newman does not condemn St. Louis Marie. He is just disconcerted by what he has heard of TD and wants to be reassured. On December 4, 1865, he asks Charles Russell, "What do you think of Pusey’s quotations from de Salazar, de Montfort, Oswald, etc. about the Blessed Virgin? Are they not startling and unusual?"10 (These authors are not, of course, of the same order. Oswald was a wild extremist, and his Dogmatische Mariologie was eventually placed on the Index.) In his eagerness for second opinions, Newman consulted Edmund O’Reilly, SJ, who had been professor of dogmatic theology at the Catholic University in Dublin. His judgement was that though he too was "startled" by some of the passages quoted by Pusey, he "doubted whether [he] ought to be so. . . . It is quite possible that some may be true and none heterodox."11 Newman came to the conclusion that St. Louis Marie had not been well served by his translator, Newman’s fellow Oratorian and Oxford convert Frederick William Faber. Writing to Pusey, he asks: "Have you heard . . . that Faber’s translation of de Montfort is very incorrect? He did it when he was too near death to be able to be accurate. De Montfort does not say some of the things which are most startling in the English."12


1. The Letter to Pusey

On November 28, 1865, Newman went out to Rednal to write his Letter to Pusey. It is a classic of Mariology and a model of apologetics. Although the book does not try to defend St. Louis Marie’s writings, its explanation of the Church’s "true devotion to Blessed Virgin" reveals the agreement in all things needful, despite differences of temperament and style, between the sainted Breton and the venerable Briton. Incidentally to his main object, Newman provides a kind of hermeneutic for reading and evaluating those passages which he and others have found difficult in the works of St. Louis Marie.

2. Church Tradition

Newman argues from the Fathers of the Church: to them he owed his conversion, and from them, too, he learnt to understand and embrace Marian doctrine and devotion. "The Fathers made me a Catholic, and I am not going to kick down the ladder by which I ascended into the Church."13 In similar fashion, St. Louis Marie regularly quotes from the Fathers and claims that his theses on devotion to Our Lady can be supported from their writings. If he does not do so, that is because of the audience for which he is writing: not Puseyites but peasants. "If I were speaking to the great minds of our day, I should prove at greater length from Sacred Scripture and the holy Fathers, from whom I should quote passages in Latin, all that I am saying simply. . . . But I am speaking mainly to the poor and simple, who, being of good will and having more faith than the average scholar, believe with more simplicity and more merit. And so I content myself with telling them the truth simply without stopping to quote all the Latin passages" (TD 26).

3. Christology

In his Letter to Pusey, and in several other places, Newman confirms the truth of St. Louis Marie’s central doctrine by referring to religious history: "True devotion to the Mother is the ‘easiest,’ ‘shortest,’ and ‘surest’ way to union with the Son, and when devotion to Mary grows cold or dies, faith in Jesus as Lord, God, and Saviour is certain to wither away" (cf. TD 152ff.).

"If we look through Europe, we shall find, on the whole, that just those nations and countries have lost their faith in the divinity of Christ who have given up devotion to His Mother and that those, on the other hand, who had been foremost in her honor have retained their orthodoxy. Contrast, for instance, the Calvinists with the Greeks, or France with the North of Germany, or the Protestant and Catholic communions in Ireland. . . . In the Catholic Church Mary has shown herself, not the rival, but the minister of her Son; she has protected Him, as in His infancy, so in the whole history of the Religion. There is then a plain historical truth in Dr. Faber’s words [in the preface to his translation of TD], which you quote to condemn, ‘Jesus is obscured, because Mary is kept in the background.’"14

Newman suggests that the hesitations of some Protestants about Our Lady’s role, under Christ, as intercessor and advocate betray a woefully inadequate Christology. If we take from the Blessed Virgin her intercessory mission and transfer it to Christ, we shall be diminishing, not enhancing, his glory.

"If we placed Our Lord in that center, we should only be dragging Him from His throne and making Him an Arian kind of a God; that is, no God at all. He who charges us with making Mary a divinity is thereby denying the divinity of Jesus. Such a man does not know what divinity is. Our Lord cannot pray for us, as a creature prays, as Mary prays; He cannot inspire those feelings which a creature inspires. To her belongs, as being a creature, a natural claim on our sympathy and familiarity in that she is nothing else than our fellow. She is our pride—in the poet’s words, ‘Our tainted nature’s solitary boast.’ We look to her without any fear, any remorse, any consciousness that she is able to read us, judge us, punish us. Our heart yearns towards that pure Virgin, that gentle Mother, and our congratulations follow her, as she rises from Nazareth and Ephesus, through the choirs of angels, to her throne on high, so weak, yet so strong, so delicate, yet so glorious, so modest and yet so mighty."15

Newman’s sober teaching, rooted in orthodox Christology, corresponds exactly to Montfort, "Our Lord is our Advocate and our Mediator of redemption with God the Father. It is through Him that we must pray with the whole Church, triumphant and militant. It is through Him that we have access to the Majesty of the Father, before whom we should never appear unless supported and clothed with the merits of His Son, just as young Jacob came before his father, clad in goatskin, in order to receive his blessing. But have we no need of a mediator with the Mediator Himself? Is our purity great enough to unite us directly to Him, and by ourselves? Is He not God, in all things equal to His Father, and consequently the Holy of Holies, as worthy of respect as His Father?" (TD 84-85).

4. Against Heresy

Mary keeps reverence for the God-man intact. Both Newman and Montfort are warning us against the crypto-Arianism that may be lurking behind disdain for devotion to Mary. Newman speaks with special authority as the translator and permanent disciple of St. Athanasius, the implacable adversary of the "Ariomaniacs." He offers a challenge to souls that are cold-hearted towards Our Lady: Do you truly confess the Son to be true God, and do you accept that without ceasing to be true God, He has become true man by taking flesh from the Virgin? If this is your faith in Jesus, how can you hold back your affection for Mary? "I say, then, when once we have mastered the idea that Mary bore, suckled, and handled the Eternal in the form of a child, what limit is conceivable to the rush of thoughts which such a doctrine involves? What awe and surprise must attend upon the knowledge that a creature has been brought so close to the Divine Essence?"16


1. Mary and Salvation

The effort to harmonize Newman and St. Louis Marie has a major obstacle to surmount. Montfort appears to argue that devotion to Mary is necessary to attain salvation, whereas Newman seemingly rejects the thesis, both in his private correspondence and in his public Letter to Pusey. Writing to Keble, he says: "There is all the difference in the world between saying that ‘without her intercession no one is saved’ and ‘without her invocation no one is saved.’ . . . I never can deny my belief that the Blessed Virgin prays efficaciously for the Church, and for individual souls in and out of it. Nor can I deny that to be devout to her is a duty following on this doctrine—but I never will say, even though St. Bernardine said it, that no one is saved who is not devout to her, and (though I don’t know St. B’s writings) I do not think he would have said it had he not been in his own Christendom."17

Newman returns to this last thought in the Letter to Pusey. The claim that no human being can be saved who has not had some explicit devotion to the Blessed Virgin, if taken as a universally applicable proposition, is unsustainable. In particular circumstances, however, in the Brittany of St. Louis Marie or the Sienna of St. Bernardine, it can be defended. The man raised in a Protestant culture may have no devotion to the Blessed Virgin other than what is implied by confessing the Son of God as incarnate from her by the Holy Spirit; it would be quite wrong, on those grounds alone, to deny the possibility of his salvation. On the other hand, the man who was raised in a Catholic culture and has absorbed devotion to the Mother of God from an early age cannot cast it off without placing himself in grave spiritual danger. The first is the orphan who one day may discover his mother; the second is the son who was raised in her presence but now turns unthankfully away. On the one hand, regrettable omission; on the other, culpable neglect. "To say . . . dogmatically that no one can be saved without personal devotion to the Blessed Virgin would be an untenable proposition; yet it might be true of this man or that, of this or that country at this or that date. . . . If an Italian preacher made [this statement], I should feel no disposition to doubt him, at least if he spoke of Italian youths and Italian maidens."18

There is one other consideration. It appears quite clear that for Montfort, explicit devotion to Our Lady is necessary for salvation in the sense that the goal is not utterly unattainable without it, but it is more expeditiously reached by this means.19 The cultus of Our Blessed Lady is the "safest, easiest, shortest and most perfect" way to union with Christ the Savior (LEW 212; TD 152). Moreover, it strengthens within us that humble childlikeness of soul without which we cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven (cf. Mt 18:3). "The Most High came down to us perfectly and divinely through the humble Mary, without losing any of His divinity or holiness; and it is through Mary that the very little must ascend perfectly and divinely to the Most High without having anything to fear" (TD 157; LEW 135). Placing ourselves in Mary’s arms helps protect us from the pride and presumption that blocks off the saving grace of Christ. Here Montfort’s spiritual theology touches its deepest level.

2. Church History

In trying to reconcile Newman and Montfort, we can usefully turn for instruction to Church history. At the Council of Florence in 1439, the Greeks were persuaded of the orthodoxy of the Filioque by supporting texts not only from the Latin Fathers but also from the Greek (especially St. Cyril of Alexandria). Their view was that "saint cannot contradict saint": if some of the Fathers without doubt taught the Filioque, then the patristic texts that they thought denied it had to be reinterpreted.20 The modern mind may find this a rather naive view of the tradition. Surely, comes the objection, it is indisputable that saintly theologian has contradicted saintly theologian. Did not St. Thomas Aquinas oppose the Immaculate Conception, while Bl. Duns Scotus defended and expounded it? If we examine the matter more closely, we shall find that the naiveté is but a holy simplicity. There is a harmony among the saints, if only we are prepared to train our ears to hear the daring polyphony that the Holy Spirit orchestrates out of their voices. Thus, with regard to the Immaculate Conception, we can say that despite his failure to perceive the possibility of preservative redemption, all that St. Thomas was trying positively to affirm (for example, that Jesus Christ is the Redeemer of every human person without exception) is not only compatible with the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception but is one of its essential premises. Similarly, we can harmonize St. Louis de Montfort and Ven. John Henry Newman by saying that in their very different ways, they were both attempting to show the Christ- centeredness of true devotion to the Blessed Virgin. The title of one of Newman’s discourses on Our Lady could easily have come from the pen of Montfort: The Glories of Mary for the Sake of Her Son. "We praise and bless her," says Newman, "as the first of creatures, that we may duly confess Him as our sole Creator."21 This is also the fundamental principle of St. Louis Marie. According to him, Our Lord Jesus Christ is the "final end" of Marian devotion. "If . . . we establish solid devotion to the Most Blessed Virgin, it is only in order to establish solid devotion to Jesus Christ more perfectly, to provide an easy and certain way to find Jesus Christ" (TD 61).

For both these great Catholic doctors, Our Lady is the supremely Christ-centered person. Her whole mission is to bring Christ to us and us to Christ; for this she was predestined and created, for this she was engraced from her conception; this is the office she fulfilled on earth and now continues forever in heaven. To go to Jesus through Mary is, therefore, to take the straightest and swiftest path.

3. The Communion of Saints

The truly Catholic heart is open to the whole Communion of Saints. The attachment of a religious to the founder of his Order does not blind him to the achievements of other saints and Congregations. As Dante shows us in the Paradiso, the loyal son of St. Dominic can and should be unrestrained in his praise of St. Francis. In something of the same spirit, this article has tried to find correspondences between St. Louis de Montfort and the converts of the Oxford Movement. Other resemblances could be added to the list. For example, the Oxford men, like St. Louis Marie, challenged the complacent assumptions of "the world," "this present age." If need be, they were ready to be dismissed as fools for their fidelity to Eternal Wisdom.22 And then there is St. Louis Marie’s love of the hymn, the cantique. His conviction that song has the power to sustain doctrine and lift up the soul to God was shared by the men of the Oxford Movement, both those who remained Anglican (Keble and Isaac Williams) and those who became Catholics (Newman, Faber, Caswall). In conclusion, therefore, as a sign of a surprising spiritual kinship, here are two verses from St. Louis de Montfort and two from Edward Caswall, convert clergyman and Oratorian. They have a single center: the Eucharistic Christ. "O Jesus, our dearest Spouse, / Our God, our brother, / Come, come be born in us / Through thy Blessed Mother, / So that we through thee may go / To thy heavenly Father. / Come by thy humility / To make us all infants / Come by thy sanctity / To give us back innocence. / Come by thy charity / To reign without resistance" (H 87). "O Jesus Christ, remember, / When thou shalt come again, / Upon the clouds of Heaven, / With all thy shining train; / When every eye shall see thee / In deity revealed, / Who now upon this altar / In silence art concealed. / Remember then, O savior, / I supplicate of thee, / That here I bowed before thee / Upon my bended knee; / That here I owned thy presence, / And did not thee deny, / And glorified thy greatness / Though hid from human eye. / Accept, divine Redeemer, / The homage of my praise; / Be thou the light and honor / And glory of my days. / Be thou my consolation / When death is drawing nigh; / Be thou my only treasure / Through all eternity."23

J. Saward

Notes: (1) Letter to Ambrose St. John, in The Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman (= LD), London 1972, 22:52. (2) Ibid. (3) 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," Oxford 1865. (4) LD 22:67. (5) cf. Pusey, Eirenicon, The First Letter to the Very Rev. J.H. Newman, D.D. in explanation, chiefly in regard to the reverential love due to the ever- blessed Theotokos, London, Rivingtons, London 1869, 164. Louis Bouyer— convert, Oratorian, and Newman scholar—has shown the importance of remembering that through our incorporation into Christ, we are children at once of God and Mary. The attitude of mind that contents itself with adoptive sonship of the divine and heavenly Father without seeing the need of a human and earthly Mother is a species of "Docetism with regard to ourselves." Natural life and supernatural life do not operate on two unconnected planes. In nature I am the child of a father and mother, and in grace I am the child of both God and Mary. Cf. Le Trône; English translation: Woman and Man with God: An Essay on the Place of the Virgin Mary in Christian Theology and Its Significance for Humanity, Darton, Longman & Todd, London 1960. (6) TD 20-21; Pusey, Eirenicon, 164. St. Louis Marie’s daring speculation is not unorthodox and is carefully explained by him in a passage that Pusey, in his typically selective way, does not quote: "This does not mean that the Blessed Virgin gives the Holy Spirit fruitfulness as if He did not have it. Because He is God, He has fruitfulness, or the capacity to produce, just as Father and Son do, even though He does not put it into act and does not produce another divine person. But it does mean that the Holy Spirit, through the Blessed Virgin, whom He deigns to use without absolutely needing her, puts His fruitfulness into act, producing in her and through her Jesus Christ and His members" (TD 21). Since the death of St. Louis Marie, both the papal Magisterium and individual theologians have given increasing attention to the link between the Holy Spirit and Our Lady. Pope Paul VI, in MC, called for further research on this "hidden relationship" (no. 27). (7) LD 22:68, 83. (8) Ibid., 89. (9) Ibid., 91, to Keble. (10) Ibid., 117. (11) Ibid. (12) Ibid., 294. (13) John Henry Newman, A Letter Addressed to the Rev. E.B. Pusey, D.D. on the Occasion of His Eirenicon, in Certain Difficulties Felt by Anglicans in Catholic Teaching Considered, new ed., London, New York, and Bombay 1900, 2:24. (14) Ibid., 92f. The same point is made, and at even greater length, in The Glories of Mary for the Sake of Her Son, in Newman’s Discourses Addressed to Mixed Congregations, new ed., London 1892, 348. (15) Newman, Letter to Pusey, 85. (16) Ibid., 82f. (17) LD 22:68. (18) Newman, Letter to Pusey, 104f. (19) Cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 3a, 1, 2, on the sense in which it was necessary for God to become man for our salvation. (20) See J. Gill, The Council of Florence, Cambridge 1959, 227ff. (21) Newman, Discourses, 344. (22) See John Saward, Perfect Fools: Folly for Christ’s Sake in Catholic and Orthodox Spirituality, Oxford 1980, chap. 10, 11. (23) The Westminster Hymnal, no. 82.

Taken from: Jesus Living in Mary: Handbook of the Spirituality of St. Louis de Montfort (Litchfield, CT: Montfort Publications, 1994).

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