No one, I suppose, can entertain any doubt as to the general belief and cultus that prevailed amongst Catholics with regard to the Blessed Virgin Mary from the seventh and eighth centuries, through the middle ages, down to the period of the Protestant Reformation. For the numerous works that still survive of men eminent for their sanctity and theological science, as Ildephonsus, John Damascene, Anselm, Bernard, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, and many more, who wrote so profusely in her honour and proclaimed her privileges with such great explicitness -- as well as the numberless examples of public and private devotion to her to be found in religious biographies, general literature, and historical records of those times -- make it quite evident that the attitude of the faithful to Our Lady was then much the same as that of Catholics in the present day. Those too who may be unacquainted with the works I have alluded to must share the same conviction. For we all have still before our very eyes material monuments which bear visible witness to that past faith and devotion. I mean, we have in our midst, whether yet standing or in ruins, so many old cathedrals and churches, monasteries and abbeys, that were raised to Our Lady's name, with their shrines and other memorials in her honour; whilst in countries abroad there are ancient images and pictures, which are still held in veneration by the faithful, and carry down with them a long record of her miraculous favours, and of the people's devotion. Then again, there are so many religious Orders of men and women that have handed down in unbroken succession the same spirit, belief, and devotional practices regarding Our Lady, as they received in their origin.
Herein is a sensible continuity of the past with the present, which forms in men's minds what we may call a veritable actual memory, and is an argument which brings home the truth more forcibly and distinctly than do any proofs derivable from ancient documents.
If aught more were needed, there is the living witness of the existing generations of Catholics here at home and abroad, that have inherited in direct line, and bear testimony to the belief and practices of their forefathers in the same religious faith. Whilst on the other hand, the notorious fact of the Reformation, and that so many have followed its tenets even to the present day, serves of itself continually to keep alive the memory of what was held about the Blessed Virgin in those former ages, and of the veneration that was then paid to her; since it was the repudiation of this belief and devotion as superstitious, that formed in great part the very reason of the first origin of the Reformation, and of the continued existence of Protestantism as a religion.
I have thus endeavoured to account for the clear and distinct conviction that is universally held of the Blessed Virgin's prominence in Catholic faith and devotion during the Middle Ages, in order the better to illustrate, by way of contrast, the difference in view that is generally taken as to the place which Our Lady occupied in the minds and hearts of Christians during the first six centuries of the Church's history.
Here there is no unanimity, but great diversity of sentiment; people's opinions are for the most part only half-formed, or formed from very insufficient data, on this side or that, according to their religious bias. Some perhaps will go so far as to maintain that the practical exhibition of devotion to the Blessed Virgin was the same in those earlier centuries as in later times; whilst others persistently assert that there was nothing in the primitive Church at all similar or corresponding to the doctrinal system and cultus of Our Lady which have prevailed from medieval times until the present day. All this, they say, was an after-growth quite unknown to the older Fathers, which first began to show itself in the seventh and eighth centuries. Between these two extremes opinions vary with more or less vagueness.
There are many causes for this general diversity and indefiniteness of view on the matter.
First, in the case of the Early Church, we have none of what, for lack of a better term, I called sensible continuity, which serves so much to give us definite notions, and in some sort as an actual memory of the real truth in medieval times. Having lost all the religious surroundings of those first centuries, and having no longer any direct results surviving from them, we can hardly picture them in our minds, and how things then happened -- at least with any certainty that our picture rightly corresponds to the reality.
It seems to belong to our intellectual nature, that when we hear or read about something of past or distant occurrence, we at once form in our mind, at any rate implicitly, sensible images derived in some way from our experimental knowledge; and by clothing with this imagery the simple ideas presented to our intelligence, we give to what is abstract a concrete shape, and thus assimilate and bring home to our full consciousness the recorded event, realising it more or less vividly in its circumstances. And so far as the subjective images correspond to their objective realities, so also is our mental view of the occurrence accurate and true.
We are now, however, divided by so great an interval from those early centuries, that our break-off from all their ordinary associations is complete. The learned, no doubt, who have made a special study of the first ages of the Church, and are better acquainted with the circumstances that then surrounded the faith and religious life of Christians, will so far be able to gain a clearer view and to approximate the truth with regard to the attitude of the faithful in those days towards the Blessed Virgin. But most people are not learned, and their ideas on the subject are very vague; or should they have formed for themselves any definite judgment, it is of no real value, being pretty sure to be wide of the truth.
I may be here allowed to apply to our subject two terms of which Cardinal Newman discourses so largely in his Grammar of Assent, and say that the knowledge generally possessed of the Blessed Virgin's place in medieval religion is a real knowledge, whilst that obtainable of the same in the first six centuries is of a notional character. In making this distinction I would by no means imply that there is less of objective certainty in the latter than in the former kind of knowledge; or, in other words, that truth is less the object of, and actually attainable by notional knowledge than it is by real knowledge; but the difference, conveyed by the two terms, lies rather, as I conceive, in the mind's subjective conviction of the truth, and in the means whereby subjective certainty is arrived at.
What, then, was the doctrine held concerning the Blessed Virgin, both in its nature and extent, together with the actual devotion paid to her during the first six centuries of Christianity, is not now to be learnt by any sensible aids -- such as existing monuments of antiquity and surviving traditions -- as is our knowledge of the same in later ages, but almost exclusively from contemporaneous documents of that period that are still extant.
But here is no easy task, as is evident from the following considerations: --
1. Whilst many works of the early Fathers are lost, and of some we have only fragments; those that remain are in great number and very voluminous, treating of manifold topics with wide diversity, and written for the most part very discursively.
2. The Fathers did not treat of the Blessed Virgin ex professo. No formal treatise on her is to be found amongst their writings. There were other matters of a more pressing nature in those early times to engage their attention. They had to establish and set forth in detail the primary truths of Christian revelation, on the Nature of God, His Unity of Being and Trinity of Persons; the Incarnation and Divinity of the Word; the Personality of the Holy Ghost; the Unity and Catholicity of Christ's Church; the Communion of Saints, the doctrines of original sin and grace. They had at the same time to contend against and refute many subtle heresies that endangered the faith on all points, and with which heresiarchs from every quarter were continually assailing the Church. They were occupied in interpreting, and composing commentaries on, the Sacred Scriptures. There are, moreover, many patristic writings of an occasional sort, such as sermons and homilies, exhortations, epistles and poems, and besides these, historical works, and others of a moral and philosophical character.
These are the chief subjects of the writings of the Fathers during the first six centuries. In most of them, perhaps, there is something, more or less, said of the Blessed Virgin; but what mention or treatment is made of her is incidental, and introduced only as bearing upon the principal theme and the matter in hand. There are, indeed, some very few treatises that relate especially to Our Lady, as those of S. Jerome and S. Epiphanius, written in defence of her perpetual virginity, or against a blasphemous excess in showing her honour. These, however, deal only with some particular point regarding her, and are of an apologetic nature. There are too some fugitive pieces, as sermons on her Feasts and hymns and prayers entirely devoted to her, especially in the works of S. Ephrem.
I would not be supposed to deny that much, comparatively speaking, is to be found in the early Fathers on the Blessed Virgin; for some of their treatises are full of her, as for example those of S. Ambrose on virginity, and also many portions of their Scriptural exegesis. My voluminous extracts show this. Still, with the exceptions I have made they are fragmentary, and not written on her ex professo.
Nowhere, then, do the early Fathers treat in a formal and positive manner, or as a whole, of the place of Our Lady in revealed Christian doctrine, and of the mutual relations that exist between her and men in the Divine economy of Redemption. What was their general view on this matter must be gathered from the various passages scattered up and down their writings.
Or perhaps I should express myself otherwise, and say that the earliest Fathers of all, who wrote about Our Blessed Lady, viz., S. Justin, S. Irenaeus, and Tertullian, in their exposition of Mary as the Second Eve, give a very distinct view of what they held concerning her, and make most explicit though very brief statements as to her doctrinal position and relation to mankind, and that these are, in fact, so comprehensive as implicitly to contain whatever else any other Fathers of the first six centuries said afterwards in a desultory way about her.
3. What adds to the general impression of indefiniteness attaching to the Blessed Virgin's place in the early Church is the frequent allegation that discrepant statements regarding her are found in the patristic works of that age. True it is that some few of the Fathers have said certain things respecting Our Lady contrary to the teaching of the greater number. Such instances, however, are after all, but very rare exceptions. They are to be found chiefly in their comments on those passages of the Gospels which bring her into public notice; and are certainly inconsistent with the idea of her absolute sinlessness, or at least of that entire perfection which the Church has of her, and the general teaching of the Fathers bears out.
Cardinal Newman has discussed this question, and the particular passages that have given rise to it, so ably and fully in his Letter to Dr. Pusey, that I have not thought it necessary to go over his ground again: though I have treated of this difficulty from another point of view, especially as regards S. Chrysostom, in the course of this work.
That there should be some discrepancies in the Fathers regarding Our Lady need not, however, excite surprise or cavil, when we find the same upon still graver matters. Thus certain Fathers of the third century, in high repute for their orthodoxy, express themselves on the Consubstantiality of the Son in terms that would be inadmissable after the definition of Nice. So too S. Athanasius and S. Basil speak of the knowledge of Our Lord's soul in a very different way from what S. Augustine and S. Maximus did, and Catholic theologians would now speak.*
Great indeed is the authority of the Holy Fathers approved as such by the Church, even when taken individually, and especially of the more eminent amongst them who were Bishops, Saints, and Doctors of the Church. + But their chief authority consists in their being witnesses and expounders of the divine traditions that had come down from Christ and the Apostles, and of the Church's teaching at their own time. Hence it is that their unanimous consent on any doctrine pertaining to the Faith is regarded as tantamount to the infallible utterance of the Church herself. We may, moreover, well believe that the Holy Fathers, properly so called, received as individuals, special gifts of divine wisdom and knowledge to enable them to set forth in their purity and integrity the divine traditions and doctrines that had been handed down to them from the Apostles.
Still, we are not to take an exaggerated view of the Fathers, as though they were infallible, and none of them could make a doctrinal misstatement, since it is undeniable, that at least some errors, greater or less, are to be found in the writings of individual Holy Fathers, even of those who have been approved of as such by the Church. But we must at the same time bear in mind that the Church has never on this account charged any Father, whom she has once thus approved, with heterodoxy, nor allowed others to do so.
*"Even on so fundamental a dogma as the Divinity of the Holy Ghost, S. Gregory Nazianzen says: 'The New Testament did but obscurely indicate the Divinity of the Holy Ghost... For it was not safe... when the Son's Divinity was not yet (clearly) admitted, that the Holy Ghost should be imposed on us as a sort of heavy burden, so to speak.' Petavius quotes to the same effect S. Epiphanius, S. Augustine, S. Chrysostom, and other Fathers." Dublin Review, April, 1876, p. 294.
+ Although all early Christian writers conspicuous for their learning or antiquity, as v. g. Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Lactantius and Eusebius, are commonly called Holy Fathers, yet properly speaking, those only can claim the title who have been approved as such by the Church, and whom she has declared to be genuine and well-qualified witnesses, teachers, and judges, from their erudition and sanctity, of her doctrine as handed down to her from Christ and the Apostles. The other early authors are more properly called Christian or ecclesiastical writers.