It is impossible, I say, in a doctrine like this, to draw the line cleanly between truth and error, right and wrong. This is ever the case in concrete matters, which have life. Life in this world is motion, and involves a continual process of change. Living things grow into their perfection, into their decline, into their death. No rule of art will suffice to stop the operation of this natural law, whether in the material world or in the human mind. We can indeed encounter disorders, when they occur, by external antagonism and remedies; but we cannot eradicate the process itself, out of which they arise. Life has the same right to decay, as it has to wax strong. This is specially the case with great ideas. You may stifle them; or you may refuse them elbow-room; or again, you may torment them with your continual meddling; or you may let them have free course and range, and be content, instead of anticipating their excesses, to expose and restrain those excesses after they have occurred. But you have only this alternative; and for myself, I prefer much wherever it is possible, to be first generous and then just; to grant full liberty of thought, and to call it to account when abused.
The ‘doctrine’ at issue here is the Catholic devotion to the Blessed Virgin. Pusey had done what others before and since him had done and do, they had looked at some of the popular expressions of piety, selected the ones furthest from their own cultural background and then decided these things supported the conclusion they had come in with – that the Church practices idolatry. They had done what we all do from time to time, approached the issue with our minds made up, and selected evidence which justified what we already thought. This is, a Newman points out, the opposite of how a Christian ought to approach questions.
Newman pointed out that the same Fathers of the Church who had praised Mary had been the same men who had helped establish Scripture. Protestants always struggle with that argument, and rarely, if ever, address the issue of the grounds on which they accept one part of the teaching of the Church, but reject other parts; as it can be nothing more than their own subjective judgment, that is wise of them. Like our own Bosco, they move on to some other supposed enormity.
But if there is a challenge for Protestants here from Newman, so there is to his fellow Catholics. As is the case for most converts, to see a clear line drawn between truth and error, and so Newman’s assertion about the impossibility of drawing it on matters such as devotion to Our Lady, the form of the Mass and other matters, comes as a challenge. But we should ponder his words. It is, indeed, a characteristic of living things that they grow. Some of the implications of this will form the subject of the next few postings.