Bishop Ullathorne’s vindication of Newman’s writings on Our Lady

“He brought from Rome what he found in Rome.”

Supporting The WM Review through book purchases
As Amazon Associates, we earn from qualifying purchases through our Amazon links. Click here for The WM Review Reading List (with direct links for US and UK readers).

Image: Bishop William Ullathorne, Wiki Commons CC (Source)


The WM Review is pleased to publish a fascinating letter written by Bishop William Bernard Ullathorne, in defence of John Henry Newman’s writings on the Blessed Virgin Mary in his 1866 work Letter to Pusey.  Ullathorne was the Bishop of Birmingham, the diocese in which Newman lived and ministered.

This document sheds new light on certain controversies that divided the English Catholic world in the 1860s and helps put to rest some of the more egregious calumnies against one of its most illustrious sons. But before sharing the text of this letter, I would like to provide some important context for the reader.

We are always happy to discuss our articles and arguments further. Please feel free to email [email protected] or engage with us on Twitter @TheWMReview.

Subscribe to stay in touch:

Who was Bishop Ullathorne?

William Bernard Ullathorne was one of the extraordinary figures of the Catholic Church of the nineteenth century. His heroic life is generally overshadowed by the prominence of his more famous contemporaries – John Henry Cardinal Newman and Henry Edward Cardinal Manning – but Ullathorne’s achievements are comparable to theirs – and, in certain respects, exceed them. 

The two famous Cardinals were both converts, but Ullathorne represents the full blossoming of the recusant community of England. He was born at a time when Catholicism was still a proscribed (though increasingly tolerated) religion and lived to see the Church in England enjoy its famous “second spring”. 

I hope in the months and years ahead write more about him in The WM Review. Here I will give a very brief autobiographical outline.

William Ullathorne was born into a recusant family, in Pocklington, in the East Riding of Yorkshire, on 7 May 1806. He was a direct descendent of St Thomas More. His great-grandmother, Mary More, being the great-great granddaughter of John More, the son and heir of the Saint. 

Ullathorne was a brave and adventurous youth, and at a young age he joined a ship’s company as a cabin boy. While praying at a church in Memel, during a voyage to the Baltic, he had a profound interior conversion, and, on his return to England, aged 16, was entered at the Benedictine school at Downside. In 1823 he entered the congregation as a monk and was ordained to the priesthood in 1831. 

The English Benedictine Congregation, unlike most of the Benedictine order, was a missionary congregation. Shortly after his ordination to the priesthood, Ullathorne volunteered to go to Australia, which was then a British penal colony and very sparsely served by priests. He was the Vicar General of the Australian mission from 1832 until 1840, with an extended period in Europe in 1836-38 where he raised funds for the Australian missions, assisted the British Government address evils arising from the practice of transportation to the colonies, and most importantly, spent time in Rome briefing the Holy See on Australian affairs and advising Pope Gregory XVI on the establishment of the episcopal hierarchy in Australia. 

His visit to Rome was the beginning of five decades of cordial and trustful relations with the Apostolic See. His collected correspondence reveals the trust placed in him by successive popes and by the Roman congregations. His profound loyalty, his immense prudence, and his extraordinary abilities, were never in doubt in Rome.

He returned to England in 1841, and shortly after was placed in charge of the mission at Coventry. In 1847 he was consecrated a bishop, and appointed Vicar Apostolic of the Western District. The following year he was transferred to the Central District. When the episcopal hierarchy was re-established in England in 1850, he became the first Bishop of Birmingham. He remained at his post for nearly forty years, until his retirement in 1888, shortly before his death. During his tenure the diocese experienced extraordinary growth, as indicated by the construction of 67 new churches, 32 convents, and nearly 200 schools. 

He was the author of many books including: 

He died on the Feast of St Benedict, 21 March 1888, at the age of 82. No man better, or more splendidly, represents the English Catholic recusant tradition, than William Bernard Ullathorne. 

What is the significance of Ullathorne’s letter on Newman?

After a rather lengthy introduction to its author, I will now reflect on the significance of the document we reprint below.

In 1865, Edward Bouverie Pusey, the most significant of the leaders of the Oxford Movement to have remained in the Church of England, published his Eirenicon. This work suggested the grounds upon which visible unity could be established between the Catholic Church and the Church of England. Pusey argued that certain Catholic doctrines and practices were deviations from the doctrine of the early church and posed serious obstacles to unity. Prominent among these areas of contention, Pusey asserted, were Catholic teachings and practices relating to the Blessed Virgin Mary.  

In January 1866, his old friend John Henry Newman, now a convert of more than twenty years standing, and the Superior of the Oratory of St Philip Neri at Birmingham, published a response to Pusey’s work. The Letter to Pusey sought to defend, vindicate, and explain the doctrines and practices relating to Our Lady, which had been attacked in the Eirenicon, and to show them in their true light.

Newman’s Letter to Pusey was greeted with general acclamation, much as his Apologia Pro Vita Sua had been in the previous year.  But, as with that earlier work, there was a vocal minority who had serious reservations about Newman’s approach. 

For a number of years, tensions had been rising between the majority of the English episcopate, clergy and laity, who were mostly of old recusant or Irish stock, and a minority of the new converts from Anglicanism, who found fault with elements of English Catholic life. One of their complaints was that English devotion to Our Lady was to be compared unfavourably with that seen in many parts of continental Europe.

Fr Frederick William Faber voiced this critique in 1862 in the preface to his translation of St Louis-Marie de Montfort’s book, The True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin

“Here, in England, Mary is not half enough preached. Devotion to her is low and thin and poor. It is frightened out of its wits by the sneers of heresy. It is always invoking human respect and carnal prudence, wishing to make Mary so little of a Mary that Protestants may feel at ease about her. Its ignorance of theology makes it unsubstantial and unworthy.”[1]

Judgments such as this were regarded by many English Catholics as altogether contrary to truth, justice and charity. 

The kinds of external devotions and practices that Faber and others had so admired in Italy and elsewhere were not practised in England for a very good reason – for centuries the public expression of the Catholic faith was proscribed, and Catholics were subject to persecution of varying forms. Violent riots and church burnings had occurred within living memory of the time when Faber and other converts had entered the Church. (This author’s childhood church was burnt down three times by anti-Catholic mobs – in 1715, 1745 and 1786.)

Yet despite persecution England’s Catholics had maintained inviolate the true spirit of devotion to Our Lady, with especial devotion to the Holy Rosary, the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin and many other Marian devotions. Converts who had entered the Church at a time of civil peace and legal equality for Catholics, were regarded as unjustly maligning the heirs of the martyrs. The approach taken by this minority – on this and other matters – was regarded as unjust, imprudent, ignorant, and generally discreditable by much of the English episcopate, clergy and laity. 

It was against this background that Newman entered the lists in defence of Catholic doctrine against Pusey and the Protestants, only to be vocally attacked by certain members of the convert minority for holding supposedly “Protestant” opinions. 

Shortly after publication the Letter to Pusey was vociferously attacked by E. R. Martin, the Rome correspondent of The Tablet. W. G. Ward, a prominent convert, drafted an article for The Dublin Review which accused Newman of making statements that were “anti-Catholic” and of writing a “Protestant letter”. 

On the advice of Archbishop Manning of Westminster, Ward sent this article to Bishop Ullathorne for revision. Ullathorne was Newman’s ecclesiastical superior, as the Birmingham Oratory was within his diocese. Ullathorne refused to cooperate with Ward, stating that he was Newman’s superior and judge. Ward then sent the article to Bishop Clifford of Clifton, who also refused to assist, because he himself agreed fully with Newman’s work. Bishop Clifford anticipated Ward’s attack on Newman by penning a response to the article by E. R. Martin.

In a letter published in The Tablet on 17 March 1866 Bishop Clifford denounced

“the practice which some people have of peremptorily setting down as un-Catholic, and anti-Roman, and contrary to the spirit and practice of the Church, every practice and every teaching which does not coincide with their own views. Father Newman expresses himself unwilling to accept as oracles every opinion which is advocated by F. Faber or “The Dublin Review”, and forthwith Mr. Martin denounces him as anti-Roman and Jansenist.”[2]

The following day, Bishop Ullathorne wrote a letter of thanks to Bishop Clifford:

“I write a line to thank you for your judicious defense of Dr. Newman, it is, if you will let me say so, judicious in point of time as well as matter. You have anticipated, and perhaps prevented an injudicious criticism of Dr. N. in the next Dublin.”[3]

Bishop Ullathorne was already preparing his own defence of Newman, and by extension of the Catholics of England. It is to this document, published on 4 April 1866, that we now turn.

Before presenting the text of the letter, I will indicate a few general lines of approach.

It is a staple of the “anti-Newman legend” – which began to gain currency during the tensions of the 1860s – that Newman had a “low” devotion towards Our Lady compared to other prominent converts. 

Bishop Ullathorne provides authoritative, reliable, eyewitness testimony that this position is utterly false. Not only is it false; it is also diametrically opposed to the truth. 

Ullathorne credits Newman as being the first to introduce the contemporary sequence of Roman devotions to Our Lady into England. He tells us that the devotional practices observed by Father Faber at the London Oratory were in fact learned by Faber from Newman, as by a disciple from a master. 

Furthermore, he tells us of Newman’s Oratory at Birmingham, that “that no other Church in England that I have ever seen, is so complete a representation, in all its appointments, of a fervid Roman church.” And the “spirit” which “characterises the Oratory of Birmingham” says Ullathorne, “is Roman in its devotions because it is Roman in the faith which its fathers believe and teach.”

Of the Letter to Pusey, Ullathorne has the highest praise, extolling Newman for “exalting each glorious privilege of the Immaculate Mother of Our Lord” and giving “the most perfect honour to the Mother of God.”

Newman’s critics, he regards as “Catholics without authority”, who “tender and green in the faith”, are engaged in “petty cavilling” against a “champion of Israel.” Of the theological content of Newman’s letter he declares “In vain have I striven to find what Dr. Newman has written derogatory to devotion to the Blessed Virgin, or beyond the limits of theological prudence” on the contrary, he observes that he “cannot fail to observe the ardour with which Dr. Newman defends every inch of the ground of Catholic principle from the attacks of Dr. Pusey.”

But I leave the reader to explore the delights of Ullathorne’s stirring defence for himself. 

One final note: some readers may be unsettled by Bishop Ullathorne’s remarks on the condemnation by the Holy See of certain devotional practices associated with the writings St Louis-Marie de Montfort, which were in force at the time at which Ullathorne wrote his letter. We have been unable to ascertain the precise nature of this condemnation, and we recommend that any readers concerned follow the guidance they find on this topic in books published with imprimaturs and the approval of legitimate ecclesiastical authority. 

That is certainly the approach that the great Bishop Ullathorne – always conscious of the dignity of legitimate ecclesiastical authority – would have recommended. 

And now, the letter.

Bishop Ullathorne’s
Vindication of Newman’s writings on Our Lady

To the Editor of the Tablet

Birmingham, April 4th, 1866


I had hoped that I should not have to write upon the remarks that have been unjudiciously, as well as unfairly, put before the world respecting Dr. Newman’s letter to Dr. Pusey; indeed I am ashamed of being forced into this act of justice and of charity. 

Little can they know of him on whom they pronounce their hasty and unauthorised judgments, who presume to tell the world that Dr. Newman has derogated from the devotion which good Catholics pay to the Virgin Mother of Our Lord. 

Laymen, especially, ought to know that it is not within their competence to pronounce public judgments upon the teaching of priests. They are amenable to their ecclesiastical superiors, who alone are their judges; and when laymen have any complaint on this, or any other subjects, against the clergy the order and rule of the Church requires that they should refer their complaints to those whose duty it is to examine and judge. 

When the champion of Israel was made a sport for the Philistines we do not find that it was any of the children of Israel who first made their defender blind, and then brought him forth as a spectacle of derision; but it was the Philistines themselves who did this disgrace to him, and there are always a sufficient number of them for this kind of work, without needing help from the camp of Israel.

But another motive urges me to which I defer with a greater sense of respect. I have been told that, after all that has passed, there are not a few worthy priests who, in different parts of England, have expressed a wish to know what I should be disposed to say on the subject in question; and that some have even expressed an apprehension that Dr. Newman is encouraging a dry and formal devotion towards the Blessed Virgin and saints. It has thus become a duty in me to remove these apprehensions, as well as to put facts in their proper light. 

But before I do so, I beg to invite attention to the wisdom of a saint which the Church has made its own, which Popes have invested with their authority, and with which the prelates of the Church have everywhere sought to imbue their own hearts, and those of the clergy, as well as of the devout religious and laity.

When St. Ignatius and his saintly disciples began to give the spiritual exercises they were assailed as innovators, and even as heretics; and his own experience of this readiness in Catholic men to suspect, and criticise, and take exceptions, even in what the Holy Ghost has inspired, led him to insert the following admonition, drawn from the maxims of Our Lord, into the text of those spiritual exercises. He says:

“That both he who gives, and he who receives the spiritual exercises, may be helped to their profit, it must be presupposed that every pious Christian man is in readiness of disposition to interpret any obscure sentence of proposition in a good sense, rather than to pronounce condemnation. But if he can in no way put a sound construction upon it, let him enquire of him who gave it utterance; and if then his sense comes short of what is right and accurate, let him correct him with love; and should this not succeed, let him try all proper ways to keep him sound and safe from error. 

“It is not so unfrequent for those who proclaim the errors of their neighbour to have themselves committed the error, but common prudence requires, before we rush out before all the world with our discovery, that we should first ascertain whether we are correct in our sentence or not; for, once before the world, there is no recovering those sentences which fly before every wind; whilst correction of error, once blown abroad, is but a coy reluctant messenger to follow; unacceptable to those who have endorsed the mischief, it is slow of motion, and prone to drop upon the ground.”

For myself, I prefer solid facts to lightly flying assertions, and so I proceed to give them in historic order. 

When Dr. Newman entered the Church he took the name of Mary in confirmation. 

He went to Rome, and there placed himself under the most celebrated teachers. He had no sooner received the priesthood than he put himself under the guidance of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri, for Cardinal Wiseman had pointed out that congregation to him as the best adapted for the work he was called to do in England. 

When he had received the brief which authorised his establishing the Oratory, and was leaving Rome, ere he quitted the Roman territory, he knelt down and kissed the earth, in token of obedience to the Head of the Church. 

He selected the feast of the Purification for commencing the Oratory at Mary Vale. He chose the same festival of Our Lady, in the following year, for commencing the Oratory at Birmingham. 

He dedicated the house and church and Edgbaston to the Mystery of the Immaculate Conception. 

When sent by the Sovereign Pontiff to found the University of Dublin, he at once placed the University under the patronage of Mary as the Sedes Sapientiae, and dedicated the church which he built there with his own funds to SS. Peter and Paul. 

When you enter the Oratory, the first thing that meets your eye in the entrance hall, is a statue of the Blessed Virgin, raised upon the altar, as a sign of the patronage under which you enter. 

And on proceeding further into the church, you find it a complete representation of a fervid Roman church. 

The altars everywhere exhibit the cultus of the Blessed Virgin or of the Saints, and of their relics, where you have not immediately the representation of our Lord’s Passion and Crucifixion. 

I repeat, that no other Church in England that I have ever seen, is so complete a representation, in all its appointments, of a fervid Roman church.

I will now enumerate the devotions practised at this day towards the Blessed Virgin in this Birmingham Oratory. I say, at this day, because before the school absorbed so much of the time of the Fathers, the devotions were yet more frequent.

1. Every day of the year the Rosary is publicly said in the church.

2. Every Sunday the Rosary is said twice; once for the students, and once for the people.

3. A large number of students meet their tutors daily to say the Rosary as an act of free devotion.

4. The Angelus is, of course, three times a day.

5. On Sundays, the children of the poor schools as mass and catechism, sing hymns and the Litany of Loretto, in honour of the Blessed Virgin.

6. There is a Novena before the feast of the Purification, the day on which the superiors of the congregation are elected, to place their election under the protection of the Blessed Virgin.

7. A Novena is made before the feast of the Assumption, and another before that of the Immaculate Conception, the patroness of the Church, and principal feast of the congregation, followed, as in all the churches of Birmingham, by the forty hours’ adoration, when all that art and resources can do is expended on the adornment of the altar and sanctuary.

8. The month of Mary is celebrated with all the Roman devotions; and a picture of Mary Immaculate, painted at Rome, and framed in a costly manner by the devotion of the students, is set up in the middle of the church, with flowers and lights. There are two celebrations of the devotion each day of the month; one for the students, and one for the people.

9. The statue of the Blessed Virgin at her altar is always adorned with flowers and lights, and has ever attracted much devotion from the people.

10. There is a Holy Guild of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, which meets monthly in the chapel of the Sacred Heart for instruction, and whose communion days are the feasts of the Blessed Virgin.

11. Dr. Newman was the first to introduce this cycle of devotions to the Blessed Virgin, and from Birmingham they went with his disciples to London.

Of course I am limiting myself to an account of devotions to the Blessed Virgin exclusively, and every one will understand that other devotions are observed in due proportion. I might next go on to mention the works produced at the Birmingham Oratory in honour of the Blessed Virgin.

1. Dr. Newman’s two sermons on the Glories of Mary [here and here]

2. The book of hymns written or translated by the Fathers at Edgbaston, to which Dr. Newman contributed Nos. 31, 32 and 38, in honour of the Blessed Virgin.

3. Father Caswall’s translation of the Office of the Immaculate Conception.

4. The same author’s poems, the Masque of Mary, the Mary Pageant, and his numerous hymns in general use throughout England. 

5. Father St. John’s translation of the Raccolta, containing all the indulgenced prayers and Novenas used at Rome in honour of Our Lady.

This authentic statement must put all further questioning to rest touching Dr. Newman’s idea of devotion towards the Blessed Virgin. 

He brought from Rome what he found in Rome, and I well recollect the pregnant answer which he wrote when it became my duty to interrogate each priest having cure of souls in this diocese, prior to the definition of the Immaculate Conception. The question sent to each asked the sense of the priest, and the traditional sense entertained in his congregation with respect to that mystery. And he wrote in substance: 

“We are too young to have a tradition of our own, but we brought the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Mother of God from Rome, where we imbibed it with our other teaching.”

What more exquisite, or more ample proof could we have of the depth to which the singular privileges and glories of the Mother of Our Lord have been imbibed into the mind and heart of the person in question, than the exposition of the Mystery of the Immaculate Conception in the letter to Dr. Pusey; and exposition which, I have reason to know, has cleared away the difficulties that obscured the minds of several earnest inquirers with respect to the whole subject of the Blessed Virgin.

Is petty cavilling from Catholics without authority to be the present reward for a masterly exposition of the subject most difficult for a Protestant to comprehend, and which has made that subject classical in the English tongue?

In vain have I striven to find what Dr. Newman has written derogatory to devotion to the Blessed Virgin, or beyond the limits of theological prudence. 

The style, the aim, and the whole mind put forth by a writer require to be considered, in estimating the force of particular sentences, and the sentences of this author are often struck out with a concise vigour and a point, which detach them like proverbs, and fasten them like nails into the mind; and I apprehend that this sharp and incisive prominence of particular sentences so concentrates the attention of certain readers through their keenness, that they are wholly diverted from carrying in their minds that circle of qualifications which attends upon them. 

However that may be, I cannot fail to observe the ardour with which Dr. Newman defends every inch of the ground of Catholic principle from the attacks of Dr. Pusey, and the earnestness with which he puts forth his whole soul in exalting each glorious privilege of the Immaculate Mother of Our Lord. A book condensed as this is requires to be studied with patient attention to every sentence and clause, that the reader may carry forward what precedes into what follows. 

There are some people, often in the first and tender green of their faith, who seem to think it impossible that there should be abuses or indiscretions in speaking of the Blessed Virgin. 

And I remember being utterly shocked at a letter which appeared in one of our Catholic papers some years ago, in which the adversaries of the Blessed Virgin were challenged to try if they could possibly think of anything derogatory of her purity. That foolish writer must have been altogether ignorant of prominence given to St. Mary Magdalen for a certain purpose in the Talmud; and of the conflict waged against Pagans as well as Jews on the ground of that very story from the day of Origen to the days of Epiphanius. He must have been altogether ignorant of certain Protestant historic theories on the subject of the family of the Blessed Virgin.

I was thoroughly ashamed of that letter, and of whoever gave it insertion; and am ashamed of having alluded to it. But if so many evil things have been thought and uttered of our Blessed Lord, what wonder that they should be uttered of His Blessed Mother? 

We need not go to old errors in devotion to the Blessed Virgin condemned by the Church. De Montfort’s book is a case in point. Whatever beautiful and devotional truths it embodies, it was written in express advocacy of an unsound devotion, which the Holy See condemned, and the instruments used in which were ordered to be broken and destroyed. When that devotion was introduced from abroad into certain places in this Diocese, I condemned it before I knew that I had been anticipated by the Holy See. We are not the slaves even of God, but, as St. Paul says, our service is a free and reasonable service.  

There can be no doubt that a certain prudence and measured wisdom of language is demanded, according with the genius of language and methods of thought which belong to a nation; and that under the penalty of having our doctrines and sentiments completely misconceived. 

Dr. Faber wrote to me a letter in the year in which the Immaculate Conception was defined, in which he says, referring to a book upon that mystery, that had he and some of his brethren always used the discretion of language which he thought characterised that work, they would have been saved from certain troublesome consequences. And greatly as I admire much which he wrote, I do regret that in a note to his translation of De Montfort, he should have said that the devotion, though condemned in confraternities, might be practised by individuals; since it was the principle of the devotion which was condemned as unsound. 

Let me give an instance out of several within my knowledge of the injudicious use of certain books. Quite recently, a lady had but one difficulty that kept her from entering the Church – it concerned the Blessed Virgin; De Montfort’s book was put into her hands as the proper remedy, and it drove her away in terror. Had it been Dr. Newman’s book, how different might have been the result.

When you make crude translations of books used by a people (we will say like Neapolitans), with their hyperboles and superlatives, neglecting the conditions of thought in the language of the people for whom who render them; instead of fairly representing those books, you do them injustice, as well as the people whose devotions they express, and the faith which they embody, and the readers into whose hands they are liable to fall. 

Ardent and enthusiastic phrases, intense with life in the hearts of those who used them in their native tongue, the very burning summits of a lava flood of devotion, are extracted, cold and flat, out of the frigid translation and industriously circulated in a thousand prints through the Protestant world, for the purpose of showing that our Blessed Lord is taken by Catholics out of the economy of redemption, and Our Lady put in his place. And thus thousands upon thousands are driven into gross and even blasphemous errors against the Church of Christ, and even against the Mother of our Lord. 

And all of this comes from what in its own sense, and in its own place, is beautiful and true.

There is a prudence of language especially needed in a country like this, and so long as we use the language of Popes, councils, fathers, theologians, and liturgies, as Dr. Newman had done, so long shall we be as able as he likewise has done, to give the most perfect honour to the Mother of God. But even then, let us guard the truth from human misconception as far as charity requires, whilst we withhold not the whole truth nor cool in our own devotion.

This spirit characterises the Oratory of Birmingham, which is Roman in its devotions because it is Roman in the faith which its fathers believe and teach.

I remain, dear Sir, Your faithful servant, 

+ W. B. Ullathorne

Source: Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman: Volume XXII, ed. Charles Stephen Dessain, (London, 1972), pp341-44.

Further Reading

Newman – Letter to Rev. E. B. Pusey

Newman on “The Eternal See”

Did Cardinal Newman want to “rethink” the papacy?

What did Cardinal Newman say about the Rosary to a school of young men and boys?

Benard – A Preface to Newman’s Theology

Ullathorne – Autobiography of Archbishop Ullathorne


As we expand The WM Review we would like to keep providing our articles free for everyone. If you have benefitted from our content please do consider supporting us financially.

A small monthly donation, or a one-time donation, helps ensure we can keep writing and sharing at no cost to readers. Thank you!

Monthly Gifts

Subscribe to stay in touch:

Follow on Twitter and Telegram:

Also on Gab!

[1] Fr. Faber’s Preface, publised in St Louis-Marie de Montfort, The True Devotion to the Blessed Virgintrans. Frederick William Faber, ed. Robert Asch, (London, 2006), p xvi. 

[2] Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman: Vol XXII, ed. Charles Stephen Dessain, (London, 1972), p182.

[3] Ibid.

Leave a Reply