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There is one saint in the calendar of the Church who has never been associated with the idea of punishment: even justice is alien to her, compared with the ideas of mercy and love. She is the one whom Catholics know as Our Lady.
Yet it is around this figure that the bitterest conflict has always been waged. No statues in Puritan England were more certain to be destroyed than hers, and the same was true in Spain in the 1930s. Ministers in their pulpits may question the divinity of Christ and cause no stir outside a few country rectories — but when the doctrine of the Assumption, which has been established as a feast of the Church for more than a thousand years, is defined as a dogma, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York claim that the division of Christendom has been widened. They believe in the resurrection of the dead — but to suggest that an actual resurrection has already taken place seems to them blasphemous.
No storm was raised when, a hundred years ago, Newman wrote: “Original sin had not been found in her, by the wear of her senses, and the waste of her frame and the decrepitude of years, propagating death. She died, but her death was a mere fact, not an effect; and, when it was over, it ceased to be.”
Temporarily there were other issues: the Protestant churches were worried by the idea of evolution, even the age of the earth was a cause of scandal because it was believed to contradict Genesis. But the conflict of science and religion always passes sooner or later: what remains is this mysterious savage war around the only figure of perfect human love.
What is the explanation? One theologian has explained it, for our generation, as a distrust of the concrete. We are so used to abstractions. Words like Democracy and Liberty can be used in quite opposite senses without arousing attention: they go in and out of our ears like air. So with religious belief. The Supreme Being, the Trinity, The Creator of all things, such phrases may once have excited thought, but they do so no longer. Even the concrete name Christ has become so diluted, into the Great Teacher, the First Communist, and the like, that only a small amount of opposition is raised by the idea that Christ is God — it is rather like saying Truth is God.
But the statement that Mary is the Mother of God remains something shocking, paradoxical, physical.
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