So since I’ve been on the defensive for the past week (really the posts about indulgences were part of the same strand), I thought now seemed the right time to address another major aspect of Catholicism that Protestants have difficulty with, that is very often misunderstood: the veneration of Mary.
This is a huge issue. Part of the reason I’ve never gone there in these pages before is that it’s something that I have struggled with also, so it has been a sensitive spot. But I now feel secure enough to address it. This will be the first of many posts on this subject, I have no doubt. But I wanted to briefly share some basic ideas and explanations, to introduce especially my Protestant brethren to these concepts, and tell how this fits into the story of my journey.
My First Steps with Mary
Despite hearing allegations growing up, I don’t recall ever thinking that Catholics “worship” Mary. Especially as I learned about the Catholic Church in school, I always stood up to defend the Church when such attacks arose. But what I did think, growing up and even recently as I approached the Church, was that Catholics overemphasized Mary, gave her an unbiblical role in the story of salvation and an inappropriate degree of veneration.
In fact, if anything jeopardized my journey or threatened to turn me from my Catholic path, it was doubts about Mary. I had been attending Mass for about six months without a problem, and was just about to begin RCIA (and this blog), when all of a sudden and without warning, they hit, and hit hard. My friends Audrey and Jeff had just given me my first Rosary — perhaps that’s what brought me face to face with my doubts. But then, there they were. I could no longer evade them; it was either go through them, or leave this road.
My deepest doubt about Mary and Catholicism was that so much of the doctrine about her wasn’t in the Bible. Even after I had let go of sola scriptura (which happened fairly early in my quest), it seemed wrong that these ideas seemed to come out of nowhere at very late dates. For example, the doctrines of Mary’s Immaculate Conception and Assumption were not declared dogma until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. So what, then? Did they just make these up? I talked to Audrey; I talked to Brad; I e-mailed several other dear Catholic friends; I e-mailed Father Joe, asking questions and searching. I am very grateful for everyone who took the time to talk to me and reply.
But what brought me through these doubts more than anything was reading. My historian’s heart yearned to get to the root of these doctrines. Every other aspect of Catholic doctrine could be traced through the entire history of the Church — could these? I have no doubt that the Holy Spirit guided me to Fr. Luigi Gambero’s Mary and the Church Fathers, a book that seemed to be specifically tailored to my desires and needs. Gambero steps through the entire history of the Church, from the earliest Apostolic Fathers (the first generation after the Apostles) to the end of the Patristic Age (about the eighth century), and taking each Father, examines his thought and writings about Mary.
Through Gambero’s book, I found that every single doctrine that the Church holds about Mary has existed in some form since the very earliest days of Christianity. Some ideas were slow to develop into the fully-bloomed doctrines we know today — but every idea was born in seeds planted by the Apostles. In the days since I’ve discovered this, my love and my devotion for Mary has been ever-growing; she has a very special place in my heart.
What are some of those doctrines, that are particular to the Catholic and Orthodox churches? I will enumerate them here. Many of these, to Protestant eyes, will seem fanciful and far-fetched: I thought so, too. But every one of them can be attested to in Tradition very early on. Many of them have at least some scriptural support. None of them conflict with Scripture. I will, in posts to come, examine each of these doctrines in greater depth, and give quotations from the Fathers to chart the blossoming of these ideas.
A prefatory word: Catholics don’t worship Mary. We honor her; we love her; we venerate her; but we fully acknowledge that she was a human just as we are. We venerate her as we venerate the saints, only more so: she was the first Christian, the first one to believe in Jesus, and as His mother, someone who was very special to our Lord, and so she is special to us. She is the most honored of all the saints.
Mary’s Perpetual Virginity — The Church believes that Mary was a virgin her whole life; that not only when Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, but even through his birth, her virginity remained physically intact; and that following Jesus’s birth she never engaged in sexual relations, though married to Joseph, and never bore any other children. Mary’s womb, having borne the Son of God, was a sacred and consecrated vessel. Jesus’s “brothers” and “sisters” (Matthew 12:46, 13:55; Mark 3:31-34, 6:3; Luke 8:19-20; John 2:12, etc.) — or “brethren” — are not the children of Joseph and Mary: the Greek words αδελφός (adelphos, “brother”) and αδελφή (adelphē, “sister”) could also mean “kinsman” or “kinswoman,” and especially in the Hebrew and Aramaic languages, from which these traditions were originally passed down, there was no word for “cousin.” Jesus’s “brethren” are said to be either children of Joseph by a prior marriage (an early view), or cousins (the current view, with some scriptural support).
Mary’s Sinlessness — Mary is said to have been a pure vessel, and never sinned in her life. This is the one with which I had the most trouble. The way Brad explained it to me, that really helped, is thus: Jesus was fully God and fully man. He inherited his divine nature from the Holy Spirit, and He inherited his human nature from Mary. For this reason, Mary’s human nature had to be free from the original sin of Adam.
Mary’s Immaculate Conception — Many people (even some Catholics) think this refers to the Virgin Birth of Christ, but this is something else that relates to the previous doctrine. In order for Mary to be born without the stain of original sin, she had to be immaculately conceived — through which she was conceived naturally by her parents (who tradition holds were St. Joachim and St. Anne), but shielded by the Holy Spirit from inheriting original sin.
Mary’s Assumption — Tradition holds that Mary, at the end of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into Heaven to be with her Son. Catholic dogma leaves open the question of whether she first died, but the idea is that this was her last moment on this earth. In Orthodox tradition, the Assumption is known as the Dormition (the going-to-sleep), and in this view, she died before rising to heaven.
Mary as Queen of Heaven — Many Protestants think this is a granting to Mary of heavenly authority, making a goddess of her, but it is in fact a sign of her great honor in Heaven. Her Son is the King; therefore she, as his mother, is the Queen Mother — just as we accord high honor to the mothers of monarchs on earth.
Mary as Mother of God — this one really troubles Protestants — and it shouldn’t. The title arises as a translation of her title in the East, Θεοτόκος (Theotokos) — the God-bearer or Mother of God. Giving her this title has less to do with Mary than with Christ: By affirming Mary as the Theotokos, Christians were affirming that Christ was fully God as well as fully man: Mary bore God and not just a man. Anything less, such as the patriarch Nestorius’s preference for “Christotokos,” was interpreted as a rejection of Christ’s full divinity. Especially in the first Christian centuries, when Christological questions and heresies raged about the true nature of Christ, His earthly origins — down to the womb from which he was born — were of the utmost importance and concern.
Mary as Mediatrix — Scripture says that there is “one mediator between God and men,” Jesus (1 Timothy 2:5) — and Catholics fully affirm this, that Christ is our one Mediator to God. And we are fully capable of reaching Christ ourselves, through prayer; and He is with us in every Sacrament. But that doesn’t preclude the idea that there can’t be other mediators (i.e. people in between) between us and Christ. Just as we can ask friends and family members and pastors to pray for us to God — making them mediators — we can ask Mary and the saints to intercede for us. And Mary, by her special place and her unique relationship to Christ, is a powerful intercessor indeed, we believe. There is another side to this, Mary as the mediatrix of graces, that I will save for another time.
UPDATE: See my expanded post on Mary’s Perpetual Virginity: “Some light on the Perpetual Virginity of Mary”
UPDATE: See my expanded post on the Assumption: “The Assumption of Mary: Scriptures and texts”
There are others to talk about, but these are the most prominent. There will be much more to come. If you have any questions you would like me to address or explore further, please do feel free to ask them. I am always looking for blog-fodder.