Over time however, I learned that the Catholic Church does not endorse a doctrine without careful study first. They explore all the implications of a belief, and the implications of those implications. This is one of the most attractive things about the RCC to me, how thoroughly they examine their doctrine! So I had to give Mary a chance.
More after the jump...
Admittedly, I was rather disappointed with the first explanations I heard in RCIA. They seemed half baked and arbitrary. And they were. But they were also wrong. Later the priest corrected what had been taught in the class and my sponsor, a man with a PhD in a hard science and a Master's in theology, explained the doctrines in more detail. They made sense, they followed each other logically. They are also incredibly difficult for my Protestant upbringing to accept.
I say this because I do not expect to convince any of you of the truth of these doctrines. I barely understand them, I don't know if I actually believe them, and I am far too poor a writer to adequately explain them here. What I do hope to do however is convince you of their reasonableness. They are not idols, they are not myths. As such, keep this in mind: Catholics believe Mary is the moon to Christ's sun. Any light she gives is a reflection of a much brighter source. ALL the Marian doctrines ultimately point to Christ.
With that in mind, here is a entirely inadequate look at the big three Marian doctrines, The Immaculate Conception, Theotokos, and The Assumption.
The Immaculate Conception
I must confess, when I first learned about this doctrine I was actually offended. How could Catholics believe that Mary never sinned? What about Romans 3:23 did they not understand? If all have sinned then Mary had to have sinned! Besides, the Pope didn't declare Mary to be sinless until 1854, so this is obviously something new that could be ignored.
Well, not so fast. The role of the Catholic Magisterium is to preserve the Faith. As such they typically don't authoritatively define a doctrine until it comes under attack. So the fact that a doctrine is declared at a certain time does not preclude it being believed much earlier. While I have not studied Church history enough to know how early the IC was believed, I've been told that it shows up in the work of the earliest church fathers, and I have little reason to doubt it at this time.
So let's look at the doctrine itself eh? Pope Pius IX declared:
"that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin."Translation: God, because He thought it was fitting, applied Christ's sacrifice on the cross to Mary, in order to preserve her from original sin. Catholics do not believe Mary didn't need a savior. She was preserved only because of Christ's merit, not her own. The do not believe that it was necessary that Mary be sinless, just that God thought it was fitting that the vessel He chose to carry the incarnation of His Word be stainless. This is a parallel to the Ark of the Covenant, which was so holy that men were struck dead for touching it.
The most critical part of this IC is that Mary wasn't sinless because of her own merit, she was sinless because of a special grace bestowed upon her by God through Christ's sacrifice. As for Romans 3:23: well, when you say everyone likes pancakes, do you really mean everyone without exception or merely most people? In English "all" rarely means "without exception." (I will admit the liking of pancakes is a bad example as I cannot conceive of anyone not enjoying them, but you get the idea.) It seems to me the Catholic interpretation of that verse is reasonable. I cannot prove it wrong without knowing Greek, I can only take the word of men who have studied it. As such, let's hear from a few of them:
"With the exception, therefore, of the holy Virgin Mary, in whose case, out of respect for the Lord, I would have no question raised when there is talk of sin -- for how do we know what further grace was conferred on her for absolute victory over sin, she who deserved to conceive and bear Him who obviously had no sin?" - St. Augustine.As you can see, the Immaculate Conception isn't (or at least wasn't) merely a Catholic doctrine. For the moment I find this doctrine reasonable, if hard. There is much, much more to this doctrine. If you want to read more I suggest starting here.
"He who was about to remove our sins but not to make all men holy, must be himself holy. Hence God sanctified his mother: for it was fitting that such a holy Son should have a likewise holy mother...." - Ulrich Zwingli, Swiss Protestant Reformer
"...above all it is necessary for us to see what original sin is in order to be able to understand how the holy Virgin Mary was released from it..." - Martin Luther, father of the Reformation
Theotokos: Mary, Mother of God
The Roman Catholic Church teaches that Mary is properly referred to as the Mother of God. This is because she gave birth to Christ, who is God. This belief, called Theotokos, seems intuitive until you think about the fact that God is eternal. How then could He have a mother? This opposing viewpoint, called Christotokos, contended that Mary could not be the mother of God because she was a created thing and must merely be the mother of Christ.
The theological implication of this belief is that Christ has two personalities, his human person and his divine person. This is an obvious problem: if Christ was two persons in the same body, then the Cross is useless. It is precisely because Christ was both 100% man and 100% God that his sacrifice is effective for the forgiveness of sins.
The doctrine of Theotokos was confirmed at the First counsel of Ephesus in 431. This may seem like a simple doctrine, but the reason I bring it up is because of its implications. We've already seen how, in effect, to deny that Mary is the "Mother of God" is to deny the value of the cross. The implication goes the other way too. If Mary is indeed the Mother of God, why would God allow His mother to experience the taint of sin? The Immaculate Conception and Theotokos imply each other.
Finally (can you tell I'm running out of steam?) we come to the Assumption. On November 1, 1950, Pope Pius XII solemnly declared:
"By the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory."That is to say, that God afforded a special privilege to Mary and she was assumed into heaven at the end of her life. Whether or not she actually died before being assumed is not definitively defined by the Church, though the earliest teachings held that she did indeed die. Though the doctrine of the Assumption wasn't declared until 1950, it was popularly taught at least as early as the 4th century.
The Assumption seems like an unnecessary and frivolous belief at first, until one ties it back to the Immaculate Conception. It follows that if Mary was miraculously preserved from sin by the grace of God, then she would not experience the consequences of sin the same way everyone else does. The chief consequence of sin is death, and as such she was freed from death to be immediately reunited with her son, Jesus Christ.
Which brings me to my conclusion. Whether or not you believe in any of these doctrines I hope you can see how Mary is continually reflecting Christ. In the Immaculate Conception she is preserved from original sin in order to be a fitting vessel for Christ. In calling Mary the "Mother of God" Catholics affirm the effectiveness of Christ's sacrifice on the cross. In the Assumption she points us to the resurrection of the dead and Christ's promise to bring us to Him. At the very least I want you to see that Mary, properly understood, is not an idol.
Unfortunately, it is my experience that, excepting the nativity story, Mary is never discussed in the Protestant church. At least not in the Baptist churches I have spent most of my life in. This is a gross oversight on our part. Mary is, at the least, a great example. She is one of the few characters in the Bible to say "yes" to God the first time she is asked to do something! Moses said "send someone else." Jonah ran away. The disciples fled.
The only reason I can see for not talking about Mary is a fear of sounding too Catholic.
There is much, much more to Mary than I have presented here. I choose these three doctrines because they encompass Mary's earthly life, are tied neatly together, and are arguably the most important. Catholics also call Mary the "Queen of Heaven," and this is a rather important doctrine, but far too much for me to cover here.
If you are Protestant and have actually been taught something about Mary outside of the month of December I am genuinely interested to here what your denomination believes. If you wish to attack any of these doctrines, feel free. I may or may not reply, as I am less concerned with defending these doctrines and more concerned with presenting them. I do read everything you guys post, though limits on my time and energy often prevent me from responding!