Tuesday, October 30, 2012

RCIA: Meet Mother Mary

When I first took a serious look at the Catholic Church one particular set of doctrines stood out more than any others. The Marian doctrines were so foreign, and, quite frankly, offensive, to me that I refused to give them any real intellectual attention. They were superstition and hero worship at best, and false idols at worst.

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.

"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
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.

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.

The Assumption

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!


  1. I think my biggest problem with these beliefs is not that they don't make sense, but that they are non found in the Bible. We know Mary is "blessed among women," but there's no mention that she's 1) free of original sin (or that such was a requirement of carrying Christ;) 2) has any spiritual authority or status because she was the mother of Jesus - the objection I've always heard to this is not "Jesus would have to have two personalities!" but "Jesus submitted to his earthly mother while he was her child on earth as part of his sinlessness, but that shouldn't give her power over him outside of that situation;" 3) that Mary didn't experience death.

    If I told you I felt that because green is the color of life and regrowth, and Jesus always wore a green robe, part of my doctrine is that I must wear green at all times... That might make sense, and be consistent, but it would still be an extra, unbiblical belief, and I might even go as far to say that it'd be wrong to teach it as core part of Christianity.

    (I say that being a Baptist, where we believe in dunking over sprinkling despite believing that the act is purely symbolic. But I don't think we ever teach that as a biblical necessity, just a preference, the way the Catholics think their wafers are more authentic than our cornbread-communion.)

    Our church taught that Mary was not really different than the other characters of the Bible - because we're not given much reason to believe she is! But I have seen her character and life examined the same way we examine the lives of other women of the Bible.

    The "idolatry" concern enters in because Catholics pray to Mary, and other saints, and kind of ignore what Christ did. Jesus was our priest and intercessor so that we can now talk to God - to ask other humans to intercede and carry our prayers to God is ineffective.

    I gotta go to work - and I have to admit, I have a bit of a knee-jerk reaction to this stuff that I have to suppress. My ex was a Catholic who couldn't explain or defend his own theology. He told me the Bible was unreliable because it had to be translated and interpreted by fallen men - and so we should rely on the traditions of the church, which were pure and sacred. And didn't really see the contradiction there.

    Anyway. I gotta go to work. I did learn some things from this post, so thanks!

    1. In point of fact, Catholics do no pray to Mary. Its more like a prayer request. The justification is actually found directly after the "hall of faith" in Hebrews. Catholics take the "cloud of witnesses" to mean everyone the author of Hebrews just mentioned. It then follows that if these people are all dead and in heaven, and if they can see you on Earth, then you could ask them to pray for you as you would a friend.

      Though your ex brings up a point I should make clear at some future point, ignorance of basic doctrines is a massive problem in the Catholic Church, so much so that the Pope has actually declared this year to be a "year of faith" and that the parishes are to encourage their parishioners to study their Bible, read the liturgy and ask questions! However, just because Joe Schmoe Catholic doesn't know his doctrine, doesn't make the doctrine invalid.

    2. In point of fact, Catholics do no pray to Mary. Its more like a prayer request.

      I wonder if we're using "pray" in different senses, here. My understanding is that Catholics do speak to Mary, audibly or otherwise, expecting her to hear their spiritual message despite her lack of physical presence. These communiques often include words of praise (i.e., "You are full of grace") and requests ("pray for us sinners").

      Thus far, that could also be a description of prayer to God. What do you mean by "pray" that you would not characterize this as prayer?

  2. So, not shockingly, I'm going to agree with what Ladyarkham said above: the major issue here is that these doctrines aren't implied by Scripture! Even if they failed to contradict it, that would be reason to dismiss them as spiritually-essential truths.

    And, from your description, it doesn't look like they do fit harmoniously with the rest of the Bible. You really do have to assume "all have sinned" - which is in Scripture - can't be read literally, on the basis of something that's *not* Scripture. (And if you're willing to make this adjustment, the bits about "But only because of Christ" become unnecessary, don't they? If "all" isn't "all," why couldn't we just say Mary was sinless all on her own? Why couldn't Bob from Accounting be sinless all on his own?)

    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.

    "Christ loved his mother" and "Christ kept X Bad Thing from happening to her" isn't an implication. It can't be - we know of at least one bad thing that happened (i.e., she watched her son die). It would also imply, for instance, that Christ doesn't love *me* (though I am brother and son through his blood), because bad things have definitely happened to me.


    The thing with Catholic doctrine, I sometimes feel, is that it's all of a piece. These bits of Marian theology aren't in Scripture - ah, but they rest on the authority of the Pope! The authority of the Pope isn't in Scripture... does it then, declare itself?

    I think it's telling that in what you're posting, you're only able to make your appeal to what this or that Pope has said. The only Scripture you've cited here, you cite in hopes of removing it as an objection - there's none, anywhere, cited in support!

    So I see what the doctrines are; but why should we believe them?

    1. Point of clarification: I quoted the popes in this post because their statements are definitive, and I was defining the doctrine.

      You ask too much from this blog post, methinks. My goal was only to present, not defend, these doctrines. Time, space, and energy limit what I can do here. There are many good defenses of the Marian doctrines elsewhere on the internet, I will not presume to defend a doctrine I only learned about two weeks ago.

    2. Hm. On the one hand, that's fair; certainly I don't expect you to be the foremost expert on Marian doctrine.

      On the other hand, you state at the beginning that your goal is to convince us of the doctrines' reasonableness. And I think the question of doctrinal reasonableness begins and ends with, "Is this what Scripture teaches?"

      Without that, I absolutely find these unreasonable for the Christian faith and, fundamentally, myths - how can I do otherwise?

  3. I'd say the reason that Mary is not much discussed in Protestant circles is simply that she doesn't show up a lot in the Bible after she gives birth to Christ. She gets after Jesus for running off to the temple, and she prompts him to do the miracle at Cana (and Christ mildly rebukes her for both), but outside of that she has little role in Christ's ministry or in the further development of the church. Christ himself doesn't seem to attach much significance to her.

    Matt. 12:46 "While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. 47 Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.”

    48 He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” 49 Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

    There's really not any scriptural basis for Mary's importance at all, apart from the fact that she's Christ's mother. I can see the impulse to emphasize her holiness simply because of her relation to God, but there's really no need for it. The other women in Christ's geneology--Tamar, Rahab, Bathsheba--were definitely not sinless. In fact, I've always considered their inclusion to be rather beautiful, that Christ is not just for the perfect, but also for the sinners. Which, I realize from your explanation that that's NOT what the RCIA is trying to say, but it still seems to undercut it.

    Now, that being said, you are correct that perhaps Protestants have gone completely the other way in DE-emphasizing her... her willingness to accept the destiny of God is commendable, and something we could all learn from. But "commendable" is still a far cry from "consecrated."