(The first in a series of conversations with a young friend on his difficulties with the Catholic faith….)
My “Catholic Questions” pretty much all come from the same place: how do certain beliefs and/or main staples of the Church fit into one’s ultimate salvation? For example, on the Mary subject, how can/could Mary have been sinless and not be expected to be regarded as an object of worship? If she was sinless, how does Christ differ from her, or any other human being, for that matter? Why is it that the Church seems to insist on her perfection, and eternal virginity? Why does it seem that the Church is infatuated with honoring her to the very brink of deity-level worship? Is Christ not supposed to be our one and only focus of adoration?
Wow, nothing like jumping right into the deep end of the pool! It usually takes people a while to work their way around to asking about Mary. Your questions are good ones, and I promise to get to them, but I think it’s worth stepping back a bit and laying some groundwork before getting deep in details.
First, an agreement. It’s inevitable that in the course of theological discussions, I’ll use analogies–so will you. It’s how we humans think. Let’s agree up front that all analogies limp a bit–they fall apart at the edges. After all, nothing in the world is exactly like anything else in the world, and this is even more true when we try to make analogies for spiritual realities we are not accustomed to thinking of. The agreement is this: analogies work where they work, but they aren’t useless just because they ultimately are inadequate. Analogies are a leaky boat, to be sure, but they might get us where we need to be.
One of the things I find interesting about your question is its stance, one that is pretty common in modern thought. What is the core–the bare minimum–I need to believe in matters of faith, it seems to ask; then, how does all the other stuff fit together? That’s probably a reasonable way to start looking for common ground but I think it may not be the best way to start an inquiry about God and salvation.
Why does the Church insist on Mary’s perfection and eternal virginity? you ask.
For one reason alone: it is true. And it matters.
Does it shock you that the Church would make such an assertion? I expect it does. In modern life, hearing anyone assert anything as absolutely, unequivocally true falls odd on the ears. We are so used to “in my opinion,” or “I believe,” and a culture of relativity that the Church’s assertion of truths that are to believed seems peculiar. It’s especially odd to Protestants who are accustomed to deciding for themselves what to believe and what to discard.
But there is one and only one reason to believe anything: because it is true. No sense believing anything false, however comfortable or intellectually preferable it may be. Only the truth will get us where we need to go.
Believe me, there’s a good bit I find uncomfortable in the Catholic faith, and things, were it left to me, I’d set about changing. But whether I like them or not, I have concluded that the Church does, in fact, preach the truth, and is preserved from error in matters of faith and morals, from preaching anything but the truth. And I have learned that when I admit to that truth, understanding and deeper faith follow.
This, I realize, raises, even more questions for another day, but it’s important you understand this perspective of mine from the beginning. It’s not that I decided these things are true that I believe them. It’s because I believe there is truth to be known and I found a reliable authority from which to receive it. Searching for truth, I found authority, and that in turn, helped me see the truth I sought. More on that later.
All of us have ideas of how salvation could and should work, and I doubt any to of us, left to our own devices, would agree perfectly on what that all entails. If you doubt me, take a look at Protestant denominations. At last count there were something like 35,000 of them, if you count all the little non-denominational groups–and they all arose because they could not agree on what constitutes the essentials of faith.
Take the issue of baptism, for example. For some, it is a sacrament, conveying saving grace, for others it is a mere symbol, and in no way conveys grace. For some it is confined to adults who can make a profession of faith, for others, infants may legitimately be baptized. Some require a traditional trinitarian formula (Father, Son, Holy Spirit); others use alternative forms (Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier). Some accept baptism by other groups, others do not. Some believe baptism essential to salvation, others do not,insisting only on a personal and private confession of faith and acceptance of Christ as Savior.
It seems to me that that is a pretty essential point, and there’s not agreement. Further, there’s no irreducible minimum–no place that all these ideas come together at some core. If baptism is essential for salvation, those believing in personal confession are wrong. If adult baptism is required, then infant baptism is of no use. We can all agree to disagree on what baptism is and means, but the reality is–we cannot all be right.
It’s important to keep in mind that the details of the plan of salvation are not up to us. There is a God, and we are not He……And in one sense, whether the details make sense to us–or whether we believe them–doesn’t change the fact that they exist, independent of us, within the life of God. God ordained how salvation would unfold and He gave us both the ordinary means of salvation and the responsibility to preach it to the entire world His plan, not ours.
God could have arranged salvation in any way He chose. In fact, He could have, in justice, abandoned us in our sin. He could have in mercy simply declared us redeemed. It’s pretty clear He did neither of those things. God chose to redeem us and He chose to do it personally through the Incarnation, death and resurrection of the Second Person of the Trinity and He chose to do it using humankind as part of the process.
Human participation was not necessary in the process of salvation, but God used humankind–in many ways–even so. Just as He chooses to let us cooperate with Him the creation of new life (that is why we call it procreation….), He chose to let us cooperate with Him in the process of salvation. And He still does.
The whole of the Old Testament is the story of God’s preparation of the Hebrew people to receive the Incarnation. Prophets, kings, priests, even ordinary folk like the widow of Zarephath and her son –they all played a role in preparing God’s people for redemption.
And when the time came for the Incarnation, God did not simply appear full blown on earth, He came in the form of an infant, born of a very human woman, Mary.
Perhaps your question is better asked: How do these teachings about Mary fit into the Church’s understanding of the plan of salvation? And underneath that question is this one: How does the Church know them to be true?
Once you get past those questions, then you can begin to see how the teachings about Mary teach us about the Trinity, about salvation, and about our own relationship to the God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
However, not to keep you in suspense, I’ll give you the short, tantalizing answers to the questions you posed, hoping that spurs you on to others….
How can/could Mary have been sinless and not be expected to be regarded as an object of worship? Mary can be sinless if God chose to create her that way. Remember, Adam and Eve were created sinless and are not objects of worship. Mary, like Adam and Eve, is a creature, and we do not worship creatures. We worship God. For the record, Catholics who practice the faith as it is taught do NOT worship Mary.
No doubt you have questions about certain Bible verses on the subject, but we can talk about that later. Suffice it to say that, read from the mind of the Church (and the first-century Jew for whom they were written) they do not in any way contradict the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.
If she was sinless, how does Christ differ from her, or any other human being, for that matter? She differs from Christ in that He was her Creator. She is a creature. Never, ever forget that Christ, while fully human, is also fully God. Hence, there is all the difference in the world between Christ and Mary. She is the most perfect example of humankind, but still human. Christ is God. It is not just Christ’s sinlessness that effected our redemption, it was His divinity incarnated, suffering and dying, then rising that redeems us.
Why is it that the Church seems to insist on her perfection, and eternal virginity? At the risk of being cheeky, because it is true. And when one denies these tenets, then one loses some of the reality of Christ. Mary’s role is and always has been to bring Christ to the world. Take a look at Mark Shea’s books Mary, Mother of the Son: Modern Myths and Ancient Truth (Vol I) and First Guardian of the Faith (Vol II) for a detailed treatment of this. We can address it specifically later as you have more questions–but for now, know that one reason the Church insists on these truths is that that when you lose some of the truth about Mary, strange things happen to your understanding of Christ. A proper understanding of Christ–who He is and what He did–is essential, and a proper understanding of Mary is part of that. She is, after all, His mother and the only one who can say to God the Father,“Our Son…”
Why does it seem that the Church is infatuated with honoring her to the very brink of deity-level worship? The Church isn’t. Some people admittedly end up going overboard, for sure, and cross the line into worship…and when they do, the Church corrects them. The Church venerates Mary, and does not worship her.
There will always be people who get it wrong–think of some of the followers of some of the more prominent and showy televangelists, for example–but if you are going to judge the Church, judge her by what she teaches, not how we fallible, sometimes doltish, always imperfect humans translate it into action.
Veneration means recognizing the spiritual role and accomplishments of an individual. It is not worship, but honor. Think of it this way: You are very fond of your mom, and honor her in many ways. That’s veneration (and my first analogy). Veneration of Mary goes way, way back to the early Church. As early as the first part of the second century, Mary is depicted in the catacombs, both with and without Jesus, because the early Church understood her role in the plan of salvation, honored her for it and learned from it.
Here’s an easy way to back into this understanding. In Luke 1:48 (part of the prayer the Church calls the Magnificat), Mary says, “All generations will call me blessed.” That’s a Biblical prophecy, and our veneration of Mary fulfills it.
Is Christ not supposed to be our one and only focus of adoration? Indeed God is the only proper focus of worship, and Catholics only worship and adore the Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit, one God, Three Persons, but one and inseparable). But proper worship does not thereby exclude proper honor for those who have also played a role in our salvation. Like, for instance, the woman who was chosen by God the Father, through the espousal to the Holy Spirit, to bear His Son and her Savior….and ours.