Caricatures of Catholicism: Mary

1182631_silhouetteThe present divisions within Christendom are surely the result of a great deal more than doctrinal divisions.  Doctrinal divisions exist, to be sure, but our differences are easier to address when we approach one another with compassion.  Doctrine has never been a problem for (genuine) Lutherans; charity sometimes has.  Lutheran pastors can be some of the most difficult people to get along with, a sentiment with which my own congregation would no doubt agree!  Far too often, I’ve put their ability to forgive “seventy times seven” to the test (Matthew 18:22).  If only our love for one another were as pure as our doctrine, there would be a great deal more Lutherans in the world today.  The negative comments I hear about Lutherans (particularly, “confessional Lutherans”) rarely have anything to do with doctrine.  We must be careful not to sacrifice warmth and compassion on the altar of theological integrity.

One of the more significant divisions between Lutherans and Roman Catholics revolves around Mary, the Mother of our Lord.  The newly elected Pope Francis concluded his opening remarks to the world by saying,

 “Brothers and sisters, I leave you now. Thank you for your welcome. Pray for me and until we meet again. We will see each other soon. Tomorrow I wish to go and pray to Our Lady, that she may watch over all of Rome. Good night and sleep well!” [endnote 1]

While Lutherans and Catholics certainly have their differences when it comes to Mary, genuine understanding between both sides is often lacking.  Doctrinal differences can easily turn into anger and bitterness, particularly when one side is misrepresented.  Lutherans can easily perpetuate stereotypes or caricatures of the Roman Catholic view, something which will no doubt frustrate our efforts at reconciliation.  In what follows, I would like to expose a few of these caricatures and test the genuine Roman Catholic doctrine against the Scriptures.

Sometimes, in an attempt to distance themselves from Roman Catholics, Lutherans have treated Mary as if she were no more than a footnote in salvation history.  Scripture declares Mary a “highly favored lady” (Luke 1:28), one whom all generations will call blessed (Luke 1:48). [endnote 2]  Her central role in the story of salvation is highlighted by the Creed, which affirms that Jesus was “born of the Virgin Mary.”

The notion that Mary is equal to (or even greater than!) Jesus is certainly a caricature of Catholic teaching.  Fr. Gary Caster is right to point out that Mary is more than a divine incubator; she is a key figure in salvation history.[3]  Though they regard Mary highly, Roman Catholics are careful to distinguish between Mary and Jesus.  As Fr. Caster says, “The church is careful that the words used to honor Mary do not overshadow the person and role of her son.  The one who saves should never be confused with the woman who gave birth to him.  Mary remains bound to the ministry of redemption, but she is not the redeemer.” [endnote 4]

It is also a caricature of Roman Catholic teaching to suggest that they encourage Mary-worship (Mariolatry).  While Roman Catholics “honor the blessed Virgin with special devotion”, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says “this very special devotion… differs essentially from the adoration which is given to the incarnate Word and equally to the Father and the Holy Spirit.” [endnote 5]  This was also taught by Aquinas, who said that Mary is less than God, but greater than ordinary human beings and any other saint.  According to Aquinas, Mary is not entitled to latria (adoration), but entitled to more than dulia (reverence). [endnote 6]

While it is important to note that Catholics do not worship Mary, it remains problematic to offer devotion to anyone except Father, Son, & Holy Spirit.  On the one hand, we enjoy the “communion of saints” with those past and present, with saints who are living and those who are asleep in Christ (1 Thess 4:14–15).  As we sing, “The saints of Christ are one in every place” (LSB, 838); we “sing with all the saints in glory,” (LSB, 671).  Nothing can separate us from Christ’s love or the communion we have with one another, since we are all part of His one Body (Romans 8:38–39, 12:4–5; 1 Corinthians 12:12–31).  But the fact that we enjoy communion with Mary and all saints does not mean we should offer them devotion.  Along with angels, archangels, Mary, and the whole company of heaven (Hebrews 12:22), we laud and magnify God’s name alone.

Marriage supper lamb

Our communion with Mary (and all of God’s saints) is always found in Christ.  We do not commune with the saints directly or independently of our Lord, which is what makes the Roman Catholic teaching of devotion to Mary (or any saint) problematic.  It is one thing to join our voices together with Mary and the whole company of heaven in praising our Lord; it is quite another to offer them devotion.  We enjoy communion with Mary without offering her devotion, which belongs to Christ alone.  Both extremes–offering devotion to Mary and neglecting her altogether–are to be avoided. 

An expression of our communion with Mary (without offering her devotion) can be found in the hymn, “Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones.”  In it, Mary is described as being “higher than the cherubim, more glorious than the seraphim,” and is even addressed by us (!) as something of a heavenly choirmaster. [endnote 7]  Even here, the focus remains on God, who is the object of our devotion. [endnote 8]  Mary is not addressed to offer her devotion or to seek her aid, but is singled out as one from the heavenly choir with whom we join our voices in praising God.

The elevation of pious tradition about Mary to status of binding dogma in the Roman Catholic Church is troublesome.  On the one hand, there is no denying that a great number of traditions have surrounded Mary through the centuries, particularly her Immaculate Conception (and subsequent righteousness) [endnote 9] and Assumption (cf. Genesis 5:24; 2 Kings 2:11). [endnote 10]  But to elevate these teachings to the status of essential doctrine (as the Roman Catholic Church did in 1854 and 1950, respectively) is to bind consciences to the traditions of men rather than to the Scriptures (cf. Mark 7:7–8).

While Roman Catholic teaching affirms Mary’s creaturely status and even her need of redemption, [endnote 11] they attribute to her much more than is found in Scripture.  Fr. Caster interprets her words, “I do not know a husband” (Luke 1:34) as being much more than a commentary on her sexual purity.  In Caster’s view, Mary is more than a mere virgin; her “singular righteousness” means “there is no man whose gift of self to her could be completely reciprocal.  The disorder in human relationships caused by original sin would prevent any man from recognizing Mary as “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Genesis 2:23).” [endnote 12]

Mary’s alleged “righteousness” not only sets her apart from other humans, but is something that inspires awe in angels and respect from God, according to Caster.  He says that Mary’s faithful response to Gabriel, “strikes [the angel] with awe.  He sees the depth of her love for God and the sincerity of her desire to give thanks and praise to Him.  Mary’s total openness to God is reflected in her docility toward Gabriel, and this resonates with his own being.” [endnote 13]  Caster goes so far as to say that God “respects” how “Mary has chosen to live her life for him.” [endnote 14]

Mary’s “I do” to the Trinity is taught by Catholics as a model for every believer, highlighting a synergistic tendency amongst Catholics.  Caster says, “We too are invited to embrace the Father’s plan for us and unite our freedom with God’s own.” [endnote 15]  He continues,

“God desires salvation for all men and women, and he will touch intimately each life that accepts this gift…  [God] longs for all people to share in a personal relationship with him, a relationship that he gives freely to those who will give themselves freely to him in return…  As we submit our own relationship to the redemptive power of Jesus, the Father’s redemptive plan finds completion… Salvation requires a continual resolve to let go, to surrender to God.” [endnote 16]

Against this, St. Paul teaches that if righteousness came through the Law, then Christ died for nothing (Galatians 2:21).  Jesus’ death on the cross is a once-for-all sacrifice for sins (Hebrews 10:12); there is nothing left to “work off” in this life or in purgatory. [endnote 17]  No intercession of the saints is needed, for Jesus is the one Mediator between God and men (1 Timothy 2:5). [endnote 18]  Nor is any choice or act of the will required.  In fact, none is possible!  For God made us alive together with Christ even while we were dead in our trespasses (Ephesians 2:4–5).

Fr. Caster says Mary was troubled by Gabriel’s greeting (Luke 1:29) because Mary was not aware of her righteous standing beforeApse_mosaic_Hagia_Sophia_Virgin_and_Child God. [endnote 19]  However, it is more natural to see her distress as the fitting response of sinners to divine visitation.  Her response to the news of the Most High accords with that of the prophets of old.  When he saw God, Isaiah, knowing he was a sinner, cried out, “Woe is me!  For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips,” (Isaiah 6:5).  Likewise, the announcement of Mary’s pregnancy engendered a holy fear within her, for if no one can see God and live (Exodus 33:20), how much less can they conceive and give birth to God incarnate!  Her response of humility and fear is how sinners respond to God.

The Roman Catholic Church teaches what might be considered a type of Mary-enthusiasm.  Caster speaks of Mary’s “willingness to appear to her children”, citing her alleged appearances at Fatima. [endnote 20]  He also relates an incident when 9-year-old Thérèse of Lisieux and her three sisters gathered around a statue of Mary for healing.  Caster reports how the statue of Mary “smiled” at Thérèse, who was subsequently healed of her infirmity. [endnote 21]  According to Thérèse, “All of the sudden the Blessed Virgin appeared beautiful to me, so beautiful that I had never seen anything so attractive… what penetrated to the very depths of my soul was the ‘ravishing smile of the Blessed Virgin.” [endnote 22]

The Bible teaches that God speaks to us only on the basis of His Word.  The notion that God speaks to us today apart from His Word runs contrary to the Church’s confession that God “spoke by the prophets”, a statement that is based on texts like Psalm 119:105, Hebrews 1:1–2, 2 Timothy 3:16–17, and 2 Peter 1:19.  Luther says: “God does not want to deal with us in any other way than through the spoken Word and the Sacrament.  Whatever is praised as from the Spirit–without the Word and Sacraments–is the devil himself.” [endnote 23]

What happens when no vision of Mary or miraculous healing is granted?  Fr. Caster notes his own disappointment in never having received a visitation from Mary. [endnote 24]  Teachings like this suggest the inadequacy of Scripture and promote seeking refuge and strength in sources other than God (cf. Psalm 46:1–11).  Despite the Roman Catholic assertion that Mary provides protection for the faithful in every danger and need, [endnote 25] we do not remember the saints so that they may intercede on our behalf or protect us.  We remember the saints “that we may imitate their faith and good works according to our calling.” [endnote 26] 

Mary’s “greatness” is found in her humility.  She knew she was but a poor, miserable sinner, not worthy of her Lord’s gracious visitation.  She was not interested in securing devotion to herself, but sought to magnify her Lord in all things (Luke 1:46).  The fact that her words are only recorded on four occasions in Scripture is keeping with her character. [endnote 27]  She did not want to be in the limelight and so detract in any way from the greatness of her Lord.  Mary would no doubt concur with the words of John the Baptist: “He must increase, but I must decrease,” (John 3:30).  If we truly desire to honor Mary, we should not offer her devotion or seek refuge in her.  Instead, we should join together with her in falling down before the Lamb in worship, for He alone was slain for our sins and is worthy “to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Revelation 5:8, 12).

[1]“Urbi Et Orbi”:  The notion that Mary protects and provides for the faithful is taught in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 971.

[2] cf. “The Angel Gabriel from Heaven Came” (LSB, 356).

[3] Caster, Mary: In Her Own Words.  Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2006 (13).

[4] Cater, 39.   This also accords with the teaching of Aquinas, who said that Mary is less than God, but greater than ordinary human beings and any other saint (Aquinas, as cited in Pelikan, Mary through the Centuries. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996 (102).

[5]Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 971.

[6] Aquinas, as cited in Pelikan, (102).

[7]  Verse 2 goes as follows: “O higher than the cherubim, More glorious than the seraphim, Lead their praises: “Alleluia!”  Thou bearer of the eternal Word, Most gracious, magnify the Lord: “Alleluia, alleluia! Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!”” (LSB, 670).  However, it should be borne in mind that all saints (the baptized) occupy a place of privilege over the angels, not just Mary (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:3; 1 Peter 1:12).

[8] That the praise is directed to God is clear by the 7-fold repetition of “Alleluia” (meaning, “Praise Yahweh”) in this verse, not to mention the line, “Most gracious, magnify the Lord.”

[9] Caster says, “Mary was certainly sinless by virtue of the privilege of her immaculate conception,” (5).

[10] The Immaculate Conception was suggested by Augustine (354–430AD) and declared a “pious doctrine” by the Council of Basel (1439).  However, it was not declared as a binding dogma until December 8, 1854 with Pope Pius IX’s bull Ineffabilis Deus.  Bernard, who praised Mary so highly that Dante put his praise of the Virgin on Bernard’s mouth at the end of his Divine Comedy, nevertheless denied the Immaculate Conception.  He wrote that Mary “gave birth as a virgin, but not that she was born of a virgin.” (Pelikan, Mary through the Centuries. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996 (192).   Scotus, erring on the side of caution, said that it was “preferable to attribute greater rather than lesser excellence to Mary,” (Pelikan, 196).  The doctrine of the Assumption was made official with the bull Munificentissimus Deus on November 1, 1950.

[11] According to Scotus, Mary was preserved from original sin, but not rescued from it.  He says, “Mary needed Christ as Redeemer more than anyone did, [but] not on account of the sin that was present in her,” (Scotus, as cited in Pelikan, 197).  For Mary, salvation isn’t a matter of “supplying [the righteousness that] had been lost, but an act of increasing what [she] already had,” (Pelikan, 197).

[12] Caster, 18.

[13] Ibid., 23.

[14] Ibid., 24.  Caster often speaks of Mary’s “total gift of self” to God, which God reciprocates (27).

[15] Ibid., 32.

[16] Ibid., 57; 60–61; 96; 98.

[17] The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven,” (1030).

[18] Caster says “Mary is eager to see mankind drink from the streams that yield springs of eternal life…  As the Mother of the Eucharist, Mary forever intercedes for the church… Mary longs to secure a place [at the Lamb’s wedding feast] for all of us,” (114, 123, 125).  According to Pelikan, the Roman Catholic Church teaches that Mary is the “one through whom we ascend to him who descended through her to us…, through [whom] we have access to the Son…, so that though [her] he who through [her] was given to us might take us up to himself,” (Pelikan, 131).

[19] Caster, 15.

[20] Ibid., ix.

[21] Ibid., 8.

[22] Ibid., 3 (emphasis original).

[23]Smalcald Articles III: VIII (10).

[24] Caster writes, “In fact, when I was nine years old I spent the entire summer expecting [Mary] to appear to me, just as she had to the three young peasants of Fatima.  I was convinced Mary would come to me, open the earth and show me hell.  It was a long summer; she never came,” (ix).

[25] Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 971 (cf. also the pope’s comments, above).  The Second Commandment instructs us to call upon God’s name in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks.  God, not Mary or the saints, is our refuge and strength (Psalm 46:1).  Still, Caster says, “In her maternal love [Mary] mediates the renewal of grace that allows those who seek her intercession to know the will of God and act on it,” (91).

[26]Augsburg Confession, XXI.

[27] Cf. the annunciation (Luke 1:26–38); the magnificat (Luke 1:46–55); the account of the boy Jesus in the temple (Luke 2:41–52); and the wedding at Cana (John 2:1–11).

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