One of the most obvious practical differences between Catholics and Protestants is our respective postures towards Mary. Protestants don’t dislike her, but she simply takes her place alongside all of the other heroes of the faith, no better than the rest. For Catholics, on the other hand, Mary is unequaled among humans. Sculptures and paintings feature Mary almost as often as Christ; Churches, schools, and holy societies are devoted to her memory. Even Notre Dame (“Our Lady”) is named after her, and the main administration building is crowned with her golden statue. The Rosary, prayed daily by devout Catholics, is punctuated with “Hail, Mary” and directed toward to the “Most Blessed Mother.” Mary is celebrated, revered, and held up as the highest example of faith. In fact, Dr. Cavadini says, “Without devotion to Mary there is something lacking in Christian worship.”
So . . . why all the fuss about Mary?
The first thing to make clear is that Catholics do not worship or adore Mary. She is instead venerated, or shown respect and devotion for her faith. Because Mary’s faith in Jesus and submission to God’s will are what make her special, contemplation of Mary fosters deeper faith in Christ. She serves as the prime example of saving faith. In class, Dr. Cavadini explained that “Devotion to Mary is devotion to the incarnation. . . . The repetition of the ‘Hail Mary’ calls to mind the mystery of the incarnation.” Pope John Paul II saw that in the Rosary, “Mary leads us to discover the secret of Christian joy” (On the Most Holy Rosary, 28). The Rosary is one way that Mary invites Catholics to think about Christ.
Conservative Protestants agree with Catholics that Mary was a virgin when she conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit (§484–486, 496–498). She was chosen by God for this purpose because of her “free cooperation” with the Holy Spirit, enabled by God’s grace (§488, 490). She can be thought of as the “exalted daughter of Sion,” the culmination of a long line of women who hoped in God (§489). Responding to an ancient debate, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) says it is proper to call Mary theotokos, or “Mother of God” (§495; 509). Protestants agree.
However, the Catholic Church goes on to teach two further doctrines related to Mary’s virginity that are generally not held by Protestants: her Immaculate Conception and Perpetual Virginity. The former was declared ex cathedra by the Pope, so it is considered an infallible doctrine by Catholics.
Catholics believe that Mary was not only a virgin when she conceived, but she was free from original sin. The CCC admits that this doctrine grew up gradually:
“Through the centuries the Church has become ever more aware that Mary, ‘full of grace’ through God, was redeemed from the moment of her conception. That is what the dogma of the Immaculate Conception confesses, as Pope Pius IX proclaimed in 1854:
‘The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.'” (§491)
Dr. Cavadini clarifies that Mary was, from the moment she was conceived, redeemed in anticipation of Christ’s saving work. So her freedom from original sin was on the basis of that redemption in Christ (i.e. the same way you or I are saved later in life). But not only was Mary free from original sin, the CCC teaches that “By the grace of God Mary remained free of every personal sin her whole life long” (§493; cf. 508). She “gave herself entirely to the person and to the work of her Son” (§494). Dr. Cavadini explains, “Her immaculate conception is her complete conformity to the incarnation from the moment of her conception. She was preserved from original sin on the basis of that conformity.”
No direct appeal is made to Scripture in the CCC to support this doctrine other than Luke 1:48, where Mary says, “all generations will call me blessed.” For Protestants it seems a stretch to go from “blessed” (presumably by God) to “blameless”! How do Catholics get there? Protestant readers may be relieved to see that for Catholics Mary’s holiness is derivative of Christ’s own holiness and her election is predicated on God’s grace.
More troublesome to Protestants, however, is the idea that Mary was free from original sin and never sinned during her life, because Scripture never says this explicitly. For Catholics the doctrine has a theological and typological basis. Catholics’ typological views of Mary might be compared to the baptism of infants by many Reformed Protestants. We find no explicit example of or command for infant baptism in Scripture, yet many churches practice it because they see a typological relationship between circumcision and baptism. Just as circumcision of male babies signified their inclusion in the Covenant, so baptism of children stands as a symbol of their inclusion in the New Covenant, based on the promise of God. Not all Protestants believe in infant baptism, but those who practice it have allowed a typological reading of Scripture to shape their Christian practice. This is analogous to the Catholic Church’s teachings on Mary. We might say her sinlessness flows naturally from her portrayal in Scripture as one fully submitted to the will of God. A life completely surrendered is one without sin. If we admit of even the possibility of entire sanctification (something debated among Protestants), then the Catholic vision of Mary stands as the showcase example.
But Mary is more than a role model, or example of faith. For Catholics, the doctrine of her Immaculate Conception is intrinsically connected to Christology, and it arises out of contemplation of the circular nature of the incarnation. How is the incarnation circular? Simply the idea that Mary is the “Mother of God” defies logic — how can God have a mother? Mary then, through Christ’s offering of himself, becomes the daughter of her Son — another conundrum. Edward Oakes explains,
“The implications of the denial of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception should become clear. For such a denial would then make our very salvation dependent on Mary’s free will operating independent of grace. Her Yes to God would have had to have been made, even if ever so slightly, under her own power, which would have the intolerable implication of making the entire drama of salvation hinge on a human work …” (“Sola Gratia and Mary’s Immaculate Conception,” 3).
In other words, if Mary was not sinless, how could she have given her full consent to the incarnation? And if she was able to give full consent, would not her sinless response have been a work of God’s grace? Therefore, the grace of God must have been in operation from the very moment of her conception, preparing her for this moment of full consent. And that grace is only available on the basis of Christ’s redeeming work. Therefore, Mary is redeemed in anticipation of that saving work of Christ, and her willingness to bear the incarnate Lord makes that redemption possible. (Do you see the circle?)
For Protestants, another unfamiliar Catholic doctrine is the perpetual virginity of Mary. According to the CCC, Mary continued to be a virgin for the rest of her life (§499; 510). Her virginity is a sign of her faith, the “undivided gift of herself” to God (§506). She then becomes the mother of all who believe (§501; 511; 963). To the objection of Protestants that Jesus had siblings, the Catechismclaims that “James and Joseph, ‘brothers of Jesus,’ are the sons of another Mary, a disciple of Christ, whom St. Matthew significantly calls ‘the other Mary.’ They are close relations of Jesus, according to an Old Testament expression” (§500). Mary’s ongoing virginity is the outward expression of her openness to God’s special work in her. She continues to embody the mystery of the incarnation.
If this seems to downgrade human sexuality, we should note that Catholics do not see married sex as unholy. The holy family is fulfilling a unique vocation, not one to be emulated by married couples. Marital celibacy is not praised by the apostles. On the contrary, Paul tells the married not to deprive each other of sexual fulfillment (1 Cor 7:3,5).
Protestants may still want to object to the Catholic interpretation of Jesus “brothers” as his “cousins” (Matt 13:55 and Mark 6:3). We may also see Matt 1:25 as pointing away from the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity—Joseph kept Mary a virgin “until she gave birth” to Jesus. I for one have understood this to mean that after Jesus was born Mary and Joseph consummated their marriage. However, there is room for disagreement over this issue. Seen typologically, the Catholic doctrine on Mary can be squared with Scripture (though it goes beyond what the Bible explicitly says).
More on Mary
The CCC also teaches that Mary intercedes for the Church (§965; 969). Her mediation, a “maternal role,” is not meant to equal or diminish the uniqueness of Christ’s mediation, but is derivative of it and based on the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers (§969; 975; 1014). She has simply gone before us and represents the end goal of the journey of faith (§972). In fact, Catholics teach that Mary was taken up into heaven directly, where she awaits us. This doctrine is called the “Assumption of Mary” (§966, 974; cf. 1024), and it is also considered infallible. It is not found in the Bible and has no parallel in the Protestant church. It is based on a very ancient liturgical Tradition which can obviously not be proven or disproven. You could think of Enoch, who “walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him” (Gen 5:24 NRSV) or Elijah, who was taken to heaven in a whirlwind (2 Kings 2:11).
Beliefs about Mary can be a real sticking point between Catholics and Protestants. I hope that this post has helped you to understand what Catholics believe about Mary and (to some extent) why. I am coming to a place where these doctrines are at least beginning to make sense, though I am not ready to embrace all of them. Ultimate agreement may be unlikely, but respect, dialogue, and understanding are the goal.
Dr. Cavadini put it to me this way, in an e-mail exchange over this issue:
“So it seems to me that all Christians who believe in the Incarnation can share Mary as ‘Mother of God,’ and can begin to understand that they are truly linked in this way, and Christians less inclined to cultivate a devotion to Mary can still on the basis of this link, if they are willing to seriously consider it, have an understanding of the devotion that flourishes more explicitly in other communions, and, without participating in it, still feel a link to it, and understanding of it, and an appreciation that someone is in fact holding up that end of the spectrum.” (emphasis mine)
He later reminded me that the beauty of Catholic teaching on Mary can get lost in the arguments over particular aspects, adding,
“The Mother of the Incarnate Word is not His mother just by accident—her kid happened to turn out great—but she is consulted and is aware. That maternal love is there for all of us because Christ wills it. Her maternal compassion is there for us and leads us to contemplate the divine mercy of her Son. There is nothing to be afraid of, only beauty, only the special role of a women in our redemption. . . . Remember, there is no jealousy in Heaven. No one is jealous of the Blessed Mother as though her status is competitive—only love.”