“Where Jesus Christ is, there is the Church.” Nearly two millennia later, the words of Church Father, St. Ignatius, remain as profound and as true as ever. And yet as history clearly displays, we Christians have shown ourselves to be particularly good at forgetting them. Strewn through our heritage are angry debates, church divisions, and a general overall distrust towards one another. In paraphrasing Jesus, a professor of mine once joked, “when two or three are gathered in My name, there is an argument.” The class, laughed of course, but all the while his words rang sadly true. The contemporary Church, however, must stand up against this distrustful and altogether ignorant attitude we have built up against one another. And yes, I said church, singular. Christ as the head has only one body beneath him, not two; we have not been given the option for more. With this in mind, it is vital for Evangelicals and Catholic Christians to recover the profound sense of unity we have with one another in Christ. And this is precisely what this column of ecumenical dialogue purposes to do. Ecumenical dialogue is by nature an ongoing, unity seeking conversation between the varying traditions of the Church. Unity however does not mean uniformity; in fact, it is often the differences of thought which most sharpen and expand our horizons of truth. So may we join together, Evangelicals and Catholics alike, and ask the hard questions to one another, not passing over our differences, but ultimately doing so because of Christ who unites us together in Him.
How is the person and role of the Virgin Mary traditionally understood by Catholics?
Catholic The first thing to say is that we Catholics think Mary is pretty awesome. She is the first disciple who said yes to God’s plan of saving humanity through Jesus. It’s like God had a start up business plan and she was the first person asked to partner in it (Luke 1:28-30), which shows God made her a little extra special to be the ‘ark of the new covenant.’
Furthermore, we believe that Mary prays for us in heaven, as do all the saints (Rev. 5:8, 8:3). How can Mary pray for us though? Didn’t she die? We believe the testimony of the Holy Bible when St. Paul says that those who have died with faith in Christ have risen to new life in Christ and live with Him in heaven (1 Cor. 15:12-19, 55; Rom. 6:3-11). Furthermore, the saints in heaven are seeking to pray for us out of loving compassion for our struggles here on Earth. We honour Mary with affection, not because we think her prayers are greater than Christ’s, or even comparable, but rather because she prays for us as a fellow Christian might and we love her for it. If you were in need of prayer, you might ask a person to pray for you and this is what Mary, and all the saints, do. After all, the Holy Bible says that the prayer of a righteous person is powerful (James 5:16).
The role of Mary is not to detract from her Son Jesus. All she wants to do is to point us to her Son Jesus, just as any disciple of Christ would. Anything that is affirmed about Mary by the Catholic Church is simply a recognition of what graces God has poured out in and through her life. So our ‘obsession’ really isn’t with Mary, but rather with what God has done and is still doing through her. In an age where Miley Cyrus twerking videos are viewed as courageously pushing the envelope, it might be good for Christians to raise up alternative models of living courageously, like Mary, and other saints ,who threw caution to the wind and said, “I am the handmaid of the Lord, be it done to me according to your Word” (Luke 1:38). Our Lady of Perpetual Help, pray for us.
Evangelical I’m glad you emphasized Mary as ‘the first disciple.’ This is, I think, a very important truth about Mary that is often overlooked. God calls her (well, really, he tells her, I’m not sure she had much say in the matter) and she becomes the first disciple in the New Testament. I have also heard from an Eastern Orthodox friend that in their tradition, Mary is also emphasized as the first Christian. This is another truth that all Christians can affirm together.
I’m also glad to hear that, for Catholics, devotion to Mary is intended to stir up one’s affection for Christ, and never meant to be isolated from the Son. However, while this may be the intent, it doesn’t always seem to be the case. The emphasis placed on Marian devotion and doctrine by some Catholics all too easily takes away from the sole supremacy and sufficiency of Christ. While this may not be the intent of the Catholic Church, it is undoubtedly a reality within Catholicism, especially in places such as Central or South America. How easy is it for well-meaning Catholics to be led away from the Saviour by over emphasizing His mother? This was a concern of the Reformers, and remains a concern today.
Catholic Paul, I agree with you. The road to hell is paved with good intentions and we need to be on guard against heretical teaching. This is why we need good, sound doctrine accompanied by good teaching. We need to trust in the Holy Spirit to guide the Church (1 Tim. 3:15) and hold fast to the traditions that have been passed down from the apostles by letter, Sacred Scripture, or by Word of Mouth, Sacred Tradition (2 Thess. 5:15). We can all agree that the Word of God is divinely inspired and trustworthy, but we must also admit that there is a need for Sacred Tradition to play a role of clarification where disagreements ensue. If I’m being honest, I have to admit that I’ve encountered (in small number) those who over emphasize the role of Mary over her Son and it is unsettling. This, however, is not the norm in my experience, nor is it the doctrinal or dogmatic teaching of the Catholic Church. The key to any Marian devotion is to understand that Mary’s role is to deepen our devotion to her son Jesus. This is why we Catholics love her so, because she gives our devotion to Christ a deeper and richer dynamic.
How is the person and role of the Virgin Mary traditionally understood by Evangelicals?
Evangelical Evangelicals love Mary! Or at least, we should. While many Evangelicals largely ignore Mary, there is actually plenty of room for her within Evangelicalism. She is the mother of our saviour for goodness’ sake! She must not be overlooked.
Certainly it is true that the Evangelical view of Mary is largely a reaction against her role in Catholicism, concerning which a few words need to be said. We don’t pray the “Ava Maria” (Hail Mary), and we certainly don’t worship her. Evangelicals also do not believe that praying to or through Mary is Biblically warranted. Rather it is Christ who solely acts on our behalf as our mediator (1 Tim. 2:5) and intercessor (Rom. 8:34, Heb. 7:25). It is he who stands before the Father and pleads for us, and it is in his name that we come before the Father in prayer. The pattern of prayer presented in Scripture is to the Father, in the name of the Son, and by the power of the Spirit. We see no evidence in Scripture to suggest that Mary is even able to hear our petitions. Is she omnipresent? Evangelicals believe that such strong devotion to Mary interferes with our devotion to Christ, and we find no grounds for such prayer and devotion in Scripture.
Evangelicals also do not believe that Mary was without sin. We see no need for her to be sinless, and no Biblical warrant for such a claim. Mary, according to Evangelicals, is a sinner saved by grace, not unlike you and me.
That said, she is an extremely unique sinner. Evangelicals must not throw the baby (or, in this case, the mother) out with the bathwater. At the very least Evangelicals stand with all Orthodox Christians in affirming the virgin birth. This is no mere ‘take it or leave it’ doctrine. The virgin birth reveals to us that Jesus was both heavenly and earthly; it is an early hint that He is both God and man. Along with Scripture, Evangelicals also affirm that Mary is ‘blessed’ (Luke 1:42, 48; 11:27). She was set apart to be the mother of the Messiah and made holy according to God’s grace through her faith. When she hears the call of the Lord she responds, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; Let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Above all, Mary is a humble servant (Luke 1:38, 48) and an exemplary disciple. Evangelicals ought to love Mary and meditate on her wonderful example. Her great faith always directs us to her great Son.
Catholic It is difficult to discuss all the issues raised in such a short medium, so I will focus on the concept of intercessory of the saints. This doctrine is what is commonly held as the ‘Communion of Saints’ (how Catholics understand the relationship believers on earth have with their brethren in heaven); it is not explicitly outlined in Scripture, but neither is it prohibited. Furthermore, there are foundational doctrines that Protestants take for granted, like the Virgin Birth, the Trinity, and the Incarnation that are not properly understood until the creeds are established by and through the authority of the early Church. We can see evidences in the first few centuries of the Church for a development of the doctrine of the intercession of the saints, especially around the martyrs. This includes saints like Mary and shows that the early Church held the intercession of saints to be a valid expression of Christian faith. This is also echoed by Orthodox Christians in the East who uniquely integrate the intercession of the saints into their worship of God with icons. This sort of worship shows unity in the Church on earth and the Church in heaven giving praise to God as one Church. As a whole, this doctrine reverberated in Roman Catholicism as part of our own liturgy and it wasn’t until the Reformation that this practice was tossed out.
Evangelical It is true that doctrines such as the Virgin Birth and Incarnation were not defined until later centuries. However, they are clear enough in Scripture (Luke 1, John 1). The Trinity less so, but one can certainly have some awareness of the Trinity from Scripture alone; parts of the New Testament only makes sense within a Trinitarian framework. I do not think the same could be said about the intercession of Mary.
I’ll be the first Evangelical to admit that I would love for Mary to intercede for me. I can happily echo Evangelical thinker, Timothy George, and say, “I need all the help I can get!” However, Evangelicals find no Scriptural backbone to support this sort of intercession, explicitly or implicitly. Certainly God is capable of enabling Mary to hear our prayers and intercede for us before Him, but has He has chosen to do so? Evangelicals do not believe He has. The New Testament repeatedly affirms the complete sufficiency of Christ as mediator and intercessor and it is upon this truth that we Evangelicals confidently hang our hats; we can go no further.
While I still have many questions, I have learned and grown a lot through this dialogue. I hope that our brief words may serve as a catalyst for greater conversation and a greater common love for God.