From time to time I try to write about the truths of the Faith shared by Catholics and Protestants, the many doctrines on which we find ourselves in glorious agreement.
This is not one of those times. But, dang it, it should be!
The subject of controversy in this case is the Catholic appellation for Mary: “the Mother of God.” We Catholics are so keen on this title that we have actually dedicated the first day of every calendar year to Mary under this name, not surprising, since Catholic theology teaches that all of Mary’s prerogatives stem from this divine maternity of hers. According to the Catholic Church:
Called in the Gospels ‘the mother of Jesus’, Mary is acclaimed by Elizabeth, at the prompting of the Spirit and even before the birth of her son, as ‘the mother of my Lord ‘. [Lk 1:43; Jn 2:1; 19:25; cf. Mt 13:55; et al.] In fact, the One whom she conceived as man by the Holy Spirit, who truly became her Son according to the flesh, was none other than the Father’s eternal Son, the second person of the Holy Trinity. Hence the Church confesses that Mary is truly ‘Mother of God’ (Theotokos).” [cf Council of Ephesus (431): DS 251.] CCC 495
Compare and contrast that explanation of Mary as “God-bearer” (Theotokos) with two pretty standard-issue criticisms made by anti-Catholics:
Criticism #1: Catholics worship Mary, claiming that she has “divine maternity” (“Dogmatic Constitution…,” 1964, 8.3).
Criticism #2: There is not a single verse in the Bible that describes Mary as the ‘Mother of God.’ In fact, none of the inspired writers of either the Old or New Testament gave even a hint that she should be regarded as such.
Seems like no matter how many times Catholics reiterate that we do NOT worship anybody but God, that old canard keeps refluxing, the “Big Lie” which people will believe when they might be skeptical of smaller ones; repeated frequently enough, it becomes “common knowledge.” This particular quote purports to give proof of this iniquity from a Catholic source, the “Dogmatic Constitution” (they mean the document known as “Lumen Gentium“). I can guarantee you, dear reader, the folks who spew this goo are counting on the fact that the average reader isn’t going to actually read Lumen Gentium, because Lumen Gentium explains the opposite of what they are claiming. So, lest we be counted as average, let’s read a bit of it for ourselves. The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) 8:3 informs us:
This maternity of Mary in the order of grace began with the consent which she gave in faith at the Annunciation and which she sustained without wavering beneath the cross, and lasts until the eternal fulfillment of all the elect. Taken up to heaven she did not lay aside this salvific duty, but by her constant intercession continued to bring us the gifts of eternal salvation. By her maternal charity, she cares for the brethren of her Son, who still journey on earth surrounded by dangers and cultics, until they are led into the happiness of their true home. Therefore the Blessed Virgin is invoked by the Church under the titles of Advocate, Auxiliatrix, Adjutrix, and Mediatrix. This, however, is to be so understood that it neither takes away from nor adds anything to the dignity and efficaciousness of Christ the one Mediator.
For no creature could ever be counted as equal with the Incarnate Word and Redeemer. Just as the priesthood of Christ is shared in various ways both by the ministers and by the faithful, and as the one goodness of God is really communicated in different ways to His creatures, so also the unique mediation of the Redeemer does not exclude but rather gives rise to a manifold cooperation which is but a sharing in this one source.
The Church does not hesitate to profess this subordinate role of Mary.
There’s more, but before we continue please note that in Catholic parlance the word “cult” means “a system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure,” and not “a suspicious group of weirdos trying to brainwash your children and bilk them out of their money.”
Lumen Gentium 8:4 gives us this to understand:
Placed by the grace of God, as God’s Mother, next to her Son, and exalted above all angels and men, Mary intervened in the mysteries of Christ and is justly honored by a special cult in the Church. Clearly from earliest times the Blessed Virgin is honored under the title of Mother of God, under whose protection the faithful took refuge in all their dangers and necessities. Hence after the Synod of Ephesus the cult of the people of God toward Mary wonderfully increased in veneration and love, in invocation and imitation, according to her own prophetic words: “All generations shall call me blessed, because He that is mighty hath done great things to me”. This cult, as it always existed, although it is altogether singular, differs essentially
from the cult of adoration which is offered to the Incarnate Word, as well to the Father and the Holy Spirit, and it is most favorable to it. The various forms of piety toward the Mother of God, which the Church within the limits of sound and orthodox doctrine, according to the conditions of time and place, and the nature and ingenuity of the faithful has approved, bring it about that while the Mother is honored, the Son, through whom all things have their being and in whom it has pleased the Father that all fullness should dwell, is rightly known, loved and glorified and that all His commands are observed.
See the part about worshipping Mary? Of course not – WE DON’T. Never have. That’s something that those who have a vested interest in scaring you away from Catholicism won’t tell you. She’s not God, she’s not a goddess, she isn’t even a godlet. There’s no “fine line” here – there is a vast chasm between worshipping and adoring the Eternal Creator of all things, and honoring and loving the Blessed Virgin above all other creatures. We venerate Mary, something which is essentially different from worshipping her, because we are well aware that while she is the Mother of God, she is not God. To worship her would be to break the First Commandment. How can the statement “… no creature could ever be counted as equal with the Incarnate Word and Redeemer” ever be reconciled with the assertion that “Catholics worship Mary”?
Yet that’s the entire basis for the fear-mongering that goes on whenever Mary is addressed by this title – the hysterical insistence that if Catholics refer to Mary as the Mother of God, they must be worshipping her! The people who insist this despite all evidence to the contrary feel that they are boldly defending their version of Christianity against Catholic error. A 4th-century Catholic bishop, St. Gregory Nazianzen, claimed however that anyone who denied Mary the title “Mother of God” wasn’t opposing the Catholic Church, but rather “If anyone does not agree that Holy Mary is the Mother of God, he is at odds with the Godhead.”
NOT something you want to be at odds with! But how does denying Mary’s divine maternity put you “at odds with the Godhead”?
I’m so glad you asked, because this is the reason that Protestants and Catholics should all be in agreement on this point.
The Catholic Church has always maintained that while the Scriptures are “God-breathed and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,” they are not necessarily easy to understand. Christians spent the first few centuries arguing over how best to understand who and what Jesus really is. Early on, some folks misunderstood Jesus’ humanity, claiming that He was God, but that He wasn’t really a man – He only appeared to have a body (the heresy of Docetism). Others veered off to the opposite conclusion, claiming that while of course Jesus was a real man with a real body, He wasn’t really God (the heresy of Arianism). Jesus was God’s greatest creation, they said, not a Divine Person, not consubstantial with the Father. Arians took the Bible verses which appear to call into question Jesus’ divinity (like John 17:3, John 20:17, 1 Corinthians 8:6, Philippians 2:5-7, 2 John 1:3 and Revelation 7:10) as their starting point, and then built a theology which forced them to tweak the Scriptural evidence for His divinity (Matthew 9:2, John 1:1, John 20:28, Colossians 2:9, 2 Peter 1:1) to make it mesh with what they thought the Bible was really trying to say about Jesus. After all, Jesus Himself never said, in so many words, that He was God. Yet despite this, Christians firmly believe that He is God (after all, St. Thomas cried out to Him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ and Jesus accepted his words without rebuking him). Thus St. Ignatius, a Catholic bishop in 2nd-century Syria, referred to Jesus as “God” over and over again in his writings. When the concept of Jesus’ divinity was challenged in the 4th century, the Church came out with a definitive statement to that effect: “God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God, begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father.” All that fuss really wouldn’t have been necessary if Holy Scripture stated unequivocally that Jesus is God. Anti-Trinitarians see this doctrine of the divinity of Christ as a late invention and claim that it’s a perversion of the obvious meaning of Scripture. The 4th-century Council of Nicaea was forced to issue their statement to protect the deposit of faith written and unwritten. Catholics and Protestants of the 21st century join forces in proclaiming this truth of the divinity of Jesus Christ.
Yet Protestants balk when confronted with similar difficulties surrounding the doctrine of Mary’s divine maternity. Never in Scripture is Mary referred to, in so many words, as the “Mother of God” (which is partially attributable to the fact that nowhere in the Bible does Jesus call Himself “God.”) Yet, Mary is the Mother of God precisely because her Son, Jesus, is God. St. Irenaeus, a Catholic bishop in 2nd-century France, referred to Jesus’ conception thus: “… so did the latter [the Virgin Mary], by an angelic communication, receive the glad tidings that she should bear God, being obedient to his word.” The doctrine of the Theotokos was solemnly defined in circumstances similar to the solemn definition of the divinity of Jesus. The 5th-century Council of Ephesus felt compelled to issue a definitive statement defending this truth: “If anyone does not confess that God is truly Emmanuel, and that on this account the Holy Virgin is the Mother of God (for according to the flesh she gave birth to the Word of God become flesh by birth), let him be anathema.” Many Protestants decry this doctrine as a late invention and a perversion of the obvious meaning of Scripture. On the contrary – it is a defense of the hypostatic union of Jesus’ two natures, under attack by 5th-century heretics called Nestorians who claimed that the human person and the Divine Person of Christ are separate, and insisting that Mary be referred to as the Mother of Christ, as she was the mother of His human nature only. The Church, however, teaches that Jesus possesses two natures united in one Person, meaning that Mary must properly be referred to as the Mother of God, as summarized in the Creed of Ephesus:
Before the worlds begotten of the Father according to the Godhead, but in the last days and for our salvation of the Virgin Mary according to the Manhood; consubstantial with the Father in the Godhead, consubstantial with us in the Manhood; for a union of two natures took place, wherefore we confess one Christ, one Son, one Lord. According to the understanding of this unconfused union, we confess the Blessed Virgin to be Theotokos, because the Word of God was incarnate and made man, and through her conception united to Himself the temple He received from her. And we are aware that the words of the Gospels, and of the Apostles, concerning the Lord are, by theologians, looked upon some as applying in common [to the two natures] as belonging to the one Person; others as attributed to one of the two natures; and that they tell us by tradition that some are of divine import, to suit the Divinity of Christ, others of humble nature belonging to His humanity.
When the Scriptures do not speak absolutely plainly concerning the divinity of Christ, the Church insists that He is consubstantial with the Father, and when the Scriptures do not speak absolutely plainly concerning the two natures of Christ united in one Person, the Church insists that there is “one Christ, one Son, one Lord” and insists that therefore the Blessed Virgin bore God. The doctrine of Mary as the Mother of God does not glorify Mary – it glorifies Jesus and defends the doctrines of His humanity, His divinity and the hypostatic union of those two natures, something every Christian in Heaven and on earth should be eager to defend. Attacking the divine maternity is aiding and abetting the enemies of the Faith, putting one “at odds with the Godhead” as Gregory Nazianzen warned. Asserting Mary’s divine maternity is not the same as asserting that she is God – it’s asserting that HE is God, and she’s His mother. That’s something that Catholics and Protestants can surely agree upon.
Because the second ‘criticism’ proves to be as bogus as the first: “There is not a single verse in the Bible that describes Mary as the ‘Mother of God.’ In fact, none of the inspired writers of either the Old or New Testament gave even a hint that she should be regarded as such.”
Aww, come on! Not even a hint?
Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel,” which translated means, “GOD WITH US.” Mt 1:23
The Virgin shall bear God.
On the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God
Deo omnis gloria!