December 12, 2004


The Mother of the Son: The Case for Marian Devotion (Mark P. Shea, December 2004, Crisis)

It has to be one of the strangest things in the world: So many Christians who love Jesus with all their hearts recoil in fear at the mention of His mother’s name, while many who do love her find themselves tongue-tied when asked to explain why.

Most of the issues people have with Mary are really issues about something else. “Where is the Assumption of Mary in the Bible?” isn’t really a question about Mary. It’s a question about the validity of Sacred Tradition and the authority of the Church.

“Why should I pray to Mary?” isn’t really about Mary, either. It’s actually a question about the relationship of the living and the dead in Christ. “Do Catholics worship Mary?” isn’t a question about Mary. It’s concerned more with whether or not Catholics countenance idolatry and what the word “honor” means. And curiously enough, all these and many more objections both pay homage to and completely overlook the central truth about Mary that the Catholic Church labors to help us see: that her life, in its entirety, is a referred life.

Mary would, after all, be of absolutely no consequence to us if not for her Son. It is because she is the mother of Jesus Christ that she matters to the world at all. If He hadn’t been born, you never would have heard of her. John, with characteristic economy of expression, captures this referred life in her own words: “Do whatever He tells you” (John 2:5). And, of course, if this were all the Church had to say about her, Evangelicals would be more than happy to let her refer us to Jesus and be done with it. What baffles so many non-Catholics is the Church’s tendency to keep referring us to her. “Ad Iesum per Mariam!” we say, to which many non-Catholics nervously respond, “Isn’t Christianity supposed to be about a relationship with Jesus Christ? Why do Catholics honor Mary so much?” [...]

Part of the problem, I came to realize, was that Evangelical fears about Mary are visceral and not entirely theological. Indeed, much of the conflict between Catholics and Evangelicals is cultural, not theological. Evangelical culture (whether you’re a man or a woman) is overwhelmingly masculine, while Catholic culture (again, whether you’re a man or a woman) is powerfully feminine. And the two groups often mistake their cultural differences for theological ones.

The Catholic approach tends to be body-centered, Eucharistic, and contemplative. Prayer, in Catholic culture, is primarily for seeking union with God. Evangelical approaches to God tend to be centered on Scripture, verbal articulation of belief, mission, and the Spirit working in power. Prayer, in such a culture, is primarily for getting things done. Both are legitimate Christian ways of approaching the gospel. Indeed, they should both be part of the Catholic approach to the gospel. But because of these unconscious differences, Evangelicals and Catholics often clash about culture while they think they’re debating theology. The feminine spirituality of the Catholic can regard the masculine Evangelical approach as shallow, noisy, and utilitarian, lacking an interior life. Meanwhile, Catholic piety can be seen by Evangelicals as cold, dead, ritualistic, biblically ignorant, and cut off from real life. Thus, Evangelicals frequently criticize the Catholic life as a retreat from reality into rituals and rote prayers. [...]

The great crisis that faced the Church in the 19th century (when the Holy Spirit, doing His job of leading the Church into all truth, led the Church to promulgate the dogma of the Immaculate Conception) was the rise of several ideologies—still very much with us—that called into question the origins and dignity of the human person. Darwin said the human person was an unusually clever piece of meat whose origins were as accidental as a pig’s nose. Marx said humans were mere ingredients in a vast economic historical process. Laissez-faire capitalism saw people as natural resources to be exploited and thrown away when they lost their value. Eugenics said human dignity rested on “fitness.” Much of Protestantism declared humans “totally depraved,” while much of the Enlightenment held up the myth of human innocence, the “noble savage,” and the notion of human perfectibility through reason. Racial theory advanced the notion that the key to human dignity was the shape of your skull, the color of your skin, and your membership in the Aryan or Teutonic tribe. Freud announced that your illusion of human dignity was just a veil over fathomless depths of unconscious processes largely centering in the groin or emerging out of issues with Mom and Dad.

All these ideologies—and many others—had in common the degrading rejection of human beings as creatures made in the image of God and intended for union with God (and the consequent subjection of the human person to some sort of creature). In contrast to them all, the Church, in holding up the icon of Mary Immaculate, held up an icon of both our true origin and our true dignity. That she was sinless was a teaching as old as the hills in the Church, which had hailed her as Kecharitomene, or “full of grace,” since the time of Luke and saluted her as Panagia, or “all-holy,” since the early centuries of the Church. So then why did the Holy Spirit move the Church to develop and focus this immemorial teaching more clearly?

Because what needed to be said loud and clear was that we were made in the image of God and that our fallenness, though very real, does not name or define us: Jesus Christ does. We are not mere animals; statistical averages; cogs in a machine; sophisticated primordial ooze; or a jangling set of complexes, appetites, tribal totems, Aryan supermen, naturally virtuous savages, or totally depraved Mr. Hydes. We were made by God, for God. Therefore sin, though normal, is not natural and doesn’t constitute our humanity. And the proof of it was Mary, who was preserved from sin and yet was more human than the lot of us. She wasn’t autonomously innocent, as though she could make it without God. She was the biggest recipient of grace in the universe, a grace that made her, in a famous phrase, “younger than sin.” Because of it, she was free to be what Irenaeus described as “the glory of God”: a human being fully alive. And as she is, so can the grace of Christ make us.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 12, 2004 4:17 AM

St. Paul wrote that he was the chief of sinners. Every Christian could say the same thing, for as our knowledge of our sin grows, we realize the gulf that was bridged by the love of God.

Mary cannot be the recipient of a 'bigger' grace than Paul, or any other Christian.

Posted by: jim hamlen at December 12, 2004 9:35 AM

Jim Hamlen: Really? How many messiahs was Paul asked to bring into the world? Is Paul the ark of the new covenant made flesh? Does tradition refer to to Paul as "full of grace,"? when he was thirteen? Nothing to see here, just Catholic superstitions, yessir.

Posted by: JimGooding at December 12, 2004 10:55 AM

Part of the problem, I came to realize, was that Evangelical fears about Mary are visceral and not entirely theological.

The visceral is the theological. I grew up Catholic and was immersed in the cult of Mary along with the worship of Father, Son and Holy Ghost. My mother is a devotee of Mary, and is the most religious person I know. The idea that there are evangelicals out there grinding their teeth at night about people like my mother gives me the willies, and gives me another reason to just give up on the religious altogether. Then I take my meds and a cup of coffee, and calm myself down.

What is with this obsession with purity and sinlessness? There is some visceral, subconscious abhorrence at work here. Without sin, none of us would be here. Sin is the way to wisdom, someone who has never sinned doesn't really have much to teach anyone.

was the rise of several ideologiesstill very much with usthat called into question the origins and dignity of the human person. Darwin said the human person was an unusually clever piece of meat whose origins were as accidental as a pigs nose.[...]All these ideologiesand many othershad in common the degrading rejection of human beings as creatures made in the image of God and intended for union with God

Now there's some visceral teeth grinding at work. We're all made of flesh, some of us can accept that, and some can't. My experience on this blog has convinced me that the driving force for the religious is a visceral rejection of their physical nature, an inability to feel comfortable in their own skin.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at December 12, 2004 10:55 AM

Robert, Dude, read Song of Solomon -- out loud.

Posted by: JimGooding at December 12, 2004 11:07 AM

Et tu, Robert? We're not comfortable in our own skin? Gee, you forgot to add we are terrified of our sexuality (pant, pant) and have low self-esteem.

Remember yesterday I when I said I agreed many non-religious people were virtuous? I take it all back. :-)

Posted by: Peter B at December 12, 2004 11:23 AM

Mr. Duquette: "Someone who has never sinned doesn't really have much to teach anyone." Is it that you believe that Jesus was a sinner or you don't believe he had much to teach us?

Posted by: Buttercup at December 12, 2004 11:44 AM

Buttercup, yes to the first.

Peter, I was making a sweeping generalization to prove a point, sorry if I offended your worldly sensibility. I mean uncomfortable in a metaphysical sense, with all this wailing about pig snouts and being composed of "mere" matter and all. It is a visceral thing.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at December 12, 2004 12:17 PM

Does it take 'more' grace to be perfect from the get-go, or to find the worst sinner, save him, and make him (her) perfect?

Posted by: ratbert at December 12, 2004 3:38 PM

Is your mother a fool for her faith or are you a fool for rejecting your faith? You MUST choose either A or B.

Posted by: Phil at December 12, 2004 9:49 PM

Phil, you must be a lawyer. Please don't ask me if I've stopped beating my wife yet.

I'll say nothing ill of my mother, her faith has given her strength and meaning. But faith is a personal thing, it doesn't reproduce from generation to generation like a photocopy. I've found that I can find meaning and strength in my life without the Catholic faith, as well as the intellectual freedom to challenge dogmas that make no sense to me. So, contrary to your false dichotomy, there is no reason to demand that either of us be labeled a fool.

I'm no doubt a fool in one or more aspects of my life, but I don't think I am in this one.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at December 12, 2004 11:15 PM

Shea misses the point entirely. It isn't so much that Evangelicalism is "masculine" while Catholicism is "feminine". The true cultural difference is that Evnagelicalism is "Straight", while Catholicism is more than just a little "Gay" (and has been ever since the imposition of mandatory celibacy). The Catholic Church's Gay subculture has been too well documented to need defending here. The adoration of Mary is in large part an expression of this subculture as anyone who is beautiful and suffered becomes a candidate for Gay icon.

So whether it's Jack Chick or Bob Jones, the "visceral" anti-Catholicism of many Evangelicals has its roots in homophobia.

As for Mary, it is right and good that we give her all due honor as mother of our Lord ("All generations will call me blessed"). But to declare her as "Co-Redmentrix" is borderline blasphemy. Only Jesus saves. Period. Though she did participate and assist in the redemption, all who fllow her Son do the same. So to grant her a special title for doing so is neither necesary nor desireable. As for those like Vox Populi who would like to expand her role to true redeemer, they are without a doubt advocating blasphemy.

Posted by: Dan Duffy at December 13, 2004 8:05 AM

The real issue is that most evangelicals viscerally reject Mary because it clashes with
the anti-feminine Judaicism that infects most
of their theology. How can the chosen vessel merely be some haphazard choice?

The old belief system stirs the Gothic soul
(with its great emphasis on the fullness of creation).

Catholic Europe (with its pagan acoutrement)
built the west, while the Evangelicals will
undoubtedly be the custodians of its

Posted by: J.H. at December 13, 2004 9:50 AM

phil, Robert is displaying residual perfect Catholic orthodoxy in his views about faith.

We Catholics (as I was once) believe that faith is awarded, it cannot be demanded.

If you are not so awarded, you burn in hell. And there's nothing you can do about that.

Wonderful religion.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at December 14, 2004 12:06 AM

I too would have rejected the works rightousness theology of the Catholic Church had I grown up as one. It doesn't sound like a wonderful religion to me either.

Posted by: Phil at December 14, 2004 8:26 AM

Phil and Harry,

"Faith without works is dead". As CS Lewis noted, the argument over whether faith or works leads to salvation is like arguing over which blade of the scissors does the cutting.

And I would not equate faith with membership in a particular religion (or any religion for that matter). If being a formal member in good standing of a particular religion (or even being a Christian) were reqired for salvation, then the Good Samaritan was destined for Hell.

As Jesus noted, the Roman centurian (whose servant He cured from a distance) had more faith than He had ever seen in all of Israel. That centurian was a pagan who by law had to make sacrifices to his divine emperor.

Jesus wasn't interested in his religious affiliation, that's not what He meant by "faith".

Posted by: Dan Duffy at December 14, 2004 9:42 AM

So Dan, what do you you understand Jesus to have meant by his words to the Centurian, and how, in your estimation does "Marian devotion" foster greater/clearer faith in the Triune God, or not?

Posted by: Phil at December 14, 2004 3:03 PM


In both Matthew and Luke, Jesus say the following to the centurion:

8-10 When Jesus heard him, he marveled, and said to those who followed him, "Truly, I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.

Matthew continues as follows:

8-11 I tell you, many will come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven,
8-12 while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth."

In other words, those who smugly believe that membership in a particular religion (such as the Jews of Jesus' time) buys them entre into the Kingdom are sadly mistaken. Faith != religion. This view is reinforced by the tale of the Good Samaritan (would he be damned to Hell for not being a Born Again Christian?) and by Christ's words to the Samaritan woman at the well, according to John:

4-21 Jesus said to her, "Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father.
4-22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.
4-23 But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him.
4-24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth."

Temples and formal religions obscure the truth and get in the way of a believer and God. The best form of worship and the superior "religion" is to live a life of Truth. IMHO Jesuse considered formal religion to be irrelevant to Jesus or even bad. Never forget that the only people Jesus raged against were the religious leaders of his day, the Pharisees. He held prostitutes, thieves and tax collecters in higher esteem. John the Baptist shared this view, according to Luke:

3-8 Bear fruits that befit repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.

God is also able from stones to raise up Christians. Jesus saving redemption is for everyone, not just those who are formally Christian. "God so loved the world", not just small group of followers. God is a great God, not a narrow or little God who only saves the members of one sect. Naturally religious leaders don't like this interpretation since it would threaten membership and donations.

Posted by: Dan Duffy at December 14, 2004 3:41 PM

What TRUTH do you suppose Jesus wished people to shape their lives by?

Posted by: Phil at December 15, 2004 1:03 PM

I would never argue that Catholic doctrine was shaped closely by what Jesus apparently taught.

The difficulty here is that Jesus was not lighting the faggots. Perhaps he would not have.

His self-proclaimed devotees were.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at December 16, 2004 1:57 AM

He did.

Posted by: oj at December 16, 2004 7:57 AM


Posted by: Phil? at December 16, 2004 8:54 AM

He provoked His own Crucifixion--what better way to start the conflagration that would eventually consume the perpetrators, Judaism and Rome?

Posted by: oj at December 16, 2004 10:47 AM

According to who's Christology? That's a new view of the crucifixion to me.

Posted by: Phil at December 16, 2004 3:59 PM


You don't think He knew it was coming?

Posted by: oj at December 16, 2004 5:50 PM

Yes, he absolutly knew his death on the cross was coming. I'm questioning your assertion that he provoked his own crucifixion in order to set into motion the destruction of the Jews and the Romans.

Posted by: Phil at December 16, 2004 9:54 PM

He didn't know He'd give rise to a new faith more powerful than any prior?

Posted by: oj at December 16, 2004 10:52 PM