Illustrating my point about “Rome Teaches”

Yesterday, I was noting that many anti-Catholics, ignorant of the interior life of the Church, tend to speak as though She is a sort of Command Economy with Rome cranking out new and crazy doctrines which she then arbitarily commands the faithful to believe and obey. So we are told that “Rome teaches” that Mary suffered no birth pangs and that, because “Rome teaches” this, Rome therefore contradicts herself in seeing the Woman of Revelation 12 as a Marian figure since she suffers birth pangs. I noted that the reality is that the notion Mary had not birth pangs, while certainly the classic Catholic (and I believe, Orthodox) view, is not a dogma and “Rome teaches” this only in the sense that it acknowledges it as the common view, but does not bind it upon the faithful as dogma. Here’s how the Catechism treats the matter:

499 The deepening of faith in the virginal motherhood led the Church to confess Mary’s real and perpetual virginity even in the act of giving birth to the Son of God made man.154 In fact, Christ’s birth “did not diminish his mother’s virginal integrity but sanctified it.”155 And so the liturgy of the Church celebrates Mary as Aeiparthenos, the “Ever-virgin”.156

Note what is not demanded here. There is no clause saying “The faithful must, on pain of excommunication, believe and profess that Mary suffered no birth pangs.” So it’s rather a stretch to say “Rome teaches” this. In fact, Rome acknowledges it as a very common opinion and it is certainly something many great Catholics have held.

In response to this, a reader writes angrily:

The virgin birth (an entirely separate doctrine from the virgin conception), painless and miraculous, is far more than some tolerated pious opinion. It’s the unanimous belief of ever Church Father who writes on the subject, and is inextricably part of the Church’s lex orandi, as evidenced by two millennia of liturgical, spiritual, exegetical and iconographic witness, all speaking in its favor with the same voice (as it is in those “Churches that have not been in communion with Rome for a thousand years”).

The Church has always held the consensus of the fathers and the lex orandi as authoritative guides to right belief.

If you are permitted dismiss all that offhand just because the catechism that Rome issued in the 1980s is wooly and vague, then it is no wonder that Protestant polemicists think we only believe what is declared by fiat by whoever happens to be Pope today.

I don’t dismiss. I merely point out that this note proves my point, which is that the simple declarative statement “Rome teaches” is something only a person unfamiliar with the actual life of the Catholic Church would say. In fact, the whole point is that Rome acknowledges this opinion, but does not commit us to it. In similar ways, the Catholic Church has had all sorts of schools of opinion on all manner of subjects, while the Magisterium has refrained, sometimes for centuries, from plumping in favor or one or the other. The Fathers don’t just express broad consensus on Mary’s lack of labor pains. As Robert Sungenis will happily point out, they also take for granted geocentrism (though the Magisterium never commits us to it). A very broad swath of pious opinion took it for granted for centuries that the Jews were accursed–until the woolly Second Vatican Council definitively repudiated this notion. In the early Church, it appeared to be open and shut to the core Christian community at Jerusalem that Gentiles needed to be circumcised and obey the law of Moses. What could be more obvious after 2000 solid years of unbroken tradition–until the Council of Jerusalem declared that this was a mistaken reading of the Tradition. For ages, there was a quarrel over whether Mary died or not. The Church responded… by definitively not answering the question when it declared that Mary was assumed “at the end of her earthly existence.”

In short, part of the function of the Magisterium is to help us parse the actual Tradition and distinguish it from old human opinions and (sometimes) old sin. Just as much, it is the task of the Magisterium to *keep* from binding the faithful to the narrow dogmatisms of enthusiasts when the matter admits of broader schools of opinion.

None of that is to say that it is wrong to think Mary suffered no birth pangs. I think the patristic logic is sense. However, the fact remains that Rome does not bind the faithful to any particular school of opinion about the birth pangs of Mary. We are welcome to agree with the consensus of the Fathers (I do, since I see no particular reason other than a modern prejudice against the miraculous not to do so.) But that’s a matter of liberty, not of “Rome teaches”.

Of course, having said all that, it is all still incredibly ungermane to suppose that the birth pangs of the Woman in Revelation 12 “contradict” this common patristic opinion. Despite the protests of AOMIN and co. the fact remains that it’s not really that hard to make the psychological connection between labor pains and the birth of the Kingdom. Jesus did it, so it’s not a big shock to find his followers doing it too. Insisting that the Woman’s birth pangs have to refer to literal labor pains is but one of the reasons I find such “arguments” so hopelessly flat-footed. It’s like arguing about music appreciation with a deaf man.


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