This came about as a result of some questions asked on the CHNI forum, from a few people who are seriously considering conversion to Catholicism.
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I struggle with this and don’t know what to make of it. I hear or read Catholics make comments or prayers to Mary that seem over the top. I can understand the idea of asking Mary to intercede for us, but sometimes the praise and prayers given to her seem to take the place of God. Things like ‘Mary saves us’ or when prayer is directed to her saying we give our heart to Mary or asking Mary to do whatever the request is – as though she herself has the power to grant our request. In the past I’ve put this down to Marian devotion gone wrong, but then I’ve also read Catholic explanations for these types of prayers or praise along the lines of ‘well, that’s not really what we mean’ – to which I tend to respond ‘then say or pray what you mean’ – speak & say according to your actual theology. To do otherwise seems like mental gymnastics, or dancing around the issue semantically – and not quite honest. I feel like it’s misleading to pray or praise Mary in terms that in a non-Catholic’s mind should be reserved for God alone.
This is especially difficult when the comments are from Pope Benedict XVI: “We implore you to have pity today on the nations that have gone astray, on all Europe, on the whole world, that they might repent and return to your heart.” It almost seems to undermine the whole persuasive argument for the fullness of truth being found in the Catholic Church. This is a huge stumbling block to me and the last few days has felt like a complete roadblock on the journey I’ve been on back towards the Catholic faith. I know this may sound angry, but I need some good answers & honesty without someone dancing around this issue with words. Thanks.
Good and fair questions. I think the main difficulty you are expressing can probably be adequately explained, for the most part, in terms of:
1) Flowery, poetic language that is not intrinsically literal in nature or intent.
2) Interpreting the words in context (especially a Christological context).
3) Taking into account the many less or inadequately educated Catholics who don’t understand the fine distinctions in Catholic theology. They aren’t helping matters any.
4) Protestants have so minimized and underemphasized Mary and have categorized any devotion to her in terms of rank idolatry, and this has so penetrated the entire Christian community (especially in Protestant-to-the-bone North America), that now virtually any devotion at all can seem to be excessive, because of the stark contrast. We all (bar none) pick up influences from our surroundings.
1 Corinthians 9:22 I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.
[Paul “saves” other people]
1 Timothy 4:16 Take heed to yourself and to your teaching: hold to that, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.
[ Doesn’t Paul know that only God can save??!!!]
Philippians 2:12b-13 . . . work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
[If someone says that God is mentioned in the second part, the Calvinist “monergist” still has to explain how a human being can participate at all in what only God can do (according to the monergist) ]
2 Corinthians 4:15 For it [his many sufferings: 4:8-12,17] is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.
Ephesians 3:2 assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you…
Ephesians 4:29 Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for edifying, as fits the occasion, that it may impart grace to those who hear.
[Paul distributes divine grace, just as we believe Mary does, and teaches that others can do the same]
St. Peter also joins in this folly of teaching that Christians can distribute divine grace to each other:
1 Peter 4:8b-10 . . . love covers a multitude of sins. Practice hospitality ungrudgingly to one another. As each has received a gift, employ it for one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace.
Even the angels help to give grace:
Revelation 1:4-5a John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ . . .
[ it was nice of John to add in Jesus Christ at the end, along with his own and the angels’ giving of grace, just so we’ll remember that there is but one mediator of God’s grace. Not a lot of “monergism” there, I reckon . . .]
This is especially difficult when the comments are from Pope Benedict XVI: “We implore you to have pity today on the nations that have gone astray, on all Europe, on the whole world, that they might repent and return to your heart.
Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I bid every one among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith which God has assigned him.
. . . redeemed through the blood of our sweet Jesus . . .
. . . That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ. . . . [four times, recurring in the prayer]
. . . we, . . . are the first who crucify Jesus in our hearts . . .
. . . the testament of our dying Redeemer. And this testament of a God, sealed with the blood of a Man-God, appointed thee our Mother, the Mother of sinners. Thus, as our Mother, thou art our Advocate and our Hope.
. . . yet wound the loving heart of thy Son.
Did not Jesus entrust to thy hands all the treasures of his graces and mercies?
The divine Child we behold on thy knees, . . .
Thou art almighty by grace, and therefore thou canst save us.
relatively unlimited in power almighty board of directors> b: having or regarded as having great power or importance almighty dollar>
2. having very great power, influence, etc.: The almighty press condemned him without trial.
So this becomes a simple matter of understanding the language, and the permitted latitude in language, according to dictionary definition. But people often see what they want to see, don’t they?: according to their predispositions coming in. Many Protestants who see this (already hampered by a highly distorted notion of what Catholics believe about Mary) will immediately conclude that Mary is being equated with God, and given power that only He has (omnipotence). They do the same in how they interpret our asking Mary to pray for us. That is simply not the case. And if they don’t give Catholics the least benefit of the doubt, then they will continue on with their distortions and calumnies.
All I’m saying, basically, is that someone just coming into a worldview will likely not understand some of its most complex points. That (itself self-evident, I think) would seem to me to call for an approach of a bit more reluctance to make the strong criticisms that we have seen: against the pope, no less. It’s okay to not understand and even to disagree at this point, but please understand that these are complex matters and have a full justification from a Catholic perspective. That is the point I was trying to make. Sometimes we apologists gotta say things that are a little difficult for others to hear. Part of the job.
As the “novice” coming in, it is proper, I think, to realize that a person that much more wise would obviously have a good reason for what he says, and we can recognize that we may not yet know or fully understand what that reason would be. The Marian doctrines are all solidly established over many centuries. But the least we owe the Holy Father is to understand why he might say such a thing, and not to presume without any analysis and examination that he was saying or believing some awful, indefensible notion.
It’s an issue of where the lines should be drawn, and how to properly disagree, within a Catholic framework. This is stuff where new and prospective Catholics have a lot to learn: quite understandably so. I’m not blaming anyone for being an inexperienced Catholic or insufficiently aware of “Catholic stuff.” That would be silly. I’m simply calling for a restraint and a recognizing that this is probably the case: over-dogmatism is not commensurate with being new in any given thing or environment. That was my analogy to a sports coach: saying that the rookie on the team doesn’t start telling the coach what to do.
I’m saying that anyone struggling with Catholic Marian doctrines (and they are legion!) should also take the time to learn more about why Catholics use this sort of language about Mary. No one has to be in the dark. There is plenty of material out there. I’ve tried to do some of that educating in this thread, which is my job. non-Catholics can disagree with it. But those considering conversion need to understand that the prayer is Catholic, and is part of the faith that they would be adopting, should they decide to become Catholic. The Holy Father was not mistaken at all, within the framework of Catholic orthodoxy.
That may bother and offend and alarm some folks; it may even set them back on their journey towards the Catholic Church, for all I know, but I can’t sit here and pretend that it is not part of orthodox Catholic faith. It is. I would be negligent of my duty as a Catholic teacher if I denied that. Any possible convert can choose to learn more about it and perhaps be convinced of it or not. They’re not obliged to engage in every form of Catholic Marian piety even after they are Catholics, or to say the Rosary, or say any Marian prayer if they don’t want to.
Apologists and catechists and priests and anyone who is sharing the Catholic faith are, however, duty-bound to accurately explain what a convert is “in for” once they become Catholic (doctrine-wise). Some things are far more complex and take more time to grasp (Mariology being the classic case) but if we don’t try to explain Mariology when questions come up we are guilty of selling someone a bill of goods, when they are considering conversion. I don’t see the point of trying to do “Catholic Lite” or “Protestantizing” the faith to make it more palatable to Protestants.
I myself use lots of Scripture in my apologetics because that is what Protestants can relate to, and I love to study the Bible in the first place, but I never attempt to water down the faith or not say what it teaches, if asked. This is one such occasion. And that is because I believe that the entirety of the Catholic faith (not all actions of Catholics for all time) can be reasonably defended, and shown to be completely harmonious with the Bible.
If “checking my mind at the door” had been a requirement of Catholicism, I would never have become Catholic myself. I was quite happy as an evangelical. I think my experience was that of folks like G. K. Chesterton and the vast majority of Catholic converts: we were challenged in our minds far more deeply than we ever were as Protestants. I have learned far more about the depths of Scripture, too, than I ever did as a Protestant. The liberation and the joy (even intellectually) come with the realization that Catholicism is profoundly true. What is true will never shackle the human mind. To the contrary, it liberates and illumines it to the highest degree.