Protestants, rightly, protest at a number of Roman Catholic claims about Mary. At times, Protestants distort and exaggerate Roman Catholic teachings. That is unfortunate, since the official Catholic teaching is objectionable enough by itself. And the errors of Marian doctrine reveal some of the underlying problems of Roman Catholic theology as a whole, revealing problems not only with regard to authority (Scripture v. tradition, the question of “Where do they get this?”), but with regard to the nature of salvation, sexuality (and hence creation), sin, and what might be called “cosmology.” Here I summarize some of the errors of Roman Catholic teaching on Mary, as expressed in the 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church . I should add that there is more to the Catechism’s Marian theology than I have described, and I am in hearty agreement with much of it.
Mary was “enriched by God with gifts appropriate” to her role as the mother of Jesus. She was “full of grace,” and for Catholics this means that Mary “was redeemed from the moment of her conception.” In his encyclical letter Ineffabilis Deus, Pope Pius IX said that “The most blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.” This deliverance from original sin is not something that Mary achieved on her own, but is a gift from Christ; yet, the say that she was “redeemed, in a more exalted fashion” than others. This is the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, which refers to Mary’s conception, and not to Mary’s conception of Jesus. The Catechism teaches that “Mary remained free of every personal sin her whole life long” (sections 490-493).
The same Catechism teaches that Mary remained a virgin throughout her life as well. As the church developed in its understanding of Mary’s virgin motherhood, the catechism argues, the church was led “to confess Mary’s real and perpetual virginity even in the act of giving birth to the Son of God made man. In fact, Christ’s birth ‘did not diminish his mother’s virginal integrity but sanctified it.’ And so the liturgy of the Church celebrates Mary as . . . the ‘Ever-virgin.’” The “brothers of Jesus” mentioned in the gospels are not children of Mary, but “close relations of Jesus” and children of “another Mary, a disciple of Christ whom St. Matthew significantly calls ‘the other Mary’” (sections 499-500).
Further, Mary “was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, and exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things, so that she might be the more fully conformed to her Son, the Lord of lords and conqueror of sin and death.” This “Assumption of the Blessed Virgin is a singular participation in her Son’s Resurrection and an anticipation of the resurrection of other Christians” (966).
Because of her motherhood of Jesus, she is also the mother of all Christians “in the order of grace”: “In a wholly singular way she cooperated by her obedience, faith, hope, and burning charity in the Savior’s work of restoring supernatural life to souls. For this reason she is a mother to us in the order of grace.” This is unobjectionable in itself, but the Catechism states further that when she was “taken up to heaven she did not lay aside this saving office but by her manifold intercession continues to bring us the gifts of eternal life . . . . Therefore the Blessed Virgin is invoked in the Church under the titles of Advocate, Helper, Benefactress, and Mediatrix” (967-969).
The church, in response to her contributions to our salvation, “honors ‘the Blessed Virgin with special devotion. From the most ancient times the Blessed Virgin has been honored with the title of ‘Mother of God,’ to whose protection the faithful fly in all their dangers and needs . . . This very special devotion . . . differs essentially from the adoration which is given to the incarnate Word and equally to the Father and the Holy Spirit, and greatly fosters this adoration.’ The liturgical feasts dedicated to the Mother of God and Marian prayer, such as the rosary, an ‘epitome of the whole Gospel,’ express this devotion to the Virgin Mary” (971).