Page 5, 9th November 2001

9th November 2001
Page 5
Page 5, 9th November 2001 — Explaining what Catholics really believe about Mary

Report an error

Noticed an error on this page?
If you've noticed an error in this article please click here to report it.


Locations: Rome


Related articles

Dwight Longenecker Is Ordained Priest

Page 6 from 5th January 2007


Page 3 from 21st September 2001

The House That Jack Built

Page 11 from 28th February 2003

When Two Worlds Converge

Page 5 from 10th March 2000

The Protestant View Of Mary

Page 9 from 23rd November 2001

Explaining what Catholics really believe about Mary

John Martin and Dwight Longenecker both come from an Evangelical protestant background. Martin is now editor of the Church of England Newspaper; Longenecker, a Catholic convert, works for the St Barnabas Society and is a writer and broadcaster. In this extract from their new book, Challenging Catholics, Martin launches 'an all-out attack' on — and Longenecker defends and explains — the central place of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Catholic spirituality and theology


If you've been to the big modern church in Nazareth you know that beneath the floor level you come to some excavations which are presumed to be the remains of Mary's house. Whether they are or not doesn't matter too much. What is important is that in that town 2000 years ago the Virgin Mary received the message from the angel Gabriel telling her she was specially favoured of God, and asking her to accept God's will and bear his son to the world. It is also the point at which we believe Jesus Christ was conceived. When I visited the Holy Land I can remember kneeling at that shrine and suddenly being filled with a great sense of wonder. The poignancy and simplicity of the story struck me, but I was also hit by the enormous physical-ness of the event for the first time.

Here was a girl who seemed to be just another ordinary pious Jewish girl. Yet at that particular place and time she was asked to become the mother of God's son. One of the beliefs we all share as Christians is the Virgin Birth. We also believe that Jesus was true God and true man. In other words, his humanity was real—not pretend. But if we take this belief seriously then we are confronted with some rather amazing implications. If Mary really was his mother, then Jesus shares in Mary's physical make up. If Mary is his mother, then he is halfMary. The first nine months of his life were spent in the nurture of her womb. The next nine months he was dependent on her for food, warmth, love and shelter. From our mothers we learn how to love, and if Jesus was a man of love, then he learned that from Mary. Jesus not only shared Mary's genetic code, but God used her to help form the very foundations of Jesus' human personality. If we believe the incarnation. then there is an intimate link between Mary and Jesus. That link is amazing and unique, and is something that has caused countless Christians to be filled with wonder and gratitude. This sudden understanding there in the Church of the Annunciation shook me up. I was still an Anglican, but from then on my understanding of the role of the Virgin Mary was one of respectful curiosity rather than my instinctive evangelical dismissal of her as "too Catholic".

Our images of the Blessed Virgin Mary most often portray her holding the Christ-child. Such images, like the realisation I had in the Church of the Annunciation, reveal the intimate bond between Mary and Jesus. This intimate bond between the Son of God and his mother is what led the early Christians to refer to Mary as theotokos, which means "God Bearer". The earliest record we have of Mary being referred to in this way is in the writings of Origen at the beginning of the third century. At the Council of Ephesus in 431 the title was upheld formally, and it has been maintained ever since. The reason it was used at Ephesus was not firstly to honour Mary, but to uphold and defend the doctrine of the incarnation, If God in Jesus Christ was truly horn of a woman, then he had to be true God and true Man. It is from this intimate bond between Jesus and Mary, and the desire to defend the doctrine of the incarnation that all subsequent Catholic devotion to Mary springs.

guess you'll want to challenge me on Mary, and I'm happy to be the target for your shooting practice. In the meantime, has anything I've said rung any bells for you?


It never ceases to amaze how, when the subject turns to the Blessed Virgin Mary, the brains of many an otherwise hardminded Catholic seems to turn to putty! If you were to ask me to give my three best reasons why I'm not a Catholic, I'd simply say "Mary, Mary and Mary".

Now, having come out fighting, I'll deal an even dirtier punch. When, as an adult, you embrace another denomination or Church, you generally do so with your eyes open. There are bits that are the very reasons why you wish to embrace it. There are bits that don't signal any change from where you were before. Then there are perhaps one or two items that you would honestly prefer weren't part of the package. But having concluded that either they're basically harmless, or at least don't constitute a sufficient reason for giving up, you grin and agree to bear them as part of the package. I won't press you to declare your hand. It might kill off the entire chapter before we get going!


Let me butt in here. I know what you're talking about. You've put your finger on a very important matter in becoming a Catholic. Almost all the converts to Catholicism from Evangelicalism express this problem with Mary. But they do not shrug their shoulders and go along with it just because they want to be Catholics. On the contrary most of them—like myself— are faced with considerable difficulties at the prospect of becoming Catholic. A major part of them doesn't want to become Catholic at all, and if the Mary thing can hold them back that's good because they're looking for any excuse not to become Catholic,

As a result, when they do actually "get it" over Mary, the barriers are swept away and their conversion is complete. This almost always happens not as a result of the convert being reasoned through the Marian aspects of Catholicism by logic. Usually they have understood the logic of the Marian devotion but they still don't get it. What happens to them at that point is that instead of reasoning further they have some religious experience which brings them into a loving relationship with Mary. It's a difficult thing to explain. All can say is that it is like falling in love. When it happens it might not make sense to you. It might turn your world upside down. You might look foolish in the eyes of others, but that doesn't matter because you know you've been given something precious.


Let me spell out my three problems with Mary and the Catholic Church. First, the Catholic Church has surrounded Mary with traditions that are not simply unbiblical, but run contrary to some important doctrinal principles. The gravest example concerns teaching about the role of Mary in salvation and attempts to have her officially recognised as a core/icemen Second, the Catholic Church surrounds Mary with a whole lot of unnecessary clutter. To assert, for example, the perpetual virginity of Mary is a nonsense, not only because it's clear from the biblical record that Jesus had brothers and sisters, but also because in Jewish tradition denial of conjugal rights to Joseph would have been a violation of the marriage covenant. Third and I'm sorry to be so tough I think it sends out a wrong message about sexuality. As you know, for centuries before Jesus was born and well beyond, the cult of the girl flourished around the Mediterranean Basin. It was a cult that led to all sorts of aberrations including fertility rights, forms of worship that the Judaeo-Christian tradition from the Prophets of Israel to St Paul utterly rejected. In our day, it takes a secular and materialist form and manifests itself in phenomena like Playboy magazine, page 3 girls and manifestations that are far worse. I fear that there's a displaced form of this phenomenon in the attitudes of some Catholics, especially males, to Mary.

Now, having launched an all-out assault let me start again from what I see as first principles. I would want first to assess Mary's significance with reference to Mary's Song (the Magnificat) as recorded in Luke. The critics have wondered whether it's traceable to Mary herself. For my part I see no reason to sweep it aside as inauthentic. Here is a song of joy to a God who sets his people free, quite an irony considering that having a baby and taking on its care and nurture requires big sacrifices of personal freedom.

Here is the ultimate act of hospitality. A young women gives her body to protect and nourish the God in human form whom she has conceived. She exults that the life within her will accomplish something that she doesn't fully comprehend, something of even greater significance in the history of her people than the Exodus. She expects nothing less than that the victory of God will be accomplished through the life within her. It's mighty stuff, and that is yet another reason why I think that all the sentimental guff about Mary that's crept into devotion to her is a serious distraction.

Here too is the ultimate act of humility and faith. It's very hard for post-modern persons, especially males, to comprehend what Mary's choices implied. Right up until my Mother's generation, which pre-dated modern contraceptive methods, women knew that marriage almost certainly meant childbearing and thus putting aside any thoughts of independence or career. Mary knows all that and notwithstanding she takes on social stigma, ridicule, vulnerability and the risk of loneliness. I can't begin to fathom the shadow side of her great elation in the Magnificat. simply — and truthfully — want to say "Hail, Mary". I want to say "Blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus". But I find myself swallowing hard at the phrase "Mother of God". Somehow it leaves everything upside down.


The view of Mary you've just stated is understandable and attractive. I'm sure it is an acceptable position for most Anglicans and many Evangelicals. I want to congratulate you on actually taking Mary seriously rather than dismissing her out of hand. But let me challenge what you've said about Mary earlier on. I'll address the points in your order. First, I can understand nonCatholic's fury and frustration at the prospect of the Catholic Church defining another dogma making

Mary co-redemptrix and co-mediator with Christ. I want to explain what we mean by such terms. We do not mean that Mary is a co-redeemer or comediator with

Christ in such a way that she is equal to him. "There is one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus" (1 Tim. 2:5) Mary is not another mediator. Instead we believe that she works with Christ for the redemption of the world. She mediates with Christ for the salvation of souls. As such she is a model of what we should all be doing. All of us are called to be "God's co-work

speaks of the possibility of "completing what is lack ing in Christ's afflictions" through the suffering in our own lives. (Col 1:24) In such a way we believe Mary cooperates with Christ for the salvation of the world. In doing so she shows the whole Church how to share in his saving work.

I can understand your second point too. It looks like the Catholic Church has added lots of beliefs about Mary that are not substantiated by Scripture. I expect you'll pick up on one or two other items before we're finished, but let me first say that our Marian beliefs spring from the very earliest traditions of the Church. Justin Martyr and Irenaeus — both writing in the second century — spoke of Mary as the "new Eve". As such she was considered totally pure.

Finally, you are unhappy with Mary because there was a "cult of the girl" in ancient Rome. Your implication is that Mary is sort of like a good Catholic boy's pin-up. I'd be careful on this one. When you play the armchair psychiatrist and start finding deep sexual motivations for religious devotion it's a hit like opening Pandora's box.

Before long you can theorize that homosexuals are attracted to muscular Christianity because they get to love the perfect man, and maybe Protestants (who can't stand Mary) have a mother-hatred complex. This kind of speculation is both sordid and specious. Furthermore, your theory doesn't account for the army of Catholic women who have a deep and abiding devotion to Mary. Anyway, for Catholics Mary has never been seen as the ideal wife or lover. Instead she is the ideal mother. When Jesus looked down from the cross at his beloved disciple and Mary he said, "Woman behold your son. Son behold your mother." We put ourselves in John's place and accept that maternal relationship with Mary which Jesus himself gave to his disciples.

I've been on the defensive here, and that's okay. But let me fire one back. In Luke 1.48 Mary says, "From now on all generations will call me blessed." Why do so many Evangelicals have this big Mary-block? You said we get emotional and our heads turn to putty when Mary comes up. I want to know why Evangelicals' heads and hearts both turn to stone when Mary comes up. Mary said "all generations shall call me blessed". Catholics rejoice to call her blessed. It's something we're enthusiastic about. So why do Evangelicals go all frosty and seize up?

blog comments powered by Disqus