03 July 2011

The Myth of Mary

Speaking of myths, as I was yesterday, one of the most pervasive myths about the Catholic Church is that Catholics worship Mary. I keep hearing versions of this, and often from people who should know better. They say that Catholics worship Mary, that Catholics regard her as more important than Jesus, that Catholics think of her as a goddess, that Catholics believe they're only saved by praying to Mary, and that Mary is the real centre of what faith many Catholics have, with Jesus just being a sideshow.

None of this is true, I'm glad to say, and not merely because Marian devotion appears to have faded to some degree in the Church over recent decades, something that Karl Rahner thought was due to the Christian tendency to make an ideology -- an abstraction -- out of Christianity. And abstractions, he said, have no need for a mother.

Catholics don't worship Mary, and have never done so. To have done so would be in flagrant opposition to the first commandment. Indeed, worship of Mary has been condemned as heretical since at least the fourth century, when Epiphanius of Salamis spoke out against the Collrydian tendency to think of her as a goddess and to offer sacrifices to her. Mary, he insisted, was holy and venerable, but she should not be worshipped; indeed, worship should be reserved to him who was born from Mary's flesh. The Church still holds to this line, as it has always done, with Lumen Gentium, the Second Vatican Council's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, insisting that that 'no creature could ever be counted as equal with the incarnate Word and Redeemer'.

As a general rule of thumb, if you're a Protestant and want to find out what the Catholic Church teaches, you shouldn't go to your favourite Protestant writer, no matter how smart and erudite he or she may be. Go and have a look at the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and use the index, looking up, say, 'Adoration, as principal act of the virtue of religion', 'Mary, veneration of, not adoration,' 'Mary, veneration of, prayer to', and, straightforwardly, 'Worship, and adoration of God.' As part of the Catechism's exposition of the first commandment, it says:
'Adoration is the first act of the virtue of religion. To adore God is to acknowledge him as God, as the Creator and Savior, the Lord and Master of everything that exists, as infinite and merciful Love. "You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve," says Jesus, citing Deuteronomy. To adore God is to acknowledge, in respect and absolute submission, the "nothingness of the creature" who would not exist but for God. To adore God is to praise and exalt him and to humble oneself, as Mary did in the Magnificat, confessing with gratitude that he has done great things and holy is his name. The worship of the one God sets man free from turning in on himself, from the slavery of sin and the idolatry of the world.'
The key thing to understand is that the Church is and has always been adamant that worship is for God alone and that devotion to Mary '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.'

Catholics don't worship Mary. They honour her. They venerate her. They love her. They don't worship her.

That Catholics should honour Mary shouldn't scandalise anyone. As Jesus' mother, she would have been honoured by him and if Jesus honoured her, is it so surprising that we should do likewise? I'm always baffled by those Christians who try to push her aside, like an embarrassing relative, a madwoman in the attic. The Bible's pretty clear, after all, that she's blessed amongst women, and one whom all generations would call blessed.

Paying honour to Mary in no way detracts from the worship due to God alone, any more than visiting someone's house and talking to their mother insults the person who you've come to see. If anything, it pays a greater honour to the person your visiting. There are three main prayers associated with Mary, none of which should set Protestant hearts a-flutter.
  • The Magnificat, said every evening as part of the Divine Office, has as its theme the greatness of God. It addresses Mary's humility and the fact that it is by God -- and by God alone -- that she is saved, saying that all generations shall call her blessed. It's a straightforward quotation from Scripture, and hardly something to panic any self-proclaimed 'Bible Christians'.
  • The Hail Mary, said in various contexts, consists of two quotations from the Bible, both of which are deeply Christological, focused as they are on the wonder of the Incarnation, and a petition. The petition simply asks Mary for her prayers, which people should be okay with: we're called upon to pray for each other, and to ask each other for our prayers, as part of the community of love that is the Communion of Saints.
  • The Rosary, finally, is a number of things, but above all it is a meditation on the life and promises of Christ, as seen through the eyes of she who was the first Christian, the bearer of the Word. Said in its entirety, the prayer entails contemplation of twenty different Christian mysteries, and is expressed through the recitation of the central Christian beliefs as proclaimed in the Apostle's Creed, the manifold praying of the Lord's Prayer and the trinitarian doxology known as the 'Glory Be', and most especially the Incarnation-centred 'Hail Mary', all introduced and concluded by the sign of the cross, that physical reminder of the death Christ suffered for us.
The Marian prayers don't celebrate Mary, save as a way of glorifying God by celebrating someone who he has especially honoured. Their purpose, ultimately, is to honour God, and especially to lead us deeper in our love for him through meditation on the mysteries of his Incarnation, including his teaching, suffering, death, and resurrection. Catholics may pray to Mary, but they don't worship her, that being for God alone.

What's more, Marian devotions aren't things that Catholics must do if they want to be saved -- an annoyed Protestant friend told me today how she'd been irked by one of her friends having claimed this, as she knew this wasn't true. They're gifts to help us get closer to God, and it's God and God alone that Catholics worship. Mass, after all, centred on that sacrament the Church calls the source and summit of Christian life, isn't offered to Mary.  

Catholics love and honour the mother of God. They don't worship her, and anyone who claims that they do shouldn't be trusted as a source for anything at all about Catholicism. It's one thing to disagree with the Catholic understanding of Mary; it's another to lie and to claim that understanding is something that it's not.
And again, if you don't believe me there are a few places you can look to see whether I'm fairly reflecting Catholic teaching. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, of course, should be the standard go-to to find out what the Church teaches, and you shouldn't neglect the footnotes. I'd also recommend The Rosary of Our Lady by Romano Guardini, Hail, Holy Queen by Scott Hahn, and perhaps most especially Mary, Mother of the Son by Mark Shea.

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