Catholics and Mary

Virusdoc had two posts on the Catholic position on Mary. One Friday from the 'Doc and another Monday with some reader comments. Because of his exploration of Catholicism, I've spent a fair amount of energy here commenting on Catholic doctrine. Suffice to say I've found much to disagree with, and the subject of Mary is no exception. Let the record show, however that I have no agenda here against Catholics, it's just working out this way. Ok, enough disclaimers, on to the topic.

From his Friday post, here's a list of things that Catholics teach about Mary:

  1. She was born without sin.
  2. She lived her entire life without sin.
  3. She never tasted death, was 'assumed' into heaven at the end of her life.
  4. She was a virgin her entire life.

All but the last of these have been declared 'infallible' and all Catholics are required to believe them. He and I are on the same page her when he says "Not surprisingly, this amount of attention paid to ANY human being other than Jesus is a little hard to swallow for a protestant." In fact, I can't say I find anything to agree with in those teachings. (Actually, that's not true. I agree with the first point, but I believe that's true about all of us.) It seems to me that they are elevating Mary to the same level as Jesus, actually God, Himself! Christ is the only other human being ever born that can lay claim to all of the last three items on that list. To give those to Mary, to me, is to make her equal to God.

Monday's reader response attempted to explain to our protestant mindset how this all makes sense. Honestly, it helped a little. I'm willing to admit that a fair amount of my incredulity at this idea is cultural. That is, I was brought up protestant and never really was exposed to any catholic teaching of any substance. It's just as alien to me as Buddhism.

The general gist of it, assuming that I understood it, was that the Holy Spirit has been at work over the centuries, continually revealing God to the church and those revelations are just as valid as scripture itself. I can buy that the Holy Spirit is at work revealing God, but I have a hard time accepting it as equally valid as scripture. I mean, all kinds of people, including some sincere, well-meaning people, claim that God has spoken to them and given them a revelation. Now, many of them are just hoping we'll open our wallets, but the rest are honest, God loving people. How are we, or anyone, to separate the wheat from the chaff if not by comparing their teachings and proclamations to scripture? Scripture is a constant standard against cultural and technological change, not to mention the whims of men. Even the most spiritual, intelligent and well meaning men have some bone headed ideas at times.

Frankly, I have a hard time seeing the Catholic position on Mary as anything but idolatry. I have a good friend at work that's a devout catholic and more than that, he's a man with a deep and sincere love for God. My intention, as stated earlier, is not to bash Catholics or to stir up trouble or debate, but I just can't figure out how these ideas make sense. Can anyone help me do that?

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The catholic theologian that I had beers with last Thursday did have some really helpful things to say about the "sensibility" of Marian doctrines. He described her in terms that were not at all idolatrous, and were quite helpful for me to think through. I'm planning on writing about those more at length in the coming days, but they mostly centered around the idea of Mary's "Yes" to god being archetypal for the "Yes" that all Christians must make: submission of our will to Gods, so that Christ can be incarnated in our actions and words.

This doesn't help me deal with the legitimacy of doctrines about Mary's sinlessness, perpetual virginity, and bodily assumption. These doctrines seem to grow out of Catholic understandings of original sin (which Mary apparently needed to be exempt from in order for Jesus to be exempt from). I, like you, don't really believe in a concept of biological original sin. I believe that we are all born into societies that are permeated by sin, and that we have no choice but to be affected by these societies and become sinful ourselves.

Marian doctrines are a topic that we've gone back and forth with Catholics on over at Thinklings. It boils down to whether or not you're going to accept the RCC's opinion on the matter, or whether you're going to use the Bible as your standard.

Re:Bird's comment:
I don't think it's as simple as just picking either the Catholic's position or the Bible. Keep in mind that the Bible itself is an embodiment of the Catholic church's "opinion" about what God's will and word are. If you trusted the Catholics (in conjunction with the Holy Spirit) to choose the books of the bible during the canonization process, then I think you have to at least consider the possibility that the guidance God gave them then continued thereafter and today...

I do believe that the majority of the NT canon was considered scripture by the time the second century rolled around -- well before the Catholic church proper was established. (I'd have to do some reading to double check my memory.) Still, I have no problem with the then-Catholic church affirming the canon because I believe the inspired works of God were already being used as such before the canon was technically confirmed.

While perhaps put a little bluntly, I think that bird has mostly summed it up. The teachings on Mary are a matter of taking the words of men as inerrant, just like scripture. That's inconceivable for me, but for the Catholic it may be inconceivable that we wouldn't accept that Holy Spirit could reveal new truths to men for them to pass to the church. Like bird said, there is a bit of 'take it or leave it' here. Unfortunately, to me, the idea that any man can come up with a new idea, no matter how profound, and claim it as God's and then lay it at my feet to obey and live up to, is counter to much of what I''ve learned from scripture. I honestly want to have an open mind about Catholicism, but the more I learn the harder that is.

I guess the key issue here is this: the bible is also merely "the words of men". Written by men, interpreted by men. Certainly we would agree that God's spirit played some role in this process. But who are we to say at what time in history and through whom God is able to inspire? Why Paul or John or James, but not Pope Pius X? I realize this introduces a bit of a slippery-slope argument, with the testimony of all individuals who claim to have "heard from God" being somewhat equal. But this was precisely the predicament at the time of the canonization (4th-5th century), as well: a number of documents from a number of authors were considered, and not all met the criteria put forth at the councils. I'm becoming more open to the idea that "canonization"--which is really just careful examination and testing of teachings to see if they are consistent with what we already know of God and bear the fruit of God's spirit when applied--is a process that must constantly be reapplied as doctrine and practice are shifted to new cultural surroundings. If this is true, then there is no reason to shut the door at the end of the initial canon. What comes after must be in consilience with the scriptures, but need not be wholly derived from them.

N.B. this still doesn't mean I'm keen on certain doctrines of Mary, or any other specific doctrines of the catholic church. But I'm beginning to see their perspective.

I think it's certainly good to see others' perspective. Like Douglas pretty much said, however, the more and more I learn about Catholicism, the harder it is to swallow.

You didn't really address the concept of the Bible being essentially a codified oral religious tradition, akin to the type of tradition catholics use to support Marianist dogma.

Does this mean i) you think the Bible stands up to historical/sociologic criticism more favorably than do all extracanonical traditions or ii)you have already made up your mind that the Bible will not be subject to such criticism in your own religious experience? If the former, I guess there is room for further discussion. If the latter, I would be interested in your basis for such a decision. I'm not trying to be rude here, just to push gently in an area where I am still forming my own beliefs and welcome input.

I would say that there is a significant difference between the NT and the pronouncements of Popes or anyone else. You rightfully noted the slippery slope of laying claim of anyone's words as 'infallible'. If the Pope's words are infallible (and, thanks to you, I now understand that not every word he utters is considered as such), why not mine or my minister's or the leader of my denominations? I've not done extensive research on the subject, but I did find a good article at John Oakes' Evidence for Christianity As bird pointed out the NT in it's entirety was accepted as inspired by about 200 AD or so. Here's a quote from the article:

a small manuscript known as the Muratorian Fragment was found and published in the 1700's. It has been dated to the latter part of the second century, or around 180 AD. It contains an early list of accepted scriptures. This fragmented list begins with Luke, but mentions it as the third gospel. The list mentions John, Acts, and all thirteen letters of Paul. In fact, all the letters in the New Testament are mentioned or implied except for Matthew, Mark, Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter and 1 John. In the third century, the Christian leader Origin recorded the accepted list of letters. His list was identical to our New Testament, although he mentioned that Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 John and Jude were questioned by some.

The early church used something called 'apostolic authority' to determine what was accepted as inspired as what was not. This did not mean that they were necessarily authored by the apostles, but that the apostles had considered them inspired. So the intirety of the New Testament ties back to the apostles themselves. The paper also goes into the substantial evidence that the New Testament that we use is the actual writings penned, but that wasn't really your question.

So the evidence to support the authority of the NT is strong, in my opinion. What can we use to support the claims of Catholic tradition? They are one or several men's opinions handed down over the centuries. They have no connection to Jesus as the apostles did nor to the apostles themselves. They may be well reasoned, insightful, interesting or wise but there is little evidence to show that they are inspired.

I think that the Holy Spirit is in fact at work in revealing God to each one of us. How that works for you is likely to be different than how it works for me. I think it might be interesting to research the history of this idea of the Holy Spirit providing new revelations about God to leaders for the church to accept. When did it first come about and under what circumstance? You may sense a note of suspect in my words, and you'd be right.

The bottom live for me is that there is factual evidence to support the accuracy and history of the NT canon. This gives me faith in its validity and relevance. The same cannot be said of Catholic tradition.

Doug, Your view of the process of Catholic doctrine formation is too focused on the idea of individual men (like the Pope) bringing forth ideas out of their head and calling them inspired. I had the same misconception initially. The actual process is incredibly slow, involves hundreds or thousands of men and women of faith (both clergy and non), and results in a consensus document in most instances. This accurately describes the very process that led to the canonization of the scriptures--not one individual dominating a process, but many individuals corporately seeking God's will (and prayerfully, we can only hope). Check out my post for Thursday.

One of my points is that the canon was pretty much established long before there was a "Catholic" church. I believe it was Cyprius in the 3rd Century who first laid the foundation for what would become the Catholic Church, and by then the canon was pretty much already in use, though not formally recognized. In reading the NT (especially historical books like Acts, and I Timothy), I don't see a structure anything like the modern day RCC. Also, I see no indication in scripture that God's "open canon" will continue through the church and its leadership.



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  • One of my points is that the canon was pretty much established long before there was a "Catholic" church. I believe it was Cyprius in the 3rd Century who first laid the foundation for what would become the Catholic Churc...

  • Doug, Your view of the process of Catholic doctrine formation is too focused on the idea of individual men (like the Pope) bringing forth ideas out of their head and calling them inspired. I had the same misconception ...

  • I would say that there is a significant difference between the NT and the pronouncements of Popes or anyone else. You rightfully noted the slippery slope of laying claim of anyone's words as 'infallible'. If the Pope's...

  • You didn't really address the concept of the Bible being essentially a codified oral religious tradition, akin to the type of tradition catholics use to support Marianist dogma. Does this mean i) you think the Bible sta...

  • I think it's certainly good to see others' perspective. Like Douglas pretty much said, however, the more and more I learn about Catholicism, the harder it is to swallow....

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