The place accorded to Mary in the official teaching and popular devotion of the Roman Catholic Church must remain one of the major differences that separate it from Protestantism.
The references made to Mary in the Bible are few and simple. She is depicted as a devout, virtuous and believing woman on whom was conferred the special honor of becoming the mother of our Lord. But nowhere is there any suggestion that she should be worshipped, prayed to, or regarded as a mediator.
Gradually, over the centuries, the devotion paid to Mary, and the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church about her, have grown until now they obscure the person and office of Christ as Savior. This is not surprising when people are taught to come to Christ through Mary, and that the surest way of prayers being answered is, that they should be addressed to Christ through Mary.
The Rosary, which is the most common prayer ritual of Roman Catholics, has ten prayers to Mary for each one devoted to God. More candles are lit before statues of Mary than before statues of Christ. This is the kind of prominence the cult of the Virgin Mary has assumed in the Roman Catholic Church, and we can see how it reverses the emphasis of Scripture, where everything points to Christ.
I suppose this is not surprising when we consider how the statue of the Virgin Mary with the Child in her arms is constantly before the bodily eye, and the mind's eye, of the Catholic worshipper. The impression created is that of the dominating, adult figure of Mary, with a subordinate place for Christ as the weak and helpless infant. Thus we see how images can be misleading, and can deny the truth of Scripture, (the prophets called them 'lying images'), so that we need to take seriously the warnings of the Bible against their subtle and insidious tendency to draw the mind away from God.
In the Middle Ages Christ was represented as the stern judge and Mary as the kind and compassionate mother, who would obtain mercy for the sinner from her Son. This emphasis is still present today even amongst the 'progressives' such as Schillebeeckx, the Dutch Roman Catholic theologian, who writes, 'The natural quality of love cannot be in the man Jesus -- but it is in Mary'.
The discovery by the Reformers that the Scriptures teach no such thing, but that Christ himself is our advocate and his blood the propitiation for our sins was something that revolutionized their thinking, and accounts for the prominence of biblical texts expressing this truth in our services, especially the comfortable words of the Holy Communion service of the Church of England.
In recent times the cult of the Virgin Mary has grown and assumed even greater proportions in the Roman Catholic Church. One of the important developments was the promulgation of the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary in 1854, that is, that Mary was conceived and born without sin, and remained sinless throughout her life. Along with this it is claimed that Mary remained a virgin and had no other children, though the Scriptures speak of the brothers and sisters of Christ, and of Mary's marriage as a normal one after the birth of Jesus.
In 1950, Pope Pius XII declared the Dogma of the Bodily Assumption, that is, that Mary was taken bodily into heaven after her burial and crowned as the Queen of Heaven. There is nothing in the Bible to support such teaching. Without the least trace of embarrassment a Roman Catholic theologian has written of it, '... indeed, this most glorious Assumption of Mary is veiled in the mystery of silence: Scripture knows nothing of it'. Yet it is declared by the Church of Rome that those who do not believe this dogma cannot be saved.
Many Protestants have the lingering feeling that the teaching of the Church of Rome on this subject cannot be as extreme as it appears. That the official teaching of the Church must be more moderate and, particularly, that Vatican II has done something to improve matters and remove excesses. Vatican II, in line with its declared aim of presenting with greater clarity the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, warned against exaggeration on the one hand and narrow-mindedness on the other. But it failed to say what exactly these were, which hardly advances the cause of greater clarity. At the same time it reiterated all the traditional teaching regarding Mary. Such as, that:
The decree hastens to assure us that this must not be understood as in any way detracting from the dignity and efficacy of Christ the one mediator. It supports this contention by saying that Mary shares in the mediation of Christ just as the priesthood of Christ is shared in various ways by the hierarchy, the bishops and priests. But this merely invokes one traditional and erroneous doctrine to support another. The more one investigates Catholic doctrine the more it becomes clear that the Church spins the web of its theology out of its own body.
The opinions of the various Marian schools are not condemned by Vatican II and the decree admonishes that the cult of the Virgin Mary be generously fostered.
What all this really means doctrinally is perhaps best brought out in the words of the present Pope John Paul II, who closes his book Sign of Contradiction, (which was a series of addresses given in Lent 1976 in the presence of Paul VI), with a powerful exposition of what the significance of mariolatry is for the Roman Catholic Church. After reminding Pope Paul VI that he had proclaimed Mary to be the Mother of the Church, he then goes on to draw out what that means. It means that God has put the Church under her care for all time. God 'demonstrated the greatest trust in mankind by giving mankind his Son... The human creature to whom he first entrusted him was Mary ... and until the end of time she will remain the one to whom God entrusts the whole of his mystery of salvation ...
'Within the dimensions of the universe the Son of God, the eternal Word, the Lord of the ages to come is her son and she is his mother. Therefore all that goes to make up what he bequeathed -- the work of salvation, the Mystical Body of Christ, the People of God, the Church -- is taken care of, and always will be taken care of, by her -- with the same fidelity and strength that she showed in taking care of her son: from the stable in Bethlehem, to Calvary and to the upper room on the day of Pentecost when the Church was born, Mary is present in all the vicissitudes of the Church'.
This is an immense conception of the role of Mary, far greater than most Protestants understand, and it is something which inheres in the very stuff of Roman Catholicism. When the Church of Rome is wrong it is wrong on a grand scale, and the measure of this conception is the measure of its error. The image of the Madonna with the Child in her arms does not lie, according to Roman Catholic doctrine. It is a true reflection of the role of Mary. Seated upon the throne of heaven she embraces Christ and the Church. It is the reason why everything that happens in the Church is committed to the protection of Mary, 'the Immaculate Queen of the Church and the mother of unity', as was the Second Vatican Council itself in these very words by Pope John XXIII. It is the reason why the present Pope in his first public utterance, after the attempt upon his life in St Peter's Square, ascribed his deliverance to Mary and professed that he was 'totally hers'. This to most Protestants, even those who are sympathetic to the Pope, is unintelligible. It is however in Roman Catholic terms the natural and inescapable conclusion of Marian doctrine.
We have seen in recent years the revival of the cult of Mary in the Church of England. It has no foundation on which to rest in the doctrine of that church. But we have seen the Archbishop of Canterbury visit the 'Shrine of our Lady of Walsingham' and give an added impetus to this tendency by his presence there. All the traditional language is used about Mary leading us to Christ. But we must be clear about the direction of this tendency and realistic about what lies behind it. It stands biblical doctrine on its head, and, while professing innocence of idolatry, worships the creature more than the Creator.
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