My last few posts have reflected on how as Catholics our understanding of Mary has been formed by Sacred Scripture and in particular the typology of the Old Testament. We understand she is the New Eve, the new Ark of the Covenant, the Queen of Heaven, the “woman” in Revelation 12 and has an intercessory role with her son, the King of Kings. We view her as not just another Christian but strive to give her the honor and respect that should be given to the “mother of our Lord.” We of course also see her in the same role as we do the other saints in heaven – we can pray to her requesting her intercession and this in no way conflicts with Jesus as the one mediator between God and man. We also understand that praying to Mary, or displaying honor and respect to her, or offering her praise is not equivalent to worship and our worship is directed only to God. While many Christian groups would strongly disagree with our understanding of Mary in these ways, others are more open to these Scriptural truths.
But then we come to the Marian dogmas – those specific articles of faith that have been defined about Mary that every Catholic is to believe and profess. There are four Marian dogmas. The first is Mary is the “mother of God.” The second is that Mary is ever-virgin. The third is the Immaculate Conception – the understanding that Mary was conceived without original sin and lived a totally sinless life. The fourth is the bodily Assumption of Mary into heaven at the end of her earthly life. Many Christians strenuously object to these dogmatic declarations of Mary and view them to be unbiblical. While others may be able to at least consider the Catholic position as to why the dogmas do not contradict Scripture, they fail to see why they are so important as to be considered key aspects of the faith which should be embraced and believed.
Over the next many posts I will look at each Marian dogma, explore why the common “proof-texts” that are used to attempt to disprove the dogmas from Scripture don’t hold up under authentic scrutiny, and how the Catholic Church sees the truth of these dogmas reflected in Sacred Scripture.
One of the more common objections can be these dogmas were defined “late.” One point to be made here is the formal definition of a dogma does not indicate when it was first believed. For example, the dogma of the Trinity was not defined until the first council of Niceae in 325 specifically because of the Arian Heresy. Some groups, like the Jehovah Witnesses make the claim the Trinity was defined “late” in Church history and try to propose that the dogma was “made up” in the fourth century. This claim of course does not hold up to scrutiny, for it is clear an understanding existed before that time of God as Trinity, and Jesus as fully God and fully man. But by declaring the dogma of the Trinity in 325, the Church issued a more clear, more focused and more complete statement about the nature of God that left no room for doubt or confusion or argument about who Jesus Christ is. The Church didn’t change a previous teaching, but it certainly expanded upon it and allowed it to organically grow to meet the challenge of the day.
Scripture itself leads us to expect this normal progression of understanding. Christ promised the apostles at the last supper he would send the Holy Spirit to guide them into all truth (John 14:26, John 16:13). We see the beginning of this process in the book of Acts, when the Church struggled over the need for circumcision and whether Gentile converts needed to keep the Jewish law. This issue was resolved by the Church coming into council (Acts 15) where the Holy Spirit did guide them to the truth. This is what happened in the fourth century with the conflict over the nature of Christ and the Trinity, and in the fifth century with the dogma of the Hypostatic Union. It is what happened at the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century when the Catholic Church infallibly defined the Old Testament canon – the canon that had been in use by the Church since the time of the apostles. This understanding always takes the form of a progression, not a reversal.
Vatican II explains this concept of the development of Christian doctrine: “The tradition which comes from the apostles develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts, through a penetrating understanding of the spiritual realities which they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through episcopal succession the sure gift of truth. For, as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her” (Dei Verbum 8).
Another aspect of the Marian dogmas I will explore is why they matter. Even if Mary was always a virgin, why does it matter? What does it have to do with the Gospel message of salvation?
Each Marian dogma has a direct relationship to our understanding of Jesus Christ, and who he is. I put together this visual for my class to try to express this truth.
I have heard the phrase used the Marian dogmas are like the moat that surrounds the castle. When I look at the picture above, I do sometimes wonder if there is some truth in that thought. When Protestantism is embraced by many in the sixteenth century, its foundational premise is the Catholic Church is wrong about key aspects of the faith. Much of the “battleground” has occurred around the Marian dogmas. Yet those key Christological truths have been retained by most Christians.
Every Marian dogma expresses a truth about the humanity of Christ, or his divinity, or sometimes both. They also express a truth about us, and the destiny of those faithful who “endure to the end” (Matthew 10:22) – complete victory over sin and death. She is the first fruit of Christ’s redemption and gives us the example of the model disciple. My hope is as we explore these Marian dogmas and see their truth reflected in Scripture, we come to better understand why they are considered key to the faith delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3) and our own salvation journey in Christ.