MARY Quarrel over Mary threatens unity

Mediatrix: The campaign by some Catholics to elevate Mary could injure the faith and invite "the scorn of unbelievers."

December 21, 1997|By JOSEPH GALLAGHER

Leave the lovely lady alone!"

That's my response to the latest attempt of some of my fellow Catholics to honor the Mother of Christ in a way that will further alienate other Christians.

More than 4 million Catholics reportedly have petitioned Pope John Paul II to define officially and bindingly the idea that Mary is Mediatrix of all graces, almost on a par with Jesus. In the most extreme version of her role as Mediatrix, Mary serves as an intermediary between God and mankind. All prayers are transmitted through Mary, and all answers and graces from God come back through her. This version clearly conflicts with the New Testament, which says, "There is one God, and one mediator between God and man, Jesus Christ" (I Timothy 2:5).

Responding to rumors, the Vatican has denied that John Paul II will grant this petition. Unfortunately, many more people seem to have heard the rumors than the Vatican denial. The pope asked a theological commission to study the proposal. The vote was 23-0 against such a doctrinal proclamation.

These experts rightly felt it would further damage Christian unity - a goal presumably close to the heart of the mother of Christ. It was practically the death prayer of her son that the unity of his followers might be an argument for his divine mission.

Catholic doctrine does not claim to be based on Scripture alone. Still, as the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) stated with supreme authority, "This teaching office [of the church] is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on" (Dei Verbum, #10).

Many Catholics do not realize how sparse and even controversial is the role that Mary plays in the New Testament. In the New Testament, God is mentioned some 1,300 times, Jesus 1,000 times and Mary less than 25. (Mary is named more often in Muhammad's Koran than in the Bible.)

Mary is not even mentioned in 22 of the 27 New Testament documents. When she is mentioned, Jesus often seems to be distancing himself from her. Only the Gospels of Matthew and Luke assert that Jesus was conceived by the spirit of God and without a human father, and that his mother Mary was a virgin at the time.

Bible readers will find nothing in the New Testament about Mary's being immaculately conceived, of being sinless, of being assumed bodily into heaven or (most pertinently) of being Mediatrix of graces.

In John 16:13, the New Testament supports the idea of a development of doctrine, whereby, over the centuries, the Spirit-guided church can come to an explicit understanding of what might be only implicit in the Scriptures. But this idea of the church's being led by the Spirit is hard to verify in particulars and must reckon with many shocking scandals and just plain mistakes.

Of course, quantity is not the same thing as quality. The pivotal moment of Christ's enfleshment seemingly depended on the free consent of the woman who knew not man. That is her unique glory.

The cult of Mary, like that of some pagan goddesses, has been fed by deep human instincts: to honor the mother figure and to idealize the virgin.

In Catholicism, Mary also helps to balance the masculinity of the Godhead and the church hierarchy and to exalt the obedient servant of the Lord. What could be more touching than the image of medieval man, so engulfed in violence and darkness, praying before a candle-lit statue of the gentle and gentling Mary?

The Marian cult has had its perils and controversies. Eminent theologians such as Thomas Aquinas, Albert the Great and Bernard of Clairvaux argued against the idea that Mary was conceived without the common stain of sinfulness.

These saints were eager to preserve the universality of the salvation effected by Christ's death. So have been Protestant and Eastern Orthodox theologians. Indeed, the Orthodox strike me as achieving the best balance: They honor Mary highly but feel no need to impose new and divisive doctrinal decrees.

I personally don't know what to make of all these mostly modern apparitions of Mary. Many seem merely imitative, their Madonnas full of scare tactics.

TV's Mother Angelica, for example, believes that a new doctrine on Mary will save the world from great catastrophe. Her argument reminds me of the Incas: They threw a virgin to death to appease an angry god. Mother Angelica would throw the Virgin a new honor for the same reason. The Second Vatican Council, however, instructed theologians and preachers to "avoid the falsity of exaggeration" in their words about Mary, as well as "fruitless and passing emotion and a certain vain credulity" (De Ecclesia, #67).

The church itself has judged many Marian visions suspect or downright false, the product of unbalanced, superstitious or even deceptive personalities. Visions make church authorities nervous: What if "Mary" says the pope is a fraud? (This happened in Mexico a few years ago.)

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