Catholic devotion to Mary is one of the most frequently maligned teachings by those critical of the Church. But the criticism of Marian devotion is a relatively new development in Christianity. Prior to the Protestant Revolution, Mary’s important role in salvation history was not hotly disputed. But as the Protestant Revolution passed into the 17th Century, Catholic devotion to Mary became a major focus for those who wanted to discourage membership in the Catholic Church.
Some Protestant churches in or near the heart of the Protestant Revolution have recently begun to relax their criticism of Marian devotion. Oliver Cromwell’s men demolished a famous Marian statue when they desecrated the Lincoln Cathedral in the mid-1600s, but a new Marian sculpture was commissioned by the Church of England and completed in 2014. In Sweden, Bishop Anders Arborelius says many Lutheran churches (which were Catholic churches prior to the 1500s) opted for storing Catholic art instead of destroying it. Now these Lutheran churches are bringing Marian statues out of storage and placing them back where they were 500 years ago.
However, with this renewal of acceptance of Mary’s role in salvation history, there are still some who aggressively promote anti-Catholic myths. They allege that Catholics worship Mary, that the pope is poised to add Mary to the Trinity (both theologically and mathematically impossible), or claim that there is no way Mary can hear all the prayers sent her way. Many who say these things don’t seem to care whether or not they are true. They are often content to repeat them simply to accomplish their goal. One way to respond to someone who is criticizing Marian devotion is to pose a question.
“Do you agree that Mary is the Mother of God?”
If your friend agrees with you, the rest of the conversation may be quite fruitful. But if your friend balks and disagrees, you will need to make your case one step at a time. The first is a 1,600-year step back in time.
In his book, Behold Your Mother, apologist Tim Staples points out in order to understand who Jesus is, you need to understand who Mary is, and in order to understand who Mary is, you have to understand who Jesus is.
Christians have called Mary the Mother of God since Apostolic times (because of verses such as John 1:1-3). However, toward the end of the 3rd century and into the early 4th century, there were some very popular heresies regarding the divinity of Jesus and Mary’s role in God’s plan for our salvation. The Arians were teaching that Christ was a created being and the Nestorians taught that Christ had two separate natures. Arianism was rejected at the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. and Nestorianism was rejected at the Council of Ephesus in 431 A.D.
At the Council of Nicaea, the Church defined Christ’s co-eternal existence with the Father. Jesus was not created, He has always been, just as the Father and the Holy Spirit have always been. Jesus is God, incarnate.
At the Council of Ephesus, the Church formally defined the hypostatic union which teaches that Christ is fully God and fully man. Christ has always had two natures and always will, but His two natures are not separate in any way. There is not a part of Jesus which is not God.
An effective way to help your friend recognize the flaw in their rejection of Mary as the Mother of God is to take them back to these very fundamental teachings on Christ’s divinity and then teach them that those who denied these teachings also denied that Mary is the Mother of God.
The Arians denied that Mary is the Mother of God because they denied that Jesus is God. The Nestorians denied it because they taught that Mary conceived and gave birth only to the human nature of Jesus.
As you explain this, you can say, “Hold it! Mary only gave birth to the human nature of Jesus? So did your mother only conceive and give birth to your physical body, or were you born with a spiritual nature called your soul?”
All Christians know the answer to that question. Of course each child has a soul which is inseparable from his or her body from the moment of conception. We don’t hold our newborn baby and ponder the wonder of the fact that through birth, we now hold this soulless body of a human being. Since the first concept of the body and soul, we have come to understand the two to be inseparable until the moment of death.
Although Christ’s divinity is not exactly the same as our soul and its relation to our body, Christianity has always properly understood Christ’s divine nature to be in hypostatic union with his human nature and this was formal defined as an essential belief at the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. The question then turned to Mary and at the Council of Ephesus, she was formally declared Theotokos (God bearer), which became an essential belief in Christianity thereafter. So from 431 A.D. to the present, Mary has been universally recognized as the Mother of God, but even before 431 A.D. she was recognized as the Mother of God by the mutual assent of the faithful and the Magisterium.
After this, you can ask your friend if it is reasonable to believe that the Mother of God is someone to whom we should be particularly respectful. More on that next time.