Discussion of Mary, Mother of the Son, Volume I: Modern Myths and Ancient Truths

The Christ-child lay on Mary's lap,/His hair was like a light.
(O weary, weary were the world,/But here is all aright.)
The Christ-child lay on Mary's breast/His hair was like a star.
(O stern and cunning are the kings,/But here the true hearts are.)
The Christ-child lay on Mary's heart,/His hair was like a fire.
(O weary, weary is the world,/But here the world's desire.)
The Christ-child stood on Mary's knee,/His hair was like a crown,
And all the flowers looked up at Him,/And all the stars looked down

A Christmas Poem by G.K. Chesterton

One of the (relatively recent) bones of contention which Protestants have against the Church is her teachings concerning Our Lady. Whether it's over the particular dogmas of the Church concerning Mary (there are five, most modern Evangelical Protestants challenge four of these), the sources for the Church's teachings, or the place of Our Lady in popular Catholic devotion, challenges arise from both curious Protestants and more militant ones. In his Mary, Mother of the Son trilogy, Mr Mark Shea addresses these various challenges.

In the first volume of the series, "Modern Myths and Ancient Truths," Mr Shea seeks to address "the fundamental truths of where the Church gets its teachings about Mary." In particular, he rebuts the claims that the Church gets her teachings from ancient pagan sources, rather than from the teachings handed down by the apostles. In a sense, this volume is a logical continuation of his previous (and quite good) By What Authority? An Evangelical Discovers Catholic Tradition (which I review here), though "Modern Myths and Ancient Truth" does work as a stand-alone. It is a logical continuation of that previous work in that it examines the source and importance of Tradition, maintaining that Tradition is an important source of revelation in its own right; but in this case the relevant parts of Tradition are more specific, namely, those parts which pertain to our Lady.

He begins his works with a chapter about "pseudo-knowledge," or, as he says, "stuff everybody knows." He contrasts several sources of this pseudo-knowledge, form the poorly catechized Catholics who are ill-prepared to "to satisfy every one that asketh you a reason of that hope which is in you" (1 Peter 3:15), to confusion experienced by a Protestant on hearing the rosary, to more deliberate attempts at spreading falsehood (e.g. Dan Brown, Jack Chick) about Church teaching and Church history. He also notes the confusion which comes about from simple cultural differences, as for example, the fact that we often hear Evangelical culture (not theology!) expressed in masculine terms but Catholic culture (again, not theology) in feminine terms. An unfortunate result of this is that
"Before we ever get around to discussing substantial theological disagreements, Catholics and Evangelicals often mistake cultural differences as theological quarrels. Moreover, secular culture (which is hostile to both Catholic and Evangelical Christianity) often compounds the problems by feeding its own stereotypes about both cultures....There are, in additional to this phenomenon, plenty of real theological differences. But still, because this cultural difference is typically not noticed by either party, its sits there quietly operating and producing misunderstandings and feelings of alienation on both sides before the theological discussion ever begins."

This is certainly a distinct problem when it manufactures disagreements where none exist. However, it is not the biggest problem facing Catholics when discussing our beliefs about Mary. Far bigger is the problem of misinformation--as can be found in, for example, Mr Jimmy Swaggert's Catholicism and Christianity--and often deliberate disinformation, as can be found in, for example, Mr Loraine Boettner's Roman Catholicism. Some of this feeds into--and some of it preys off of--the joint facts that there are so few mentions of Mary in the Bible and that Catholic culture is often expressed in so feminine a manner. As Mr Shea notes,
Indeed, it's profoundly normal in Evangelicalism to assume that Catholic ideas about Mary are derived mostly from paganism. Certainly I and the vast majority of my Evangelical friends took it as settled fact that after the apostles dies, unconverted or partially-converted pseudo-Christians began to import the goddess worship of their native cultures into a church that had stopped reading the Bible. The whole Mary thing seemed a classic example of what I termed "Pagan Creep"--whereby the pure New Testament Church was infiltrated by unbiblical ideas that seeped in from the surrounding pagan culture. We were not clear on the exact chronology or process of this corruption, but there was no doubt it had happened on a broad scale. We could see nothing in Scripture saying, "Mary was an immaculate and sinless virgin all her life, until she was assumed bodily into Heaven. So let's all pray to the Mother of God!" And since none of that is spelled out in Scripture, it couldn't be Christian; therefore it must--simply must--be pagan. All the best authorities said so. And they were backed up by well-modulated voices on TV and radio. You could find the same thing verified in a thousand Evangelical books, magazines, and sermons. Everybody knew it was common knowledge!

This "Pagan Creep" theory is detailed and explained in greater depth in "By What Authority," as it is one of the central themes of that book. In both books he rebuts the Pagan Creep theory by noting that the early Church which suffered persecution--producing countless martyrs--because she refused to compromise with paganism is the very same Church whose leaders had already endorsed any number of supposedly pagan doctrines which were not spelled out so clearly in the Bible; indeed, some of these very leaders were themselves persecuted and martyred for refusing to compromise with not only paganism, but even heresies which erupted from within the Church (Arianism comes immediately to mind).

In By What Authority, Mr Shea shows that this Pagan Creep theory is ultimately a misunderstanding of both history and Tradition. Moreover, Tradition complements Scripture, so that he can write
"According to the Church, both Scripture and Tradition were from Christ and made by him to stand inseparably united. The two were one--but not the same. They were the hydrogen and oxygen that fused to form living water. They were the words and tune of a single song. They were two sides of the same apostolic coin. In short, by Catholic lights, the one apostolic paradosis of Christ was handed down in just the way Paul said it should be: both by word of mouth and by letter" (By What Authority, p. 120).

With this in mind, Mr Shea traces just where this idea that the Marian doctrines and devotions were introduced via paganism comes from. Some sources--in particular Loraine Boettner--are blatantly dishonest. Others, such as Ralph Woodrow (Babylon Mystery Religion, have made honest mistakes to which they have admitted and for which they have apologized and retracted (The Babylon Connection?); concerning these latter, Mr Shea notes that it is an unfortunate reality that
"A quick Google search reveals that eight years after Woodrow himself repudiated his own book, Babylon Mystery Religion is still cited on hundreds of sites, still continues to be sold by Christian booksellers, and still continues to be regarded as authoritative research on how 'the Roman Catholic church permits the worship of the pagan mother goddess under the name of Jesus' mother Mary.' It's another textbook example of the way psuedo-knowledge propagates."

Shea notes also that when considering whether the early post-apostolic Christians (that is, the Church Fathers) obtained their Marian doctrines from Scripture (with or without the help of Tradition) or from paganism, there is an important question to ask. After listing a host of Old Testament verses which the Fathers interpreted as being about Mary (complete with citation in the footnotes), Mr Shea writes with his usual clarity,
"Of course, many Evangelicals will contest the application of these various Old Testament texts to Mary. But that's getting ahead of ourselves. The question before us now is not 'Did the Church Fathers misinterpret Scripture?' It is 'Did the Church Fathers get their Marian theology and devotion from paganism?' And the simple answer is that nowhere in the length and breadth of early Christian writings do you find an appeal to goddess worship, polytheism, the Great Mother, Venus, Athena, Diana, Ashtoreth, or anything aelse in pagan belief as the source for devotion to Mary as the sinless, perpetually-virgin Theotokos who was assumed into heaven. Instead, you find appeals to the apostles and the witness of Holy Scripture."

This is an appeal to charity, plain and simple. Such charity on the part of Protestant Polemicists would indeed go far in facilitating dialogue between Catholics and Protestants--the only discussion by which each side can gain real clarity as to what the other side believes. Among other things, the Evangelical might see that while the early Christians did have contact with a variety of pagan cultures, this contact does not necessarily lead to a corruption. If the Christian faith is strong enough to resist the temptations and ideologies of the enlightenment and the modern era, there is no reason to assume that it was too weak to resist the paganism that has been replaced by these ideologies.

Rather, the Church did then what she does now, which is to evangelize and not merely proselytize. She strives to meet the people where they are, but then she tries to bring them up to a better understanding of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness. She recognizes that all men ultimately seek these things, and that to a greater or lesser extent all have found these things, if not in their fullest extent, if not in their source and summit. That is to say, the Church recognizes that her riches are great because they come from God, but that also that the greatness of her riches does not invalidate all other riches. She therefore must work to reclaim those other riches--natural science and natural theology, philosophy, the natural (or cardinal) virtues, etc--for the glory of God, Who made all things and saw that all things were good (Genesis 1:31).

"The scriptural never takes biblical forms and fills them with pagan substance. It sees pagan life as a confused mixture of human thought and imagination, demonic deceptions, and divinely-led intuition. Thus, where necessary, the Church upbraids paganism for worshiping the creature instead of the Creator but, where possible, she affirms the human wisdom of Aristotle and Plato, honors the ordinary feats and fasts of the peasant, and appropriates some pagan forms if she can fill them with Christian substances and thereby reclaim the creature for the proper service of the Creator....Paul cites not the Old Testament but the Greek poets as he argues that Jesus is the One the Greeks had rightly been looking for in all the wrong places. Paul isn't creating a 'hybrid religion.' He's not telling the Athenians that their poets and monuments to the 'unknown god' are things Christianity needs in order to complete or understand itself [Acts 17:22-31]. Rather, Paul is establishing what will become a time-tested method of Christian evangelism: taking some aspect of pagan religion or culture and, if it can be done without diluting the gospel, referring it to Christ. That's because Christ is the author of all creation and therefore imparts to creation signs that point us toward him as we attempt to 'feel after him and find him'."

Having made what should be a convincing case that the Church does not borrow her doctrines--Marian or otherwise--from paganism, Mr Shea turns next to the relationship between Tradition and the Scriptures in the apostolic times. During this age, the Old Testament was all of Scripture which had been completed, and the New Testament was being written. Especially before the earlier Gospels had been written, the only available Scripture was what we now know as the Old Testament. The apostles themselves were familiar with it, but they really didn't understand the prophesied contained therein, even when Jesus "rubbed their noses in it" (as Mr Shea puts it). Rather, it is only after they witnessed His death and resurrection that they began to really connect the dots, as it were, with which the Old Testament foretells events from the New. Many of these prophesies and foreshadowings apply to Jesus, but some apply also the the Church, to particular apostles (e.g.the high priest and Peter), the sacraments (e.g. crossing the red sea and baptism), and some apply to...Mary! Shea notes that many of these references come as allusions (e.g. Luke 1:43 uses the same language for St Mary's visitation of St Elizabeth as 2 Samuel 6:9 describes the coming of the ark to David; and indeed, the entire episode of the visitation parallels the entire episode of the ark's reclamation by David). He then relates how
"In my early days as an evangelical, I noticed that many of my fellow evangelicals found it remarkably easy to detect bar codes, Soviet helicopters, Saddam Hussein, and the European Common Market encoded in John's Revelation. But when Catholics suggested that the glorious woman of Revelation [Apocalypse 11:19-12:2] might have something to do with the Blessed Virgin occupying a place of cosmic importance in the grand scheme of things, this was ridiculed as a preposterous distortion of the text."

He then explains that among Evangelicals "everybody knows" that the woman is (either) Israel or possibly the church, not Mary. Once again, the Church answers this false dichotomy (trichotomy?) either/or with a both/and. In his book The Splendor of the Church, Henri Cardinal De Lubac writes that
"In the Church's tradition the same biblical symbols are applied, either in turn simultaneously, with one and the same ever-increasing profusion, to the Church and our Lady. Both are the New Eve; Paradise; the tree of Paradise, whose fruit is Christ; the great tree seen in his dream by Nebuchadnezzar, planted in the center of the earth. Both are the Ark of the Covenant, Jacob's Ladder, the Gate of Heaven, the House built on the mountaintop, the fleece of Gideon, the Tabernacle of the Highest, the throne of Solomon, the impregnable fortress. Both are the City of God, the mysterious City of which the psalmist sang; the valiant woman of the Book of Proverbs, the Bride arrayed for her husband, the woman who is the foe of the serpent and the great sign in heaven described in Revelation--the woman clothed with the sun and victorious over the Dragon. Both are--after Christ--the dwelling place of wisdom, and even wisdom herself; both are 'a new word' and 'a prodigious creation'; both rest in the shadow of Christ.

There is in all this something much more than a case of parallelism or the alternating use of ambivalent symbols. As far as the Christian mind is concerned, Mary is the 'ideal figure of the Church.' Everywhere the Church finds in her [Mary] her [the Church's] type and model, her point of origin and perfection: 'The form of our Mother the Church is according to the form of his [Christ's] Mother.'...All that is prophesied by the Old Testament concerning the Church receives a new application, as it were, in the person of our Lady, whose type the Church thus becomes: 'How beautiful are those things which have been prophesied of Mary under the figure of the Church!' [Saint Ambrose, De institutione virginis chap. 14, no. 89]. And conversely, the things told us by the Gospels about our Lady are a prefiguring of the nature and destiny of the Church" (pages 317-321).

Mary is, in other words, a sign and symbol for the whole Church. Shea argues as much, by pointing to the writing of some of the Church Fathers, including Quodvultdeus, Oecumenius, and St Ambrose. And having argued that Tradition is in fact compatible with Scripture--both in "Modern Myths and Ancient Truth" and in By What Authority, Mr Shea next shows how doctrines become defined from this Tradition, and how dogmas are promulgated (that is, how conclusions are reached from these teachings). He notes that Tradition "is the living, growing truth of Christ passed down in the Church in both written and unwritten form in the common doctrine, common life, and common worship of the Church." Moreover,
"It is the very model of conservatism. But it is a living conservatism--a living faith of the dead rather than a dead faith of the living. The fully formed 'mustard plant' [which grows from the seed of revelation] of the kingdom doesn't appear in the middle of the first century, the seventh, the sixteenth, or even today, at the beginning of the twenty-first. For New situations will always arise to demand that the Church make explicit some new aspect of the Tradition that had hitherto been only implicit: encoded in the DNA of the mustard seed but not yet fully expressed in the branches and blossoms of the plant. How does the Church do this? By appealing, not to the Bible alone, but to the Bible in union with the apostolic Tradition of the Spirit-led body of Christ, governed by the apostles and their successors who were given authority, in Paul's words, to 'charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine' (1 Tim. 1:3)."

Carndinal Newman makes a similar point regarding the doctrines (teachings) and principles (raw material, Tradition) of the Church (or any other religious body): "Doctrine is the voice of a religious body, its principles are of its substance. The principles may be turned into doctrines by being defined; but they live as necessities before definition, and are the less likely to be defined because they are so essential to life" (quoted from Jaki's Newman's Challenge, including emphases).

Often this doctrine is unravelled from Tradition only because some point of Tradition has begun to become less clear, some point which was once universally accepted is now challenged. Such was the case, for example, when the Church was guided by the Holy Spirit to write the Nicene Creed, a clear expression of many of the central teachings of Catholic and indeed of all Christian faiths: that is, this creed was composed in response to Arius' challenging of Christ's true divinity. Similarly did the doctrines concerning our Lady arise from various challenges to these points of Tradition, as, for example, doctrine that she is the "Mother of God" (or Theotokos) arose from the need to defend the Faith against Nestorius' heresy. Shea himself speculates that "If the Virgin Birth were the only issue involving Mary that had ever been attacked in the long history of assaults on the gospel of Jesus Christ, then it might well be possible there would be no other Marian doctrines."

Since, as Cardinal De Lubac notes, Mary points beyond herself toward the Church and ultimately to her Son, Our Lord, such attacks on Mary are ultimately also attacks on the Church and on Christ. Shea writes, "Curiously, every time you look at [Mary], you find you are actually looking at someone or something else." Thus an attack on the doctrine of her assumption into heaven is really ultimately an attack on the Church's infallible Magisterium, and questions about whether we should pray to Mary or whether we worship her are really questions about whether we should pray to any of the saints and whether we worship Christ as we should. Every attack on Mary ultimately becomes an attack against the Church and (finally) against Christ Himself. This is most obviously true regarding the Virgin Birth: "Certainly it wasn't an attack on Mary...And the Church's defense of the Virgin Birth isn't about Mary either. It's about defending the faith from attacks on Christ and on the integrity of his gospel." Neither, then, do attacks on the other Marian doctrines ultimately point only to Mary, who never ultimately points to herself. Rather, they are attacks against the authority, the infallible guidance, of the Church to teach and therefore to bear witness. But the Church herself bears witness to Christ, to God, and ultimately only to Him--thus these assaults against the Marian doctrines are ultimately assaults against Christ and against God*, whether intentional or not. They are, however, the subject of the second volume of Mark Shea's Mary, Mother of the Son trilogy: First Guardian of the Faith.

* For the sake of clarity, it is worth noting that there are those who merely reject the doctrines discussed, and then there are those who launch an assault against them. The former have weighed the evidence and made a judgment call against this or that Marian doctrine--an erroneous judgment, I believe, but nothing worse is intended by it--whereas the latter may or may not bother with evidence. These have ulterior motives, for they attack the doctrines not only as a means of attacking Mary but also of attacking the Church, or of attacking Christ and thus God.

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