Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Catholic Mariology, Authority, & Other Qualms of Potential Protestant Converts

[Derived from actual correspondence with one such person (without violating any confidences): hence the use of first-person address]

If you consider yourselves actually out of the Protestant position, then I will simply have to help persuade you of the Catholic one, so you can get out of this limbo. I know you are the type of people who want to be really sure of what you believe. That's good, and I admire it. I advise folks in this position to take their time and not rush into anything. But at the same time, of course I want to help you feel totally comfortable with the Catholic outlook. If you're anything like me, you hate being uncertain and unsure. It's no fun.

My wife (who grew up Catholic) wasn't really "against" the Catholic Church. She came into Protestantism mainly because there was good fellowship to be had, and the local Assemblies of God church was where "things were happening." A sad commentary . . . I'm glad she did, otherwise we may never have met. I still remember the day that the lovely young girl with the "sad" but beautiful big "French" eyes visited our singles group. She jokes about how three or four guys that night cornered her and started running down the Catholic Church and acted most rude and obnoxious, but I didn't do that at all, and showed her my fall color photographs. :-)

I used to be in Inter-Varsity, and I was a campus missionary in the late 80s (independently; out of my church). That all collapsed and was an abysmal "failure." I was sort of in a place where you are at: not knowing what was in the future for me. My dreams had collapsed and it made no sense. I didn't want to do anything except apologetics and evangelism. That was my calling. But here I am, 15 years later, with published books, and a full-time apologist! God works in mysterious ways. If someone had told me in 1986 that I would be a Catholic apologist and author I would have taken them straight to an insane asylum, to make sure they were committed. :-)

I always advise potential converts that the road to the Church is not undertaken with Protestant methods. One doesn't "figure everything out" one-by-one and then make the leap. That is the Protestant method, and it is very ingrained (I know, firsthand). When you become a Catholic, at some point you simply accept the Church's authority because it is an entity far far greater than yourself. You may not understand everything, but who does, anyway?

What you come to see is that this is the Church and authority structure -- with all its human foibles and terrible, scandalous shortcomings in practice -- that was ordained by God, and how He intended it to be. The true doctrine and "apostolic deposit" was passed down and it has been known all along. It isn't to be discovered in every generation, or "re-invented" like the wheel. All other knowledge works the same way (science, engineering, mathematics, musical theory, the received outlines of history, legal precedents, etc.), yet when it comes to religion, somehow people think that it is this entirely individualistic and subjective affair. It's very weird when you sit down and analyze it.

Oftentimes, if you ask such people what they think the Catholic Church teaches about Mary, it is clear that they don't understand it. True, millions of Catholics don't, either (the "ignorant" are, unfortunately, always with us, just like the poor), but neither do most Protestants. One must at least know what it is they are rejecting. One major reason why I do apologetics is that I want folks to know WHY they believe WHAT they believe. It builds faith and confidence, and it helps to incorporate reason into faith and theology.

Women approach the prospect of possible conversion in a very slow, deliberate, "holistic," instinctual, more practical way, whereas men tend to be far more abstract and propositional (one might describe the difference as "problem-solving" vs. "life experience and spiritual truths realized on a deep instinctive and emotional level of a whole person" -- though my words are very inadequate to express my thoughts here). I hasten to add that I don't think one method is superior to the other: they are simply different, based on how God made us (if anything, I think the "female way" is the better of the two, if I had to choose). Kimberly Hahn's tape on Mary (which I heard in person) is one of the most incredible, moving talks I have ever heard: I think she is wonderful. On my "Converts Page" I have a separate section for women converts for this reason: their journeys tend to be of a very different nature than mens'.

When I first started thinking seriously about Catholic Mariology, I approached it in a more right-brained, typically "non-male" way than one might expect from me. I had been accustomed to giving Mary great honor, as the greatest woman (and indeed, created person, period) who ever lived. She was awesome to me: the very picture of womanhood and femininity.

When my Catholic friend started explaining to me how Mary was the "New Eve", that fascinated me and resonated in my spirit with my understanding of how God works in other ways. It didn't strike me as "unbiblical" or excessive or "corrupt" at all. The concept is simple: Eve said "no" to God and Mary said "yes." Eve's choice led to the Fall, and Mary's led to the Incarnation and Redemption. She represented the human race (and for once we got it right). God wanted it to be that way. Human beings had fallen based on free choice and God wanted them to be redeemed by a free choice as well (as opposed to being declared saved apart from their free will). But Mary's choice was, of course, steeped in God's grace and entirely derived and enabled by it. She wasn't doing this on her own power, as if she were intrinsically superior to all other creatures.

As I recall, this was the first step of my deepening Mariology. But it wasn't really that big of an issue for me. My issues were infallibility; especially papal infallibility. I thought that was the most absurd and implausible thing ever to cross the mind of man . . .

The very notion that you as an individual have to "make all the Catholic pieces fit into a big puzzle" presupposes the Protestant idea of private judgment. You don't have to. What you have to do is become convinced that the Catholic Church is what it claims to be, and the Guardian of the Apostolic Deposit. Once you get to that point, you can accept all that it teaches as a reasonable, plausible choice, just as we do in all other fields of knowledge. The scientist accepts the laws of thermodynamics or Newton's laws of motion, etc.

The Catholic accepts all that the Catholic Church teaches because he believes that the Church was guided by God to be infallible in matters of faith and morals: in those things which Catholics are bound to believe as dogma. And beyond that, he believes that God desired that His theological and spiritual truth be known with a high degree of certainty: not that people have to search their entire lives to find it. Doesn't that make sense? Doesn't that sound like how God would want things to be, since Christianity has to do with the most important things in life?

It's really not that different from Protestantism's approach to the Bible. They believe that the Bible is inspired and inerrant because God desired it to be so, and because it is His word (thus, could not be otherwise). Men could have corrupted the Bible, BUT for God's protection of it. Sinful men wrote it (David, Paul, Peter), but that didn't stop it from being inerrant and inspired and infallible because God saw to it that it would be so.

And you can't figure out every "problem" of biblical exegesis or hermeneutics or difficult passages. No one can. If every "problem" and seeming contradiction had been resolved, then the Bible scholars would have far less to talk about, wouldn't they? There wouldn't be books like Gleason Archer's Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties. Obviously, if there were no "difficulties" at all, that book wouldn't be written or needed. You may believe that all the difficulties can theoretically be resolved and that there are answers whether we find them or not (as I do), but that is different from actually resolving them and attaining certainty.

Yet Protestants believe the Bible is inspired and inerrant and infallible by faith, based on what they know, and existing strong evidences. They are justified in believing this, and it is rational. It is not blind faith. The Catholic attitude towards their Church is very similar: we accept in faith the notion that God wanted to have one Church represent His doctrine and truth in its fullness (not excluding many elements of truth in other Christian traditions at all). To do so, He had to specially protect it from error (just as He did with the Bible-writers).

The gift or charism of infallibility is a lesser one than inspiration. It is easier to believe that God simply prevented popes from teaching error and falsehood in certain circumstances (a fundamentally preventive measure) than to believe that He positively inspired the words of Bible-writers and caused them to write his very inspired ("God-breathed" - theopneustos) words. Why should one be harder to believe than the other? If one can believe the greater miracle, why not the lesser? It doesn't rest upon weak, fallible men, but upon God Almighty.

This is a roundabout way of saying that one comes to believe that the Church has authority to declare on doctrines and once having done so, the person accepts teachings like those on Mary which may be hard to understand. We acknowledge our own limitations and weaknesses and blind spots and biases. The inquirer into Catholicism and Catholic Mariology can also read stuff like my papers on Mary, which are designed to show that the teachings are not at all unbiblical or anti-biblical (though often not explicitly biblical).

If the doctrines can be shown to be biblically-plausible or at least possible, then much of the battle is won. I find that the more difficult thing to dissuade Protestants of is the more presuppositional idea that everything must be explicitly biblical, and that sola Scriptura (Scripture as the final infallible authority-in-practice over against popes and councils) is true. That's a whole separate discussion, but suffice it to say for now that it is not at all clear in the Bible itself that this is true. If it is true, then it is a truth no more explicit in the Bible (I say, far less so) than Mariology itself. And this gets into questions of logical incoherence and circularity.

None of us have all the answers. At some point we must bow to authority. Every Protestant does this, just as every Catholic does: they simply give authority to different things in different ways. Another huge discussion . . . The Bible itself (even presupposing sola Scriptura, for the sake of argument) certainly talks a lot about both authority and the Church. People differ on what exactly it teaches, but there is something there. Paul discusses tradition quite a bit. And he shows no indication that there is any doubt in his mind as to what is contained in that tradition.

You will have no choice but to follow your conscience, whatever the cost, if it leads you to Catholicism. The good news is that, oftentimes, Protestant friends and family are not as alarmed and offended and horrified by conversion as we think they might be. If we continue to love them and show that we are no different relationship-wise, then they accept it. It may take a little time (especially if they are anti-Catholic), but they'll come around. When I converted, my mother (a lifelong Methodist) somehow thought I would be this different person. I simply told her, "look; I'm the same old me. I won't be any different from the son that you have known all along. I've just moved from one brand of Christianity to another."

Some people may forsake you and think you're weird or whatever. Others may refuse to talk about those issues but otherwise you will get along fine (I have a relationship like that with a very dear Protestant friend of mine, with whom I used to live and work in the 80s -- it is an unspoken agreement to avoid all the controversial issues). But this is no different from what Jesus told us to expect, anyway. He said families would be divided and that discipleship was costly. If other people can't accept our choices made under God, in conscience and faith, with the use of reason and study and bathed with prayer, then in the end that is their problem. It may be difficult and painful and hurtful, for sure, but no one ever promised that following Jesus was a bed of roses.

But it is not as hard as you think it will be. Trust me on this. God has brought you to this place to be a witness. It will be exciting, I am convinced, and you will be happy to be able to share what you have learned, after the initial (quite understandable and justified) fears that you are going through now. You are in the place you are in because God ordained it so, as He ordains all things, in His Providence. He will give you words to speak when the time comes to share your faith and your new discoveries. And it will be some of the most spiritually-fulfilling times you have ever had. I hope I am not being presumptuous. I'm trying to encourage you. Having gone through the "tunnel" and emerged out of it, I can see the light at the end of it, whereas you cannot right now because you are in the tunnel.

It is a good to want to be very sure and confident about Catholic teaching and especially the biblical rationale for them, for the sake of explaining to Protestat friends after conversion. I wholeheartedly agree with that. As with all apologetics, you shouldn't feel that you have to have a quick answer at all times. You don't. I don't. Nobody does. You can always say that you need to study so-and-so and get back to them. No one has all the answers -- let alone quickly, on the spot. This is good, though, because it shows people that you are:

1) honest;

2) not proud or arrogant and claiming to know everything, but humble, with an admission of your own limitations;

3) fully aware that such journeys (including your own) are not all based on reason and apologetics in the first place, but on God's grace, which often goes beyond words and quick responses.

To begin to give an answer with regard to Mariology, one way is to argue that more fully-developed Mariology is not inconsistent with biblical analogies. In other words, if a Protestant is objecting to the very notions as "unbiblical," then if you can show them that directly analogous notions are quite biblical, then the Mariological ones must be, too. Therefore, they are not excessive, because they flow from explicitly biblical modes of thought, at least. It's a bit subtle, but I have come to love this form of analogical argument. That comes right from Cardinal Newman: my "hero." In this vein, see my paper (dialogue with a fairly well-known and solid Protestant apologist, Robert Bowman, who does a lot of great work): Dialogue on the Biblical Analogies to the Concept of Mary Mediatrix.

The notion of Mary as a mediatrix of all graces is a very difficult one for most Protestants to even grasp, let alone accept. I think it was based on centuries of reflection by very holy and wise Christians, of what it means to be the Theotokos and Immaculate. It comes (arguably it developed from) the idea of the New Eve. We know that in Adam, all men fell. The devil caused that, but we participated as a human race in rebellion against God; we are one entity: the human race; God's creatures, so we could all fall "in Adam" as the Scripture says (this is explicit teaching in the Bible).

So when we get to the "yes" of Eve and the historical beginning of the redemption of the human race and Christ's work for us, we see that, again, God chose to involve a human being. He could have simply said (bypassing the Incarnation and the Cross) "this group of people are saved, and these are not" -- based on simply His election with no ultimate regard for human choices or based on some "middle knowledge" (scientia media)whereby He incorporates what He knows of how people will follow Him or not (as a function of His omniscience).

He could have chosen to not become a man. God could have done anything He wanted to do. But He chose to be born of a woman and to involve the human race in its own redemption, in order to "undo" the Fall. Once the Incarnation was God's choice, then Mary became "necessary" as a human being, to make it possible. Her very body was intimately connected with God Incarnate. It is a mystery and a beautiful truth of almost unspeakable majesty and glory and wonder.

So God involved Mary: a human being, in that. I would argue, then, that if God could do all that: then why is it implausible that He could choose to use Mary as an intercessory vessel in His plan of redemption and cause all grace to originate from Himself (of course; by definition) but to merely flow through her? He had already involved her in the Incarnation, by means of the Annunciation. The human race was already raised to extraordinary heights by God becoming Man. So why not go one step further and give Mary this awesome responsibility of being a vessel through which all grace can flow?

The amazing thing is that God would use human beings like that (by extension, any of us) at all. But He chose to do so. And if Mary can be Theotokos and if all of us can potentially be vessels of grace (like a pipe serves to bring water: having no intrinsic relation to the water and not "producing" it at all), how is it implausible for her to be chosen by God to participate in His redemptive plan as an entirely secondary, not intrinsically necessary agent?

This is typically how God works: for example, consider procreation (note the very word). We don't create another human soul as parents. Yet without us (as secondary, contributing causes), these souls do not come into being, because we provide the genetic matter and the physical element which along with the soul makes a human being. God actually lets us participate in the "creation" of a human being and an eternal soul. He wants to involve people. Catholic Mariology starts with this assumption: that Mary had a sublime place in the redemptive plan of God and was the person He wanted to use in the most extraordinary fashion. It fits with how He works in many other areas.

Upon reflection, then, this is seen to be not at all contrary to biblical teaching or what we know about God. It is not explicit, but there can be no prima facie objection to it from the Bible. A sola Scriptura position will disallow it from the outset, but if that objection can be overcome on other grounds, then it is quite worthy of belief. I would recommend reading these two papers in this order:

The Imitation of Mary
A Biblical and Theological Primer on Mary Mediatrix

Many Protestants have a real hard time with the repetition in the Rosary, and what they see as an extreme over-emphasis on Mary, But repetition itself is not at all unbiblical. In Psalm 136, e.g., the same exact phrase is repeated for 26 straight verses. See my paper: A Fictional Dialogue on "Vain Repetition," the Mass, and the Liturgy.

One must understand the functional purpose of the repetitive prayers of the Rosary. They serve as a sort of "rhythm" or "background" of the meditations, just as music serves as the "carrier" of the lyrics, in hymns or even classical and secular music. It is a (rather ingenious) way to concentrate the mind on the spiritual things at hand: "Hail Mary, full of grace" . . . Repetition itself is not a bad thing. Protestants often have pet phrases and things repeated over and over ("praise God," "hallelujah," "thank you Jesus," "glory to God," etc.). The repetition is not implying a superiority of Mary to Jesus at all: it is simply a technique to foster the meditation: which itself is mostly centered on Jesus. And most of the Hail Mary is right in the Bible, as you know, so it is simply repeating (mostly) a Bible passage. In that sense, it is little different from Psalm 136 and many other such repetitious passages.

Many Protestants feel that the form prayers of Catholics are too formulaic and dry and uttered without feeling or passion. But this is often merely an example of personal bias. I understand this because I was extremely "un-liturgical" as a Protestant, and couldn't relate to that at all. I was a "Jesus Freak" who spent most of my time worshiping God in free-form, spontaneous worship services (often with rock music). I didn't like liturgy. It bored me and didn't move my spirit at all. Yet I now attend Latin Mass and absolutely love it. This form concentrates my mind and spirit on worship (along with our gorgeous German Gothic church) far more than the spontaneous worship ever did (though I continue to like that form, too: another case of "both/and" --not "either/or").

Besides, serving God is not always about "feeling." I would hope that all Christians feel things, and deeply, but sometimes we have to do stuff that we don't particularly feel. It's true that Catholic prayers (in the heart of those uttering them) can become stale and sort of "dull", but that is not intrinsic to the prayers themselves, and has more to do with the internal dispositions of the person. Obviously, we could not oppose formula per se because that would take out the Bible as well. Protestant "chanting" of verses like John 3:16 could very well come under the same criticism. In other words, it is a general human failing, not a particularly Catholic one. A paper which deals with a similar issue would be the following: Sacramentalism and Inner Disposition. 


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