Another “Evangelical Mary”, Compliments of First Things

(Remnant News Watch January 31, 2010)

Mark Alessio

George Weigel, signatory to

"Do Whatever He Tells You:"
(Posted 1/19/10
A recent “reading of the story of Jesus' birth to my girls reminded me of why the statement about Mary by Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) is so important,” writes Dale M. Coulter in the Free Lance-Star of Fredericksburg, Virginia (Dec. 20, 2009):

As I read the story I found myself skipping or reinterpreting entire paragraphs. The author was so concerned about politicizing against the "Catholic" view of Mary that he had distorted much of the biblical account (not to mention the misconceptions about Catholicism). At one point, the challenge of reinterpretation proved too great, and I simply reverted to the original text in Luke.

Unfortunately, this perspective remains more common than we realize, and the fact that it appeared in a children's Bible is cause for even greater concern. It is the hope of ECT members that our common statement about Mary ("Do Whatever He Tells You: The Blessed Virgin Mary in Christian Faith and Life") can make a small contribution toward reducing the misconceptions and worries that fuel such polemics.

Mr. Coulter, an associate professor of historical theology at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Virginia, is a participant in the “Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT)” group. “Disagreements over Mary stem from how to distinguish veneration from proper worship, which is due to God alone,” says Mr. Coulter. “Evangelicals remain concerned about blurring veneration and worship, especially when prayers, which have been a traditional expression of worship, are addressed to Mary.

Comment: The ECT document, "Do Whatever He Tells You: The Blessed Virgin Mary in Christian Faith and Life," which was published in the Nov. 1, 2009 issue of First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, states that: “Our purpose in the present statement is not to resolve all the familiar differences on this subject, although we address such differences. Our purpose, rather, is to examine anew, as Evangelicals and Catholics together, the place of Mary in Christian faith and life.”

The document begins by examining the apparent (and this is a crucial distinction) points of convergence between Catholic and Protestants regarding the Blessed Virgin: “Since the days of the apostles, faithful Christians have understood Mary to be the virgin mother of Jesus” …. “We are agreed that it is appropriate and indeed necessary, to call Mary Theotokos—the God-Bearer” …. “When from the cross the dying Lord told John to see in Mary his mother and told Mary to see in John her son, we may understand that, symbolically speaking, John represents all the disciples through the ages who will love and honor Mary as the blessed mother of their brother and their Lord” …. “Mary participates in the suffering of her son, as indeed all Christians are called to do.”

These statements sound nice. However, in a section entitled, “An Evangelical word to Catholics,” it becomes clear that these so-called “matters on which we can speak together” are, in fact, only apparently so. It is one thing to say that Mary was in need of redemption; it is another to deny her Immaculate Conception, whereby she was redeemed by Christ, but in a unique manner befitting her role of Theotokos. It is one thing to say that Mary participated in the suffering of her Divine Son; it is quite another to lump her unique “Com-Passion” before the Cross with the manner in which we are all called to unite our sufferings to those of Jesus. It is one thing to speak of disciples throughout the centuries who regard Mary as a Spiritual Mother; it is another to deny her role as Mediatrix of All Graces.

The simple fact is, even on points of apparent convergence, Catholics and Protestants do not share the same beliefs about the Mother of God. Catholic theology is a carefully studied, inspired whole that unites Marian doctrine seamlessly and inseparably with both Christology and Ecclesiology. However, even more ecumenically-minded Protestants continue to labor under the foolish misconception that the Catholic Church has built an artificial cult (in the modern sense of the word) about the Virgin Mary by piecing together bits of Scripture, Apocrypha, legend and cultural philosophies.

To put it bluntly: Protestant “problems” with the other of God stem ultimately from the fact of Protestantism’s raison d’être as an artificial system created to challenge Catholicism. When it comes to the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, for instance, the Protestant contributors of the ETC’s “Do Whatever He Tells You: The Blessed Virgin Mary in Christian Faith and Life" must adopt the “cafeteria” mentality, picking and choosing only those statements that appear to support their arguments. Thus, they quote Sts. Augustine, Bernard of Clairvaux and Thomas Aquinas as voices opposed to the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception. Can such a pick-and-choose approach be valid?

For the record, St. Augustine’s insistence on the universality of sin was not a swipe at Mary’s sinlessness. It was a response to Pelagius, who denied Original Sin. In fact, Augustine wrote the famous words:

Now with the exception of the holy Virgin Mary in regard to whom, out of respect for the Lord, I do not propose to have a single question raised on the subject of sin – after all, how do we know what greater degree of grace for a complete victory over sin was conferred on her who merited to conceive and bring forth Him who all admit was without sin – to repeat then: with the exception of this Virgin, if we could bring together into one place all those holy men and women, while they lived here, and ask them whether they were without sin, what are we to suppose that they would have replied?" (On Nature and Grace, or De natura et gratia, Migne PL 44:267)

Also for the record, St. Bernard objected principally to the Feast of the Conception of Mary having been introduced at the Cathedral of Lyons without permission from the Holy See. Considering the then-current belief in the “active” (formation of the body) conception versus “passive” (infusion of the soul) conception, Bernard was within his rights to question the move by the canons of Lyons.

Catholic theologians distinguish three stages in the Church’s proclamation of dogma: (1) implicit acceptance, (2) discussion and controversy, and (3) reception by the Universal Church, or solemn definition. Thus, a doctrine travels a natural route from general belief, to theological discussion, to universal acceptance. This process forms a harmonious and organic whole comprising the laity, clergy and theologians. It is the clearest proof that the Holy Ghost is truly active in His Church, constantly illuminating and bestowing spiritual gifts upon His people. It makes of Scripture, not an old book of familiar quotations, but an anchor, a truly Living Word of God.

From its inception, Protestantism jettisoned its anchor, adopting a free-for-all mentality that allows anyone with enough money to rent either a vacant storefront, or Madison Square Garden, to open a Church and begin pontificating on the meaning of Scripture.

There is a very telling section in the ECT document. The Protestant contributors state, “Evangelicals also claim continuity with the doctrinal development of biblical teaching in the early Church, but the notion of development itself, along with the necessary refutation of error, implies that the Church can be, and sometimes has been, mistaken and misled about important matters of faith.” They then add, “Jesus did not guarantee the infallibility of ecclesiastical pronouncements.”

Therein lies the source of Protestant confusion. While the Holy Ghost may arrange matters so that certain doctrines are worthy of study and debate before they are declared de fide, it is a given that, eventually, the God of Truth will set His seal on the truth. The Church may not officially define a certain doctrine, but she will not teach error. To admit that is to call Christ a liar: “But the Paraclete, the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring all things to your mind, whatsoever I shall have said to you.”

Yes, Jesus did guarantee the infallibility of ecclesiastical pronouncements, insofar as they pertain to sound doctrine. St. Paul described the Church as “the pillar and ground of truth.” If the Church can not definitively teach doctrine, then spiritual chaos ensues and we must change the text of Isaias from “The people that walked in darkness, have seen a great light” to The people that walked in darkness, have … well, maybe seen a light, or maybe not.”

"Do Whatever He Tells You: The Blessed Virgin Mary in Christian Faith and Life” is replete with Protestant rejections of, or doubts concerning, the Immaculate Conception, the Assumption, the Perpetual Virginity, Mary’s role as Mediatrix, etc. Although there is a “Catholic Word to Evangelicals” section, that begins with the statement, “We believe that Catholic teaching with respect to the Blessed Virgin Mary safeguards the fullness of revelation and deepens our understanding of God’s plan of salvation,” the entire document comes across as schizophrenic. One side says, “We believe this.” The other side says, “We know you do, but WE don’t.” Both respond, “Good, let’s keep talking.”

Near the end of the document, both sides admit, though in not so many words, that the standstill can only be resolved socially/politically:  “The sanctity of life is a core conviction of Evangelicals and Catholics Together, and we should give more attention to Mary as a model and an encouragement in our efforts to advance the culture of life.” The Blessed Virgin as “pro-life mascot?” That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it gives the Catholic side no license to fail in proclaiming, to all present, Our Lady’s glory, privileges and prerogatives.


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