This Saturday is the Memorial of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and so I thought it was time to finish this blog post and put it up. The picture here is of the Shiant Islands off the West Coast of Scotland. The island on the left is known as Eilean Mhoire, the island of the Virgin Mary.
I really thought that after writing two posts on my thoughts about Catholic teaching on Mary, I had run out of things to say. Not that this isn’t a rich subject, but I was a bit blank, and didn’t really have much of a personal reaction or gut feeling about it. As I explained in a previous post, this was a part of Catholic teaching on which I felt pretty neutral. I was neither for nor against, and in the end, when I decided to become Catholic, I decided to stop sitting on the fence and trust the church’s teaching in this regard.
As far as I can see, the three aspects of Catholic teaching on Mary, which differ from Protestant teaching are:
Mary, by God’s grace, was conceived without sin and kept free from sin all her life. This is the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. I got really confused about this at first because I thought that Immaculate Conception meant that Christ was conceived free from sin and I didn’t have a problem with that bit and so wondered what all the fuss was about.
Mary remained a virgin, even after she gave birth to Christ.
At the end of her life, Mary was taken up into heaven. This is known as the Assumption.
The Bible doesn’t specifically spell out any of these teachings. Part of the problem for Protestants, therefore, is not just the beliefs themselves, but the fact that they derive from church tradition rather than directly from the Bible.
When I began thinking about becoming Catholic, I was quite open to the idea that the Bible is part of a wider church tradition. In fact, after some bad experiences as a result of the way people interpreted the Bible, I welcomed the idea that ancient tradition helps us to correctly interpret and live out Biblical teaching. At the same time, however, I was suspicious of any ‘add-ons’ to the Christianity I had been presented with as a child.
I don’t know what I was hoping for, when I began to investigate Catholic teaching on Mary. Maybe I was a bit wistful. Perhaps I hoped that it would all click and that I would feel as if I had gained an extra mother in heaven.
The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception began to make sense one day when I was out for a walk, turning things over in my mind, and remembered being pregnant and the feeling I had at times of being in total union with my unborn child. Sometimes I held my baby and time seemed to stop as well as the boundaries between one being and another. In the light of my own experience of pregnancy, I could not believe that Mary could have been pregnant with the Son of God and at the same time been bogged down in sin. The two just couldn’t go together.
After I began to think of it in this way, it was easy to accept that Mary was sinless when she was pregnant with Christ. What about the time before then? That wasn’t quite so clear to me, but it also seemed strange that there would be an abrupt change in her life, from sinful to sinless. I’m going to link here again to a blog article by another Protestant convert discussing how he came to accept the Immaculate Conception.
Protestants will object that if Mary was born sinless then she couldn’t have been saved through Christ’s death on the cross. However, when Pope Pius IX proclaimed the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception in 1854, he stressed that it was by God’s grace working through Jesus Christ, The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin. (Pope Pius IX, 1854). Because God is eternal and outside time, Christ’s sacrifice was effective to save Mary from sin, even though her son had not yet been born and died.
If Mary never sinned, does that somehow put her above needing her son’s sacrifice on the cross? Somewhere on the internet (unfortunately I don’t remember where to acknowledge the idea), I read a brilliant explanation of the two meanings of the word saved. You can be saved from drowning by someone who jumps into the water and pulls you out. However, you could also be saved from drowning by someone who pulls you back before you fall into the water. The way in which Mary was saved from sin by her son’s sacrifice, without actually herself committing sin, is more like the second meaning of the word saved.
I think that’s enough for now. I’ll try and write about the other two differences between Protestant and Catholic belief in another article.