This Sunday, the Roman Catholic Church recognizes the Assumption of Mary into heaven. There are four Roman Catholic dogmas related to Mary: Mother of God, Immaculate Conception, perpetual virginity, and the Assumption. How do Ecumenical Catholics relate to these teachings?
The ECC finds its roots in the Old Catholic movement in Europe, which began in the Netherlands in the 17th Century and gained tremendous momentum in the 19th in the wake of Vatican I. At that council, Papal Infallibility was affirmed as was the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. Both of these positions were rejected by a number of European bishops who then allied themselves with the See of Utrecht.
It’s important to recognize, however, that the teaching on Mary at Vatican I had been under discussion among the world’s bishops since the 1840s. This belief was widely held, as was belief in the Assumption of Mary (dogmatically affirmed in 1950) by the faithful, and both were overwhelmingly part of popular piety. When they were recognized as dogmas, it was done not as an out of left field pronouncement but something more akin to the affirmation of the faithful.
Devotions to Mary have been kept among the Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican traditions for centuries. However, most Protestants do not accept them, because they are not recorded in the Bible.
Contrary to what many Protestants think, Catholics do not believe that devotion to the Virgin Mary is worship, which is reserved for God. Rather, the Catholic and Orthodox traditions view Mary as subordinate to Christ, but uniquely so, in that she is seen as above all other creatures. In 787 the Second Council of Nicaea affirmed a three-level hierarchy of latria, hyperdulia and dulia that applies to God, the Virgin Mary and then to the other saints.
The earliest recorded prayer to the Virgin was dated between the 3rd and 4th century: “Beneath Thy Protection” (Greek: Ὑπὸ τὴν σὴν εὐσπλαγχνίαν; Latin: Sub tuum praesidium), a Christian hymn. It is the oldest preserved extant hymn to the Blessed Virgin Mary as Theotokos (the God Bearer). This hymn is used in the Coptic liturgy to this day, as well as in the Armenian, Byzantine, Ambrosian, and Roman Rite liturgies. It was part of Sulpician custom that all classes ended with a recitation of this prayer. In addition to the Greek text, ancient versions can be found in Coptic, Syriac, Armenian and Latin.
Prominent among devotions to the Virgin Mary is the Holy Rosary. According to pious tradition, the concept of the rosary was given to Saint Dominic in an apparition of the Virgin Mary during the year 1214 in the church of Prouille, though in fact it was known from the ninth century in various forms. This Marian apparition received the title of Our Lady of the Rosary. In the 15th century it was promoted by Alanus de Rupe (aka Alain de la Roche or Blessed Alan of the Rock), a Dominican priest and theologian, who established the “fifteen rosary promises” and started many rosary confraternities.
One of the forces that encouraged the spread of the rosary during the 19th century among Catholics was the influence of the “Rosary Pope,” a title given to Leo XIII (1878–1903) because he issued a record twelve encyclicals and five Apostolic Letters concerning the rosary, instituted the Catholic custom of daily rosary prayer during the month of October and, during 1883, added the invocation Queen of the most Holy Rosary to the Litany of Loreto.
Leo XIII explained the importance of the rosary as the one road to God from the faithful to the mother and from her to Christ and through Christ to the Father, and that the rosary was a vital means to participate with the life of Mary and to find the way to Christ. This emphasis on the path through Mary to Christ has since been a key direction in Catholic Mariology.
Rosary as a family prayer was endorsed by Pope Pius XII in his encyclical Ingruentium malorum: “The custom of the family praying of the Holy Rosary is a most efficacious means.” Pope Paul VI began his Apostolic Exhortation Marialis Cultus saying, “From the moment when we were called to the See of Peter, we have constantly striven to enhance devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary.”
In Rosarium Virginis Mariae, Pope John Paul II emphasized the importance of Marian devotions: “Since Mary is of all creatures the one most conformed to Jesus Christ, it follows that among all devotions that which most consecrates and conforms a soul to our Lord is devotion to Mary.”
While reformers such as Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli, and John Calvin at different points in their writings had expressed what seem to be examples of a residual Catholic Marian piety, the Protestant emphasis on sola scriptura, solus Christus, soli Deo gloria, among others kept the honoring of Mary to a minimum. Martin Luther said of Mary:
“The honor given to the mother of God has been rooted so deeply into the hearts of men that no one wants to hear any opposition to this celebration… We also grant that she should be honored, since we, according to Saint Paul’s words [Romans 12] are indebted to show honor one to another for the sake of the One who dwells in us, Jesus Christ. Therefore we have an obligation to honor Mary. But be careful to give her honor that is fitting. Unfortunately, I worry that we give her all too high an honor for she is accorded much more esteem than she should be given or than she accounted to herself.”
Calvin expressed deep concern over its possible “superstitious” use of the title “Mother of God” from the teachings of the Council of Ephesus : Mary cannot be the advocate of the faithful, since she needs God’s grace as much as any other human being. If the Catholic Church praises her as Queen of Heaven, it is blasphemous and contradicts her own intention, because she is praised and not God.
Karl Barth (1886–1968), a Reformed Protestant, was a leading 20th century theologian. Aware of the common dogmatic tradition of the early Church, Barth fully accepted the dogma of Mary as the Mother of God. But regarding Mary’s virginity after birth, Barth argued that the Church adopted this position not because of Mary but in defense of its Christology. Barth considered the Roman Catholic veneration of Mary a terrible mistake and idolatrous heresy.
The Bible makes no provision about “worship,” “veneration” or “devotion” to Mary except to God alone. There is nothing wrong with respecting those faithful Christians who have gone before us (see Hebrews chapter 11). There is nothing wrong with honoring Mary as the earthly mother of Jesus. The Bible describes Mary as “highly favored” by God (Luke 1:28). At the same time, there is no instruction in the Bible to venerate or make devotions to her and such they are not obligatory.
The teachings on Mary remain a significant point of separation between Roman Catholics and other groups, particularly the Lutherans and Old Catholics. As part of the latter stream, we would recognize the beauty of the legacy of faith surrounding Mary, but would hold it as pious opinion, not dogma. Still, we will use the readings of this Sunday to explore our relationship with Mary this Sabbath, as they are only occasionally part of our lectionary. I’m sure the conversation will be rich. Fr. Brian Ashmankas will be breaking open the word and concelebrating.
And, I extend thanks to our sister Independent Catholic Church, the Old Catholic Apostolic Church of Nigeria, for some of the content here.
In gratitude for who you are in the world,