As a teen and young man, I remember being hesitant—even fearful—of mentioning to my friends that I was a Catholic. I knew they held a lot of misunderstanding about the Church and what the Church believes about Mary.
By Deacon Frederick Bartels
25 September 2018
Today’s gospel (Lk 8:19-21) is sometimes used by our Protestant brothers and sisters to attack the Church and the Catholic position of giving due veneration and honor to Mary:
The mother of Jesus and his brothers came to him but were unable to join him because of the crowd. He was told, “Your mother and your brothers are standing outside and they wish to see you.” He said to them in reply, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and act on it.”
As the thinking often goes, Protestants use this verse as proof that Jesus is commanding us to place our attention totally and only on him. It’s his way of saying, “Look to me, not to my mother or relatives.” Hence the Protestant angle that Catholics have inappropriately raised Mary to an unbiblically high status.
Of course, Jesus is teaching us in Luke about the importance of hearing the word of God and acting on it. It’s about living in union with Christ who is the fullness of divine revelation and whose human will is totally in union with the will of God the Father. Jesus is teaching us about obedience, discipleship, and love of God’s word. Although the mother of Jesus is mentioned in the passage, Jesus is not giving any teaching about our (or his) relationship with his mother. He’s teaching us that we must make the word of God primary in our lives.
I might point out here that this passage could be incorrectly used as proof that Jesus wants us to place more emphasis on the Bible, since it’s the word of God written down, than on him. But then that would amount to worshipping a book. To interpret the passage in that manner would be an exaggeration, a distortion of the text. It would lead to a false conclusion and incorrect practice.
Our Protestant brothers and sisters sometimes exaggerate and distort the Church’s teaching on the Virgin Mary, which leads to wrong conclusions, misunderstandings, incorrect practices, and deeply ingrained biases.
As a teen and young man, I remember being hesitant—even fearful—of mentioning to my friends that I was a Catholic. All of them were Protestant and I was sure they wouldn’t understand why I was Catholic. They had all kinds of deeply entrenched, wrong ideas about the Church. These wrong ideas included a misunderstanding of the importance, honor and respect the Church places on the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God. I wanted to fit in with my friends rather than being viewed as different, as an outsider. So, I decided to simply not talk about it—a serious mistake I intend never to repeat.
As a permanent deacon and member of the Catholic clergy, I often teach the folks in RCIA—something I’ve been graced to do for many years. At my parish, this group consists of both unbaptized persons and non-Catholic and/or Protestant Christians who are interested in entering into full communion with the Church and receiving the sacraments. Without fail, many of my Protestant brothers and sisters in the group have heard, either from the pulpit or from friends, about how Catholics worship Mary. Some of them disagree with this charge. Others have bought into it and are looking to be convinced of why the Protestant teaching they’ve so often heard over the years is wrong. Many of them continue to struggle with Church teaching on Mary for years after they’ve become fully Catholic, not because the teaching is flawed or unbiblical, but because it’s difficult to overcome many years of Protestant conditioning about Mary.
When I was writing this post, I did a quick Google search. I typed in the words “do catholics worship.” Google, of course, filled in the word “mary” automatically. The search produced 9.5 million results. Many of these search results are in defense of the way Catholics give veneration and honor to Mary as the Mother of God, and give clear support, including biblical evidence, for why it is indeed appropriate to honor the Virgin Mary and cultivate a relationship of love with her. In other words, many of the search results are articles written by Catholic apologists in defense of the beliefs and practices of the Church.
However, many are posts accusing Catholics of giving too much attention to Mary, neglecting to turn solely to Jesus who is the one mediator between God and man (1 Tim 2:5), failing to really read and follow the Bible as the sole rule of faith (the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura), and even accusing Catholics of actually worshiping Mary, which is termed “Mariolatry” and is strictly condemned by the Church.
One of the top results on the first page of my Google search took me to a post written by John MacArthur, titled “Exposing the Heresies of the Catholic Church: Mary Worship.” In his post, Mr. MacArthur cites this passage from Revelation:
And when I heard and saw, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who showed me these things. But he said to me, “Do not do that. I am a fellow servant of yours and of your brethren the prophets and of those who heed the words of this book. Worship God.” (Revelation 22:8-9)
So far so good. It’s true that men are to give worship (in the sense of adoration) to the Tripersonal God alone. Certainly, we’re not to give worship and adoration to creatures, such as men or angels or saints or false gods. That’s idolatry. It’s a sin against the first commandment.
But then Mr. MacArthur makes a false connection between the passage from Revelation and Catholic belief about Mary. He inappropriately equivocates John’s error of giving worship to an angel with the Church’s practice of giving a place of honor and authority to Mary:
The Roman Catholic Church has committed the same error as John, promoting a mere citizen of heaven to an improper place of authority and honor. Despite the overwhelming testimony of Scripture, the Catholic Church has elevated Mary—a self-described servant of the Lord (Luke 1:38)—to the same level as God, if not higher.
Because the Church honors Mary and recognizes a particular level of authority in her (as the mother of Christ), the Church is raising her “to the same level as God, if not higher”? Wow. That’s a leap.
Immediately we should notice the error of exaggeration in Mr. MacArthur’s reasoning. He’s committing an error in logic called “false equivalency.” Elevating a person to a place of honor and authority or showing respect and giving veneration to a person is NOT the same thing as giving the person the worship (in the sense of adoration) due to God alone. The fact is, the Church has not committed the same error as John—not at all.
Catholics do not worship and adore Mary in place of God or alongside God as if she is divine.
If we buy into Mr. MacArthur’s false logic, then every American is guilty of elevating people to the same level as God. That means we’re all idolaters. Why? Here’s why:
We regularly elevate people in status, give them positions of authority and show them their due honor and respect. It’s integral to human nature to do so. I certainly honor and respect my biological mother in a special way, over and above other people. The president of the U.S. is given a place of honor and shown an appropriate level of respect by the citizens of our nation. Judges who sit on court benches are addressed as “Your Honor.” We address superiors as “Sir.” We attach titles—for good reason—to those members of our society who have attained them. We refer to people with a P.h.D. as “doctor.” Catholics address me as “deacon.” I address the pastor of my parish as “Father.” We call senators “senator.” It is really quite silly to suggest that elevating a person to a level of high status and/or authority and giving him his just due of respect is somehow equivalent to worshipping him as if he were God.
Citing Pope Pius IX’s Ineffabilis Deus, which speaks highly of the Virgin Mary and emphasizes her intercessory role before the faithful, as well as her participatory role in Christ’s mission of redemption and salvation (after all, Mary did give birth to the Savior, as one example of her unique participatory role in salvation), Mr. MacArthur again writes in a highly exaggerated manner:
Those words are echoed and expanded on throughout Roman Catholic history. Tradition dictates that Mary is part of the monarchy of heaven, soliciting grace and mercy from the Lord on behalf of sinners, and covering sin by distributing from her Treasury of Merit. She became a co-redeemer with Christ in His suffering on the cross, and is now a co-mediator alongside Him in heaven—essentially an alternative avenue of access to God. She replaces the Holy Spirit in bestowing aid and comfort to believers. In effect, she becomes an additional member of the Trinity.
There are so many errors in this one paragraph that it’s impossible for me to adequately address them here. Nevertheless, I’ll take a stab at a few:
1. Mary is involved in “covering sin.” Mary does not cover sin, nor does Christ. Christ forgives sin, heals us of its effects, and sanctifies us by virtue of his divine power, the Paschal Mystery, the communication of his Spirit, and the sacraments of the Church. He does not cover sin over as if to conceal or cloak it. If that were the case, we could never be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect (Mt 5:48) or reside in the realm of heaven where nothing unclean may enter (Rev 21:27). The notion that Christ covers sin negates the power of his saving grace. “Covering sin” was a theological error Martin Luther initiated in the early 16th century during his break from the Church. It continues to this day in some Protestant communities. Finally, Mary does not forgive sin. Only God (Christ) can do that.
2. Mary covers sin by “distributing from her Treasury of Merit.” This presents Mary’s role as if she has access to a special deposit of good works isolated from Christ and acts individually on her own in dispensing it. While it’s true that all the saints in heaven draw from a treasury of merits in the Church, this treasury is founded on the grace and power of Christ himself, who is the head of the Church, and belongs to the good of the Church in common as the one body of Christ. As the Catechism explains:
Since all the faithful form one body, the good of each is communicated to the others. . . . We must therefore believe that there exists a communion of goods in the Church. But the most important member is Christ, since he is the head. . . . Therefore, the riches of Christ are communicated to all the members, through the sacraments. As this Church is governed by one and the same Spirit, all the goods she has received necessarily become a common fund. (CCC 947)
3. Mary is co-redeemer and co-mediator “alongside [Christ] in heaven—essentially an alternative avenue of access to God.” MacArthur has presented this in a way that implies Catholics believe Mary is equal to Christ in offering her own, unique path of salvation or means of communion with God, which is patently false. In simple terms, the concepts of co-redeemer and co-mediator mean that Mary participates in the salvific mission of Christ. Co-redeemer or co-mediator does not mean co-equal. Apart from her Son, Mary does nothing and can do nothing with respect to the salvation of souls. If we think about it, all Christians participate in the salvific mission and ministry of Christ whenever they pray, do penance, and offer blessings for others on behalf of Christ. 1 Tim 2:5 is often quoted to prove that the Church’s view of Mary as participating in the mission of her Son is incorrect. However, 1 Tim 2 begins with St. Paul urging Christians to pray and intercede for others, activities which are themselves a participation in the saving mission of Christ our Lord:
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. 3 This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Tim 2:1-4)
Christ is the one mediator for men before God. However, that does not prevent men from sharing in his role of mediatorship. If we couldn’t share in this role, we could never really be in a personal relationship of intimate communion with Christ. Further, it would mean we have no place in evangelizing others. The mission of the Church in the world would be halted.
4. “[Mary] replaces the Holy Spirit in bestowing aid and comfort to believers. In effect, she becomes an additional member of the Trinity.” That is a gross misrepresentation of what the Church actually teaches which, it seems to me, is difficult to describe in any other way than intentionally deceptive. The Church has never taught in her entire history that Mary is an “additional member of the Trinity” since if that were the case, we would not have a Trinity at all but a “Tetrady.” We would not have, as the Church has preached for twenty centuries, one God who is three divine Persons but one God who is four divine Persons.
Much more can be said. It’s true that Catholics give a place of special honor to the sweet Virgin Mary—and rightly so, given the entirely unique position and level of grace God the Father has himself bestowed upon her in destining her to be the mother of his incarnate Son and therefore bestowing upon her the singular title of Mother of God. By the way, the title Mother of God does not mean Mary preexisted God and gave birth to the divinity of God the Father. On the contrary, it fully expresses Mary’s role in giving birth to the Word made flesh, the Son of God made man.
Catholics honor, respect and venerate Mary as the Mother of God. However, they give worship and adoration due to God to the Tripersonal God alone. Any attempt to elevate what the Church believes about Mary in such a way so as to place her on par with the divinity is a gross distortion of Catholic doctrine. We make the distinctions between worship and adoration given to God, and the honor and respect given to Mary and the other saints in a simple threefold manner:
1. Catholics give to God the worship and adoration termed Latria, a Greek term articulating an essential difference in degree from dulia and hyperdulia.
2. Catholics give to the saints the honor, respect and veneration termed Dulia, which is essentially different and reduced in degree from the adoration given to God termed latria.
3. Catholics give to the Virgin Mary a special degree of honor, respect and veneration termed Hyperdulia, which is a veneration elevated above the other saints but less in degree than the adoration of latria that is given in worship to God alone.
Let me leave you with this one final quote from the Catechism, which addresses the role of Mary as the spiritual mother of the faithful, her power of intercession, and her participatory role in the mission of salvation in subordination to her Son, the Redeemer of Humankind:
Mary’s function as mother of men in no way obscures or diminishes this unique mediation of Christ, but rather shows its power. But the Blessed Virgin’s salutary influence on men . . . flows forth from the superabundance of the merits of Christ, rests on his mediation, depends entirely on it, and draws all its power from it. No creature could ever be counted along with the Incarnate Word and Redeemer; but just as the priesthood of Christ is shared in various ways both by his ministers and the faithful, and as the one goodness of God is radiated in different ways among his creatures, so also the unique mediation of the Redeemer does not exclude but rather gives rise to a manifold cooperation which is but a sharing in this one source. (CCC 970)
There really is no reason for this misunderstanding among Protestants regarding the Church’s belief about Mary and her role in the scope of salvation to persist, other than as a result of prejudice, arrogance and/or ignorance.
The Catechism is clear in its teaching: Catholics do not worship Mary. We worship Christ. Catholics are thoroughly and solidly Christian, as they always have been since Christ first called the apostles to himself and founded his one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church on St. Peter, the First Bishop of Rome and leader of the apostles (see Mt 16:17-19).
Photo Credit: Alice Havers [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel.