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Catholicism puts great emphasis on the importance on the Mary, the Mother of God. It honors her and insists upon her perpetual sinlessness and perpetual virginity. And in my observation, it seems as though this high opinion of and devotion to Mary is integral to Catholicism.

This is very much in contrast to Protestant traditions which insist that Christ is of sole importance. In the loosely-quoted words of many-a-Protestants:

Why wouldn't a Christian's devotion be to Christ alone? Why set up intermediaries where none are needed? And why contort Mary's role as having any more significance than Christ's physical, human mother? Doesn't that smell like idolatry to you!?

So, why is she so important in and seemingly integral to Catholicism? Is there theological, symbolic, or spiritual significance?

Do they just assume if they can convince Mary to pray for them, Jesus has to listen because she's His mom? (Lest he be put on a heavenly time-out?)

For the sake of Christian unity or otherwise, why can't the Catholic Church just drop the Marian devotion?


Addendum/Clarification: Is the theology and practice surrounding Mary roughly as integral to Catholicism as the doctrine and meditation of the Holy Trinity? Eliminating the doctrine of the Trinity would fundamentally change the Catholic understanding of God. Would eliminating Mary also change the Catholic understanding of God?

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Probably part of their reason is the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception (christianity.stackexchange.com/questions/14657/…), which they (I think mistakenly) require in order for Jesus Himself to be sinless. Apparently, being conceived by the Holy Spirit isn't enough to ensure that Jesus Christ didn't inherit Adam's sinful nature, but His mother must be sinless as well. The problem, of course, is that there's no place to stop. –  Adrian Keister Jul 25 '13 at 17:23
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@svidgen essentially, if Mary is sinless, than her parents must have been sinless and then their parents must be sinless. –  wax eagle Jul 25 '13 at 17:32
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Relevant: anglicancommunion.org/ministry/ecumenical/dialogues/catholic/… Mary: Grace and hope in Christ is the agreed statement on Mary from the Anglican and Catholic communions. –  Andrew Leach Jul 26 '13 at 8:27
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@Dan See my addendum to the question. –  svidgen Jul 29 '13 at 15:37
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@AdrianKeister Could you provide some evidence for the statement that Catholics require the Immaculate Conception of Mary "in order for Jesus Christ Himself to be sinless"? I don't recall seeing that in any official Catholic document. My understanding of Catholic doctrine is that Mary's privilege of complete freedom from original sin is based on the foreseen merits of Christ, in particular His passion and death. So the Immaculate Conception would not be a prerequisite for Christ's sinlessness but a consequence. –  Andreas Blass Jul 31 '13 at 5:36

8 Answers 8

There are many reasons why Catholics practice Marian devotion. One reason, given by Catholic Pam Brink, is that “If I ignore Mary, I am being disrespectful to Jesus”. Catholic apologist David MacDonald makes the same argument in Why do Catholics pray to Mary?: Is it not disrespectful to someone not to honour his mother?

Another reason David gives is that, like fellow believers on earth, the saints in heaven (especially Jesus' mother) pray for us. Protestants often ask saints on earth to pray for them, even though it is not ‘necessary’. Similarly, Catholics don't hesitate to ask the saints in heaven for intercession.

More to your point, it is true that Catholics sometimes modify their Marian devotion in the presence of Protestants in order not to cause offence (see Romans 14). However, liike many Christians, Catholics don't feel that they need to avoid something they consider spiritually beneficial to avoid offending others—particularly since Catholics consider their church to be the true Church, and their faith to be the true faith. From their point of view, the question is similar to: should Trinitarian Christians avoid worshipping Jesus to promote unity with Jehovah Witnesses?

Catholics are maximalists, not minimalists. For them, a life of faith that does not include devotion to Mary and to the saints would be missing something beneficial for the Christian. True, such acts may not be strictly necessary for salvation, but like many Christians, Catholics don't believe people should do ‘just enough to get by’; they tend to believe that the more beneficial things done, the better. Fasting? taking monastic vows? These things are not required for salvation, but still spiritually beneficial, and while there may be very particular points of time when not practicing Marian devotion may be expedient, it is not good enough reason for Catholics as a whole to abandon the practice.

Edit: All this assumes, of course that paying Mary respect does not detract from the respect given to God. Protestants tend to see honour as a zero-sum game: the more honour paid to Mary, the less paid to God. The Catholic does not see honour in these terms: honour paid to Mary is not detracting from honour given to God, but rather amplifies it; Jesus is glorified when his mother is honoured. Analogously, glory given to God the Father is not lessened when glory is given to Jesus. Of course, honour due to Mary is of a qualitatively different type than that due Jesus, even in Catholic theology, and there is a line that must not be crossed. Nevertheless, while some Protestants feel uncomfortable about paying any respect to Mary, Catholics only place the line at giving Mary divine adoration.


Disclaimer: In linking to any site, I do not necessarily subscribe to any or all of the author’s opinions.

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So, by the reasons highlighted here, if the Marian devotion were quietly removed from Catholicism, would Catholicism be spiritually or theologically deficient? –  svidgen Jul 25 '13 at 20:38
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Yes, it would be missing features that, while not ‘necessary for salvation’, are (in Catholic theology) beneficial. Like many Christians, Catholics don't believe people should do ‘just enough to get by’; they tend to believe that the more beneficial things done, the better. Fasting? taking monastic vows? These things are not required for salvation, but spiritually beneficial. –  John Peyton Jul 25 '13 at 20:58
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Reluctantly downvoting this answer -- it provides an excellent rhetorical defense of Marian devotion as well as a good basic clarification of how Catholics are devoted to Mary. But it doesn't really touch on the theological aspect of the original question. My sense is that the historical mainstream of Catholic opinion has always held that a proper understanding of Mary is both logically and practically necessary for orthodox Christian belief -- which I think is a much stronger claim than @JohnPeyton has made here. –  Ben Dunlap Aug 8 '13 at 14:03
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It’s true that a proper understanding of Mary is considered necessary for orthodox Christian belief, if only because it is directly relevant to Christology. (For example, calling Mary the "Mother of God" was deemed necessary by the Council of Ephesus, because if that weren't the case, that would mean either that Christ is not God or that the divinity and humanity of Christ are seperable.) The key word here, however, is devotion: the question is, why don't Catholics just drop the devotion? I think the evidence points to the maximalism issue described, rather than clear theological reasons. –  John Peyton Aug 10 '13 at 21:24
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@JohnPeyton Sure but understanding and devotion are tightly linked. A proper understanding of Mary leads naturally to Marian devotion. Conversely traditional devotion informs understanding: Lex orandi, lex credendi. Without devotion to Mary, the right understanding of the Incarnation (i.e,. orthodox Christian faith) withers -- see the quotation from Cardinal Newman in my answer. –  Ben Dunlap Aug 12 '13 at 15:46

Theologically and historically the veneration of Mary is inseparably linked to an orthodox understanding of the Incarnation. The Council of Ephesus affirmed St. Cyril's defense of the earlier fathers' use of the term Mother of God -- in St. Cyril's account this is an important part of avoiding "the fallacy of speaking of two sons":

The Word's becoming flesh means nothing else than that he partook of flesh and blood like us; he made our body his own, and came forth a man from woman without casting aside his deity ... This is the account of the true faith everywhere professed. So shall we find that the holy fathers believed. So have they dared to call the holy virgin, mother of God. (Second Letter to Nestorius, emphasis mine)

From this theological conviction, religious devotion to the Mother of God naturally follows. And this devotion constantly leads us back to Jesus, specifically by reminding us of Who He is. Blessed John Henry Newman:

Every church which is dedicated to her ... every image ... every litany in her praise, every Hail Mary ... does but remind us that there was One who, though He was all-blessed from all eternity, yet for the sake of sinners, "did not shrink from the Virgin's womb". Thus she is ... "the Tower of David"; the high and strong defence of the King of the true Israel; and hence the Church also addresses her ... as having "alone destroyed all heresies in the whole world". (Discourses to Mixed Congregations #17)

He goes on to argue that the converse is also true -- namely, that neglect of the Mother of God leads inevitably to a rejection of the orthodox doctrine of St. Cyril and of the Council of Ephesus. This amounts to a concrete application of the ancient dictum lex orandi, lex credendi (i.e., as one prays, so one believes -- cf. CCC 1124).

On that note, it's illuminating to observe that Mary is continually invoked throughout the daily cycle of liturgical prayer in both East and West: multiple times in the Mass and in the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, and again more than once in the canonical hours (at least in the Roman Rite -- although I'd guess that, if anything, the Hours of the Eastern Churches mention Mary even more often). And here I'm referring only to the times she is mentioned in the ordinary course of the day, regardless of what feast is being celebrated, or whether any feast is being celebrated at all. Marian feasts, which are observed throughout the year, take the devotion to a whole new level of intensity -- and the most important of these feasts are obligatory, at least in the Roman Rite.

If, then, "liturgy is a constitutive element of the holy and living Tradition" (CCC 1124 again), then one would expect an obligatory liturgical practice that constantly recurs in both East and West to express a fundamentally important aspect of the faith.

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Finally! I've been waiting for an answer that mentions that Mariology originally developed to protect Christ's humanity/Incarnation (Theotokos). +1 –  Daи Aug 12 '13 at 16:15
    
Ok. Newman says that if we reject the Mother of God, our other doctrines crumble with it. So, it seems like Newman is saying a rejection of Mary leads to a false understanding of God. Is that an accurate understanding of your answer? Can you provide a little more detail on that? That is, why is that true? How do we know a rejection of the Mariology leads to a rejection of other doctrines? Or taints our understanding of God? –  svidgen Aug 12 '13 at 19:08
    
Well logically speaking, in order for Christ to be fully human he must have been "made of a woman" (Galatians 4:4). Clearly, to reject the substance of this verse is to reject the orthodox faith. But does a failure to venerate the woman of Galatians 4:4 amount to a rejection of the doctrine? I think this follows from the dictum lex orandi, lex credendi, and Newman's point seems to be that history concurs: He claims that most Protestants of his day are de facto Nestorians. I have no idea whether he would say the same today, though. –  Ben Dunlap Aug 12 '13 at 20:37

Mary is totally integral to our faith. She is the Mediatrix of All Graces!* She is the Cause of our Joy! She is the Singular Vessel of Devotion!

I think you'd have a more productive time talking about Mary with Protestants than avoiding her. She didn't say "All generations would call me a schmo for letting God walk all over me". She said:

All generations will call me blessed

Lk 1:48 - Gospel from the Solemnity of the Assumption Blessed Virgin Mary

This is something that is in the Bible and I think it is clearly stated in a way that it is asserted by the Holy Spirit and therefore true. Now, if Catholics decided decided to devote every Tuesday to the kind of ecumenism that refuses to call Mary Blessed, then every Tuesday the Church would cease to exist. But, since "the gates of hell" will not prevail over the Church on Monday, neither shall they prevail over her on Tuesday and therefore, in her incorruptible majesty, it seems as though she is incapable of abandoning her

The best way to contemplate Jesus is through Mary's eyes. That's why the Rosary is such a powerful devotion.

One can figure that out without being Catholic and I think that makes for common ground. Perhaps too, there are some who fear that the Rosary is somehow unecumenical because of its distinctly Marian character. Yet the Rosary clearly belongs to the kind of veneration of the Mother of God described by the Council: a devotion directed to the Christological centre of the Christian faith, in such a way that “when the Mother is honoured, the Son ... is duly known, loved and glorified”. If properly revitalized, the Rosary is an aid and certainly not a hindrance to ecumenism! Pope John Paul II - Rosarium Virginis Mariae

Bl. Pope John Paul II the Great* goes on to quote St. Louis de Montfort

Our entire perfection consists in being conformed, united and consecrated to Jesus Christ. Hence the most perfect of all devotions is undoubtedly that which conforms, unites and consecrates us most perfectly to Jesus Christ.

St. Louis de Montfort - Treatise on True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

yes, St. Louis, but you said this was Total Consecration to Mary, what does she have to do with Jesus?

Now, 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, his Holy Mother, and that the more a soul is consecrated to her the more will it be consecrated to Jesus Christ

ibid.

So it is by being an imitator of the one who is most conformed to Jesus that we become more and more consecrated to Jesus. To Jesus through Mary... Where have I heard that one before. Oh yeah, she is the Mediatrix of All Graces. That's what that means, it means that sanctifying grace was allowed to permeate our souls because Mary freely chose to offer herself to God and bring Redemption into the world.

To drop her Marian devotion, the Church would have to wipe out at least 17 feasts during the year in her honor (3-4 of which are Holy Days of Obligation), we'd have to get a lot of black paint; smash a lot of statues; stop praying the Rosary and the Hail Mary; Find someone else to help us with our "purity issues". We'd have to be Protestants!


Forgot to read the second half of your question. Maybe there's no sufficient answer for this and I will have to resort to bad analogies.

  • If the Trinity can be likened to a Blue Plate Special (which I doubt it can) at your favorite diner then Mary is your friendly waitress Cheryl.

  • If the Trinity can be likened to a 3-in-1 Lego Creator kit, then Mary is your mom who bought it for you for Christmas.

  • If the Trinity can be likened to anticipation, experience and remembrance, then Mary is the one who got you all excited in the first place.

  • If the Trinity is some strange fractal with triangles that infinitely recursively fall in upon themselves, the Mary is your 7th grade math teacher.

If Mary is as integral as getting to know Jesus, then she is equally integral in getting to know the Father and the Holy Spirit!


Don't want to go overboard and contradict myself, in this related question I said Marian Devotion is not essential to salvation and that's true. But I think "integral to faith" and "essential to salvation" aren't exactly the same thing.

*It's not heretical to call her that, even though it's not a dogma yet. If you don't believe me, ask another question! *Can I just future proof and call him St. Pope John Paul II the Great?

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Frankly I don't think this is the way to make dialogue. –  leonbloy Jul 30 '13 at 3:09
    
That's what they told the Pope in 1950! –  Peter Turner Jul 30 '13 at 3:20
    
"They?" And so? Were they wrong? –  leonbloy Jul 30 '13 at 11:27
    
In the least snarky way possible: What's wrong with a little contradiction? –  svidgen Jul 30 '13 at 13:44
    
@svidgen I was thinking about this answer this morning and about the saying "ingratitude will not enter Heaven". So, when I get a chance I think I'll go back and recontradict myself with references to Guadalupe and Lepanto. –  Peter Turner Jul 30 '13 at 15:12

Catholicism includes a great range of traditions: Eastern, Greek, Syrian, Anglican, and Roman. Belief about the details of the nature of Mary may differ. But all agree that Mary is Theotokos - the God bearer, or Mother of God.

And consider this: On the Cross (Joh 19:26) the Master told this to a disciple

“When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom he loved, he saith unto his mother, Woman, behold thy son! Then saith he to the disciple, Behold thy mother! And from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home.” John 19:26, 27, KJV.

The Church Fathers understand this command to be directed towards all who believe that Jesus loves them. To be considered brethren to Jesus, you shall consider Mary to be your Mother, and you must take her into your own home.

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Can you please provide some references supporting the idea that John 19:26 is a command for all Christians? –  curiousdannii Jun 5 at 23:49
    
    
This question is not great as those who understand mothers and motherhood know. –  FMShyanguya Aug 9 at 20:52

Why can the Catholic Church not simply ignore the Virgin Mary? Why can it not simply drop Marian devotion altogether? That is like asking the question, Why did God not decide to become incarnate by another means? Why did He pass through Mary? Surely God is omnipotent, and thus can do anything that He wills. So why did He come to us through Mary? Because He willed it. There is no other reasonable explanation.

And so, if God willed to come to us through Mary, how can it be "idolatrous" or "blasphemous" to go to Him through Mary? Catholics approach God in the same way in which He came to us: through the Virgin Mary. Surely you would not accuse God of idolatry or blasphemy?

Protestantism is so obsessed with "a direct relationship with Christ" that they forget that Grace itself is a mediated reality. And the different levels of mediation (the Priesthood, the Sacraments, intercession of the Angels and Saints) in no way take away from the effectiveness of Christ's work of salvation in us: on the contrary, they add to it.

I hope this helps.

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This is a good representation of the Catholic position, but as a protestant I have to say that it goes completely against the message of the New Testament and especially the book of Hebrews. –  curiousdannii Jun 7 at 2:58
    
Welcome to the site, but I need to point out that "who is right and who is wrong" is off-topic here. This isn't a debate site, and this "answer" is pretty borderline, particularly the "Protestantism is so obsessed" part. Please try to refrain from that tone. See: the help page, How we are different than other sites? and What makes a good supported answer? –  David Stratton Jun 7 at 20:49
    
Otherwise, this is a fair representation of a Catholic view. –  David Stratton Jun 7 at 20:50

The principle devotion to Mary is the Rosary. The Rosary was given to St. Dominic directly from Heaven. If you believed this, then your question wouldn't seem so reasonable. Practically the Virgin Mary obtains favors from her Son. It was on her request that he changed the water into wine at Cana. He said, "Woman, why do you involve me? My hour has not yet come." This answer seems like a no, but she knew that he would not refuse her request and says,"Do whatever he tells you." The Virgin Mary is called the Star of the Sea. She guides Catholics to Heaven. I recommend the book "The Glories of Mary" by St. Alphonsus for a brilliant 500 page answer to your question. I would paste the whole book here if I could.

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The claim that the Rosary was given to Dominic is a myth, and a badly supported one. –  Ignatius Theophorus Aug 21 '13 at 0:58

Why can't Catholicism just drop its Marian devotion?
Because she is the Mother of Our LORD, God himself, and also our Mother.

Devotions to the Blessed Virgin Mary

"'All generations will call me blessed': 'The Church's devotion to the Blessed Virgin is intrinsic to Christian worship.' The Church rightly honors 'the Blessed Virgin with special devotion. From the most ancient times the Blessed Virgin has been honored with the title of "Mother of God," to whose protection the faithful fly in all their dangers and needs .... This very special devotion ... differs essentially from the adoration which is given to the incarnate Word and equally to the Father and the Holy Spirit, and greatly fosters this adoration.' The liturgical feasts dedicated to the Mother of God and Marian prayer, such as the Rosary, an 'epitome of the whole Gospel,' express this devotion to the Virgin Mary." [cf. CCC, 971. The internal quotes are from Lk 1:48; Me 42,56, and LG 66.].
Source: Devotions to the Blessed Virgin Mary | Handbook of Prayers | Rev. James Socias , Publisher.


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@svidgen I take that back! It was a great question (to me , easy to answer) ... The quote above answers the Addendum/Clarification: Mary and Devotion to her cannot be separated from the Trinity and God's works, especially the new creation (new Eve linked with new Adam, Jesus), the work of salvation. –  FMShyanguya 13 hours ago

I agree with the above answers but one thing I might add is that many catholics view the virgin mary as "The ark of the new covenant"

As the ancient Israelites honored the ark of the covenant in the old testament. Let me explain better if I can, The ark of the covenant in the old testament contained the ten commandments and holy relics and it caried the presence of God, The virgin Mary (when pregnant) contained Jesus christ (the word of God) and the presence of God which would make her the Ark of the new covenant in there eyes.

The scripture many catholics use to support this is

Then the temple of God was opened in heaven, and the ark of His covenant was seen in His temple. And there were lightnings, noises, thunderings, an earthquake, and great hail.

Now a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a garland of twelve stars. Then being with child, she cried out in labor and in pain to give birth.

revelations 11:19, 12:1-2

Many catholics say that these two scriptures together indicate that this glorious woman is the ark of the new covenant because in the old testament the ark of the covenant was described in great detail and that if the ark of the covenant was to be mentioned here in revelations then surely there would be a glorious description of it but infact the only thing described is this glorious pregnant woman in the following verses.

So it is possible that one may say that the Virgin Mary is viewed as the Ark of the new covenant and is honored as such.

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