Ecclesiasticus 4:28

"Fight to the death for truth, and the Lord God will war on your side."

Ora pro nobis,

Most Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Francis de Sales, St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. Dominic. Amen.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

An Introduction to the Marian Dogmas

When I first began writing the Rosary series, I was reflecting on the Annunciation of Gabriel to Mary. In that meditation, I touched briefly on some of the Church's official teachings about Mary. One Protestant reader took issue with my simple statements of Church teaching, and so I promised that after the series was finished, I would examine the Church's official teachings (Dogmas) about Mary in greater apologetical depth. The time for that examination has now come. I offer this post by way of introducing the Four Marian Dogmas of the Church.

What is a Dogma?
Before we begin, it would be helpful to understand certain things. The first is the sense of the term Dogma, a term which, especially to modern ears, has certain negative connotations of authoritarianism and unreasonable submission to authority in blind faith. I do not think that any of these notions of Dogma are very accurate or helpful. A Dogma, in the Catholic Church, is simply an official, formal teaching of the Faith. It is something that is considered necessary to believe in order to be a faithful Catholic, because it belongs to that Deposit of Faith which was once for all given to the saints (cf. Jude 3). However, that does not mean that the Dogmas "came out of nowhere" or were simply "made up", or that they are contrary to reason or to Scripture. I have, and will continue to contend that nothing that the Catholic Church teaches is contrary in any way to Sacred Scripture, when it is properly understood. Further, Catholic teachings never contradict reason, though often they surpass what we with our limited human reasoning faculties can comprehend.

Bringing this back to Mary, it means that, regarding our understanding of Jesus' most blessed Mother, there are certain things that a faithful Catholic must believe. The same Protestant mentioned earlier asked whether one could have "variations" in belief about Mary. The question perplexed me, because there was one historical Mary. Therefore, certain things are true, and certain other things are not. One cannot believe something to be true, and yet suppose that another, contradictory viewpoint could be equally as valid. My answer seemed to upset the Protestant fellow, and he has since stopped coming to this blog.

I stand by the fact that two competing claims cannot both be true (though they could both be false). That is the simple law of non-contradiction. However, I must acknowledge that there are certain things about Mary which we simply do not know for sure. About such things, differing opinions are just as valid, because no one right answer has presented itself. How old Mary was when she gave birth to Jesus, or how old she was when she died and was assumed into Heaven, are things we simply do not know. Variety of opinion on such matters is acceptable (at least until the truth is revealed, if ever it is).

Marian Dogmas Ultimately Teach about Christ
However, when it comes to the Marian Dogmas, one must accept them in order to be a Catholic in good standing. Rejecting them is rejecting a tenet of the faith. This fact is important to keep in mind, because the Church's teachings about Mary were originally defined as dogmas in order to safeguard its teachings about Christ, against prevalent heresies of the day, or possible misunderstandings about the nature of who Jesus is, and how He saves us. The Marian Dogmas, therefore, are not simply optional, peripheral teachings with no real import to the message of the Gospel. Rather, they serve to protect the truth and the integrity of that same Gospel, that it might not become distorted.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says it this way:

What the Catholic faith believes about Mary is based on what it believes about Christ, and what it teaches about Mary illumines in turn its faith in Christ. (No. 487)
The Four Marian Dogmas
As stated above, there are four infallibly defined teachings about Mary in the Catholic Church:

1. That she is the Mother of God, which means not that she somehow originated God, but that the baby to whom she gave birth was fully God and fully Man in her womb.

2. That she was a virgin throughout her entire life (i.e., not just up until she gave birth to Christ, but for all of her life).

3. That she was conceived "immaculately", meaning that at the moment of Conception, the Holy Spirit kept her from inheriting the stain of original sin, like the rest of us do. Through this preemptive saving action of the Holy Spirit, Mary was able to live a perfectly holy and sinless life.

4. That at the time of her death, she was taken up to heaven (assumed) bodily, like Enoch and Elijah (and Moses, according to some Jewish traditions).

If we keep in mind what the Catechism says above, in the context of the 4 Marian Dogmas, we see how they reflect belief in Christ in the following ways:

1. The belief that Mary is the Mother of God was originally defined to guard against the heresies that said that Mary only gave birth to a man, whom God later adopted, or bestowed His divinity on. The heresy denies that Jesus existed before He was born of Mary. Thus, the early Church called her Mother of God to contend that while Jesus was in her womb, He was in fact God Himself.

2. Her Perpetual Virginity reinforces the belief in and emphasises the importance of Jesus' birth from a virgin. It is one of the key beliefs surrounding Christ's Godhood. It was prophesied by Isaiah, and fulfilled at that first Christmas. That she remains a virgin safeguards any claim of doubt, saying, "how can we prove she was a virgin before His birth, if she wasn't after His birth?" It eliminates all doubt. Further, it was the historic belief of the Church, and even the Protestant Reformers Luther and Calvin believed in it undisputedly (in fact, Luther lashed out strongly against other Protestants who denied it!).

3. The Immaculate Conception is seen as fitting for the one chosen to bear Christ. On the one hand, it show's Christ's saving power in Mary's life even before His incarnation. Further, it demonstrates the absolute power of God's saving plan. Finally, because Mary is the fulfilment of the type of the Ark of the Covenant, it was proper that she would be consecrated just as it was.

4. Mary's Bodily Assumption into Heaven completes the idea of her Immaculate Conception. Since death is the consequence of sin, Mary's sinlessness preserves her from the need for death and corruption. It also reflects on Jesus' obedience to the Law (especially the 10 Commandments) as He fully honoured His Mother (Mary) and Father (God).

The first two Marian Dogmas (the list above is given in the order in which they were defined) pertain to Mary's mission, that is, the facts about her related specifically to her role in bringing Christ into the world. The second two relate to her person, and the specific graces that Jesus gave to her.

In the next few posts, I will examine each dogma in greater depth, looking at what it means, why we believe it, its history, and how it teaches us more about Christ.

(Category: Catholic Distinctives: Mary, Mother of God.)

The Plan

Well, I've now got a few different topics buzzing around in my head, which I plan to tackle in the next little while. So here's my prospective plan (just to make God laugh):

When I began the Rosary series, a particular reader reacted rather strongly to various Catholic beliefs about Mary. I promised him that I would write apologetic articles on the Marian Dogmas after I finished the Rosary series. I plan to honour that promise despite the fact that he no longer read this blog. So that is next up on the docket. As such, I'll finish off writing about Mary in this fashion: One Post to summarise the Catholic view of Mary as encapsulated in the Dogmas, highlighting their importance and place within Catholic theology; then Four Posts, one for each Dogma--Mary as Mother of God, her Perpetual Virginity, her Immaculate Conception, and her Assumption into Heaven; after those, One Post discussing her role as Mediatrix, which, although not an official Dogma, is still a Marian concept touted by many great saints and popes, and greatly misunderstood and opposed by those outside the Catholic Church--and which may become the Fifth Marian Dogma at some point; after that, I'll write an undecided amount of posts regarding the phenomenon of Marian Apparitions, and highlight several in their own posts, such as Our Lady of Guadalupe, Our Lady of Lourdes, and Our Lady of Fatima, to name but a few. Finally, I will advocate St. Louis de Montfort's "Total Consecration to the Immaculate Heart of Mary", a devotion which Melissa and I have recently performed this past May 13th. This will conclude, for now, my articles about Our Lady, though obviously I'll write more about her whenever the mood or idea strikes. I'm just trying to stick with a plan for now, since that seems to work better.

Also coming up, Christopher, who comments here often, and I have agreed to debate the legitimacy of the Papacy as an authority in the Church. We'll be conducting the debate via email, and then upon its completion, posting it on our blogs. This ties in as well with the previous post about attending Church, and as such, I'll follow the debate up with articles discussing the nature of the Church, based on the Five Models (or Five-fold Model) of Avery Cardinal Dulles (The Church as Institution, as Mystical Union, as Herald, as Community, and as Servant) in order to present a more holistic view of what the Church is.

As well, I plan to write a series of reflections on the Eucharist, defending the Church's understanding of Jesus' Real Presence, and discussing topics of the Centrality of the Eucharist, Transubstantiation, the Mass as a Sacrifice, Eucharistic Adoration, and the many Eucharistic Miracles that have occurred throughout the world and the history of the Church.

What order all this occurs in, I haven't decided. When it will happen, I have no idea. We'll see what summer holds. One last thing: last night Melissa (my wife) and I went to our parish to see a Vatican Exhibition of Eucharistic Miracles (which prompted my desire to write about them here). Afterwards, Melissa expressed the desire to contribute to the blog in her own way, offering a more devotional and personal approach than my own polysyllabic, polemic articles often can be. It will be nice to have her voice added to my own.

So that's my plan for the blog, always conscious of the wise old dictum: "If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans."

God bless,

Friday, June 05, 2009

Do I Gotta Go?

Recently, a friend of mine sent my wife and I an email asking us what we thought about the necessity of attending church services on Sunday, as opposed to simply, informally, hanging out with Christian friends, and perhaps studying the Bible in small groups. I asked her if I could reprint her email, with my reply, on my blog, since it's a question I've gotten a lot over the years, and thus seems rather relevant. Since my friend is a Protestant, the first part of my answer addresses the question from a "mere Christianity" basis. From there, I go on to discuss why, as Catholics, we particularly believe in the importance of Mass attendance.

Hi Guys.
How are you? I have a question for you both about church. I think going to church on Sunday is an act of obedience to Christ, but my small group doesn't think so. They think church could be defined as just hanging out with Christians and studying together, i.e. going to small group. Apparently, I'm a little legalistic (which I'll admit I tend to lean towards that). I'm just not sure I buy going to small group as an alternative to going to church. I realize church is very "structured", but there's a reason the early church decided on including certain things in a service (I don't know what the word back then would have been). Structure doesn't have to be a bad thing. It sure beats chaos. Furthermore, there's something to be said for church family. Typically, protestants are drawn to small groups with people who think like them. You don't necessarily see eye to eye with everyone in your church family, but there's a reason we're all there. We're skilled in different areas, and we clash, but it forces us to work out our differences. It's also an opportunity to witness. Most people know that church is Sunday morning or Saturday night in our culture. Small groups are too easy to disguise as something else, i.e. someone in my small group calls it, "book club". I don't know. Maybe I am off my rocker, but it makes me sad to know that so many of my friends could care less about Sunday morning church. I miss seeing them there.
Hey B!
I thought your question was fantastic, and the thoughts from your own perspective were really insightful. It's a question I've gotten a lot over the years--usually from Protestants, since when a Catholic asks, the short answer is "Because it's a Mortal Sin not to go!" :) For the record, I don't think you're one bit legalistic in thinking Church attendance is important, and even necessary.

I completely agree that attending Church is an act of obedience to Christ. While hanging out with Christian friends is certainly important, studying the Bible as a loose assortment of people is, I think, rather incomplete. As for why I think this, you yourself hit on some very good reasons: mainly, small group Bible Studies tend to be or become groups of like-minded individuals. Obviously, we should be like-minded in that we all share the mind of Christ, but I think when you and I say that a small group is full of like-minded people, we agree that that tends to mean that certain viewpoints are automatically assumed, and challenging the status quo with a different idea of things is a quick road to ostracisation. Moreover, in such an environment, how can growth occur when such new(er) ideas are presented? Those with like minds can tend to conclude they have all the answers figured out. Plus, as you said, the whole Church has members with different skills, giftings, and roles, that are likely to be absent with groups featuring only a handful of people. Again, as you point out, it can be more difficult to witness, since inviting a non-Christian to a small-group can be intimidating at times. They're very obviously the "new blood". (Though, conversely, the large church setting can be intimidating to some, as well. Small groups do have their place--it just isn't exclusive.) Further to the witnessing question, when Melissa and I were talking about it, she brought up the point that if the group isn't really growing in faith, especially if they think they have all the answers, then how can the new Christian continue to grow themselves? And what if they, as a new Christian, have a different perspective? Will they be embraced, or forced to seek out their own small group of like-minded new Christians?

As for structure being a good thing, it certainly is. Paul's first letter to the Corinthians is all about structure in worship, from his detailing the rules of conduct around Holy Communion (ch 10-11), to his dealing with abuses of the Charismatic Gifts, like Tongues (ch 12-14), as well as other problems. He specifically states at one point, that God is a God of order and not of confusion (14:33). By the way, the Early Church called its services "Divine Liturgies", and they were, in fact, structured liturgical services very similar to the Catholic Church's liturgy. You can even read ancient documents outlining the service from within 100 years of Jesus.

Moreover, pertaining to the question of structure is the question of leadership. Who is the appointed leader and authority of a small group gathering of Christians? By what authority does that leader (if there is a leader) lead? The Bible very clearly discusses the hows and whos of leadership in the Church, mentioning the ordination and leadership of bishops, presbyters, and deacons (prominently in 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, but in other places as well). No bishop, presbyter, or deacon appoints himself, but they were all ordained by those who were bishops before them, and they were ordained by, ultimately, the Apostles, who were themselves ordained by Christ. Without this ordained leadership, there is no church. And it is that ordained leadership that has the authority to teach the Gospel to the people, and to challenge them to live it. While we should all be challenging each other to live the Gospel, when we submit to the authorities put in place by Jesus Himself, we achieve three things: first, we act in humility by submitting to authority. Second, we are challenged to keep growing in the faith as our ministers grow and learn and then teach us (since it is their role and luxury to be able "devote [them]selves to prayer and to the service of the word" (Acts 6:4).

As Catholics, Melissa and I have additional reasons why we feel attending Church is both important and vitally necessary. The first, as I've already mentioned, is that without a real reason for doing so, it's actually a Mortal Sin to miss Church on Sunday. According to Catholic teaching, a Mortal Sin is one that basically amounts to a person who commits it renouncing their covenant with God. In other words, by missing Church because we just don't feel like going, we're essentially telling God we don't need Him.

The reason why it is a Mortal Sin to miss Church for Catholics is the second reason why it's so necessary for Catholics to go: that is, we believe that at Mass, we receive Jesus, truly present in the Eucharist. Since He is our Living Bread (quite literally), missing Mass is like going hungry for a week! Worse, since it really is Jesus Himself present to commune with us, neglecting such an opportunity is like standing up an appointment with the King! It's saying to Jesus that we care so little about His sacrifice on the Cross that we can't even take one hour out of our week to spend with Him! And since consecrating the Eucharist is one of those roles that is bestowed through one's ordination, it's only the ordained leaders of the Church who can provide the Eucharist. We can't duplicate it as a small group of friends at Bible Study.

Finally, as Catholics, we believe that it's necessary to go to Mass in order to grow in our faith, and to be sure of true teaching. Since we believe that Jesus promised to preserve His Church from teaching error, we can be reasonably sure that, provided the priest is actually being obedient to the Church himself, and not making things up according to his own understanding, that we're getting the whole truth and nothing but. And if one does have a bad priest, there's recourse to the Bishop so that the priest can be disciplined and corrected. There's nothing like that in a small group Bible Study. At best, the most educated in theology is the leader, and just being educated doesn't mean they're right. And if one tries to correct the leader's misunderstanding, the most that can come of it is a discussion or debate of differing opinions.

So for all of these reasons, as well as the community aspect that you yourself pointed out--the Family of God being able to minister to each others' needs, I believe that Church is necessary. Incidentally, I saw the powerful effect of conversion that the Family of God can have for a person, at Easter. There was a Catholic woman in our church who married either a non-practising or a non-Christian husband, and they had five kids, none of whom were Christian. Well, this past year, their house burnt down, and they lost pretty much everything. Because of the love and generosity our parish had for this family in providing food and clothing and other blessings, this woman's husband and all five kids, and a cousin, all were baptised at the Easter Vigil Mass!

Anyway, for all these reasons, and more that I haven't thought of here, Church is both important and necessary. That's why the writer to the Hebrews wrote, "Do not absent yourself from your own assemblies, as some do, but encourage each other; the more so as you see the Day drawing near" (Heb 10:25).

God bless,
hope that helps.

(Category: The Church: The Make-Up of the Church)