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.)