March 1st, 2018
One common refrain in ecumenical discourse is that all historical religious traditions (Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, various branches of Protestantism) differ in the way they understand salvation (e.g. justification, renewal, deification) and the nature/role of the church and the sacraments, but agree on the tenets of the Christian doctrines of the Trinity and Christology. While at one level this is formally true – each of these traditions adheres to the Apostles’ Creed – a deeper and closer look shows some cracks in this widespread assumption.
Mariology is a testcase that provides an opportunity to see to what extent the Trinity and Christology belong to the shared faith. In the Roman Catholic tradition, at least, Mary is prayed to and is a venerated person surrounded by a vast array of “Marian” devotions, e.g. rosaries, processions, and pilgrimages. The titles with which she is referred to (e.g. Heavenly Queen, Mediatrix, Advocate) resemble those ascribed to her son, Jesus Christ. Mariology is also the theme of two recently promulgated dogmas (i.e. binding beliefs): the 1854 dogma of the immaculate conception and the 1950 dogma of the bodily assumption into heaven. Mariology impinges not only on the doctrine of Revelation, but also on the doctrine of the Trinity.
How Central Is Mariology?
While the outspoken intention of Roman Catholic Mariology is that Mariological doctrines and Marian practices in no way detract attention from Jesus Christ, the reality is that the line that Rome wishes to preserve is indeed crossed in multiple ways. When entire shrines or processions or prayer chains are dedicated to Mary so as to completely shape the devotees’ lives, one finds it hard to attribute it simply to the devotional excesses of poorly educated popular piety. Separating Christian worship duly expressed from cultish practices fraught with paganism is a soft, even liquid border line that is not maintained and safeguarded enough, despite the good intentions expressed in the official teaching. The question is whether or not Mariology as it currently stands, with its dogmatic outlook and devotional pervasiveness, involves an inherent proximity, if not blurring, with what is not biblically defendable. The indisputable evidence of many of these devotional acts and habits indicates that in many people’s lives the centrality of Mary is experienced much more than reverence and obedience to Christ. All this happens not in spite of what the Roman Catholic Church teaches but because of what it explicitly or implicitly endorses.
Mariology Superseding Christology?
Since the dogmatic pronouncement of the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD (when Mary was given the title of “Mother of God”) the Mariological trajectory has been strongly pushed forward in ever-expanding and almost self-referential terms. After Ephesus the veneration of Mary became prominent in devotional practices, doxological patterns, and the religious arts. Christianity went through a Marian shift in terms of liturgy and general orientation. The paradox was that the Council that wanted to re-affirm the full deity and humanity of Jesus ended up promoting a functional heresy. Individuals, groups, and movements began to develop quasi-obsessive Marian interpretations of the Christian faith and Mary became the figure most prayed to in daily life. She was not meant to detract attention from her Son, but her post-Ephesus perception functionally superseded Him in terms of experiential forms of Christianity.
The Son always depicted in the company of the Mother, the Mother often portrayed as bigger than the (baby) Son, coupled with a growing prayer investment directed toward her, contributed to the gradual reconfiguration of Christian spirituality away from Christ (who began to be seen as too distant, too divine, too remote to be approached) and towards Mary with her maternal, tender, and compassionate attitude. Christ’s humanity – which is essential in recognizing his role as a mediator connecting the incarnate Son with us creatures – was progressively rarefied at the expense of His divinity. Christ’s divinity was eventually pushed to the forefront, making Him too far above to be invoked directly.
The balance of the confession in the early creeds of Jesus Christ being “fully God, fully man” was nominally maintained but practically abandoned by the increasingly Marian spirituality of the post-Ephesus church. The vacuum left by the lack of appreciation for the humanity of Christ was filled by the growth of the role of Mary the Mother. The nearness of the Mother of God was the answer to the remoteness of the Son of God and even caused the Son to be perceived further as being too distant to understand and take care of the struggles of life. In other words, perhaps unintentionally, the Mother swallowed the Son. Orthodox Christology based on the Councils of Nicea (325 AD) and Chalcedon (451 AD) continued to be formally professed and defended; in reality, the appropriation of these Christological truths became a far too abstract discourse and of little spiritual benefit. What was practiced at the popular doxological level was an all-embracing Mariology that accounted for the spiritual needs of the people and whetted further theological development along Mariological lines.
Mariology Obscuring the Work of the Spirit?
There is more than that. In Trinitarian relationships, the work of the Son is strictly connected with that of the Holy Spirit. According to the Bible, the Son’s role as mediator is worked out by and through the Spirit. For example, it is the Spirit who helps us in our weakness by interceding for us in accordance with God’s will (Romans 8:26-27). Christ is the Mediator to the Father and the Spirit enables us to come to Him. What happened with the unchecked rise of Mariology? By pushing Christ’s humanity outside of the picture and filling the void with the intercessions of the Mother of God, Mariological development diminished also the role of the Holy Spirit by not recognizing His vital involvement in the mediatoral work of the Son. In becoming the figure nearer to the Son who could be always invoked and felt closer than the Son, Mary practically unraveled the bond between the Son and the Spirit and undermined the relationship between the faithful and the Spirit. The “gain” of Mariology was the “loss” of the Holy Spirit. The impressive growth of Mariology meant the disturbing disappearance of the Spirit.
Marianism then obscured the nearness of the Son and froze the unique contribution of the Spirit. Beyond excesses in devotional practices – which are nonetheless intrinsically related to the nature of Mariology itself – the Roman Catholic view of Mary poses serious questions at the level of its Trinitarian implications.
Formal adherence to the creedal basis of the person and work of Jesus Christ needs to be matched with a coherent spirituality centered on the praise of the Triune God —Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — something that does not happen in Mariology because of its inflated view of Mary and its consequent marginalization of Christ and the Spirit. In spite of the stated intention not to divert attention from the Son, Mariology tends to be an intruder into Trinitarian harmony and an obstacle to a full appreciation of who the Triune God is and what He has done for us.