Common Sense Mariology
  by Mark Alessio

Transcribed from the December 1997 and January 1998 edition of the 
Catholic Family News.


"When we admire the Mother's eminent gifts and rightly praise them, we are admiring and praising the Divinity, the goodness, the love and the power of Her Son." (Pope Pius XII)

  It's a strange situation in which we find ourselves when mankind is classed as just another species of animal, no better or worse than dolphins or wolves, but just different in a way that really doesn't matter much substantially. Man has become the rational  "animal".  Eugenics and euthanasia are promoted to improve and thin out the human "herd". The human soul has become yet another ingredient in a spiritual stew that combines human essence with that of trees, rivers,  whales and anything else that can't speak for itself to contradict such fancies.

  Yet human beings can do one thing, one critical thing that no animal, not even the smartest can ever do:  Reflect.  Mankind can reflect on it's origins and on its final destination, on its achievements and failures.  Mankind can even reflect on the act of reflection. This unique human ability has given us encyclopedias, cathedrals, concertos, history books, CITIZEN KANE, Dante's INFERNO and THE IMITATION OF CHRIST, not to mention a few millennia worth of philosophers.  We study for the simple reason. We want to know.  Ancient man knew fire, and understood its practical uses.  Technological man scrutinizes this same element, measuring it's temperature, discovering at what temperature different liquids boil, investigating the properties of steam and superheat. The element is still fire, but mankind, endowed with reason by it's Creator, still wants to know more, to place every element in it's proper context, relating to the "whole".

   The propensity for relentlessly seeking out and accumulating knowledge surely underlies our Lord's words to the Apostles:

 But the Paraclete, the Holy Ghost, Whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring all things to your mind, whatsoever I shall have said to you. (St. John 14:26)

   Our Lord knew the Church would grow slowly, a true organism, taking infant steps, falling and rising.  He knew that doctrines would  be challenged, confusion would arise and heresies would be born, and He knew that great Fathers, Doctors and Saints would arise to reflect on revelation and labor to make the Faith resound in the hearts and minds of the faithful. Our Lord is living proof of the old adage that "the supernatural is built on the natural". The Savior of Mankind didn't appear fully grown in a cloud of dazzling sunlight one day, as the pagan goddess Athena was believed to have sprung fully grown from the head of Zeus. Our Lord spend nine months in the womb of a human woman and, when He was finally born, He could not even run away from His first persecutors, but had to be carried by Mary and Joseph into Egypt.

     Note that Our Lord promised not only that the Holy Ghost would remind His followers of his words but would also teach them "all things". By "all things", Our Lord was referring to those that are essential to our salvation.  There is no teacher without a student. Jesus offers us the role of student: "The disciple is not above the Master." And what is the prerequisite for this study: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole should, and with thy whole mind" (St. Matthew 22:37)

   It is as natural to Mankind to examine topics such as the intercession of Saints or the efficacy of the Sacraments as it is to study the origins of tornadoes or the science of refrigeration.

   Interest in the Blessed Virgin Mary was not a creation of ancient Christianity, but a component of it, something that grew with the Faith itself. It was not injected in it, like a foreign substance that need to be assimilated by the early Church. In Volume I of his classic "Mariology", Rev. M.J. Shebeen makes this observation:

 As for the development of Mariology in tradition [i.e., historical "traditions", not doctrinal Traditions], the person of Mary quite naturally remains more in the background during the first four centuries in both the doctrines and worship of the Church. Yet significant allusions to her position, in particular to Her share in the work of redemption, are by no means wanting.  In the controversies of that period about the natures of Christ, the person of Mary came to be more particularly considered.

   It's as though the Holy Ghost, wishing the early Christians to feast abundantly on the awesome doctrines of the Incarnation and Resurrection, brought our Lady to the fore in a discreet way, always associating Her with the mystery of the Incarnation, using her Diving Maternity to crush those early heresies which wreaked havoc with the belief that Christ was both True God and True Man,  Little by little, the early Christians began to recognize in the Mother of God a champion and defender, until things finally exploded in the 4th Century when Nestorius, patriarch of Constantinople, promoted the heresy that the Second Person of the Trinity and Jesus of Nazareth were two distinct persons, united in the figure of Christ. St. Cyril of Alexandria and the Council of Ephesus defended the Truth that two natures existed in the one Person of Christ by declaring that our Lady was the "Theotokos", the Mother of God. The Blessed Virgin's role as "destroyer of all heresies" was now in the spotlight for all to see.

   Again, Mankind naturally reflects on sacred things no less than on mundane ones. The Holy Ghost, guiding His Church, slowly through those first centuries, brought everything about in its time, and no sooner.  Jesus Christ told His disciples after the last supper:  I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.  But when He, the Spirit of  Truth, is come.  He will teach you all truth. (St. John 16:12-13)

   God never rushes anything.  The Israelites measured their trials in centuries.  Our Lord spend thirty years laboring in obscurity in Nazareth.  The Dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and Assumption would warm the hearts of the faithful for almost two millennia before they would be solemnly defined.  It is no surprise to find the intellects of the early Catholics slowly but surely drawn to a consideration of t he Blessed Mother. In fact, it was inevitable. The word "Mariology" can be intimidation. It sound far removed from the simple directness of, say, the Rosary or the First Saturday devotions.  Protestants have ridiculed the word by coining their own parody of it, "Mariolatry". Writers in this field delve into specifics, using the language of theology and philosophy. Theology, the study of the revealed God and our relationship to Him, is comprised of component disciplines or "Treatises," such as"Christology" or "Ecclesiology". While great writers of the past have presented systematized studies of the Blessed Virgin, it wasn't until the 20th Century that Mariology was seen as a truly distinct  "Treatise" with in the larger scope of Theology, one that would strive to interrelate Marian doctrines to each other as well as ground them all in the basic privilege of the Divine Maternity. This doesn't mean that such inter-relations weren't known by scholars of the past.  Of course they were. But there was always the opportunity to further clarify these relationships in distinct terms and images suited to the glory of the subject.  Of course,  in any undertaking God sets before us, the ultimate aim is the good of our eternal souls.  We don't do Our Lord or Our Lady any "favor" by studying Mariology. The benefit of such study is entirely mankind's.

   And yet, given all of the above, the entire study of Mariology rests on very plain common sense.  The scholars who have taken the study of the Virgin Mary seriously must of necessity use technical language, if they wish to share their ideas, dilemmas and solutions with others.  But, at bottom the truths revealed in this field are ones that require no more than simple good will to accept and be grateful for.  Our Lord told us to become "children" if we would enter Heaven.  What better mentality with which to appreciate the study of a Mother?

   There is no dogma concerning the Mother of God which does not rest on good, common sense.  And how can it be otherwise, when on of the central images of the Church that has education and civilized the entire world is that of a beautiful, loving Mother holding her Child?  The apostate Jews of Our Lord's time wanted armies, cavalries and the clashing of sword and spear as a signal of the Messiah's coming.  What they got, and rejected was the sound of a Baby, crying in the cold of a manger and a Mother singing lullabies.

The Divine Maternity

 Those who would relegate the Blessed Virgin to an incidental role in salvation history would do well to pay special attention to God's Holy Word,  the Bible. St. Luke, the Evangelist who took the greatest pains to research the pertinent events of Our Lord's early life, records the following words of  St. Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, to the Blessed Virgin:  And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?  (St. Luke 1:43)

   A brief footnote in the Haydock Bible makes this simple point:  "The Mother of  my Lord. A proof that Christ was truly God, and the Blessed Virgin Mary truly the Mother of God". It is this same Divine Son, born of Mary, who will later astound His countrymen by declaring that He came not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill the Law.  Note the wording of the Fourth Commandment as set down in the Book of Deuteronomy:

 Honor thy father and mother, as the Lord they God hath commanded thee, that thou mayest live a long time, and it may be well with the in the land, which the   Lord thy God will give thee.
(Deuteronomy 5:16).

   This is the only Commandment which offers a blessing as a reward.  Other Commandments offer curses as the inevitable fruits of non-compliance.  The Israelites were not to serve idols, lest God visit the iniquity of the fathers upon their children.  They were not to take the name of the Lord in vain, for he shall not be unpunished that taketh His name upon a vain thing.  But look at the tenderness with which the Almighty respects Fatherhood and Motherhood.  It is plain throughout Scripture that Jesus honored His Father as only a Perfect Son could have.  Every one of His actions, every one of His sorrows and glories were directed towards the glory of His heavenly Father.  But,  would the God-Man leave the Fourth Commandment only half observed?  If  He were to fulfill the Law perfectly, would He forget that the Fourth Commandment enjoined the honor of both Father and Mother?  Could the Son of God be so forgetful?

   Some Protestants are fond of describing Our Lady as a glorified "incubator", a creature used by God and then shoved unceremoniously aside.  In this strange view, God become the ultimate "consumer",  picking humans at random for certain tasks, using them up and tossing them into the rubbish when their usefulness is over.  One wonders how the proponents of this view would react if you were to inform them that their own mothers were mere "vessels", meant only to be  "used" by their fathers as a means of generating offspring.  Sacred Scripture tells us something different.  It tells us that the unique spiritual bond between mother, father and child is so beloved and cherished by the Almighty that He went so far as to command that it be honored.  This is a simple matter of Scriptural record.  Anyone wishing to denigrate the place of the Blessed Virgin in the life of her Son does so in defiance of both Sacred Scripture and the Commandments of the Holy Trinity.  One would be hard pressed to find in the entire Bible any occurrences where mothers are viewed as mere "incubators".

   Our Lady's Divine Maternity therefore,  isn't a mere "aspect" of the Gospels, and unimportant element that one can safely ignore at will, but a critical part of them.  Obviously, if God thinks the bond between Mother and Child is important, then We are bound to view it likewise.

   Many Protestants seem to take a peculiar delight in snubbing the Blessed Virgin.  In a twist of logic which manages in one swoop to deny both the Fourth Commandment and Our Lord's claim to be the fulfilled of the Law, they posit themselves as the exponents of a "pure" form of Christian worship, a worship which is free of the Holy Virgin, Saints, and Sacraments.  They conveniently forget St. James' teaching that "the prayer of a just man availeth much", a clear Biblical endorsement for the Catholic belief in intercession.  They also believe that,  somehow, Jesus Christ, True God and True Man, takes pleasure in seeing His holy Mother despised.  It's no wonder that Cardinal Newman wrote these word about their misconceptions: . . . few Protestants have any real perception of the doctrine of God and man in, one Person.  They speak in a dreamy, shadowy way of Christ's divinity . . . They cannot bear to have it   said, except as a figure or mode of speaking, that God had a human body, or that God

   Perhaps this is why one finds no "Stations of the Cross" or  "Sacred Heart"  devotions in Protestantism.  What Catholics understand as they hear the Gospels read each Sunday is that Christ was like unto us in every way except in sin; He was and is the God-Man.  If someone ignorant of the Gospels could go back in time with a camcorder and tape a series of days in the life of the Holy Family prior to Our Lord's public ministry, he would little suspect that he was watching a god, let alone the One and Only God.  he would find a pious family, obviously loving and at peace.  He would find the Son obedient and prayerful, but otherwise engaging in very mundane activities:  working, conversing with family and acquaintances, eating, praying, enjoying festivals and days in which work was set aside.  The father would be working conscientiously and steadily, while the Mother would spend the hours from sunrise to sunset working just as hard to provide for the little ones She loves.  This is the life that God lived for thirty years on earth!  There is a reason for this.  God does not waste time.   If the hierarchical structure of the human family, with it's sacred bonds and implicit obedience to authority, as reflected in the Fourth Commandment, were of no value to the Christian understanding of Faith, God would not have bequested the legacy to us.  Therefore, any time the Mother of God appears in Scripture or is the subject of doctrinal teachings, it is for a very good and important reason.


The Immaculate Conception

   Many volumes cam and have been written about the pivotal Christian dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin in the womb of Her mother, St. Anne.  The early Church Fathers understood it as a matter of course that Our Lady was sinless.  In the early centuries of the Church, as they battled the various heresies arising to confuse the faithful, these pious and learned scholars didn't engage in a detailed scrutiny of the Virgin's sinlessness.  They understood that She was free from actual sin, and they knew that she had somehow been sanctified in the womb of Her own mother. As far back as the 4th Century, we find the following thought expressed in a poem by St. Ephrem of Syria, addressed to Our Savior, which echoes the Canticle of Canticles:

 Thou and Thy Mother are alone in this: you are wholly beautiful in every respect. There  is in Thee, Lord, no stain, nor any spot in Thy Mother.  Such expressions are far from rare in the early Church.  In the 5th Century, Theodotus, Bishop of Ancyra in Galatia, described Mary as :"A Virgin innocent; immaculate; free from all guilt; spotless; undefiled; holy in spirit and body; a lily among thorns."

   We must remember that there was no ill will in the intentions of the later writers . . . such as St. Bernard, St. Bonaventure, St. Albert the Great and St. Thomas Aquinas . . . who questioned the dogma of the Immaculate Conception.  Since dogma hadn't as yet been formulated and defined, a "pre-natal sanctification" of Our Lady seemed to them a safer course to steer in order to safeguard the Scriptural teaching of Our Lord's unique Mediatorship. It was never a question of doubting our Lady's sanctity, but of placing Her sinlessness into the larger context of the Redemption. Of course, being a human woman, the Virgin Mary was redeemed by Jesus Christ, but how was this accomplished? St. Paul wrote these words to the Catholics in Rome: "And we know that to them that love God, all things work together unto good, to such as according to His purpose, are called to be Saints" (Romans 8:28)  This sublime teaching found abundant justification in the history of the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception, for it was the very opposition to this Dogma, an opposition sparked by no less an authority than St. Bernard of Clairvaux, that caused scholars from the 12th Century on to begin studying this unique privilege of the Blessed Virgin in detail. The debate would ultimately manifest itself along definite lines, with the Dominicans opposing the Dogma, and the Franciscans defending it with vigor.  Two of these Franciscans scholars in particular are credited with solving the "riddle" of the Immaculate Conception, a solution which would bear fruit 600 years later when the Dogma was solemnly defined by Pope Pius IX in the Bull Ineffabilis Deus.

These men, to whom the Church owes a solid debt of gratitude, were William of Ware (died c.1308), lecturer at Oxford and Paris, and his student, John Duns Scotus (died 1308). These great scholars exemplified the common sense approach to the study of the Mother of God. William of Ware, one of the first university instructors to teach the Immaculate Conception, offered this observation on Our Blessed Mother:  There is another opinion, that She did not contract original sin, which I wish  to hold, because, if I am to be mistaken, since I am not certain of either side,  I prefer to be mistaken by excess, giving Mary some prerogative, than by defect, lessening or taking from Her some prerogative which She had.

   To Duns Scotus is given the honor of clarifying the Dogma in terms which defend Our Lady's sanctity, while also raising the Redemptive work of Our Lord to a new degree. He pointed out that there was restorative Redemption, whereby tainted Mankind was cleansed from the stain of Original Sin, and a preservative Redemption, by which Our Lady, through the merits of Christ, was preserved from the stain of Original Sin.

A simple analogy could be presented from this teaching.  To prevent someone from falling into a mud puddle would be better than to lift that person out of the puddle once they have already falling in and are smeared with filth.  Scotus offered this rational argument in defense of the Immaculate Conception:  Either God was able to do this, and did not will to do it, or, He willed to preserve Her and was unable to do so.   If able to and yet unwilling to perform this for Her, God was miserly towards Her.

And if He willed to do it but was unable to accomplish it, He was weak, for no one who is able to honor his mother would fail to do so. Again we are reminded of the Fourth Commandment and the perfect manner in which the God-Man fulfills it, with a generosity and elegance that seem to have no place in non-Catholic "theology". This would be a good time to speak of intent.  Mankind, endowed by its Creator with the gift of reason, desired to know, to explore, to investigate matters in detail. If the study of Mariology is not ultimately undertaken for the greater glory of the Holy Trinity, then it becomes little more than an academic exercise.  The anti-Catholic "scholars" who claim to study the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception do so with a degree of contempt for it, with suspicion, seeing in it a threat to the majesty of Christ. The traditional Catholic view, in contrast sees in this Dogma the depths which Our Lord's salvific power will plumb in the work of restoring a fallen world.  Notice the antithesis. The anti-Catholic position sees the Immaculate Conception a threat to the unique Mediatorship of Jesus Christ. The Catholic view sees in it an exaltation of and thanksgiving for Divine mercy, a reason not to scorn Our Lord's Mediatorship, but to rejoice in it even further.  Which view, according to everyday common sense would be more pleasing to God?