Sharing the Real Mary

By David Mills

Many of our Protestant friends appreciate Mary in a way their ancestors didn’t. This is a good thing. Some of them even like her a lot, and in a way that their ancestors would denounce. This is an even better thing. But there are limits, which too many Catholics just can’t see.

By “Protestant” I’m thinking particularly of our Evangelical friends who are, in doctrinal seriousness and many other ways, close to us. For centuries they simply ignored Mary, even at Christmas. The only time they thought of her in any substantial way was when they were denouncing Catholic teaching, which they thought idolatrous, unbiblical, superstitious, and a rejection of the Lord Himself in favor of His mother.

She was for them, as an Evangelical pastor once said to me, just “the delivery system” needed to bring Jesus into the world. The Incarnation required a human mother; God picked Mary; she agreed, and in nine months Jesus was born. Since He had to have a mother, who it was didn’t really matter. Having this child didn’t change her in any way. Once Jesus was old enough to take of Himself, her small part in our salvation was over.

An Episcopal minister told me that Mary was well down the list of “great Christians.” Asked for an example, he said she was well behind a 19th-century British missionary to Canada named Hudson Taylor. If you wanted an example of faithfulness, he said, look to Taylor before you look to Mary.

After all, he said, she didn’t really do anything. She just had a baby.

But things are changing. One can guess at the reasons: The culture so promotes women that a heavily masculine tradition will prudently look to its sources for famous women to feature. Mary is the obvious first choice, though some Evangelicals have wanted “stronger” women as their examples of biblical women to follow, because they think of Mary as passive and her calling too typically feminine. After all, she didn’t really do anything. She just had a baby.

But this new and growing affection for Jesus’ mother is also the result of their piety finally free to play itself out, now that many of the prejudices and commitments of the past have lost some of their power. They love their Lord and begin feeling a natural affection for His mother, and often begin to look more closely at who she is in the Gospels. They begin to reflect on what her assent to the angel’s news means, and on what the prayer we call the Magnificat says about her; some even begin to look at the Old Testament for ways she may have been anticipated there.

The Southern Baptist theologian Timothy George, a leader in that world, has admitted, “We have been afraid to praise and esteem Mary for her full worth.” This he wants to change, and offers several substantial suggestions for doing so, stressing aspects of Mary and her work that Evangelicals have not talked about much but that follow from their theological commitments.

Writing in the major Evangelical magazine Christianity Today a couple of years ago, he said that an “Evangelical retrieval of a proper biblical theology of Mary will give attention to five explicit aspects of her calling and ministry: Mary as the daughter of Israel, as the virgin mother of Jesus, as Theotokos, as the handmaiden of the Word, and as the mother of the Church.”

So far, so good. Or maybe I should say, only so far, so good. Because the Protestant attitude shifts quickly from such talk of Mary to considering her as the Catholic knows her. They feel themselves drawn to Jesus’ mother until they meet her in all her glory, as the Mother of the Church and the Queen of Heaven, immaculately conceived, perpetually virgin, assumed into Heaven. Then, as the saying goes, not so much.

Even the irenic George, at the end of his article, can only go so far as to commend this prayer: “And now we give you thanks, Heavenly Father, because in choosing the Blessed Virgin Mary to be the mother of your Son, you exalted the little ones and the lowly. Your angel greeted her as highly favored; and with all generations we call her blessed and with her we rejoice and we magnify your holy name.” A good prayer, but not a Marian prayer. He would refuse on pain of death to say the “Hail Mary.”

This difference matters, and matters a lot more than we might want to think. In my experience, Catholics who love their Protestant friends often exaggerate their points of agreement. They hear polite statements of interest or a curiosity about Catholic teaching and read into them a change in conviction that really isn’t there. They take an article like George’s as evidence that our Evangelical friends almost accept the Catholic teaching, missing how little, if anything at all, they’ve actually conceded.

In a recent Catholic News Service story, for example, a mariologist was quoted as saying, with all the good will in the world, that “some Catholic doctrines about Mary, such as the Immaculate Conception — the belief that she was conceived without sin — remain controversial among Protestants.” He seems to think that some believe it and others don’t, but that as a group they’re moving our way.

But the belief is not controversial among them at all: Those who understand the matter almost unanimously reject it out of hand. You would have to search long and hard to find any Protestant who believes it. (Outside, that is, of a few high-church Lutherans and Episcopalians, but they’re far from the mainstream of their traditions.)

Just try talking about Mary’s sinlessness to an Evangelical friend. He may simply say politely that he doesn’t believe in it, but he may react as if you’d casually urged him to sacrifice his children to Baal. He will tell you that you’ve denied the Lord, replaced Him with Mary, rejected the biblical teaching, and the like. He thinks the Catholic belief a serious heresy. A fact that is crucial to our friendship with Mary is, to most of our Evangelical friends, an abomination.

The desire to find our friends closer to us than before is an admirable impulse, but it prevents the clarity needed for a truly effective exchange. We must be careful not to take a sign of Evangelical openness to Catholic teaching as a conversion — to treat a friendly wave in our direction as a proposal of marriage.

Marian doctrine and devotion is not a matter, like some others, where the Catholic teaching is an extension or expansion of something believing Protestants hold already. The Communion of Saints, and by extension prayer to the saints for their help, is one of these, at least at the basic level. The Protestant believes in asking others for their prayers, and he knows mutual prayer to be a sign of the Church at work. The Catholic teaching only expands the number of fellow believers whose prayers he can request, by claiming that God has given us access to them. He probably still rejects it — and quite firmly — but it fits what he already believes about the relation of one Christian to his brothers.

Marian doctrine and piety are not like this. They rest on several beliefs radically different from those our Evangelical friends hold, not least the ability of the Church to discern through her Tradition truths that Scripture does not teach explicitly in the way the Evangelical requires. Nothing in Protestant piety could lead them to belief in Mary as the Queen of Heaven, and much tells them that she can’t possibly be anything of the sort. That kind of belief requires a conversion, in the sense of turning around and walking in the opposite direction, in a way the acceptance of many other Catholic teachings and practices doesn’t.

But this is something that many Catholics just don’t get. Priests and laity ask me about this, as a convert who’s written a book on Mary. They confidently give me what they think are winning arguments that are, in fact, hopelessly in-house, deeply Catholic arguments that would leave the inquiring Protestant cold, and in some cases quite offended. The Marian realities are so clear to them that they just can’t see how others can’t see them as clearly as they do. This keeps them from speaking effectively about Mary.

The person called to share the Catholic Faith has to know exactly what the other believes and — just as important, if not more importantly — how he feels about this belief. Think of a doctor trying to persuade a patient to try a new therapy, one that sounds worse than the disease it’s supposed to cure. If he speaks to the patient clinically, as one doctor to another, he won’t be able to convince the patient to try it, and may instead make him dig in his heels. For the patient’s own good, the doctor has to know how he thinks and feels. He must understand that the patient will first, and above all else, see the horrors of the treatment and has to be brought to see that the cost in pain and trouble is worth paying.

We want our Protestant friends to pay the cost, because the knowledge of the Blessed Mother can only change their lives for the better. But too optimistic a view of what they believe now will blind us to the severe challenge of sharing what we know about her with our Evangelical brethren, who are so close to us in so many ways, but so far from us in this.

David Mills is the author of Knowing the Real Jesus and Discovering Mary and writes a weblog for Patheos. He has served as the editor of Touchstone and executive editor of First Things. “Sharing the Real Mary” appeared on the Crisis website on October 16, 2009.