I was raised in the Protestant reformed christian faith as a child (Presbyterian). We did not hear much about Mary other that she was the acknowledged mother of Jesus. Hence since converting to the RC faith some 27 years ago, I have remained somewhat curious why Mary is so important to Catholics and indeed members of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the order I am a lay associate of.
Well I finally found an answer in The Catholic Thing, a daily message that (Canadian) Cardinal Thomas Collins had recommended a few months ago. The author of the article, Casey Chalk, quotes no less than Reformed theologian Karl Barth, to illustrate Protestant suspicions about RC Marian importance and veneration. In his Church Dogmatics Barth said:
“Marian dogma is neither more nor less than the critical, central normative dogma of the Roman Catholic Church, the dogma from the standpoint of which all their important positions are to be regarded and by which they stand or fall. The “mother of god” of Roman Catholic Marian dogma is quite simply the principle, type and the essence of the human creature cooperating servant-like (ministerialiter) in its own redemption on the basis of prevenient grace, and to that extent the principle, type and the essence of the Church.”
Not all Catholic theologians, religious or clergy might agree, citing Jesus Christ’s Incarnation and Resurrection as centerpieces of Catholic dogma. Chalk goes on to quote Manfred Hauke in his Introduction to Mariology: “Mary, virgin Mother of the Savior, is closely united with the work of salvation. God made the Incarnation depend on the ‘yes’ of this woman, who deeply becomes part of the mystery of the Covenant.” Without Mary’s consent, there is no messiah.”
Well I never exactly thought of it this way. Furthermore, in Mary, we see a perfect model for ourselves. We too are chosen by God manifested by our baptism or through a calling from Christ later in life. Our cooperation is required, just like Mary’s was. We can reject the baptismal promises that were made by our parents on our behalf. We can ignore His callings to us later in our life. Of course, this participation in our own salvation is not accomplished solely through our own willpower, but by God’s grace operative at the beginning, middle, and end of all our actions.
Catholics aim to imitate Mary in being entirely submissive to the divine will. Hauke explains: “Mary is like a focal point in which the central truths of the Catholic faith can be seen.” This was certainly true for St. Eugene de Mazenod, founder of the Oblates.
This clarifies somewhat why Protestants have downplayed Mary’s importance. Inasmuch as Mariology illuminates human collaboration in our salvation, it violates the core Protestant principles of sola fide (“by faith alone”) and sola gratia (“by grace alone”). Mariology becomes, in Barth’s words, “a tumor, i.e., a diseased construct of theological thought. Tumors must be excised.” For Protestantism, Marian devotion is not merely a matter of idolatrous distraction from worship of God, it vitiates the salvific economy.
Mary’s witness, as the RC Church teaches, reminds us that our wills are not so deadened by sin that we require irresistible grace (another Reformed doctrine), but remain sufficiently intact that we are truly culpable for responding in faith and love to the overtures of divine grace. For Protestants, Marian dogma is not simply a distraction, but an attack on the very heart of Protestantism, and thus can be a serious obstacle for conversions.
As a child I was told that Jesus loves me. However I could not achieve salvation unless God alone willed it. God either chooses me or he doesn’t – for His reasons – which remain unknown. He is supreme. If God depends on me to say yes, this subtracts from his supremacy. It is a less welcoming way to come to salvation. I remember during my RCIA conversion program of feeling so welcomed into the Catholic faith. Now I recall why. Everyone is invited to the table and has a free choice in accepting His invitation – i.e. of cooperating with God, or not. Just as Mary had a choice and said yes. Her example of cooperating with God’s will is the supreme example we have on which to base our own personal decision. So that is why she is so important to Catholics, to the Oblate and more and more to me.