I blush to admit this, but there was a time when I could really get worked up about Marian dogma. In the years just before my conversion, I used to cite the Catholic affirmation of Mary’s Immaculate Conception and perpetual virginity as major obstacles to my intellectual submission. I just didn’t believe in that stuff.
I had no objection to any of the moral teachings. The papacy didn’t bother me. No contraceptives? No problem. Those Marian teachings, though, were a real bone in my craw.
In retrospect this seems utterly ridiculous. How well did I even understand the relevant theology? Why did I care? More than a decade into my Catholic life, I spend virtually no time worrying about the details of Marian dogma, and I think my objections were mostly just an excuse to hang back a little longer while I worked through some personal issues. Still, I used to argue the point rather vociferously, and casting my mind back, I can still recall some of the reasons why these teachings offended me. It could prove a useful exercise on this, the Feast of Immaculate Conception. How can we help our non-Catholic brethren to appreciate why we celebrate the Mother of God in this special way?
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One reason people fixate on the Marian dogma is because it is so uniquely and distinctively Catholic. This can make the Marian teachings a natural point of tension. Why are Catholics so certain that they know something the rest of us don’t?
At one time in my life, I used to worry a lot about “Christian unity.” I wanted Christians of all stripes to view themselves as one big family, the Body of Christ, God’s army on Earth against the errors of secularism and modernism. Marian dogma typified that know-it-all attitude that, in my mind, was a real obstacle to that unity. “God revealed this to us, and did you not get the memo? Well, it figures. We Catholics have all the insider stuff.”
In a way, then, Marian dogma was just an entry point into a much broader set of concerns about the nature of Church authority. Protestants often press these points in a more systematic way, especially by referencing their three solas. (Sola Sciptura would be the most relevant to the present issue). The Marian teachings don’t seem to come from Scripture, so many Protestants feel safe dismissing them as the accretions of a corrupt and wayward Church.
There are strong arguments to be made against the solas, and sometimes that effort is worthwhile. Still, my own experience would suggest that anxiety about doctrinal authority can transcend these theological specifics. I had never subscribed to the solas, but I still found the Marian teachings irksome. Having grown up in an already-fractured Christendom, I was accustomed to seeing the fracturing as the problem, and Rome’s imperial attitude as an obstacle to Christian harmony.
Authority is obviously a central issue to consider for anyone who wants to be Catholic. There is no good way to finesse the point; the would-be convert must eventually make up her mind whether she is willing to accept Rome’s authority, or not. Still, for those who labor in the trenches of Catholic apologetics, it may help to appreciate this larger context. When people get bizarrely worked up over arcane points of dogma, it’s quite likely that authority is really the underlying problem. The solution may just lie in giving them a larger sense of context, such that the Roman claim to unique doctrinal authority doesn’t seem so outrageous. For those (like my old self) who profess an ardent desire for Christian unity, it’s worth noting that Protestants, lacking a central authority, have been remarkably unsuccessful at maintaining any kind of unity. That road (like all the others!) quite often leads people to Rome in the long run.
Having said all of that, I think I did have more specific reasons for objecting to Marian teachings, as opposed to papal infallibility, contraceptives, or other potential “accretions.” Growing up in the LDS Church, I never celebrated Marian feasts, but the Christmas story was cherished. I have no memory of learning for the first time about the shepherds and wise men and Mary’s precious baby; these are some of the most potent images of my early childhood. Thus, I felt a kind of protectiveness towards the manger scene that made “accretions” especially offensive. Humanae Vitae made sense to me from the first time I read it, but the dogma of the Immaculate Conception did not make sense to me; it felt to me like the Catholics were trying to mess with perfection. Why “gussy up” the sublime simplicity of the Gospel story with flowery language and theological arcanery?
I was confused, of course. My confusion may still be instructive in the following way: Sometimes the best way to help a potential convert is by showing her that she need not really lose whatever insight or spiritual comfort is most precious to her. A formerly Protestant friend of mine likes to say that a turning point for her was when she suddenly saw that, “Oh, there’s more!” Everything she loved about Protestantism was re-articulated in some way in the Catholic tradition, but there was more of everything a Christian should want (philosophy, spirituality, Sacraments, saints, and so on). “Accretions” aren’t a bad thing if they help us move closer to the beautiful and true.
Marian spirituality has many faces, and if people are put off by one, presenting another may reassure. I myself have a distaste for the saccharine and emotional, so many Marian images and memes were off-putting to me. I didn’t warm to pastel-hued Marian statuettes, or to Marian enthusiasts such as St Louis of Montfort (who to my eyes seemed completely overwrought). Hearing of this, a priest recommended certain prayers: the Rosary of course, but also some litanies that combined an austere simplicity with an impressive listing of titles. Presumably he was hoping that something in that mix would resonate and defuse my defensive impulse. It was a wise suggestion. It really makes no sense whatsoever to stay out of the Church for love of our Blessed Mother. Still, possible-converts all have their little insecurities, and a little sensitivity can go a long way.
In December of 2004, I went to Mass on the Feast of Immaculate Conception for the first time in my life. (In the past I had specifically avoided that Mass on principle.) As the congregation sang Immaculate Mary, I remember thinking, “This is beautiful. This song has exactly the childlike simplicity that I associate with Mary. How often do Mormons actually sing their love to the Mother of God?” I could feel myself softening.
Catholics love the Blessed Virgin. We have innumerable resources for drawing closer to Christ’s Mother. For those outside the fold, however, it may be helpful at times to acknowledge that she isn’t exclusively ours. Her loveliness can be glimpsed from many directions, and her love extends to all. By genially sharing her with others, we may inspire in some a desire to seek out a place where her radiance can be witnessed more fully.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail from “La Colosal (Immaculate Conception)” painted by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo in 1652.