Some months ago This Rock published a letter from a self-styled Catholic who denounced Catholics for “worshiping” the Blessed Virgin. It was a confused letter, above all because the writer thinks he’s “saved” and so doesn’t need Mary’s (or anyone else’s) intercession. That’s an unbiblical position and perhaps not normally one worthy of much attention. Nevertheless, the letter forced me to reflect on my own experience as a teacher of theology at the Pontifical University of Puerto Rico.
We Catholic apologists are people who—quite rightly—tend to identify “the belief of Catholics” with the official doctrine of our Church. But we also need to balance our “textbook” Catholicism with an awareness that the “belief of Catholics,” understood in an empirical, sociological sense, can sometimes be very different.
We all know, of course, that there is a problem of dissent in the Church, but what we know about is public dissent: theologians, priests, religious, and laity who openly reject, orally and in print, certain doctrines of the Church to which they profess to belong. I have discovered that there is another type of doctrinal error in the Church, one we don’t hear much about because not a single theologian, whether dissident or orthodox, has ever taught it. Yes, there are Catholics who hold a certain false religious belief, even though no one in authority has taught it to them.
You could call this a “silent heresy.” Not only has it never been promoted by any theologian, but it has never been promoted publicly by those who hold it! You don’t see this heresy coming out in opinion polls, because (unlike topics such as contraception, divorce, homosexuality, and women’s ordination) it is a topic of little or no interest to the mass media, which therefore never ask Catholics what they think about it.
What, you ask, is this mysterious heresy which no Catholic has ever taught, but some Catholics believe? Rejoice, Bart Brewer! Gloat, Bill Jackson! Shout for victory, Dave Hunt! There are Catholics who seem to worship Mary—and distressingly many of ’em!
The first reaction of some readers may be (since I said I’m in Puerto Rico) that this is merely a Latin American situation. Everyone knows there’s superstition, ignorance, and syncretism “down there.” Look at all that voodoo in Haiti, all those baptized spiritists in Brazil, and so on. But I’m not talking about illiterate Indians (there aren’t any in Puerto Rico anyway). I’m talking about Catholic college students who are asked to state what they understand to be the authentic teaching of their Church.
A couple of years ago, our theology department began administering “diagnostic tests” to undergraduate students beginning a course in basic Catholic dogma, to find out what they already knew or didn’t know. Since I was the main professor making up the test, I put in the following proposition, which I deliberately made as plainly and as blatantly heretical as I could. Students were asked to qualify it as true or false.
Word for word, it stated: “La Virgen Maria es igual a Dios y por tanto, merece el clase de culto y honor que El.” That means, “The Virgin Mary is equal to God and so deserves the same kind of worship and honor as he does.” I believe Jack Chick himself could not have formulated a more perfect distortion of what the Church teaches about our Lady.
To my dismay, I found that nearly a quarter of the students answered “true.” There was no significant difference in this regard between those who said on their questionnaire that they regularly attended church and those who said they don’t. In other words, regular Mass attendance did not seem to decrease the likelihood that a student would hold this idolatrous opinion.
This, as I say, is among college students. Among lesser-educated Catholics, the situation worsens. I am also a prison chaplain here in Ponce, Puerto Rico’s second biggest city. Among the prisoners who have expressed a desire to participate in Catholic religious services—many of them, it is true, having been alienated from the Church since childhood—the percentage doubles: Around forty percent answer “true” to the proposition.
One of them was the most devout inmate under my pastoral care and one of the few who was already receiving the sacraments regularly when I started with the group. He had spent most of his life in the U.S. and spoke English better than Spanish. After the test I assured him that the proposition was false, and he immediately accepted the correction, but I was intrigued as to what he had been thinking previously and asked him to explain. He said, “Well, Father, I always knew our Lady’s real special for us Catholics. Like, I didn’t want to put her down or anything. I guess I just kinda figured she was right up there with God and Jesus.”
At first I wasn’t going to submit this information to This Rock. Even though these statistics are not representative of Catholics as a whole, I wondered, “Gosh, what would the professional anti-Catholics say? I can see the headlines now: `Romanists Reveal Dirty Little Secret: They Do Worship Mary!'” Then I realized that a cover-up would be unworthy. This is the Holy Catholic Church of Christ, not some lobbying group or political party that must hide the truth in order to present a “correct” image to the world.
More importantly, positive results may flow from this information. The problem is that too many priests, catechists, and religious educators are taking for granted that not a single person in their flocks actually worships Mary, and so they never think it necessary to teach clearly and explicitly that the honor we pay to our Lady in our devotions and liturgy is not to be understood as implying her “equality” with God.
I advise the reader give a copy of this article to his local priest. Suggest that, when our Lady next comes up in the liturgy, he should set the record straight for his listeners; after all, it is possible that in his own congregation there will be one or more ignorant Catholics who need to hear it spelled out that Mary is not on the same level as her Creator.
I have no doubt that some Fundamentalists who see this article will quote it selectively for their own ends. So let’s look at the same data from a different viewpoint. The other side of the coin is that these results are really a devastating rebuttal of what professional anti-Catholics assert in their propaganda, namely, that Catholics in general “worship Mary” and that priests, bishops, and popes are the worst offenders in promoting this “idolatry.” But if my results indicate anything, they indicate that, among Catholics, rejection of Marian idolatry wins by a landslide!
We clergy are doing a poor job of getting our idolatrous message through to rank-and-file Catholics! In reality, of course, such results should help fair-minded Fundamentalists to recognize that the insistent denials of Marian idolatry on the part of Catholic leaders and apologists are not whitewash designed to deceive Protestants, but the sincerely-held belief which we communicate effectively to nearly all practicing Catholics. If any Fundamentalist reader of this article feels tempted to use it as a “proof” that the Catholic Church deliberately promotes idolatrous worship of Mary, let me appeal to his sense of fair play: Why do you think I wrote and This Rock is publishing this article? Isn’t it obvious that our only motive is to oppose and correct whatever tendencies there may be in our Church to regard Mary in an idolatrous light?
Let me suggest that such a Protestant organize an opinion poll among those who claim to belong to Evangelical churches, not omitting non-practicing members. Include in the survey a proposition denying the core Reformation doctrine of salvation by faith alone, something like: “Salvation is a reward for keeping the Ten Commandments” or “Doing good deeds helps us get to heaven.”
Suppose a percentage roughly equivalent to that of the “Mariolaters” in my survey says this anti-Reformation proposition is “true.” (Judging by my experience as an ex-Protestant, I’d be willing to bet the results would be comparable.) Would it be fair to draw the conclusion that Evangelical churches don’t really believe in and teach salvation by faith alone and that Evangelical pastors are going all-out to indoctrinate their flocks with “works-righteousness”? Of course not! The simple fact is that in spite of the efforts of leaders and teachers, some Protestants remain ignorant of Protestant doctrine, and some Catholics remain ignorant of Catholic doctrine.
Some Protestant readers might still object in this way: “Of course it’s true that you Catholics don’t deliberately promote idolatry of Mary, and your official teaching clearly rules it out. Nevertheless, don’t the results of your survey show the wisdom of our Protestant Reformers in abolishing Marian devotions and images? After all, if practices in honor of Mary are likely to be misunderstood by a minority of Catholics, no matter how few their number, wouldn’t it be safest to eliminate these practices altogether?”
That’s a reasonable question which deserves a reasonable answer. I would reply by posing another question: “Martin Luther said his doctrine of salvation by faith alone is the article `by which the Church stands or falls.’ Yet there are innumerable scriptural passages that refer to the necessity of good works and to the fact that those who live by the `works of the flesh [that is, those who flout the commandments] will not inherit the kingdom of God’ (Gal. 5:19-21).
“These passages are liable to be understood in the anti-Lutheran sense that we Catholics ascribe to them. So great is this peril that practically all Christian theologians and believers for 1,500 years understood the Bible in this way—until Luther came along and denounced them all as heretical. So don’t you think it would be the safest course of action, by your own reasoning, to stop proclaiming and preaching those Scripture passages in your church services and Bible study groups? By preaching only about faith and never works, wouldn’t you eliminate the danger of being misunderstood by simple folk who might well fall into a doctrine of `works-righteousness?'”
“No, of course not,” will come the reply. “If some parts of Scripture are liable to be misunderstood, the solution is not to suppress them, but to explain them better!”
Exactly. Catholics would speak similarly. Since the unanimous Catholic Tradition, drawing its inferences from Scripture, insists on the importance of giving due honor to the Mother of God, we must continue to do so. If that honor is sometimes misunderstood, the solution is to explain it better.
To stop honoring Mary would be to break with Scripture as well as Tradition. Scripture makes clear the Christian’s close identification with Christ; we are members of his body, and he calls us “brothers.” That means his mother must be our mother as well, and so we are bound to honor her under the commandment that instructs us to “honor your father and your mother.” Each of us honors his earthly mother for being God’s instrument in giving the gift of physical life; why should we not honor that mother who was God’s instrument in giving us Christ, who is our spiritual life?
Protestants should reflect carefully on Luke 1:43. Elizabeth was Mary’s cousin; they probably visited each other often. Yet when Elizabeth realized Mary’s unique identity, her reaction was that of a Catholic, not a Protestant; she had such a deep sense of awe and reverence in the presence of Mary’s greatness that their equality at the level of flesh and blood, the easy familiarity of former times, was put aside in that inspired moment of their meeting.
“And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” she asks. Lest any Protestant suggest that Elizabeth was overreacting, approaching “Mariolatry” herself, Luke makes a point of telling us that her response was prompted by the Holy Spirit (v. 41), who also inspired her to praise Mary as the most “blessed of all women” (v. 42).
Elizabeth honors Mary not in isolation, nor for Mary’s own sake, but for the sake of Christ, because Mary is “the mother of my Lord.” That is the authentic biblical position, which the Catholic Church always has promoted.