In the 1960s, it was virtually inconceivable that a Roman Catholic candidate could win a presidential election and conservative Protestants were at the forefront of the opposition to John F. Kennedy’s campaign. However, in only two decades, everything changed. With the rise of the Moral Majority and concern over a loss of cultural values, particularly the concern to protect the unborn, Roman Catholics and evangelicals found themselves working together, speaking together, and praying together.
Moving beyond political cooperation toward deeper theological and spiritual understanding, a new initiative was born when Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things, and evangelical leader Charles Colson gathered a group of friends to discuss their differences and agreements. In 1994, the first statement was issued from the group: “Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium.” Arousing debate within evangelical circles over issues that many of us considered (and still consider) essential to the gospel that were nevertheless left murky or marginalized, this document was followed by “The Gift of Salvation” in 1997. As the group summarizes in the current document, a third statement, “Your Word is Truth” (2002), “affirmed a convergence in our understanding of the transmission of God’s saving Word through Holy Scripture and tradition, which is the lived experience of the community of faith under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.” This was followed by “The Communion of Saints” (2003), “The Call to Holiness“ (2004), and “That They May Have Life” (2006). This year’s installment, recently released, is “Do Whatever He Tells You: The Blessed Virgin Mary in Christian Faith and Life.”
The authors of the recent document are to be commended for having managed to distill a complex history of differing interpretations in a brief space. The format contributes to its clarity: framing the issues and allowing both traditions to speak charitably yet frankly of their differences. The Roman Catholic partners in the dialogue begin by affirming the centrality and uniqueness of Christ, arguing that Mary, along with all saints in heaven, “cooperates” in Christ’s intercession rather than completing or contributing to it. Although there is much here that challenges popular Protestant caricatures (often drawn from popular Roman Catholic practice), attempts are not made to explain some of the problematic language in dogmatic encyclicals and the First Vatican Council. We must wait for the evangelical response before there are references to Mary as “co-mediatrix” and “co-redemptrix” (terms, of course, that the evangelical partners rejected). Nevertheless, the point of the statement was to find common ground and further discussion.
The Roman Catholic partners continue by defending the traditional Marian dogmas: her immaculate conception (officially promulgated in 1854 by Pius IX), which is said to have preserved her from the stain of original sin; her assumption, body and soul, into heaven before death (promulgated in 1950), her perpetual virginity (i.e., celibacy even after the birth of Jesus), and the propriety of offering prayers to and through her. They do point out that the immaculate conception was debated in the Middle Ages (rejected by Thomas Aquinas, for example), but affirm it as binding dogma. Upon her assumption, Mary became the “Queen of Heaven,” “the Ark of the Covenant,” and “Mother of the Church,” although the authors insist that in these roles Mary directs us to her Son. “In drawing closer to Mary, we are drawn closer to Christ….Any mediation attributed to Mary is only part of the mediation of Christ, the ‘one mediator between God and men’ (1 Tim 2:5).” When “the prayers” are mentioned as part of the ordinary worship of the early church in Acts 2:42, the authors interpret this as encompassing the communion of saints in heaven and on earth: “As we ask for the prayers of the Church on earth, so also we ask for the prayers of the Church in heaven.”
To anyone aware of the developments at the Second Vatican Council and since, these reflections will not be surprising. Although they omit important statements that might stand in some tension with their qualifications of official Marian devotion, they provide a helpful summary.
The evangelical participants are also to be commended for their clarity and conviction. The recognize the special honor in which Mary was held by the Protestant Reformers, who were happy to refer to her (as some of our confessions do) as “the Blessed Virgin Mary” and other titles. In fact, even Zwingli, Bullinger, and other Reformers still referred to her as “immaculate” and “ever-virgin,” so they at least did not regard these beliefs as church-dividing—although we should be glad that their successors rejected these views. The evangelical representatives recognize that the churches of the Reformation have always affirmed with the Council of Ephesus that Mary is Theotokos, “God-bearer.” Reformed Christians do not share the reticence of most evangelicals in calling Mary the “Mother of God,” since, as the evangelical authors point out, this was a Christological debate meant to affirm the divinity of Christ rather than to raise the status of Mary. The evangelical partners also offer respectful challenges (supported by exegesis) to Mary’s immaculate conception and perpetual virginity, pointing out the unlikelihood of “brothers and sisters” of Jesus (Matthew 13:55-56) being cousins, as Rome contends. They also challenge the bodily assumption of Mary and defend the exclusivity of Christ’s mediatorial work.
Of course, in consensus documents something more could always be said. Rome’s claim that Mary is “Mother of the Church” is nowhere supported in the New Testament (or by Old Testament prophecy). In fact, given the unity of the covenant of grace, it may be more easily said that Sarah is the mother of the church. Or, since the church was already born with the announcement of the gospel in Genesis 3:15, Abel’s sacrifice, and Seth’s calling on the name of the Lord, perhaps Eve is the mother of the church. However, all of this is speculation.
Ask many Protestants today why they are not Roman Catholic and they may refer to “something about Mary and the saints.” However, for the Reformers, the heart of the problem was the sufficiency of Scripture and especially the sufficiency of Christ the Mediator for sinners. Are we justified by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, or by grace and our merits, faith and our works, Christ and the intercession of Mary and the saints.
The mediation of Mary and the saints belongs to a whole system that includes purgatory as the place where departed souls may be relieved in their suffering by our prayers. The Roman Catholic partners, in fact, mentioned this point, citing Lumen Gentium 49. The sufficiency of Christ’s merits remains the most church-dividing issue between us and wherever there has been convergence, it has been the Protestant partner rather than Rome that has moved. I am glad that the evangelical representatives added in this document their concern to guard the Reformation’s emphasis on “the normative authority of Holy Scripture and justification by faith alone,” especially since both are compromised in the two earliest documents. In my view, genuinely evangelical convictions were more faithfully articulated and defended with respect to Mary than with regard to these other issues that are more central to the faith and to our unresolved differences with Rome.
I applaud the evangelical participants for offering renewed reflection on the mother of our Lord. She ought to be honored as the chief of saints for her unique role in redemptive history. Nevertheless, as Calvin argued so long ago in making this same point, the greatest significance of her example for us is that she, though a sinner, was the recipient of God’s free grace and blessing in the Son whom she bore for the salvation of us all. Let us, with her, embrace that Good News so that we, with her, may be blessed forever.