For centuries, Mary, the mother of Jesus, has been a focal point of controversy and debate among Christians. Confusion particularly surrounds Catholic teachings on this favored Saint. What do Catholics mean when they call Mary “ever virgin,” the “new Eve,” and the “Mother of God”? What is the “Immaculate Conception” and does it refer to Mary or Jesus? And perhaps most importantly, do Catholics worship Mary? This article serves to explain Catholic beliefs about Mary and clear up misconceptions about her unique role in the Catholic faith.
On December 8, Catholics celebrated the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. A common mistaken belief is that this feast day celebrates Jesus' conception; however, the Immaculate Conception refers to Mary's conception in the womb of her mother, St. Anne. (We will celebrate the Nativity of the Virgin Mary, or “Mary's birthday,” in exactly nine months, on September 8; the Incarnation of Jesus in Mary's womb is celebrated on March 25, nine months before Christmas.)
The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception teaches that Mary, although conceived in the usual manner by her human parents (St. Anne and St. Joachim), was saved from the stain of original sin at the moment of conception. Pope Pius IX proclaimed in 1854: “...the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin...”
In effect, Catholics believe Mary was the first human being to receive the effects of Jesus' saving power, only her redemption was incurred retroactively. Catholics view Gabriel’s greeting as an implicit reference to Mary's exemption from the stain of original sin. In Luke 1:28Luke 1:28Luke 1:28, the angel says, "Hail, kecharitomene, the Lord is with you.” To quote from the apologetics site Catholic Answers, “The grace given to Mary is at once permanent and of a unique kind. Kecharitomene is a perfect passive participle of charitoo, meaning 'to fill or endow with grace.' Since this term is in the perfect tense, it indicates that Mary was graced in the past but with continuing effects in the present.”
Mary as the New Eve
Jesus is referenced in Scripture as the new Adam (cf. Romans 5:18-21); similarly, Catholics believe that Mary is the new Eve. Eve, like Mary, was a virgin created without sin; but Eve, unlike Mary, chose to reject obedience to God. The Catholic Church teaches that through Eve's disobedience to the will of God, the world fell; through Mary's obedience, the world was redeemed. This particular Catholic title for Mary dates back to early Church fathers like St. Irenaeus, who wrote in his second-century work Against Heresies, “And thus also it was that the knot of Eve's disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary. For what the virgin Eve had bound fast through unbelief, this did the virgin Mary set free through faith.”
Mary as the Ark of the New Covenant
Catholics believe God chose to save Mary from the stain of original sin in order to consecrate Mary as the Ark of the New Covenant. Just as the original Ark of the Covenant contained manna from Heaven, Aaron's rod that sprouted to confirm the priesthood of the tribe of Levi, and the written Word of God (cf. Hebrews 9:4); the Ark of the New Covenant contained Jesus: the Bread of Life, the Word made flesh, who died and rose again to become our High Priest. The Catholic Church draws parallels with various scriptures in giving Mary this title, for example comparing 2 Samuel 6:2-14 with Luke 1:39-56.
In 2 Samuel 6:2-14, King David, who is in the hill country of Judah, goes out to the Ark of the Covenant. After the death of Uzzah, he asks, “How can the ark of the LORD come to me?” and takes the Ark to the house of O'bed-e'dom, where it blesses the entire household and remains for three months. As it is being brought to the city, David dances with joy before it.
In Luke 1:39-45, 56, in which Mary, after consenting to the incarnation of Jesus in her womb, journeys to the hill country of Judah to visit her cousin Elizabeth. Elizabeth, upon meeting her, is filled with the Holy Spirit and asks, “Why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” John leaps for joy in Elizabeth's womb at the sound of Mary's voice, and Mary remains with Elizabeth for three months before returning home.
The Catholic Church cites another Biblical parallel in Revelation 11:19: “Then God's Temple in Heaven was opened, and the Ark of His Covenant was seen within His Temple; and there were flashes of lightning, voices, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail. And a great portent appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; she was with Child and she cried out in her pangs of birth, in anguish for delivery.”
In these verses, John is shown the Ark of the [Old] Covenant immediately before being presented with a vision of the Ark of the New Covenant, who “brought forth a Male Child, One who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron” (Revelation 12:5).
As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “Mary, in whom the Lord himself has just made his dwelling, is the daughter of Zion in person, the ark of the covenant, the place where the glory of the Lord dwells. She is 'the dwelling of God . . . with men.' Full of grace, Mary is wholly given over to him who has come to dwell in her and whom she is about to give to the world” (para 2676).
Mary as Ever Virgin
The Catholic Church’s view of Mary as the Ark of the New Covenant ties into their doctrine of Mary's perpetual virginity; that is, the belief that Mary was a virgin before, during and after the conception and birth of Jesus. Here, the Catholic Church draws from 2 Samuel 6 where it was so important to God that the Ark remain pure and undefiled, He killed Uzzah instantly when he touched it, even though Uzzah's intention (to keep the Ark from falling after the oxen stumbled) was just. Catholics believe that Joseph, a conscientious Jew, would be aware of this prohibition on God's holy vessel and would act accordingly.
It is also believed by Catholics that Mary's perpetual virginity is a typology of the Temple gate referenced in Ezekiel 44:2: “The LORD said to me, “This gate shall be shut; it shall not be opened, and no one shall enter by it, for the LORD God of Israel has entered by it; therefore it shall be shut.” Once Jesus, the God Incarnate, entered through the “gate,” that “gate” was forever shut by the command of God.
Due to belief in Mary's perpetual virginity, Catholics believe she did not have any other biological children. Many might wonder, then, how Catholics explain the references to Jesus’ siblings in scripture? Catholics believe it is possible that Jesus had stepbrothers from a previous marriage by Joseph; it's thought more probable that when the Gospels speak of Jesus' “brothers” or “brethren” that they are referring to cousins, nephews, or other kin of Mary. The Catholic Church points to the custom of referring to cousins or close relations as “brothers” in other Biblical contexts, such as Genesis 14:14-24 where Lot is called Abraham's brother, even though Genesis 11:26-28 shows that Lot is Abraham's nephew.
Another scripture the Catholic Church looks to regarding Mary’s perpetual virginity is Jesus' words while Mary and John were at the foot of the cross. There, Jesus entrusts Mary to John's care (cf. John 19:26-27). Catholics believe that this would not have been necessary had Mary had other grown children to take care of her, as Jewish custom dictated.
The Catholic Church also draws from the words of the angel Gabriel once again. When he announces that she would bear a son, Mary replies, “How can this be, since I know not man?” Catholics believe Mary's question an indication that she wasn't expecting to have children with Joseph since Gabriel had not yet told her this baby would be the Son of God. The Catholic Church also looks to some early Christian documents, such as the Protoevangelium of James, suggesting that Mary was a temple virgin consecrated to the Lord, and her marriage to Joseph was contracted so that he could protect her status as a temple virgin.
Mary as “Theotokos,” the Mother of God
In 431, in response to the Nestorian heresies (which called into question the unity of Christ’s humanity and divinity), the Council of Ephesus decreed that Mary was the Theotokos, literally “the God-bearer” or the “Mother of God,” because her son Jesus was the one person who was both God and man, divine and human. When Catholics call Mary the “Mother of God,” it is not meant to imply that Mary somehow pre-existed God or Jesus in a chronological sense; rather, the title is one of honor and deference to her role in the Incarnation and Nativity of Jesus.
Assumption and Queenship of Mary
The doctrine of the Assumption states that Mary's mortal body was assumed into Heaven, likely immediately after her death (however, Catholic teaching is not definite on this point; Catholics can legitimately hold that Mary was assumed just before her death). It's important to note that Catholics do not believe Mary ascended into heaven under her own power; Jesus ascended by His own power but Mary was assumed into heaven by the power of God, just as Elijah (2 Kings 2:11) and Enoch (Genesis 5:23-24) were.
Mary's queenship is a Tradition drawn from Mary's role as the Mother of God. Catholics believe since Jesus is King, Mary is, in effect, the Queen Mother, just as Bathsheba was Queen Mother under King Solomon (cf. 1 Kings 2:20). This title is not intended to supplant or replace the divine authority of God or the kingship of Jesus; Mary, as always, remains subordinate to her God and her Savior. However, given her unique role as the Ark of the New Covenant, the New Eve, and the Theotokos, Catholics believe that Mary holds a special place in heaven granted to her by God.
Mary “Worship” and Prayers to Mary
Catholics follow the example of St. Elizabeth in calling Mary “blessed among women” (cf. Luke 1:42), as well as Mary's own affirmation that “all generations shall call [her] blessed” (cf. Luke 1:48), but Catholic teaching is also clear that worship of Mary (or any other human person) is a grave sin and an egregious violation of the first commandment. Mary is honored and venerated by Catholics due to her unique role in salvation history, but worship is reserved for God alone.
When Catholics speak of “praying to Mary” or other saints, this simply refers to asking fellow brothers and sisters in Christ for their intercessory prayers, the same as asking the members of our church or our pastor here on earth to pray for us. Catholics see Mary and the Saints as part of the Church triumphant; i.e., the members of the Body of Christ in heaven, so they communicate with them through prayer and believe that God grants the saints in heaven the ability to hear our prayers and pray for us as well. (A longer and more thorough explanation of this practice from a Catholic perspective can be found here).
As the Catechism says, “Because of Mary's singular cooperation with the action of the Holy Spirit, the Church loves to pray in communion with the Virgin Mary, to magnify with her the great things the Lord has done for her, and to entrust supplications and praises to her” (para. 2682).
Catholics believe that devotion to Mary as their spiritual mother serves only to bring them closer to her Son. The Church does not believe she answers prayers directly, but she brings them to her Son on their behalf. For example, I often pray for my husband and his intentions, and he also prays directly to God. Likewise, Catholics ask Mary, along with their other brothers and sisters in Christ, to pray to the Lord. It's not that Catholics either ask Mary to pray for them or pray directly to God, it's that they both ask Mary to pray for them and pray directly to God.
Mary, a Star of Hope
On a personal note, my favorite title for Mary, and one that I think nicely sums up the Catholic belief that Mary is the spiritual mother of all Christians, is one that was referenced by Pope Benedict XVI in his 2007 encyclical Spe Salvi (“Saved in Hope”): “Human life is a journey. Towards what destination? How do we find the way? Life is like a voyage on the sea of history, often dark and stormy, a voyage in which we watch for the stars that indicate the route. The true stars of our life are the people who have lived good lives. They are lights of hope. Certainly, Jesus Christ is the true light, the sun that has risen above all the shadows of history. But to reach him we also need lights close by—people who shine with his light and so guide us along our way. Who more than Mary could be a star of hope for us? With her ‘yes’ she opened the door of our world to God himself; she became the living Ark of the Covenant, in whom God took flesh, became one of us, and pitched his tent among us (cf. Acts 1:14).”
For Catholics, Mary, as a star of hope, reflects the glory and majesty of the “true light” – her son, Jesus Christ.
JoAnna Wahlund has been married since 9/01/01 to her wonderful husband, Collin. They have 4 children: Elanor Mary (age 6), William Joseph (age 3), Violet Elizabeth (age 1) and Gabriel Keith (born 11/26/11). Both Collin and JoAnna were lifelong Lutherans who converted to Catholicism in May 2003. JoAnna blogs at A Star of Hope.
1. Pope Pius IX. Ineffabilis Deus. 8 December 1854. http://www.newadvent.org/library/docs_pi09id.htm
2. “Immaculate Conception and Assumption.” Catholic Answers. http://www.catholic.com/tracts/immaculate-conception-and-assumption
3. Heschmeyer, Joseph. “Mary, Ark of the New Covenant.” http://catholicdefense.blogspot.com/2011/12/mary-ark-of-new-covenant.html
4. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Edition. 1997. Rome: Libreria Editrice Vaticana. http://www.scborromeo.org/ccc.htm
5. St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0103322.htm
6. The Essential Catholic Survival Guide. Catholic Answers Press, 2005.
7. “Mary, Mother of God.” Catholic Answers. http://www.catholic.com/tracts/mary-mother-of-god
8. “Mary's Queenship.” Fr. William G. Most. http://www.ewtn.com/faith/teachings/marya6.htm
9. Pope Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, 30 November 2007. http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/encyclicals/documents/hf_ben-xvi_enc_20071130_spe-salvi_en.html
Image: William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) - Song of the Angels (1881)