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Mary (In Catholic-Protestant Dialogue)

MARY (IN CATHOLIC-PROTESTANT DIALOGUE)

Since Vatican II, Catholic and Protestant theologians have engaged in an historic series of irenic dialogues, conferences, and joint writings that have addressed differences in doctrine and devotion over Mary, the mother of Jesus, the mother of God, that have divided the churches since the Reformation. The turning point was the council's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church which in its lengthy, concluding chapter eight firmly integrated teaching about Mary with truth about Christ (he alone is Mediator and Savior) and the church (of which she is preeminent member and for which she is model of faith and charity), and warned of excesses in preaching and piety. Paul VI's letter calling for sound renewal of Marian devotion (Marialis Cultus 1973) also contributed to an open, sober atmosphere where long-standing disagreements could be addressed.

Basic to this dialogue is the testimony of Scripture, which provides significant common ground for understanding Mary's theological importance. The volume Mary in the New Testament (1978), produced by a team of Catholic and Lutheran scholars, broke through ignorance on this score, delineating wide areas of agreement about biblical material while identifying other areas where later ecclesial traditions diverged. Inviting participation by interested persons from different churches, Catholic international Mariological congresses in Saragossa, Spain (1979), Malta (1983), and Kevelaer, Germany (1987) produced noteworthy statements of agreement regarding Mary's role in the incarnation and salvation history. The English-speaking Ecumenical Society of the Blessed Virgin Mary, founded in 1967, promotes study and devotion in an inter-church setting; its published papers reflect growing rapprochement.

As the twentieth century ended, two high-profile dialogues on Mary made exceptional contributions. From 1983 to 1990 the U.S. Lutheran-Catholic Dialogue discussed the person and role of Mary in the context of Christ, who is the one mediator, and the whole communion of saints. The published study (Anderson 1992) contains a common statement of convergences and divergences explained by historical background and buttressed by 15 supporting papers. In France the interconfessional body of 40 theologians known as the Groups des Dombes issued a two-part study (1999) based on biblical, historical, and systematic theological analysis. While each of these dialogues took place in the venue of particular nations, the incisive character of their final documents has had international impact.

The substance of agreement about Mary in ecumenical dialogue finds the Catholic and Protestant traditions together at the very center of Christian faith as expressed in Scripture and creed. As the woman whose "yes" to God's invitation brought about the birth of the Messiah "for us and for our salvation," her story has significance for both Christ and the church. Her historic pregnancy is a bulwark of his genuine humanity against all docetism; the title theotokos affirmed at the Council of ephesus signals that the one she bore is indeed the Son of God. At the same time her own life, fraught with difficulties, was a "journey of faith" from Nazareth to Bethlehem to Jerusalem. In this she is a type and outstanding model of the church as it seeks to follow Christ on the path of discipleship. This is more than example, however. luther's insight that Mary embodied God's unmerited grace signals the fundamental relationship of faith in which every believer stands. Thus reference to Mary is not merely ornamental but serves to solidify profession of faith in the incarnation and to guide active living according to the gospel.

Serious differences remain, rooted in differing Catholic and Protestant historical experiences, sensibilities, and spiritualities. Of these, four stand out. One is the Catholic interpretation that Mary cooperated with grace and thereby with God's plan of salvation. This contradicts Protestant understanding of the relation between divine grace and human freedom in which the human will is totally dependent on God's initiative and can do nothing on its own merit apart from Christ. Another issue is the perpetual virginity of Mary, insisted upon by Catholic teaching but not clearly attested in Scripture and not considered essential by Protestants for appreciating Mary's holiness. Even more thorny is the issue of the two Marian dogmas defined by popes in the past two centuries: the immaculate conception (1854) and the assumption (1950). Not only are the grounds in Scripture for these beliefs highly debatable, and not only do they appear to Protestant eyes to place Mary on a level with Christ, but they issued forth by infallible papal decree. Thus they are inseparably united with the question of authority in the church, which in these two instances Protestants judge to have bound consciences without legitimate warrant.

A final issue, perhaps the most nettlesome because connected with popular piety, is the practice of invocation, or calling upon Mary in her mediating role as an intercessor. To the Protestant mind, this is nothing short of religiously dangerous for in addition to not being commanded in Scripture it tends to displace the heart's trust from Christ to Mary, and thus substitute her for the One who alone is mediator. To the Catholic mind, however, Mary and all the saints form a community with us in Christ; pilgrimages, shrines, the rosary, the "Hail Mary," and myriad artistic representations are concrete ways of expressing solidarity together in intercession before God (see mary, blessed virgin, devotion to).

The question now emerges of whether any of these obstacles needs to be finally church dividing. Dialogue groups note the need for a process of conversionCatholics from uncritical engagement in excessive Marian expressions, Protestants from unwarranted silence and atrophied devotion toward Mary's role in Scripture and creed, and both toward respectful acceptance of legitimate differences. The process of dialogue itself seems to indicate that not uniformity but ecumenical conversion toward the Spirit-inspired insights of each other will overcome the effects of centuries of divisive opposition over teaching and devotional practice regarding Mary.

Bibliography: g. anderson et al., eds., The One Mediator, the Saints, and Mary: Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue VIII (Minneapolis, 1992). r. brown et al., eds., Mary in the New Testament: A Collaborative Assessment by Protestant and Roman Catholic Scholars (New York, Philadelphia 1978). groupe des dombes, Marie dans le dessein de Dieu et la communion des saints (Paris 1999). j. macquarrie, Mary for All Christians (Grand Rapids, Mich. 1990). h. kÜng and j. moltmann, eds., Mary in the Churches (New York 1983). t. o'meara, Mary in Protestant and Catholic Theology (New York 1966). j. pelikan et al., Mary: Images of the Mother of Jesus in Jewish and Christian Perspective (Philadelphia 1986). a. stacpoole, ed., Mary's Place in Christian Dialogue (Wilton, Conn. 1982). g. tavard, The Thousand Faces of the Virgin Mary (Collegeville, Minn. 1996). s. zimdarsschwartz, Encountering Mary: From LaSalette to Medjugorje (Princeton 1991).

[e. a. johnson]

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