In his classic work Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, Henry Adams asserts, only half whimsically, that the twelfth-century Cathedral of Chartres was, in all its details, built at the direction of the Blessed Virgin Mary, for it is her house above all others. To be sure, the sculpture and the glass of unprecedented beauty depict the fullness of salvation history culminating in the gospel story, but the culmination of the culmination is Our Lady of Chartres, to whom the cathedral is dedicated.
“Had the Church controlled her,” writes Adams, “the Virgin would perhaps have remained prostrate at the foot of the Cross. Dragged by a Byzantine Court, backed by popular insistence and impelled by overpowering self-interest, the Church accepted the Virgin throned and crowned, seated by Christ, the judge throned and crowned; but even this did not wholly satisfy [the builders] who seemed bent on absorbing Christ in His Mother, and making the Mother the Church, and Christ the Symbol. . . . Constantly she was addressed in these terms of supreme majesty: ‘Imperatrix supernorum!’ ‘Coeli Regina!’ ‘Aula regalis!’ but the twelfth century seemed determined to carry the idea out to its logical conclusion in defiance of dogma.”
Henry Adams exaggerates, no doubt, but his observations are pertinent to thinking about popular piety and devotions—and not only with respect to Mary. The piety reflected in the Cathedral of Chartres may at points be doctrinally deviant and even, as he would have it, “in defiance of dogma,” but no Christian can fail to be amazed and edified by that magnificent structure, and only a cretin would propose smashing its glass and tearing it down.
“Quench not the Spirit,” writes St. Paul in First Thessalonians, while he elsewhere urges us to discern what is of the Spirit. The Church in her magisterial capacity teaches, encourages, corrects, and reproaches, but Adams is right: She does not and cannot control the maddeningly and wondrously varied eruptions of Christian imagination and devotion or the traditions of piety that sustain them. No church or ecclesial community can do that, except for small and authoritarian groups that are aptly called sects.
That having been said, there are basic differences between evangelical and Catholic attitudes toward Marian devotion, including differences in our response to what both can agree are excesses and abuses. These questions are helpfully addressed in The One Mediator, the Saints, and Mary, the eighth volume issuing from a Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue. What is said of Lutherans in this connection is, I suggest, true also of most evangelicals. The Catholic participants in the dialogue write:
After almost five centuries of living separately, Lutherans and Catholics have come to embody different ways of living out the gospel. One basic theological and liturgical conviction which has carried the Catholic tradition holds that Jesus Christ alone is never alone. He is always found in the company of a whole range of his friends, both living and dead. It is a basic Catholic experience that, when recognized and appealed to within a rightly ordered faith, these friends of Jesus strengthen one’s own sense of communion [with him] . . . . Saints show us how the grace of God may work in a life; they give us bright patterns of holiness; they pray for us. Keeping company with the saints in the Spirit of Christ encourages our faith. It is simply part of what it means to be Catholic, bound with millions of other people not only throughout space in countries around the world, but also throughout time. Those who have gone before us in faith are still living members of the body of Christ and in some unimaginable way we are all connected [through Christ]. Within a rightly ordered faith, both liturgical and private honoring of all the saints, of one saint, or of Saint Mary serves to keep our feet on the gospel path.
Of course, it all depends on “a rightly ordered faith.” The alternative to a rightly ordered faith is a disordered faith. The subject of excesses and abuses in Marian devotion falls under the category of disordered faith. Joseph Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI, has over the years professed his fondness for the phrase “the structure of faith.” This is in preference to a phrase favored by many Catholic theologians, a “hierarchy of truths.” There is, to be sure, a hierarchy in the sense that some truths are more foundational than others. But hierarchy suggests a layered relationship in which the less important are relativized in relation to the more important. Structure of faith is, instead, an architectural image in which each has its place in relation to the whole, as, for example, in the building of a cathedral. We might go so far as to speak of a cathedral of faith. In its support and enhancement of the whole, such a faith is a rightly ordered faith.
If you would draw close to Jesus, draw close to Mary; if you would draw close to Mary, draw close to Jesus. That maxim captures a rightly ordered faith and rightly ordered devotion. Anything that pits Jesus against Mary or that depicts them as rivals for devotion is disordered. The entirety of Mary’s role is encapsulated in her injunction at the wedding of Cana, “Do whatever he tells you.” These are the final words of Mary in the New Testament and, in substance, the final words of Mary forever.
Catholics likewise take very seriously the words of Jesus on the cross, “Woman, behold your son.” And to John he said, “Behold your mother.” John the disciple is the synecdoche of the entire body of Christ, the Church. Mary is not only to treat John as her son, and John to treat Mary as his mother; they are mother and son—as are all who are the brothers and sisters of Christ and who therefore recognize his mother as their mother. This is the heart of Marian devotion rightly ordered.
Disordered Marian devotion has been with us since the beginning of the Christian story. Needless to say, there have been, and still are, many other forms of disordered devotion in the life of the Christian community in all its parts. With respect to Marian devotion, popes and councils have frequently tried to correct excesses, although it may be readily admitted that sometimes, as in the late Middle Ages, they have acted less vigorously than they should have. This can be explained, and perhaps excused, in part by legitimate pastoral concern not to infringe on the proper freedom of the faithful in their response to the gospel, keeping in mind “the priesthood of all believers,” and, in part, by a concern not to tear up the wheat along with the tares. While it is true that an immature faith is preferable to no faith at all, the Church has a responsibility to encourage growth toward a faith rightly ordered.
John Paul II vigorously called for “the evangelization of popular piety.” And, of course, this is a theme powerfully underscored in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. John Paul said that devotion to Mary and other saints, as expressed in patronal feasts, pilgrimages, and other forms of piety, “should not sink to the level of a mere search for protection or for material goods or for bodily health. Rather, the saints should be presented to the faithful as models of life in imitation of Christ as the sure way that leads to him.” The criterion set forth in the Catechism for rightly and wrongly ordered devotion is unequivocal: “What the Catholic faith believes about Mary is based on what it believes about Christ, and what it teaches about Mary illumines, in turn, its faith in Christ.” Discerning what is true and what is false devotion to Mary and the other saints engages truths that are trinitarian, Christological, pneumatological, and ecclesial. Any devotion that displaces, overshadows, or obscures the triune God, that impugns the mercy of the one mediator Jesus Christ, that neglects the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit, or that tends to separate a particular saint from the whole body of Christ is a disordered devotion.
In addition to these theological criteria, the Lutheran-Catholic dialogue I mentioned earlier lists four “practical guidelines” that should be applied in devotion to Mary and the saints. The first is that such devotion should be “imbued with Scripture” and clearly related to the great themes of salvation history. (Witness John Paul II’s addition of the “luminous mysteries” to the Rosary.) Second, they should be harmonized with the eucharistic liturgy and seasons of the Church’s year. Third, they should be ecumenically sensitive, leaving no doubt as to Christ’s unique role in our salvation. Finally, they should be attentive to “cultural mores.” In our time, that means sensitivity to the role of women. Mary should not be depicted as “timidly submissive or repellently pious, but as one who fully and responsibly heard the word of God and acted upon it.”
The reference to cultural mores, it is important to note, is particularly attuned to North America and Western Europe. In the Global South and especially in Africa, where the Christian movement in all its expressions is experiencing the most explosive growth today, quite different cultural mores come into play. The two strongest expressions are Catholic, on the one hand, and a mix of evangelical, Pentecostal, charismatic, and indigenous movements of a syncretistic character, on the other. It is misleading, in most cases, to describe the second expression as “Protestant” in the sense that we are familiar with the term. With notable exceptions, the growing non-Catholic movements are not significantly shaped by the disputes of the sixteenth century, including disputes over Marian devotion.
In the view of the North American and European Christians, these movements are marked by a wild and maddening array of cultural adaptations of the gospel story, many of which deviate from our understanding of “the structure of faith.” As with the Church of the High Middle Ages, such variations are not readily amenable to our control, being resistant to what the Global South views as the attempted “imposition” of the traditions shared by Catholics and evangelicals in North America as refracted through our experience of living with the Protestant/Catholic divide.
A concern for Christian unity, as well as missionary strategy, requires that we take great care not to pull up the wheat along with the tares. At present and in the years to come, as we engage the growing diversities within the Christian movement, we will have many occasions to ponder more deeply the truth that “nobody can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3).
Nonetheless, there are excesses, abuses, and deviations from the structure of faith that must be firmly addressed with pastoral wisdom. For instance, Catholic bishops and other leaders must strive to correct the widespread idea that Mary or one of the other saints has a particular power over God or Christ to obtain benefits. Some ecumenically attentive Catholics have suggested that we should replace the idea of praying to Mary with that of praying with Mary. This has considerable merit, remembering that Mary is “the first of the disciples” and “the icon of the Church.”
At the same time, if prayer is considered in all its dimensions—including adoration, thanksgiving, and contemplation—the idea of praying to Mary and other saints cannot be discarded. And, as is evident in our asking our brothers and sisters here on earth to pray for us, we cannot dismiss the power of intercessory prayer on our behalf or on behalf of others. What is to be unequivocally opposed and corrected is the idea that Mary or other saints have a certain “leverage” to move an otherwise inaccessible or uncaring God.
Any discussion of excesses and abuses, especially as perceived by non-Catholics, must include a word on apparitions or appearances of Mary and, more rarely, other saints. Here the clear theological distinction between public and private revelation applies. It is the certain teaching of the Church that public revelation came to an end with the death of the last apostle. It is also taught that private revelations may happen, remembering that with God all things are possible. When they come to public attention, the Church assiduously investigates such reported revelations or apparitions and, in some cases, concludes that there is nothing in them that is contrary to the structure of faith (often referred to as the apostolically grounded “deposit of faith”). While such apparitions may be approved for popular devotion, belief in them is not required.
In a pastoral letter, the bishops of the United States put the matter this way:
Even when a private revelation has spread to the entire world, as in the case of Our Lady of Lourdes, and has been recognized in the liturgical calendar, the Church does not make mandatory the acceptance either of the original story or of particular forms of piety springing from it. With the Vatican Council, we remind true lovers of Our Lady of the danger of superficial sentiment and vain credulity. Our faith does not seek new gospels, but leads us to know the excellence of the Mother of God and moves us toward a filial love toward our Mother and to the imitation of her virtues.
The teaching Church is alert to her obligation to respect the charismatic element in the life of the Christian community. An apparition of Mary may be a freely and graciously given moment in which the Holy Spirit inspires the memory and imagination and opens people to receive what they believe to be a message from God. Historically and at present, such messages have been associated with Christians in humble circumstances, and frequently in times of persecution. The Church in her official teaching capacity exercises a respectful deference to what is possible, concerning herself only with what may be contrary to the “faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3).
With respect to Mary and the saints, Catholics challenge evangelicals to give a clearer and fuller expression of the koinonia of saints, which includes both the present and the departed who live in Christ. Evangelicals challenge Catholics to underscore more clearly the sole mediation of Christ in devotional practices involving Mary and the saints. Catholics believe that the Church has responded to this concern—a concern expressed both by non-Catholic Christians and by Catholic theologians calling on the Church to reappropriate through ressourcement the fullness of the witness of Scripture and tradition. This response is evident in, for instance, the emphasizing of Mary’s role as a member of the Church in the Second Vatican Council’s constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium. In that document, there is a marked turn from emphasizing Mary’s unique dignities to highlighting her role as a disciple, indeed the first of disciples. And that response is evident in, among many efforts, the previously cited initiatives of popes, bishops’ conferences, and other instruments of magisterial teaching.
And yet there is an important measure of truth, also in conversation with evangelicals, in the observation cited earlier of the Catholic participants in the Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue: “After almost five centuries of living separately, Lutherans and Catholics have come to embody different ways of living out the gospel.” This is strikingly evident in our understanding of living in communio with Christ, the one mediator, and all who are Christ’s, both of the past and the present.
In Marian devotion, as in much else, there will always be excesses and abuses. The living body of Christ, the Church, is not a theological academy. The Church in her magisterial role is responsible for maintaining the greatest possible clarity in official teaching, in what might be called doctrina publica.
But she cannot and should not aspire to control the myriad ways in which Christians encounter and give expression to their encounter with the living Word of God. This reality is not peculiar to the Catholic Church. There is, for instance, ample survey research showing that, much to the consternation of preachers and theologians, many members of communions that stress sola gratia and sola fide agree with statements such as “I will get to heaven if I do my best to live a good life.”
Recognizing that control is neither possible nor desirable, church leaders do their duty in following the counsel of St. Paul to “preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke, and exhort, be unfailing in patience and in teaching” (2 Tim. 4:2).
To which it might be added that there is a difference of ecclesial sensibility between Catholics and evangelicals, especially evangelicals in the tradition of the “believer’s church.” Catholics understand the Church as “Holy Mother Church.” Like a good mother, she tries to keep everybody in the family. She is patient and longsuffering with those who in their weakness, eccentricities, and charismatic enthusiasms sometimes deviate from the family rules, including its doctrinal rules. As firmly and persuasively and effectively as possible, she reiterates the rules in season and out; she convinces, rebukes, and exhorts, but she knows that she cannot control more than a billion children of every race and culture in their response to the gospel, including their ways of devotion to Mary and the saints.
In accord with the axiom lex orandi, lex credendi, we may conclude with a eucharistic preface sung in the Mass celebrating a saint’s day:
You are glorified in your saints,
For their glory is the crowning of your gifts.
In their lives on earth
you give us an example.
In our communion with them
you give us their friendship.
In their prayer for the Church
you give us strength and protection.
This great company of witnesses spurs us
on to victory, to share their prize of
everlasting glory through Jesus Christ our Lord.
And so with angels and archangels
and the whole company of saints
we sing our unending hymn of praise:
Holy, holy, holy . . .
While evangelicals may not be entirely persuaded by this reflection on excesses and abuses in Marian devotion, surely we can agree that it would be a very bad idea to tear down the Cathedral of Chartres. In that agreement, I believe, is entailed most of what I have proposed in this essay.
Richard John Neuhaus is editor in chief of First Things. This essay is adapted from a paper prepared for Evangelicals and Catholics Together.