Q: Why did you write a book about the Mother of God? Where does your trilogy fit on the already crowded shelf of books and treatises about Mary?
I wrote this book because it’s the book I wish somebody had written when I was coming into the Church. I waited around for 20 years, hoping somebody else would do it, but when nobody did, I decided I’d take on the project (which is only fair since I’m the only one who really knows what questions and doubts I had and what would constitute a satisfactory reply to them). As to where the trilogy fits on the book shelf, I suppose I’d say “Anywhere.” Part of the reason I wrote it is because there simply wasn’t any book I could find that did what this book does. I created it to be a sort of “one stop shopping” resource for virtually every issue a non-Catholic (or uncatechized Catholic) might have concerning Marian doctrine and devotion. It tackles everything from the sources of Marian belief and practice (a huge issue since oodles of non-Catholics simply assume the whole thing is a data dump from paganism) to the Catholic approach to Scripture to the four Marian dogmas to the broad spectrum of Marian devotion to private revelations and apparitions to possible ways forward in Catholic/Evangelical conversations about the Blessed Virgin. When it comes to Marian Willies, I’ve run the gamut in my own life and had to deal with pretty much every difficulty and problem with Mary to which non-Catholic flesh is heir, so it’s a book that comes from my heart (and gut) as well as my head. Nothing in it is new (God willing) and the whole thing is ultimately a restatement of the Tradition. But it’s a restatement that tries to run the gamut of Catholic teaching on Mary, not simply focus in on one specialized area. And it’s written in order to be intelligible to the non-specialist.
Q: You discuss in your books why most of what people think they know about both Mary and the Catholic Church is really pseudoknowledge. Can you describe this phenomenon and why there is so much pseudoknowledge lurking in the culture about the Church?
Pseudo-knowledge is the stuff that “everybody knows,” not because it’s true, but because somebody with Important Hair said it on TV, or because your favorite magazine said so, or because a beloved character in a movie stated it as fact and lots of other people repeated it around millions of water coolers. Pseudo-knowledge is why “everybody knows” Humphrey Bogart said, “Play it again, Sam” (except he didn’t). It’s why “everybody knows” the Constitution speaks of a “wall of separation” between Church and State (except it doesn’t). And it’s why “everybody knows” medieval Europeans all believed the world was flat (except they didn’t). Pseudo-knowledge causes people to go around talking as though they’re certain that at one time or other they must have read the Federalist Papers, or boned up on the meteorological data for global warming from the latest scientific studies, or committed to memory the documents of the Council of Trent, when they cannot, in fact, quote five words from any of these things. What they really know is what that resonant, well-modulated voice on TV or their own circle of friends (or both) told them was “common knowledge” concerning government or science or the Catholic Church.
And, of course, it’s why “everybody knows” that “the Catholic Mary” is really just a warmed-over pagan goddess. It’s a modern myth that has circulated around for so long that nobody even thinks to question it. And when you do, you discover there’s no there there. Nothing. Not a scrap of actual historical support for the claim. Like many of the myths about the Catholic Church, it arises from a superficial acquaintance with the Church (she’s hard to avoid completely and people often judge by fragmentary impressions) and from the fact that many non-Catholics listen only to other non-Catholics circulating baseless junk as “fact”.
Q: What is the most important role Mary has played in the history of the Church and its mission of evangelizing the nations?
Being who she is. Mary is the “type of the Church” in the words of St. Ambrose. Her mission has been the same ever since Jesus gave her to us with the words “Behold your mother.” As the model disciple, the Mother of God, the Ever-Virgin, Immaculate and Assumed into Heaven, she has constantly been interceding for us and has, on occasion, even been entrusted with critically needed calls to repentance and grace (as at Fatima and other places).
Q: Why, in your opinion, does Mary keep appearing to people all over the globe? Is there a common theme in the various apparitions of the Virgin?
Essentially her mission has always been the same: to say to the world “Do whatever Jesus tells you.” As I point out in Mary, Mother of the Son, Mary’s life is the most profoundly referred life any mortal has ever lived. All true private revelations have one thing in common: they point us right back to the public revelation of Jesus Christ and to the apostolic tradition of the Church. Mary’s message is radically not new: Be good. Go to Mass. Trust Jesus. Little boys should tell the truth. That sort of thing. If you are living a serious Catholic life of trust in Jesus, obedience to Holy Church, the practice of virtue, and frequent reception of the sacraments, you are doing everything that all those visions, miraculous healings, and dancing suns were wrought by God to say to the human race.
Q: Why do so many important Church documents — from conciliar statements (Lumen Gentium) to papal encyclicals — conclude with a paean and exhortation to seek the intercession of the Blessed Mother?
Because it is good and fitting (and smart) to do so. God has given her primacy among all creatures and we are to accord her hyperdulia: the highest honor due a mere creature. But “creature” is such a cold word, isn’t it? Like something out of a science fiction movie. You wouldn’t give your Mom a Mother’s Day card and address it “Dear Exalted Creature”. You would give her a card that says, “Dear Mom: I love you and I appreciate all you’ve done and sacrificed for me.” The Church says the same to our Mother.
Some will complain that speaking of Mary’s “sacrifices” is taking away honor due to Jesus alone. I reply: Imagine an Evangelical service for the parents of a son killed in Iraq in which the pastor points to the grieving parents and says, “God was the one Who gave these parents their child and it was He Who sent their son to die for the freedom of the Iraqi people. They didn’t sacrifice anything. They merely assented to be a part in God’s plan.”
Nobody talks that way at any time about any sacrifice that any ordinary person ever makes. All the rest of the time, we can grasp the fact that, while God is the Author of all things, our sacrifices and choices really matter too—by the grace of God. The only time people talk this way is when Evangelicals who are weirded out by Mary dehumanize her and dismiss the sword that pierced her heart so they can talk as though she was utterly irrelevant to the Incarnation and Passion of Christ, instead of the one who was, in fact, more intimately bound up with Him than any person who ever lived.
So it’s only fitting that the Church honor (and ask the intercession of) the Blessed Virgin. God didn’t go to all the trouble of perfecting her in his holiness, love and power just to throw all that away. For 2000 years, it has been her joy to intercede for her children—because she is more like Christ than anyone who ever lived and it his joy to do exactly the same thing.
Q: Why is Mary such a stumbling block to Christian unity? Shouldn’t all Christians at least be able to unite around their Mother?
They should, but they haven’t for roughly four centuries. There’s hope in that number however, because it means that hostility to and fear of Mary is, historically speaking, a very recent phenomenon and one that really only took off well after the Reformation began. Many of the Reformers had a profound devotion to Mary and, in fact, accepted much of Catholic teaching about her. However, as Protestantism became more remote from Catholic teaching (and as, in English-speaking countries, Elizabeth I found it very convenient to supplant the cult of the Virgin with a political cult of the Virgin Queen), that connection failed and was eventually broken. Along with that went the loss of a sense of the sacramental, of the senses of Scripture, and of an appreciation for the feminine in the life of the Church. Mary came to be seen almost exclusively as a sort of pagan goddess and an actual threat to genuine Christian devotion: a perception that would have been absolutely foreign to the mind of any Christian in the first 15 centuries of the Church.
Q: You note that attacks on the Church’s Mariology are really attacks on its Christology. How and why is this the case?
The thing about Mary is that the thing is never about Mary. Take the Virgin Birth. One of the earliest slurs uttered against Jesus was that he was a bastard, the product of a liaison between Mary and a Roman soldier named Pantera (probably a corruption of “parthenos” which is Greek for “virgin”). Is the point of the slur to attack Mary? Of course not! The point is to attack Jesus as a mere common bastard and to deny that he is the Son of God or of any divine origin. Likewise, when the heretic Nestorius demanded that Christians no longer hail Mary as “Theotokos” or “God bearer”, his attack was directed not at Mary, but at the notion that the Man Jesus and the Second Person of the Trinity were a unity. Similarly, the question “Where is the Assumption of Mary in the Bible?” is not really about Mary. It’s a question about the validity of Christ’s sacred Tradition and the authority of Christ’s Church. “Why should I pray to Mary?” is not a question about Mary. It’s a question about the relationship of the living and the dead in Christ. “Do Catholics worship Mary?” is not a question about Mary. It’s a question about whether Catholics really worship Christ. In short, Evangelical jitters about Mary both pay homage to and yet overlook the central truth about Mary that the Catholic Church wants us to see: that Mary’s life, in its entirety, is a referred life. Attacks on Christ and his gospel virtually always are made via his Body, the Church. And since Mary is the type of the Church, it is fitting that she stand as a sort of hedge of protection around the truth of the Faith.
Q: Should Protestants and others be concerned about Catholic Marian devotions? Is the poorly catechized Catholic who clings to her Rosary and prays in front of her makeshift shrine to Our Lady of Perpetual Help really in spiritual danger?
When it comes to Mary, the average Evangelical Protestant is in a position analogous to that of a teetotaler terrified that a sip of wine at communion will transform her into a raging drunken floozy. Rather than be hyper-focused on the question of whether Catholics honor Mary “too much” and all just about to bow down to Astarte and Isis, the Evangelical would find much more spiritual benefit asking the question “How is it we Evangelicals honor her ‘just enough’?” When honestly considered (especially against the backdrop of historic Christianity and the practice of the apostolic Church since the founding of the Church, what he will discover is that it Evangelicalism that is peculiarly fearful of the woman whom all generations shall called blessed. Aside from pulling her out of the closet to sing “Round yon virgin, mother and child” she is basically never spoken of—except to say that Catholics are way overboard about her. But the reality is that the most Marian Catholics (think John Paul II or Mother Teresa) also tend to be the most Christocentric ones. That’s because all real Marian devotion refers us to Christ.
Is that to say it’s absolutely impossible for a Catholic to make an idol of Mary. Certainly not. Human ingenuity in sin is never asleep. But it is to say that Protestant fears on this score are as much in touch with reality as a cradle Catholic of bygone generations who feared that reading the Bible on his own will lead directly to snake handling. Catholics have, by and large, entered the 21st century when it comes to that superstition. But there are still millions of Protestants who subscribe to grossly superstitious fear of Marian devotion that is a relic of the late 19th century. Time to move on (or rather back, to the practice of the early Church fathers).
Q: Is there too much attention paid to Mary in today’s Church, or too little?
There’s too little attention paid to the Faith, period. So ignorance and apathy about Mary are part of that, I reckon.
Q: Your book is praised by a number of prominent evangelical-Protestant theologians. Is there a growing interest in the figure of Mary among Protestants? Why?
Starvation makes you hungry. Jesus knew what he was doing when he gave Mary to the Church as our mother. The human soul needs her and Protestantism has been starved of her for going on four centuries. So there is, in the Providence of God, a growing interest in her, especially among the rising generation of Evangelicals (sometime referred to as the “Emergent Church”). People are taking a fresh look at the ancient reverence of her in the apostolic Churches and asking “Where is the harm in that?” It’s a good question, especially since Mary is, in every healthy expression of Christian spirituality, always immediately pointing us to Jesus.
And, of course, through Mary’s unique gifts in Christ, God can minister to hurts in the human soul that are unreachable by other forms of Christian piety. Evangelicals, for instance, who have lost a child have found themselves turning to Mary for consolation since she too knows what it is to watch her Son die. That’s a mighty powerful bond of compassion and it can overcome the fears of Mary which typically prevail in Evangelical culture.
Q: Archbishop Fulton Sheen once wrote in essay about the apparitions at Fatima that Mary was the key to bringing Christ to the Islamic world? What do you think of this proposal?
I think he’s on to something. I have no idea how it will all play out, but I was struck by a conversation I once had with a man from Turkey who emailed me asking for more information about the Catholic Church. He was raised Muslim but was drawn to Christ. Looking over the vast menu of Christianities available on the web he was very quick to pare it all down to the Catholic Church. Why? “Because you honor Mary as we are taught to do in Islam.” I think there’s something mighty important going on in that, just as I have noticed that, among the various folks I have met who have become Catholic from a Jewish background, virtually all of them have had some sort of mystical encounter with Mary. I’m not sure what that means, but it has always felt significant to me. She seems to be getting busier as we draw ever closer to That Day.