The atheist Richard Dawkins claims that Catholics treat Mary, the mother of Jesus, as “a goddess in all but name” and some (but not all) Protestant groups seem to share that concern. But the idea of Mary as goddess is completely contrary to Catholic teaching, as is any suggestion that Catholics worship Mary; there is no ambiguity on the point at all. Nevertheless, Catholics do give to Mary a very special role so this chapter seeks to explore and explain the Catholic attitude to the mother of Jesus.
First, the crystal clear distinction between God and His creation. Christ Himself was not created but was there “in the beginning” (John 1:1); He was with God; He was and is God. Mary, by contrast, was the created being through whom Christ was to become visibly present in the world. Mary was therefore fully human, creature not divine creator. Nevertheless, the Church does hold that Mary was set apart above all other creation, does name her as “Mother of God”, does invoke Mary as a powerful helper of Christians and does profess the doctrine of the “Immaculate Conception”. This doctrine – not to be confused with the Virgin birth of Christ – holds that Mary herself was, uniquely, conceived without original sin.
As with so many other differences between the Protestant churches and the Catholic Church, it is the Protestants who have moved away from the commonly shared Christian beliefs of earlier centuries. Furthermore, it is only in relatively recent times that even this movement has taken place.
We can look at two aspects of Catholic teaching in relation to Mary so as to gain a better understanding of these issues:
• Mary was formally declared “Mother of God” at the council of Ephesus in 430.
• The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was declared by the Church in the year 1854.
An obvious reaction to the timing of these declarations – especially perhaps that of the nineteenth century – is to accuse the Church of making the rules up at whim. This, however, is to misunderstand the context of such declarations which are invariably made to record existing Church teaching but which have to be formally declared only when that teaching is challenged. Thus these Catholic declarations do not signal new Catholic beliefs but new Protestant ones!