Written and collected by Zia H Shah MD
The Holy Quran presents mother Mary as a paragon of virtue and chastity and a chapter of the Quran is named after her. Christianity on the other hand is unable to make up her mind about her, because of the conundrum created by catapulting a man, son of Mary, Jesus, may peace be on him, to divinity. One moment she is human and in the very next she is ‘mother of God,’ and more specifically, ‘Mother of God Incarnate.’
Announcement of Papal resignation, by Pope Benedict XVI on February 11, 2013, has brought to prominence, issues like his legacy and infallibility. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica:
Papal infallibility, in Roman Catholic theology, the doctrine that the pope, acting as supreme teacher and under certain conditions, cannot err when he teaches in matters of faith or morals. As an element of the broader understanding of the infallibility of the church, this doctrine is based on the belief that the church has been entrusted with the teaching mission of Jesus Christ and that, in view of its mandate from Christ, it will remain faithful to that teaching through the assistance of the Holy Spirit. As such, the doctrine is related to, but distinguishable from, the concept of indefectibility, or the doctrine that the grace promised to the church assures its perseverance until the end of time.
The term infallibility was rarely mentioned in the early and medieval church. Critics of the doctrine have pointed to various occasions in the history of the church when popes are said to have taught heretical doctrines, the most notable case being that of Honorius I (625–638), who was condemned by the third Council of Constantinople (680–681, the sixth ecumenical council).[a]
Papal issues pertaining to infallibility can be examined, in historical details, on scores of issues pertaining to Trinity, politics, antisemitism, Islamophobia and divorce, to name a few. Today the focus is on Catholic understanding of mother Mary, especially as presented by some of the Popes, explicitly or implicitly.
‘Perpetual virginity of Mary’, means that Mary was a virgin before, during and after giving birth. (De fide) This oldest Marian Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox doctrine affirms Mary’s “real and perpetual virginity even in the act of giving birth to the Son of God made Man.” Thus, by the teaching of this dogma, the faithful believe that Mary was ever-Virgin (Greek ἀειπάρθενος) for the remainder of her life, making Jesus her only biological son, whose conception and birth are miraculous.
This does not leave much room for her marriage to Joseph, as mentioned in the New Testament and any children, other than Jesus, may peace be on him.
Mary remained a virgin after giving birth (De fide). This belief of the Church was questioned in its early years Today most Protestants disagree with this teaching, although Martin Luther and his contemporaries believed in the ever Virgin Mary The scriptures say little about this, mentioning the brothers of Jesus, but never “sons of Mary,” suggesting to the patristical writers a broader family relationship.
Painting of Assumption of mother Mary by Rubens circa. 1626 CE
It took the Church almost 1900 years to discover or at least officially announce that mother Mary had gone to heaven alive.
The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven, informally known as the Assumption, according to the beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodoxy, Oriental Orthodoxy, and parts of Anglicanism, was the bodily taking up of the Virgin Mary into Heaven at the end of her earthly life.
The Roman Catholic Church teaches as dogma that the Virgin Mary “having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.” This doctrine was dogmatically defined by Pope Pius XII on November 1, 1950, in his Apostolic Constitution Munificentissimus Deus by exercising papal infallibility.
The study of Mary has involved the analysis of her special position in Roman Catholic teachings which going back to Thomas Aquinas, have held that she has a “certain infinite dignity from the infinite good which is God”, although she is human and not divine. In the 16th century, Francisco Suárez stated that theologically the special dignity of Mary derives from her intrinsic relationship with the hypostatic union. In the 18th century, St. Alphonsus Liguori referred to Aquinas’ characterization and also to the statements by saints Albertus Magnus and Bonaventure that Mary was exalted by God to the highest degree possible for a person. In the 20th century, in Fulgens Corona, Pope Pius XII re-affirmed Aquinas’ “certain infinite dignity” statement about Mary and also Cornelius a Lapide‘s statement that Mary “is the purest and the most holy, so that under God a greater purity cannot be understood”. Pius XII further confirmed this in item 8 of Ad Caeli Reginam.
So far mother Mary is human and not divine if you read the above paragraph again. But, every so often mother Mary takes on divine colors in the Christian tradition.
The history of Mariology goes back to the 1st century. Early Christians focused their piety at first more upon the martyrs around them. Following that, they saw in Mary a bridge between the old and the new.
The Latin translation, likely derived from the Greek, dates from the 11th century:
In Egypt the veneration of Mary had started in the 3rd century and the term Theotokos was used by Origen, the Alexandrian Father of the Church. In the 5th century, the Third Ecumenical Council in Ephesus declared Mary as Theotokos (God-bearer).
Theotokos (/ˌθiəˈtɒkəs/; Greek: Θεοτόκος, transliterated Theotókos) is the Greek title of Mary, the mother of Jesus used especially in the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and Eastern Catholic Churches. Its literal English translations include “God-bearer” and “the one who gives birth to God.” Less literal translations include “Mother of God.” Roman Catholics and Anglicans use the title “Mother of God” more often than “Theotokos.” The Council of Ephesus decreed in 431 that Mary is Theotokos because her son Jesus is one person who is both God and man, divine and human.
Original Sin which was some how magically transmitted to all humans, even those who were not direct descendents of the Prophet Adam and mother Eve, miraculously skipped mother Mary. But, it took the Church some 1800 years to confirm this phenomenon.
The Immaculate Conception is another of the dogma of the Catholic Church maintaining that from the moment when she was conceived in the womb, the Blessed Virgin Mary was kept free of original sin and was filled with the sanctifying grace normally conferred during baptism. It is one of the four dogmas in Roman Catholic Mariology. Mary is often called the Immaculata (the Immaculate One), particularly in artistic and cultural contexts.
The Immaculate Conception should not be confused with the perpetual virginity of Mary or the virgin birth of Jesus; it refers to the conception of Mary by her mother, Saint Anne. Although the belief was widely held since at least Late Antiquity, the doctrine was not formally proclaimed until December 8, 1854, by Pope Pius IX in his papal bull Ineffabilis Deus. It is not formal doctrine except in the Roman Catholic Church.
If Jesus be God, a natural immediate question would be, “Is his mother God also?” It was very interesting for me to find that there is a debate on the web, ‘Was Jesus’ mother Mary divine or just human?’ There are several comments and of the about 1000 voters 19% voted that she is divine and 81% voted that she is human![b]
If she is divine, what about her mother, her grandmother or her great grandmother, are they divine also? How far into human past will these marriages between gods and humans go? Would it be all the way to Adam and Eve or even beyond to the evolutionary links? The paradox par excellence of the Christian dogma just does not stop giving!
Let me quote an excerpt from His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, where mother Mary appears to be taking some sort of divinity:
“Let us pray to Mary, Comfort of the Afflicted, our Mother, the Mother of the Church, to give us the courage to say this ‘yes’ and also to give us this joy of being with God and to lead us to his Son, to true life.”[c]
Jesus is considered to be perfect human and fully divine and has two natures according to the official Catholic dogma. If the Church insists on only one set of parents for Jesus, may peace be on him, then is Mother Mary to be considered as wife of God, God forbid! If so, did God divorce her before she married Joseph? How could that be when in those times the Church had not allowed divorce yet! If there was no divorce was it some sort of polyandry?
The character of mother Mary is beyond these criticisms as she was a chaste and noble lady. These questions are created only by the dogma of Trinity and divinity of Jesus as preached by the Church.
We are also taught by the Church that the three persons in the Trinity are of the same substance and homonymous or co-equal, as she is the mother of Jesus or ‘mother of God,’ then both the father and the son should have a mother, as they are co-equal. A logical question that will follow, “Is she the mother of God the Father also?” If the answer is in affirmative then in some sense she will also be the Grand Mother of Jesus Christ! This paradox par excellence just does not stop giving, contradiction after contradiction.
Any discussion about mother Mary in Christianity will be incomplete without a study of the great schism between the East and the West, the person of Nestorius and the third Ecumenical Council.
The First Council of Ephesus was the third Ecumenical Council of the early Christian Church, held in 431 at the Church of Mary in Ephesus, Asia Minor. The council was called amid a dispute over the teachings of Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople. Nestorius’ doctrine, Nestorianism, which emphasized the disunity between Christ’s human and divine natures, had brought him into conflict with other church leaders, most notably Cyril, Patriarch of Alexandria. Nestorius himself had requested that the Emperor convene council, hoping to prove his orthodoxy, but in the end his teachings were condemned by the council as heresy. The council declared Mary as Theotokos (God-bearer).
Nestorius’ dispute with Cyril had led the latter to seek validation from Pope Celestine I, who authorized Cyril to request that Nestorius recant his position or face excommunication. Nestorius pleaded with the Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius II to call a council in which all grievances could be aired, hoping that he would be vindicated and Cyril condemned.
Approximately 250 bishops were present. The proceedings were conducted in a heated atmosphere of confrontation and recriminations and created severe tensions between Cyril and Theodosius. Nestorius was decisively outplayed by Cyril and removed from his see, and his teachings were officially anathematized. This precipitated the Nestorian Schism, by which churches supportive of Nestorius, especially in Persia, were severed from the rest of Christendom and became known as Nestorian Christianity, the Persian Church, or the Church of the East, whose present-day representatives are the Assyrian Church of the East, the Chaldean Syrian Church, the Ancient Church of the East, and the Chaldean Catholic Church. Nestorius himself retired to a monastery, always asserting his orthodoxy.
Nestorius (pron.: /ˌnɛsˈtɔriəs/; in Greek: Νεστόριος; c. 386 – c. 451) was Archbishop of Constantinople from 10 April 428 to August 431 (when the emperor Theodosius II confirmed his condemnation by the Cyrillian faction at Ephesus on 22 June). His teachings included a rejection of the long-used title of Theotokos (“Mother of God”) for the Virgin Mary, and were understood by many to imply that he did not believe that Christ was truly God. However, it may be that Nestorius actually was concerned that the “Theotokos” cult was dangerously close to venerating Mary as a goddess. This brought him into conflict with other prominent churchmen of the time, most notably Cyril of Alexandria, who accused him of heresy. Nestorius sought to defend himself at the First Council of Ephesus in 431, but instead he found himself formally condemned for heresy by a majority of the bishops and subsequently removed from his see.
In summary, the understanding of mother Mary over the centuries and between different sects of Christianity, continues to shed light on the fact that a human cannot be ”mother of God’ or ‘Mother of God Incarnate.’
Insisting on divinity of Jesus, may peace be on him, a Jewish prophet, is a paradox par excellence, which does not fail to produce contradiction after contradiction, on a large scale!
Church of Our Lady of Immaculate Conception, in Goa India
c. Benedict XVI. Maria: Pope Benedict XVI on the Mother of God. Ignatius Press, 2008. Page 35.