In discussing the person and role of Mary, Mother of Jesus, two extremes must always be avoided. The first extreme is what we call the extreme of Marian excess. This means to place the Blessed Virgin on the level of the divine, to ascribe to Mary a divine nature that would grant her equality with God Himself. This, of course, violates the revealed truth about the complete, though exalted, humanity of Mary. Although historically there have been very few occasions when the Mother of Jesus has been posed as a “goddess,” nonetheless, it remains a Marian excess that is obviously a grave danger to the Faith.
The second extreme regarding the person and role of the Blessed Virgin is what we can call Marian defect. This means to minimize the role of the Blessed Virgin. What is meant by minimizing the role of Mary? This would be to ascribe to Mary the role of being only a “good disciple,” a “sister in the Lord,” a mere “physical channel of Jesus,” but nothing beyond these.
Unfortunately it is this second extreme that is encountered more widely today. This extreme also violates the revealed truth of the role of the Blessed Virgin, for Mary is revealed, as we will talk about, both as intercessor and as Spiritual Mother. And to deny Mary the role of Spiritual Mother is to deny that aspect so central to her own identity and to her relationship with Christ and His Body, the Church.
As we shall see, examples of Mary’s role as intercessor and Spiritual Mother are clear in Scripture in such places as John 2:1 at the wedding of Cana, where Mary intercedes for the first miracle of Jesus, as well as in John 19:26, where at the foot of the Cross Mary is given the role of Spiritual Mother of John, the beloved disciple, and all later disciples of the Lord.
We can find both of these extremes, Marian excess and Marian defect, referred to in a statement from the Second Vatican Council regarding the proper balance of Marian devotion:
It (the Council) strongly urges theologians and preachers of the word of God to be careful to refrain as much from all false exaggeration as from too summary an attitude in considering the special dignity of the Mother of God. Following the study of Sacred Scripture, the Fathers, the doctors and liturgy of the Church, and under the guidance of the Church’s magisterium, let them rightly illustrate the duties and privileges of the Blessed Virgin which always refer to Christ, the source of all truth, sanctity, and devotion. (1)
The question must then be asked: What safeguards the Christian from these two Marian extremes? What protects us from a “false exaggeration” in Marian excess or “too summary an attitude” in terms of Marian defect? The answer can only be the authentic teaching office of the Church, the Magisterium. The Magisterium is that teaching authority that Our Lord has granted to His apostles and their successors, who, guided by the Holy Spirit, have the crucial responsibility to safeguard, interpret and serve Divine Revelation. And this is the revelation of God as contained in both Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture.
Let us return to the words of the Second Vatican Council and see how God’s full Word is revealed to us:
In order that the full and living Gospel might always be preserved in the Church the apostles left bishops as their successors. They gave them “their own position of teaching authority.” This sacred Tradition, then, and the sacred Scripture of both Testaments, are like a mirror, in which the Church, during its pilgrim journey here on earth, contemplates God…. Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit. And Tradition transmits in its entirety the Word of God which has been entrusted to the apostles…so that, enlightened by the Spirit of truth, they may faithfully preserve, expound and spread it abroad by their preaching. Thus it comes about that the Church does not draw her certainty about all revealed truths from the Holy Scriptures alone. Hence, both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal feelings of devotion and reverence. (2)
The Council points out that there is one twinfold source of God’s revelation to humanity. The first aspect of this one twinfold source is Sacred Tradition. Sacred Tradition comprises the oral truths of God transmitted to the apostles and their successors (the pope and the bishops in union with the pope) under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Vatican II describes Sacred Tradition in the following way:
The apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved in a continuous line of succession until the end of time. Hence, the apostles, in handing on what they themselves had received, warn the faithful to maintain the traditions which they had learned either by word of mouth or by letter (cf. 2 Thes 2:15); and they warn them to fight hard for the faith that had been handed on to them once and for all (cf. Jude 3). What was handed on by the apostles comprises everything that serves to make the People of God live their lives in holiness and increase their faith. In this way the Church, in her doctrine, life, and worship, perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes. (3)
Sacred Scripture is the other aspect of that one twinfold source. Scripture comprises the divine truths of God written down under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The books of Scripture, as the Council notes, “firmly, faithfully and without error, teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the sacred Scriptures.” (4)
The Second Vatican Council strongly points out that both Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture must receive equal reverence as aspects of God revealing Himself to humanity for our salvation. This understanding of the unity of Tradition and Scripture is very important in mariology (the study of the doctrine of Mary). For many of the truths that God has revealed about the Mother of Jesus are strongly contained in Sacred Tradition. But each Marian doctrine will also be mirrored at least implicitly in the apostolic preaching that came to be written down and today is known as the New Testament.
Now the role of safeguarding this deposit of faith in Scripture and Tradition is given to the Magisterium of the Church, the official teaching body. Again from Vatican II we read:
But the task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. Yet this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it. At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this devotedly, guards it with dedication and expounds it faithfully. All that it proposes for belief as being divinely revealed is drawn from this single deposit of faith (Tradition and Scripture). (5)
So, the Magisterium has the unique responsibility of safeguarding the deposit of faith that Christ gave to His Church which is guided by the Holy Spirit.
But why is a discussion about Divine Revelation so crucial to the doctrine and devotion of the Blessed Virgin Mary? To summarize in a single statement we could say that: “Marian orthopraxis is based on Marian orthodoxy.” “Orthopraxis” is a Greek word which means the right practice, or correct devotion. “Orthodoxy” means the right or correct doctrine. Now when we apply this to mariology, devotion to Mary will be authentic only when it is based on authentic doctrine that comes from the Word of God entrusted to the Church. Marian devotion, then, will be authentic and, as such, an instrument of grace and ultimate union with Jesus Christ, only when it avoids both Marian excess and Marian defect. And to avoid extremes in Marian devotion, we must build our veneration of Mary soundly on authentic doctrine about Mary. This we receive from Tradition and Scripture, as safeguarded by the Magisterium. The truth of Christ and His Church is the only legitimate foundation for a balanced and legitimate devotion to the Mother of Jesus. In short, we can say that true devotion to Mary is based on the true doctrine about Mary.
The preceding article was taken from the introduction of the book, Introduction to Mary, by Dr. Mark Miravalle
(1) Lumen Gentium, n. 67. All Second Vatican Council references in text are quoted from Austin Flannery, O.P., Vatican Council II, the Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, Northport NY: Costello Publishing Co., 1975.
(2) Dei Verbum, nn. 7, 9.
(3) Dei Verbum, n. 8.
(4) Dei Verbum, n. 11.
(5) Dei Verbum, n. 10.