A few days ago I found myself defending the Roman Catholic Church against the charge of idolatry, made by an Evangelical brother. My argument was that idolatry was elevating a statue or any other thing to the status of (a) God, and that at least in its official statements the Roman Catholic Church clearly distinguishes between
- saints, including the mother of our Lord, who can be venerated and asked for their intercession, just as we can ask our friends who are still on this earth for their intercession, on the one hand, and
- God, on the other hand, who alone is to be worshipped and whom we can ask in prayer to directly intervene in our affairs.
Of course these distinctions become a lot more muddled in popular piety, and unfortunately even bishops and popes are not always very clear in their statements and in their pious practice, but generally, this distinction is there.
When Cardinal Ratzinger was elected Pope, taking the name Benedict XVI, a friend of mine, a Roman Catholic deacon working for the Archdiocese of Vienna, was convinced that this election would have disastrous consequences for ecumenism and the reconciliation of Christian churches; on the other hand, when Cardinal Bergoglio was elected and took the name of Francis, he was very enthusiastic and pleased. I wonder how long he will be so thrilled.
For recently the media reported that last Sunday, October 13, on the occasion of the “Marian Day” of the “Year of Faith”, and on the occasion of the visit to Rome of the statue of “Our Lady of Fátima”, Pope Francis would consecrate the whole world to “the Immaculate Heart of Mary” (Radio Vatican).
This evokes a controversy which arose when Pope Benedict visited Austria in 2007 on the occasion of the 850th anniversary of the Marian shrine of Mariazell, when conservative Catholics in Austria wanted the Pope to consecrate the country and people of Austria (not just the Catholics, but everyone) to the “Magna Mater Austriae”, as the statue of Mary in the basilica of Mariazell is known.
My friend was one of a group of Roman Catholic theologians who strenuously argued before the Pope and the bishops that such an act was illegitimate and would also be counter-productive ecumenically; illegitimate, because theologically speaking, it is only to God that one can legitimately consecrate anything; to consecrate the country to Mary would be tantamount to elevating her to divine status, and would offend all non-Catholic Christians. Their argument was successful; the consecration to Mary did not take place; Pope Benedict simply commended the country to the intercession of the Theotokos(1) — a choice of words which, while still not very palatable to Protestant Christians, was not nearly as offensive as a “consecration” would have been.
So now, once again, the media were talking about a “consecration” of the whole world to Mary, or more specifically (and more bizarre to non-Catholic ears), to her “Immaculate Heart.” As news.va reports,
The Pope celebrated mass in St Peter’s square this morning in honour of the Marian Day, an event organised as part of the Year of Faith on the anniversary of the final apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Fatima (13th of October 1917). He also consecrated the world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
The German-language report at Radio Vatican reports, using slightly less loaded language:
At the end of the mass the Pope consecrated the cares and needs of people to the Mother of God of Fatima. “Teach us your love for the little ones, the poor, the ostracized, the suffering, for the sinners and those who are lost,” he said. The statue of the “Madonna of Fatima” will on Sunday return to Portugal by airplane . (my translation)
And here I find my defense of the Roman Catholic Church against the charge of idolatry contradicted, as this prayer of consecration inevitably confirms all of the reservations Evangelical Christians have with regard to Roman Catholic Marian piety, because, for example:
- It ascribes to Mary properties which Scripture ascribes to Jesus — in this case His love for “the little ones, the poor, the ostracized, the suffering, for the sinners and those who are lost” is ascribed to Mary, and consequently, they are committed to her, rather than to the Lord Jesus himself.
- It treats a statue, or a fictitious construct (“Our Lady of Fátima”) as a reality, which skirts very close to the definition of idolatry I spelled out above. After all, there is only one mother of our Lord, only one Theotokos, and she is no longer on this earth. Therefore, “Our Lady of Fátima”, the “Magna Mater Austriae”, the “Black Madonna of Częstochowa”, etc., are all just statues, images, and when they become the object of veneration (and what else is a consecration?) or they are credited with miraculous healings etc., one cannot but think of Exodus 20:4 and Deuteronomy 5.8: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them …” It puts the Roman Catholic Church into close proximity to TV
evangelistscharlatans who pray over handkerchiefs that the faithful have sent in in order to heal people or promise them untold wealth.
And the fact that these problematic words and actions are those of the Pope himself is particularly disturbing because it puts the lie to the claims popular with Roman Catholic apologists when confronted with the excesses of Marian piety: that these are just the aberrations of simple, theologically uneducated lay people. Here we have the Pope speaking, perhaps not ex cathedra with the full authority of the magisterium, but nevertheless — the Pope.
Suddenly the fact that this Pope is friends with well-known evangelist Luis Palau, or with Evangelical Anglican bishop Gregory Venables, or with the leader of Youth with a Mission Argentina does not help at all. Suddenly it becomes as clear as can be that the chasm between us (Evangelicals) and them (Catholics) is as wide and deep as it ever was, and that thinking otherwise is simply wishful thinking.
For me this underlines and confirms a realization that came to me many years ago, but which I had pushed to the back of my mind in the exuberance of fellowship with Christians from different churches who all sang praises to the same Jesus whom I call my Lord and Saviour: that all of our efforts at ecumenism, at reconciliation and unity are for now doomed to failure, at least at the institutional level, and that they will not come to fruition, and Christ’s prayer “that they all may be one” will not be fulfilled, until He returns. It is very clear to me that …
- They (Roman Catholics) will not be convinced by us that their Marian piety, as well-intentioned and sincere it may be (“When we honor Mary, we are actually honoring her Son, because it’s for His sake that we honor her”) is skirting very close to the line beyond which lies idolatry, and that it keeps crossing this line again and again; they will not be convinced by our argument that Scripture knows only one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, and that therefore nobody has need of a “Mediatrix of all Graces”.
- And we (Evangelicals) will never let them convince us that because we do not recognize the Pope or his jurisdiction we lack an essential mark of the Church — this Pope who has a lot of things to say, and says them with clarity and conviction, which we agree with, and for which we applaud him, but who seems so blind when it comes to this issue of Marian piety; and we will never be convinced that anyone other than God the father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is the papa/abba (father, pope), let alone the “Holy Father” of the Church.
There is only One who can loosen this Gordian knot: the Lord Jesus Himself.
In the meantime, while we need to pursue reconciliation with individual believers in the Roman Catholic Church, we need to avoid giving the impression of greater agreement and unity than actually exists. For me this also means that I will continue to refrain from taking the Eucharist during Roman Catholic mass, notwithstanding my sense of communion with some Catholics and invitations to partake. It would pretend to a unity that isn’t really there, and would thus be dishonest.
Also, in the face of the opposition that we as Christians encounter from all sides we need to be careful to be respectful in dealing with Christians with whom we have deep and serious differences. After all, despite these very disturbing practices the Roman Catholic Church professes faith in Jesus Christ as the incarnate Son of God, and continues to proclaim His saving death and resurrection much more staunchly and clearly than some Protestant churches. And respectful conversation is much more likely to sway people and persuade them to re-think their convictions than aggressive accusations and attacks.
Above all we can pray: Come, Lord Jesus!