Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
Why does the Church bother having dogmas about Mary anyway? Why not just stick to talking about Jesus?
To find out why, consider Nestorius. He was a fifth-century bishop and theologian who disliked the way common folk talked about Jesus and his mother because it played havoc with a theory he had concocted. Nestorius’ theory was rooted in a deep discomfort that is as old as the Church: the discomfort with the fact that the Word really and truly became flesh. This discomfort with the Incarnation is a continual pattern among false teachers from New Testament times (1 John 4:2) down to today. It animates everybody from the ancient Gnostics (who held that spirit was good and matter was evil) to Docetists (who insisted that Jesus was only a spirit who appeared to be human) down to present-day New Agers who likewise dabble with the notion that the goal of the spiritual life is to somehow be disembodied.
Nestorius, zealous for the holiness and purity of God, likewise believed Word and flesh must be kept at a safe distance from one another. So he developed a theory which portrayed Jesus as more or less two people occupying the same head. One of them was the spiritual Logos: God the Son. The other was an ordinary guy named Jesus who was more or less occupied by the Logos as gas fills a balloon. Accordingly, the man Jesus took his humanity from Mary. But the Logos had nothing to do with Mary. Therefore, Nestorius forbade the immemorial practice of hailing Mary as "Theotokos" (meaning “God Bearer” or “Mother of God”). So, just as a sampler, here is what Fathers long before Nestorius had said:
"The Word begotten of the Father from on high, inexpressibly, inexplicably, incomprehensibly, and eternally, is he that is born in time here below of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God." (Athanasius, The Incarnation of the Word of God 8 [A.D. 365]).
"If anyone does not agree that holy Mary is Mother of God, he is at odds with the Godhead" (Gregory of Nazianz, Letter to Cledonius the Priest 101 [A.D. 382]).
"When, therefore, they ask, 'Is Mary mother of man or Mother of God?' we answer, 'Both!' The one by the very nature of what was done and the other by relation" (Theodore of Mopsuestia, The Incarnation 15 [A.D. 405]).
But Nestorius went the route of Vizzini in The Princess Bride: "Athanasius? Gregory of Nazianz? Theodore of Mopsuestia? Morons!" So he insisted she be called “Christotokos” or Christ Bearer. But note: the argument was not about Mary. It was about Jesus.
So what happens when Nestorius' theory is applied to real life? As the Church saw, Jesus becomes unable to save us since He's no longer the God-Man, bearing our sins to the cross and rising to give us His divine life. The man who died on the cross is a mere creature who can do neither. The God Who occupies him does not share our nature and therefore can neither die for our sins, nor share His divine life with us, because he doesn't even share it with the human bio-envelope He is inhabiting.
In answering Nestorius, the Council of Ephesus in A.D. 431 therefore did two things. First, it reasserted the basic apostolic teaching that Jesus is true God and true man. In a nutshell, it taught that Jesus had two natures (divine and human) which were hypostatically united in one person. Nothing new here, because it’s all in Scripture. John taught that "The Word was with God, and the Word was God" (John 1:1) and told us "The Word became flesh" (John 1:14). Luke reported that the angel had told Mary, "You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus" (Luke 1:31).
But the Council also insisted the union of God and Man in Christ inevitably involves Mary due to two extremely simple points taught by the apostles:
"Is Jesus God?" (Yes.)
Is Mary His Mother? (Yes.)
Therefore, said the Church, we ought to go on doing as we have done for centuries and hail her as Theotokos. Like Nestorius, the Church grasped that the point about the Theotokos is that the point not about the Theotokos, but about Jesus.
Now some modern-day critics of the dogma fret, "But what if people misunderstand to mean Mary is the Creator of God?" Well, it's theoretically true that a certain sort of person can, after ignoring everything the Church says about Mary, decide to worship her anyway. But you really do have to ignore everything the Church says to do this, because she is abundantly clear that Mary is not the Creator of God. That’s why Epiphanius of Salamis writes in the fourth century:
Now the body of Mary was indeed holy, but it was not God; the Virgin was indeed a virgin and revered, but she was not given to us for worship, but she herself worshiped him who was born in the flesh from her.... Honor Mary, but let the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit be worshiped, but let no one worship Mary, . . . even though Mary is most beautiful and holy and venerable, yet she is not to be worshiped.
And it’s why the Catechism (paragraph 970) summarizes things this way when it comes to the Blessed Virgin:
No creature could ever be counted as equal with the Incarnate Word and Redeemer.
In short, there is no covert attempt by the Church to make Mary a goddess.
There are, however, a significant number of Christians who, even now, persist in fearing that some remote hypothetical person might foolishly think "Mother of God" means "Mary is God." And ironically, they wind up adopting the same heresies about Jesus that the Theotokos was intended to prevent. Terrified by phantom Mary worshippers, the critics say weird things like:
Please note that Mary is NOT the "Mother of God", as God was around long before Mary was born. Mary is the mother of Jesus (Acts 1:14), she is never called the "Mother of God". Jesus never called Mary "mother", but "woman".
This strange emphasis on denying Mary any connection with motherhood gets rather creepy and Freudian as those bound and determined to reject the Theotokos fantasize that Love Incarnate had a “Mommie Dearest” relationship with his mother. As the complete dehumanization of Mary proceeds, the sheer gynecological disgust of the critic grows until we are informed that…
Jesus COULD NOT in any way have proceeded from the genetics of the fallen, degenerated human race. The undeniable truth is that the chromosomes of the child Jesus did not come from Joseph, but they also did not come from Mary.... Mary's womb was chosen by the Creator to give form to His Human Image. The initial cell of that Human Image, with its 46 chromosomes, originated from the Throne of "the Majesty on High" (Hebrews 1:3). Mary's womb was the special "incubator" used by the Eternal One to initiate and form the "Word of God" which was "made flesh." The blood from Mary's womb was used by God to protect and feed the embryo, which then became a fetus, which then became the holy child that was born. However, the blood that began flowing through the veins of that Special Human Being had absolutely nothing to do with the blood of the womb from where He was formed throughout the gestational period. For many centuries, the spirit of the deceiver has presented Mary as divine, blasphemously converting her into the "Mother of God."
In the effort to save Jesus from contact with the "degenerate" flesh of Mary, the opponent of the Theotokos even saves Him from contact with the flesh of Adam—meaning He can't save us from the death that Adam brought into the world since Jesus is not a member of Adam’s race. Vigilantly on guard against something no real person will ever do, some Christians can and do miss the real danger: a fear of the Incarnation that warps our understanding of Christ and of his saving gospel.
Why does the Church teach Marian dogmas like the Theotokos? Because the thing about Mary is that the thing is never really about Mary. Every Marian dogma protects some truth crucial to understanding who Jesus is and therefore who we are. The word of Jeremiah is fulfilled in her and in the Church of which she is the type: For the Lord has created a new thing on the earth:/a woman protects a man" (Jeremiah 31:22).