My friend was offended whenever he heard Mary called “ever-virgin.” This was odd, because he was the kind of Episcopalian called “Anglo-Catholic,” and they are, of all the Protestant groups, the one most consciously close to the Catholic Church.
His feeling was even odder given that his tradition affirms the authority of all the ancient Church councils, including the fifth one, which refers to Mary as “ever-virgin.” This teaching was not a matter of choice for someone like him. But he still found it not just wrong but offensively wrong.
On the evangelical side of mainline Protestantism, two de facto patriarchs, the Anglican J.I. Packer and the Methodist Thomas Oden — men I am also pleased to claim as friends — never mention Mary, except in reference to the virgin birth in the 200-some pages of their recent book One Faith that summarizes what evangelical Protestants believe. She has only an instrumental role, as the birth mother of the Son of God, and is apparently nothing beyond that.
This stops the average Catholic in his tracks, at least those who know believing Protestants like my friends. You look at their lives with admiration: serious about God and the faith, strikingly self-sacrificing, steeped in the Bible, theologically literate, active in their churches and in all sorts of good works. They are the kind of people you’d trust with a checkbook full of signed blank checks or your deepest secrets.
The Mother of God, the woman who is to us an example, a friend, a mother, someone to whom we turn in trouble and sorrow, someone who intercedes for us at the highest possible level — for them she is no different from any other Christian. What we think natural to her, like her purity and virginity, can even offend them. We want to ask them: “You see so much. Why don’t you see this?”
There are, I think, four broad evangelical-Protestant responses to the Mary Catholics know. With two you can speak fruitfully; with two you usually can’t. The tricky thing is that what the person says doesn’t always tell you which sort he is. A strong negative reaction may mask genuine interest, while a polite question may mask a strong rejection. Talking to Protestant brothers about Mary requires an active exercise of charitable listening — not just to what they say, but to how they say it.
The first kind of response is complete rejection, ranging from real hostility to the refusal to give her any status higher than any other great Christian or a kind of patronizing dismissal of Mary and those of us who care about her.
The second response is what I call qualified rejection. These people agree with the first about the belief but see something in Mary or in the Catholics they know that makes them want to know more. They think of us the way we think of them — “You see so much. Why don’t you see this?” — and want to know why these good Catholics they know believe something so odd.
The third is tolerance. These people also reject Marian belief, but they still see it as one option for personal piety. They usually say something like “I’m glad you like that kind of thing” or “It’s so nice that Mary meets your needs.”
And last is real interest. This ranges from curiosity about this funny belief to a real if unacknowledged desire to meet Mary themselves. Some in the second group just want to know what Catholics believe, but some — maybe a lot — are possible converts, even if they don’t know it yet.
As a rule, it is in responding to the second and the fourth that some real progress may be made. The first tend to want only to debate the matter without the possibility of changing their minds (and quite rightly, from their point of view), the third to affirm without engaging.
How to respond?
When, after listening for a while, you find someone who really wants to know what Catholics believe, try a three-step approach: first facts, second experience and third, if required, arguments.
Think of what you are doing not as apologetics but as sharing. You are not making a case but trying to introduce one friend to another.
Begin with the facts of what the Church believes, which is not so wild and elaborate as other Christians often expect. That by itself can clear away some objections. Then describe your own experience of Mary’s friendship. You want to show them how this teaching makes a difference in lived experience, how life with the Mother of God looks and feels and, particularly, how it leads you closer to Jesus and deeper into holiness.
Talking about your mother Mary will do far more to convince the curious than argument by itself. You may feel you have little to say, but even a small story can move a heart and open a mind.
Finally, offer the arguments for Marian doctrine and devotion. There are many good ones, so do your homework. But the arguments come last because the person who wants to understand has to work a little. He has to be willing to understand how the Church understands herself.
And you have to be willing to work at showing him the Mary you know. This is not only an act of kindness toward others. It’s also an opportunity for you to grow closer to the Blessed Mother. It is, as people like to say, a win-win.
David Mills is the author of
Discovering Mary: Answers to Questions about the Mother
of God (Servant, 2009).