Recently, I participated in an online conversation about the Blessed Virgin.
As an evangelical convert to the Catholic faith, I can empathize with the deep fears many evangelicals have about Mary. It's a terror that runs way down into the guts and marrow of many evangelicals. It's a deep, unreasoning and nameless fear that does not lose any of its power even when every so-called “basis” for the fear is debunked.
And like many irrational fears, it has the odd quality of distracting us from reality and clear thinking.
To illustrate what I mean, let me sum up not a few discussions I have witnessed between Catholics and evangelicals:
Evangelical: You must not worship Mary!
Catholic: Relax. I don't worship Mary.
Evangelical: Oh, but you do!
Catholic: Actually, I think I'm the only one qualified to make that call, aren't I?
Evangelical: But it looks to me like you worship her! You pray to her and ask her to intercede for you, don't you?
Catholic: Yes, I do like to talk to my mother about things. But I don't worship her and I don't think she's God. She's a creature, a fellow Christian (albeit the great one). How would you feel if I said, “You worship your barber! I know you do, because you sometimes ask him to pray for you?”
Evangelical: That's totally different!
Catholic: Actually, it's exactly the same. Which is why Scripture says don't judge by appearances. If you'd just ask me rather than telling me, I'd be happy to tell you what I worship. I worship Jesus Christ fully present in the holy Eucharist — body, blood, soul and divinity.
Evangelical: I don't think the Eucharist is Jesus’ body and blood, but simply a symbol. But let's not argue over such fine points of theology as “transubstantiation.” We both celebrate Communion in our own ways. And that's the important thing.
Catholic: Did you hear me? I said I fall down in worship and adoration before something that looks just like a piece of bread and a cup of wine. I say “Hosanna” to it. I adore it as the very God of the Universe! The Eucharist is my Lord and my God, my salvation, my life, the very source of my being!
Evangelical: Yes. I think that's a bit overboard, but let's not argue about it. You have your version of communion and I have mine. Now, about Mary worship: Don't you see how incredibly dangerous it is for you to commit the grave sin of idolizing Mary …
If this were the only time I'd seen exchanges like this, I would laugh it off as a singular incidence of obtuseness.
But, in fact, it's not at all uncommon to see evangelicals devoting weirdly disproportionate amounts of energy to the strange task of persuading Catholics to cease doing what they are not doing while cheerfully and warmly ignoring what they are doing.
To be sure, that doesn't mean I think evangelicals should get on the ball and start a campaign against Eucharistic adoration. On the contrary, I think Eucharistic adoration the highest duty of the human race and something that should be encouraged till the glory of the Lord covers the face of the earth as the waters cover the sea.
But I do think it mighty odd that somebody who doesn't believe the Eucharist is Jesus Christ cares passionately that I not fall down in worship of Mary — whom I do not adore — yet shrugs indifferently when I fall down in worship of the Host.
It gives one the strong impression that there's something other than concern about idolatry here.
That something is what I call Mariaphobic Response Syndrome: the irrational terror of the Blessed Virgin that paradoxically makes her loom much larger in many evangelical imaginations than in Catholic ones.
As a recovering MRS sufferer, I can tell you that she is perhaps the single biggest obstacle facing the potential convert to the Church from evangelicalism. The papacy? Small beer! The Eucharist? Got it. Sacred Tradition? Not a problem! Mary?
Something in the gut stirs. The terror that the whole Catholic faith is a vast charade flares up in the mind. Say what they will, the “Catholic Mary” is some terrible pretty face on the worship of Babylonian deities. Must … get … out! Must … escape! It's all a trick.
Once I'm in the Church, I'll be ushered into the secret chambers where scary Marian rites of worship take place in the secret rooms beneath the sanctuary. There'll be no escape. I will be forced to worship the Goddess!!!!!
Then you enter the Church and reality hits you: Mary gets small. Or rather, she resumes her normal place. You discover the comic fact that nobody thinks she's another God, as you feared. You discover the even funnier fact that a small minority of Catholics think she's another pope.
But more on that later …
This column is the first of two parts.
Mark Shea is Senior Content Editor for CatholicExchange.com.