St. Louis de Montfort's Marian Devotion: Idolatry or Christocentric?
The end of St. Louis de Montfort's Marian devotion is “being conformed, united and consecrated to Jesus.”
St. Louis de Montfort (1673-1716) produced a classic work of Marian devotion: True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin. Catholic Mariology is often misinterpreted. These sorts of devotional works are seized upon by critics of Catholicism in order to cite things out of context: making it appear that Catholics have practically raised Mary to the Godhead.
All things have to be considered in context: in the work they are drawn from, and in the overall context of Catholic theology and spirituality. When we examine St. Louis' book (available online), in depth, we can properly understand the context of “controversial” quotations. Many passages center on Jesus: a fact that the critics never seem to mention.
In chapter two: “In What Devotion to Mary Consists”: the saint outlines his position and the premises with which he begins his treatment of Marian devotion. Any critique cannot proceed without keeping these presuppositions in mind:
Basic principles of devotion to Mary
. . . First principle: Christ must be the ultimate end of all devotions
61. Jesus, our Saviour, true God and true man must be the ultimate end of all our other devotions; otherwise they would be false and misleading. . . . For in him alone dwells the entire fullness of the divinity and the complete fullness of grace, virtue and perfection. . . . He is the only Physician that can heal us; the only Shepherd that can feed us; . .
62. If then we are establishing sound devotion to our Blessed Lady, it is only in order to establish devotion to our Lord more perfectly, by providing a smooth but certain way of reaching Jesus Christ. . . . this devotion is necessary, simply and solely because it is a way of reaching Jesus perfectly, loving him tenderly, and serving him faithfully.
A Protestant shouldn’t have the slightest problem with what is written above about our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Critics of the Church will seize upon single sentences or fragments of sentences about Mary (ignoring material like that above) and falsely assume that Jesus is being denigrated or “demoted”.
The Catholic outlook is “both/and.” St. Louis states: “The more one is consecrated to Mary, the more one is consecrated to Jesus” (section 120). The fact that Jesus is the ultimate end of all our devotions and spiritual aspirations does not rule out the notion of human mediation (soaked in God’s grace and by that grace alone) in order to help us to approach Jesus.
Far from teaching that no Christian can pray directly to Jesus, St. Louis does so himself in a lengthy portion, including the complete sections 63-67. Now, assuredly, he still writes many things about Mary that sound scandalous to Protestant ears and even the Catholic ears of those who need to receive more education about Catholic Mariology and how it all fits together in the overall picture. But note how the saint makes the distinction between Mary and Christ very clear:
74. What I say in an absolute sense of our Lord, I say in a relative sense of our Blessed Lady. . . .
75. [W]e can call ourselves, and become, the loving slaves of our Blessed Lady in order to become more perfect slaves of Jesus. Mary is the means our Lord chose to come to us and she is also the means we should choose to go to him, . . . Mary’s strongest inclination is to unite us to Jesus, her Son, . . .
One common problem with people who object to Catholic Marian doctrines, is that they are unfamiliar with even the basic outlines of historic Marian theology. Yet they will jump right into St. Louis or St. Alphonsus de Liguori: that is, very advanced, nuanced Mariology. They won’t be understood at first, because the person hasn't comprehended the underlying premises upon which they are based. It's like trying to grasp calculus without even taking one semester of algebra.
St. Louis goes on to teach in his book about having a mediator in order to reach Christ, who is our advocate with the Father. Is this some heretical or unbiblical thing? No, not at all. In fact, prayer itself is such a mediation. We routinely go to others and ask them to pray for us. We tend to go to people whom we regard as particularly spiritual or righteous people, to do so (and Protestants do the same).
Clergymen and other leaders in the church serve as intermediaries. Prayer is an intermediary force. We encourage, edify, and pray for one another and that leads to healing and spiritual growth. The prophet Elijah prayed and it was more powerful than others’ prayers: he stopped the rain for over three years, and made it start it up again (Jas 5:16-18). People help others, bringing back sinners, and it is said that they “will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (James 5:20; RSV).
That’s all mediation. If a righteous person can more effectively pray, it makes eminent sense to go to the most righteous creature who ever lived, the Immaculate Mary. Hebrews 12:1 talks about the “cloud of witnesses” observing us from heaven, and we see the souls under the altar in heaven praying (Rev 6:9-10), and “the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders” (Rev 5:8) and angels (Rev 8:3-4) offering to God “the prayers of the saints.” It’s all perfectly, explicitly biblical. We help each other in the Body of Christ, and this is mediation.
One could go on searching for “Jesus” or “Christ” in St. Louis and find many more statements of proper emphasis. St. Louis is assuredly not setting Mary against Jesus, let alone above Him. The end of all his Marian devotion is “being conformed, united and consecrated to Jesus” – something no Protestant could ever object to. Protestants may not like the means, but the ends are beyond all dispute.