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Association of the Miraculous Medal
Marian dogmas: why and what?

3. Marian dogmas: why and what?

 Concerning your questions about devotion to Mary, about the Immaculate Conception, Mary's Assumption, and her perpetual virginity. These questions are related to the larger issue of how God speaks to human beings. 

The idea that God's supernatural revelation is transmitted in two ways, through sacred Scripture and through sacred Tradition, has always been accepted by the Catholic Church. It is rejected by many other churches, especially those which interpret the Bible in a fundamentalist way. Often, people who belong to such churches attack Catholics because we believe "things that are not found in the Bible." They state that we can believe "only what the Bible says." 

Why do Catholics believe that God has revealed truths which are to be "handed on" through sacred Tradition? There are many reasons. The first is that we believe in the sacramental principle! We believe that God is constantly interacting with people. God did not simply drop a Bible from the sky and then stop communicating with people. God continues to speak to us through the Word, Jesus Christ (John 1:1), who continues to speak through his Church. Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit to lead the Church to the truth: "I have much more to tell you....But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth" (John 16:13). God's word, then, is addressed to the world through the teaching of the apostles and their successors, guided by the Holy Spirit. 

Second, the Church existed for a long time without the Bible as we know it. No New Testament works existed until at least twenty years after Christ's resurrection, and the last book of the New Testament was written about one hundred years after the resurrection. If all revelation had to be found in the Bible, the early Church would have had little to teach. 

Third, Church councils made the decisions about which books should be accepted into the Bible. Without the living teaching authority of the Church, without sacred Tradition, there would be no Bible, for there would have been no way to determine which books belonged in the Bible and which did not. This is another way of saying that the Church produced the Bible. The Bible did not produce the Church. Ask the question, "What is the pillar and foundation of truth?" Many Christians will answer, "The Bible, of course." But that's not what the Bible says! The Bible states that the Church is the "pillar and foundation of truth" (1 Timothy 3:15). 

Fourth, the Bible makes it clear that all of God's truth is not found in sacred Scripture. John's Gospel closes with the statement: "There are also many other things that Jesus did, but if these were to be described individually, I do not think the whole world would contain the books that would be written" (John 21:25). 

Fifth, the Bible itself indicates that God's truth would be "handed on" by preaching as well as by the written word. Jesus said to his disciples, "Whoever listens to you listens to me" (Luke 10:16), thus showing that God's revelation would be brought to the world through the teaching of the apostles. The New Testament reports this mandate of Paul to Timothy: "And what you have heard from me through many witnesses entrust to faithful people who will have the ability to teach others" (2 Timothy 2:2). 

Sixth, Scripture explicitly acknowledges traditions passed on by the leaders of the Church and not found in the Bible. Saint Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, and to us: "...stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours" (2 Thessalonians 2:15). 

Finally, there is no passage in the Bible which says that the Bible is the only source of divine revelation. Therefore, anyone who asserts that the Bible is the only source of revelation is claiming something that is not in the Bible. Anyone who says we must believe only what we find in the Bible is asking us to believe something that is not in the Bible! 

Concerning the Immaculate Conception: The Church believes that it has been guided by the Holy Spirit toward belief in the Immaculate Conception, and that this doctrine is consistent with the New Testament, though not found explicitly in the New Testament. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception also contains the belief that Mary was free of all personal sin: we trust that we have been guided to this belief by the Holy Spirit. 

Our Catholic belief in the Immaculate Conception means that she was preserved from some of the effects of original sin (theologians would argue about how this was done), but she had to cooperate with God's grace. As she grew up, she could have sinned when she was tempted, but she did not. Mary is the one who shows forth the goodness of God more than any other human being, except Jesus. Jesus is truly God, and is uniquely holy. Mary is the Mother of Jesus, who is truly God, and she is holy by the grace and merits of her Son (God is not limited by time, and theologians say that Mary was preserved free from sin by the "anticipated" benefits of Christ's life, death and resurrection), and by her cooperation with God's grace. 

With regard to Mary's assumption: The official doctrine of the Church does not decide the issue of whether Mary died or not. Most theologians today seem to feel that she died, as her Son Jesus did. The Church does teach that by the Assumption Mary shares bodily in the resurrection and experiences complete union with Jesus. I understand the doctrine to mean that Jesus caused her physical body, after death, to be transformed into the spiritual body we will all have in heaven (see 1 Cor. 15:42-44). The difference is that our physical body is subject to corruption, and we are "transformed" into the spiritual body, whereas Mary's physical body was not subject to corruption. Why? Because Mary's body was the "ark" which bore the body of Jesus for nine months. Because Mary was Jesus' Mother, and as such, would have been welcomed into heaven by her Son with all the grace and power Jesus could have shared with his beloved Mother. (Would we do any less for our own mother if we were in Jesus' place?) 

Another way of looking at the Assumption is to compare it with the phenomenon described in 1 Thess 4:16-17. Some teachers and theologians describe Mary's Assumption in these very terms. They say that Mary has already experienced fully what we will experience fully only at the end of time. 

The Assumption seems to have been taken for granted by Catholics as far back as the historical records go. We Catholics believe that our doctrines must be congruent with the Bible, but not necessarily expressed explicitly in the Bible. We believe that the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, can come to the knowledge of truths that are related to our spiritual benefit, and the Immaculate Conception and Assumption are such truths. 

The Bible speaks of "brothers and sisters" of Jesus (Mt 13:56-57). But the Catholic Church teaches that Jesus had no blood brothers or sisters and that his Mother Mary always remained a virgin. These truths have been arrived at from the Bible and from tradition. 

Even today "brothers and sisters" may be used in many ways. When we hear speakers address audiences as "brothers and sisters," we assume that the words refer not to blood relatives, but to friends or to members of a particular nation, group, or race. In the Old Testament, "brothers and sisters" might refer to members of the same tribe (Dt 15:12) or race (Dt 23:7), or to nephews (Gn 13:8), cousins (Lv 10:4), or relatives in general (2 Kgs 10:13). 

In the New Testament, two of those who are called brothers of Jesus, namely James and Joseph (Mt 13:56-57), are later identified as sons of another woman (Mt 27:56). The word "brothers" is often used for the followers of Jesus. For example, the risen Jesus asked Mary Magdalene to "go to my brothers." Mary "went and announced to the disciples, 'I have seen the Lord'" (Jn 20:17-18). Jesus said that those who do the will of his Father are his brothers (Lk 8:21), and in the New Testament, believers are called "brothers" more than 100 times. 

The New Testament never speaks of other children of Mary or Joseph, so it is impossible to prove from the Bible that Jesus actually had blood brothers or sisters. If there had been such blood brothers, it is difficult to explain why Jesus, as he hung on the cross, would have given Mary into the care of the beloved disciple. "When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple there whom he loved, he said to his mother, 'Woman, behold, your Son.' Then he said to the disciple, 'Behold, your mother.' And from that hour the disciple took her into his home" (Jn 19:26-27). If Mary had other children, it seems that they would have cared for her. 

Further, if Jesus actually had blood brothers and sisters, it would be difficult to explain why the Church would have denied their existence. The most plausible reason why the Church has always held that Jesus was an only child is that he actually was an only child! 

With regard to the phrase that Joseph "had no relations with her until (or before) she bore a Son, and he named him Jesus," the word "until" (or before) in English suggests that Joseph did have relations with Mary after the birth of Jesus. But the Semitic expression behind the Greek does not suggest either that he did or that he didn't. It focuses only on the time up to the birth of Jesus and says nothing about what happened after. There is a similar expression in 2 Samuel 6:23 where it is said that Michol was "childless to the day of her death"...Some translations use "to" instead of "until," but the Semitic expression behind both phrases is the same: and obviously Michol did not have children after her death. What this means is that the Bible doesn't give definite proof for the opinion that Mary had other children or for the opinion that she didn't. 

Early Christian writers agreed that Jesus had no blood brothers and sisters and that Mary remained a virgin. St. Jerome (345-420) wrote that "Ignatius, Polycarp, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr and all the other learned men going back to apostolic times" testified to the perpetual virginity of Mary. Our Catholic belief, therefore, goes back to the earliest days of the Church and has been a constant belief for almost 2,000 years. Since the Holy Spirit guides the Church, we can believe that the Holy Spirit led believers to the fact of Mary's perpetual virginity. 

This fact points to the uniqueness of Jesus as the only Son of God. The Bible states that Mary was a virgin when she conceived Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit (Lk 1:31-35). The tradition of the Church teaches that Mary remained a virgin. Why? Because she and Joseph witnessed the miracle of Jesus' conception and birth. They realized that God had entrusted them with the greatest treasure in the history of the world, God's only Son. They understood that their task in life was to nurture and protect the Savior of the human race. Many years later, Jesus would speak of those who renounced marriage "for the sake of the kingdom of heaven" (Mt 19:12). It cannot be surprising that Mary and Joseph would have wanted to renounce their right to have other children in order to dedicate their lives to the care of God's Son. 

The Church's belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary is significant because of what it says about Jesus and about us. The fact that Jesus was Mary's only child underlines his uniqueness as the only Son of God. The fact that Jesus was Mary's only child results in a special relationship between Mary and us. Since we are the Body of Christ (1 Cor 12:27), Mary is our Mother, and she has the same Mother's love for us that she has for Jesus. Jesus says to us as beloved disciples, "Behold, your mother." 

These facts, rooted in the Bible and clarified by the Church's tradition, help us to see Christ in the clearest possible light. They help us to know Mary as the Virgin Mother of Jesus and as our Virgin Mother. These beliefs, old as the New Testament and new as today, have enriched the lives of countless generations of Catholics. 

I hope that this information is helpful to you. The real key is that the Catholic Church believes that the Holy Spirit continues, as Jesus promised, to guide the Church to a better understanding of God's Word.