A Protestant friend e-mailed me, troubled by something he’d read in an article about the Rosary, in which the author said:
The will of the Blessed Virgin is completely conformed to that of Her Son, in other word – God. She is the most humble and chaste spouse of the Holy Ghost and will never do anything contrary to the will of God. Thus, we ought to trust the Blessed Mother just as God has, because She ultimately brings us to God. Mary is our Salvation, and Christ is the source of our Salvation. Mary is the Gate and Christ is the Key. It is only through Her that we are saved.
This, he said, sounded like pure idolatry. Is it? Let’s consider (1) what this claim doesn’t mean, (2) why it’s not blasphemous or idolatrous to say that Mary saves us, and (3) the manner in which Mary saves us.
|Cristo Rei of Dili|
As the Catechsim explains (CCC 613-14), Christ’s Sacrifice on the Cross is both the definitive redemption of men, and utterly unique. No sacrifice before or after can ever compare with God the Son giving His Life for the sins of the world:
613 Christ’s death is both the Paschal sacrifice that accomplishes the definitive redemption of men, through “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29; cf. 8:34-36; 1 Cor 5:7; 1 Pet 1:19), and the sacrifice of the New Covenant, which restores man to communion with God by reconciling him to God through the “blood of the covenant, which was poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Mt 26:28; cf. Ex 24:8; Lev 16:15-16; 1 Cor 11:25).614 This sacrifice of Christ is unique; it completes and surpasses all other sacrifices (Cf. Heb 10:10). First, it is a gift from God the Father himself, for the Father handed his Son over to sinners in order to reconcile us with himself. At the same time it is the offering of the Son of God made man, who in freedom and love offered his life to his Father through the Holy Spirit in reparation for our disobedience (Cf. Jn 10:17-18; 15:13; Heb 9:14; 1 Jn 4:10).
So Christ is simply irreplaceable. You couldn’t just crucify Mary, or any of the Saints, in His Place. In fact, the very reason that we have Mary and the Saints is through the merits of Christ.
So before we speak of the sense in which Mary saves us, we need to speak of the sense in which she doesn’t. Mary doesn’t perform Christ’s role. Only He can do that.
|Masaccio, Baptism of Neophytes (1425)|
Given what I’ve just said, it seems as if there’s not room to speak of anyone saving us but Christ. But in fact, Scripture is quite clearly to the contrary. True, Christ’s Atoning Death on the Cross, and that alone, has the power to save us. But the application of His Atonement are applied in our lives in various ways, and Scripture properly speaks of these things as salvific, too.
So, for example, we hear about Baptism saving us (1 Peter 3:21), as well as grace (Acts 15:11), our faith (Luke 7:50), and so on. In fact, Scripture refers to individuals other than Christ as saving us, and refers to our ability to save others. For example, Jude 1:22-23 says:
Be merciful to those who doubt; save others by snatching them from the fire; to others show mercy, mixed with fear—hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh.
Obviously, St. Jude isn’t suggesting that we’re going to die upon the Cross for our neighbor, personally atoning for their sins. So we don’t save them in that way. Rather, we save them by bringing them to Christ. It’s not dissimilar from Ezekiel 3:18-19, in which God says:
When I say to a wicked person, ‘You will surely die,’ and you do not warn them or speak out to dissuade them from their evil ways in order to save their life, that wicked person will die for their sin, and I will hold you accountable for their blood. But if you do warn the wicked person and they do not turn from their wickedness or from their evil ways, they will die for their sin; but you will have saved yourself.
|Raphael, St Paul Preaching in Athens (1515)|
And St. Paul says in 1 Timothy 4:16,
Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.
What do all of these things have in common? In each case, what’s meant is that these are the means by which salvation reaches us. It’s similar to how we can say both that Oswald killed Kennedy, and that a bullet killed Kennedy. One was the instrument of the other, so there’s not even a slight tension between those two claims.
Whether they recognize it or not, this is a distinction that Protestants recognize all the time. Nobody (at least, nobody I’ve heard), says, “I got saved in 32 A.D.” But, of course, there’s a sense in which that’s when Christ saved all of us. Rather, people speak of the point in their lives in which they were saved (whether at the moment of their conversion, or at their Baptism), they’re pointing to the application of Christ’s Atonement in their lives.
So yes, Christ saves you, but also, Baptism saves you, faith saves you, the Gospel saves you, perseverance in sound living and doctrine saves you, those who bring you the Gospel save you, and so on. To treat any of this as idolatrous or blasphemous would be completely absurd. So why is it wrong for Catholics to say the exact same thing of Mary? The problem here seems to be Protestant Mary-phobia, rather than any coherent problem with speaking of someone or something other than Christ saving us.
Okay, so it’s not blasphemous to say that Mary saves us, as long as we don’t mean that she occupies Christ’s place. She saves us by bringing us to Christ — which is probably what the original commenter meant by saying that “Mary is our Salvation, and Christ is the source of our Salvation.” She’s the nurse bringing us the antidote to sin. Christ is the Antidote.
Here’s how Lumen Gentium describes Mary’s role in saving us:
Antonio da Correggio, Adoration of the Child (1520)
61. Predestined from eternity by that decree of divine providence which determined the incarnation of the Word to be the Mother of God, the Blessed Virgin was on this earth the virgin Mother of the Redeemer, and above all others and in a singular way the generous associate and humble handmaid of the Lord. She conceived, brought forth and nourished Christ. She presented Him to the Father in the temple, and was united with Him by compassion as He died on the Cross. In this singular way she cooperated by her obedience, faith, hope and burning charity in the work of the Saviour in giving back supernatural life to souls. Wherefore she is our mother in the order of grace.
62. This maternity of Mary in the order of grace began with the consent which she gave in faith at the Annunciation and which she sustained without wavering beneath the cross, and lasts until the eternal fulfillment of all the elect. Taken up to heaven she did not lay aside this salvific duty, but by her constant intercession continued to bring us the gifts of eternal salvation.(15*) By her maternal charity, she cares for the brethren of her Son, who still journey on earth surrounded by dangers and cultics, until they are led into the happiness of their true home. Therefore the Blessed Virgin is invoked by the Church under the titles of Advocate, Auxiliatrix, Adjutrix, and Mediatrix.(16*) This, however, is to be so understood that it neither takes away from nor adds anything to the dignity and efficaciousness of Christ the one Mediator.(17*)For no creature could ever be counted as equal with the Incarnate Word and Redeemer. Just as the priesthood of Christ is shared in various ways both by the ministers and by the faithful, and as the one goodness of God is really communicated in different ways to His creatures, so also the unique mediation of the Redeemer does not exclude but rather gives rise to a manifold cooperation which is but a sharing in this one source.
The Church does not hesitate to profess this subordinate role of Mary. It knows it through unfailing experience of it and commends it to the hearts of the faithful, so that encouraged by this maternal help they may the more intimately adhere to the Mediator and Redeemer.
So while merely human (unlike her Son), Mary aides in our salvation in the following ways:
- Her earthly life: If we can speak of a preacher as saving us by bringing us the Gospel (1 Tim. 4:16), we can surely speak of Mary as saving us by participating in God’s plan of salvation. St. Paul brought Jesus to the Gentiles, figuratively speaking. Mary brought Jesus to the entire world, literally. Just as Eve took the fruit of sin from the tree and gave it to the first Adam, Mary took the fruit of her womb, the last Adam (1 Cor. 15:45), and led Him to the Tree (1 Peter 2:24; John 2:4-5).
- Her Motherhood: Mary is the Mother of Christ (Luke 1:43), and the Mother of Christians (Gen. 3:20; John 19:26-27). Having God as Father means having Mary and the Church as Mother (Rev. 12:17), and other Christians as brothers and sisters (Matt. 12:48-50). So you can’t have Jesus without Mary, any more than you can love God while hating a brother or sister in Christ (1 John 4:20). God doesn’t just invite us into a one-on-One relationship with Him. He invites us into a family, and Mary plays a vital role in that family.
- Her Intercession: As a good mother, Mary intercedes on our behalf, just as Abraham did for his nephew Lot (Gen 18-19). James 5:16 says that “the prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective,” tying the effectiveness of intercessory prayer to the sanctity and righteousness of the person praying. All of this points strongly towards Mary. After all, which of Christ’s followers was more righteous than Mary? And which of Christ’s followers loves the Church and Her fallen members more than Mary?
Madonna Palafrenieri (detail) (1606)