The issue is not the idea that Mary experienced dilemmas, woes, heartache, frustrations, etc. The central issue is simply that it is a deviation from Catholic tradition to say that, in the act of having such difficulties, Our Lady would accuse, or even “semi-accuse,” God of deceit (or betrayal). Shortly after I published it, another blogger labeled my recent post about Our Lady of the Doubts as another of my ongoing “swipes” at the pope. In reality, I (and numerous other concerned Catholics) would not be prone to such “swipes” (merely to borrow my critic’s term), if Pope Francis did not take so many swipes at the faithful and the Faith itself.
A larger issue is that the pope’s gaffe on this point is not anything new. He has proven himself to be a frequently unreliable expositor of the Faith. Too many nuances fudged, too many half-truths valorized, too little clarification in the face of too much confusion. While I am certainly not saying that everything he says is wrong–quite to the contrary, it is the ragged litany of sporadic malapapalisms which detract from his otherwise conventional orthodoxy–, I am saying that his consistent tendency to confuse and shock the faithful renders him unreliable as a catechist. (The phrase “predicatbly unpredictable” comes to mind.) It is, to put it mildly, problematic that a common reflex of the faithful–and I’ve seen it for myself over and over–is to say, “Well, what I think the Holy Father means is…” or “Well, we can understand him if we….” Getting a new speech writer was a good sign, but the pope’s pedagogical problems persist.
I am at pains to stress that this in no way undermines the graces of his office and in no way impinges on the truth of papal infallibility, properly understood. It is simply to say that, if he had not already provided numerous examples of questionable articulations of the Faith, we could, so to speak, let this latest gaffe slide. As it stands, though, it only reinforces the pattern that we must admit: Pope Francis is not a careful thinker and he is often extremely incautious with his words. Any pastor who requires the help of legions of defenders to show how his malapapalisms “mesh” with the Faith, is simply a poor teacher, and it’s not mockery to call a spade a spade. This, by the way, is why I think the pope himself, and his many avid admirers, place so much emphasis on his actions. I think on some level Pope Francis recognizes his comparative weakness as an articulator, so he compensates, as it were, with grand acts of Christian mercy and pastoral tenderness. Unfortunately, even if he is aware of his shortcomings on the expository side of things, he has an unrestrained gift for gab.
Now, I think the CFN response to Pope Francis’s aspersions on Our Lady goes too far by claiming that John Paull II said basically the same thing, and in effect, gives the game to Pope Francis on this error. As the article presented by Eponymous notes, in Redemptoris Mater §18 John Paull II clearly presented the traditional understanding that, while severe, Mary’s woes at the foot of the Cross did not amount to hostility or despair towards God. Even to insinuate that her genuinely human woes could terminate in or include such a charge against God, is to belie a fundamental confusion about Marian dogmatics and traditional piety. The subtle but crucial difference between what Pope Francis insinuates and what John Paull II teaches, sheds futher light on why countless healthy Catholic souls have reacted so negatively to Pope Francis’s latest bungling of the Tradition.
In the CFN response, John Vennari writes that “In the new Way of the Cross, composed by John Paul II, we read the following or the fourth Station of ‘Jesus Meets His Sorrowful Mother’:
The mediation contains a flashback to the Annunciation, and a recounting of the prophecy of the Angel regarding Our Lord, “…and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David, and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end.” …
“Mary heard these words. She often returned to them in the secret of her heart. When she met her Son on the Way of the Cross, perhaps these very words came to her mind with particular force, ‘He will reign, His Kingdom will have no end,’ the heavenly messenger had said. Now, as she watches her Son condemned to death carrying the cross on which He must die, she might ask herself, all too humanly, ‘So how can these words be fulfilled?’ In what way will He reign over the house of David? And how can it be that His Kingdom will have not end?’ Humanly speaking, these are all reasonable questions. But Mary remembered that she first heard the angel’s message, she had replied, ‘Behold, I am the handmade of the Lord. May it be done to me according Your Word.‘”
This is subtly but crucially different from what Pope Francis has, wittingly or not, foisted upon us as children of the Mystical Rose. John Paul II’s orthodoxy becomes even clearer when read in connection with his more formal statements in Redemptoris Mater §18:
And now, standing at the foot of the Cross, Mary is the witness, humanly speaking, of the complete negation of these words [about Christ’s Davidic reign]. … How great, how heroic then is the obedience of faith shown by Mary in the face of God’s “unsearchable judgments”! How completely she “abandons herself to God” without reserve, offering the full assent of the intellect and the will” to him whose “ways are inscrutable” (cf. Rom. 11:33)! And how powerful too is the action of grace in her soul, how all-pervading is the influence of the Holy Spirit and of his light and power!
Through this faith Mary is perfectly united with Christ in his self-emptying. … At the foot of the Cross Mary shares through faith in the shocking mystery of this self-emptying. This is perhaps the deepest “kenosis” of faith in human history. Through faith the Mother shares in the death of her Son, in his redeeming death; but in contrast with the faith of the disciples who fled, hers was far more enlightened.
This glorious account reminds us not only why Pope Francis seriously dropped the ball in his recent sermon, but also why it’s worth getting right (God knows his doe-eyed yes-men can’t be bothered to admit the problem for the faithful). Pope Francis is at pains to emphasize the humanness of Our Lady, presumably in order to foster sympathy between her and ourselves. That’s fine, as far as it goes, but what he leaves out is nothing less than the mystery of divine grace. Mary is the perfect specimen of redeemed humanity. To acknowledge that redeemed humanity can still experience woes and grief is not only beautiful but also deeply orthodox.
However, precisely because the “point” of Marian devotion is to put ourselves in the place of Mary, and to develop by prayer and grace her utter attachment to and love for the Lord, it is a barbarous truncation of the redemption to include in her redeemed humanity the very things that we think of as defiant, craven, and fallen in ourselves. In other words, if Pope Francis had stopped at the point of saying that Mary was holy but also human and therefore felt grief and confusion, he would have made a great point. Alas, by plunging ahead with his characteristic vulgarity and including in her grace-suffused humanity a charge of deceit against God, Pope Francis has utterly confused the fallen dispositions of Mary’s just-like-us humanity with the reality of her grace-perfected humanity.
This is why appeals to Christ’s own expressions of grief either prove too much, or are maladroit. The argument in defense of Pope Francis on this point is that shouting “Lies! I was deceived!” at God can be understood as a legitimate expression of divine grace in the soul, since Christ Himself expressed similar desolation. However, as Haydock’s Catholic Bible Commentary explains:
Here (ver. 46) he cried out with a loud voice, Eli, Eli, lamma sabacthani, i.e. my God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? These words, out of Psalm xxi. 1[2?], were to express his violent sufferings. The Arians objected them against the divinity of Christ; to whom the Fathers answer, that he spoke these words in the person of sinners, for whose sake he suffered, as they shew by the following words of the same Psalm: far from my salvation are the words of my sins: which cannot be applied to Christ, he being incapable of sinning. Besides, these words may be expounded as a prayer, by which he desires of his Father, not to be abandoned any longer, but that his sufferings may now have an end. In fine, that these words were uttered with an entire confidence, and an assurance in the presence and assistance of God, appears by what he presently added, recommending his spirit into the hands of his Father.
The picture is much the same as far as an appeal to the Lord’s agony in Luke 22 goes:
Christ, our Redeemer, was truly God and truly man. And being made man by a real union of his divine person and nature, to our weak and infirm human nature, he likewise took upon him our infirmities, sin excepted. We must consider him as man … when we read of his praying, and redoubling his prayer in the garden, when we find him seized with fear, sadness, and grief: for though, as God, he could prevent and hinder these passions and affections natural to man, yet he could also permit them to affect his human nature; as he permitted himself to be seized with hunger, after fasting forty days; and so he permitted his human nature to be seized with fear and grief in this garden of Gethsemani. …
— In an agony. This Greek word signifies a strife, or combat; not that there could be any opposition or contrariety in the interior of Christ, whose human will was always perfectly subject to his divine will, and the sensitive part to reason: yet, inasmuch as he was truly man, his human nature dreaded all those sufferings which at that time were represented to his soul, and which in a few hours he was to undergo.
“Grace builds on nature“–this maxim explains why the natural emotions of fear and grief must be included in our understand of Our Lady. “Grace builds on nature”–the maxim also explains why we can never countenance that “Lies! I was deceived [by God]!” is the kind of disposition that divine grace would ever build or generate in a soul as perfect as Mary’s. (One is reminded of the apocryphal tale of Galileo’s sotto voce defiance of the papal judgment–“Eppur si muove.”–a cherished parable among rationalist skeptics.) Although Pope Francis only proposed Mary’s defiant cry as a possibile urge on her part, such a sentiment is incompatible with her perfection in grace. Otherwise, the dangerous implication is that genuine human grief, even when deified, is morally compatible with calling God a liar, and, moreover, that flinging the word “Lies!” at God is part and parcel of being authentically “human”. We don’t want to go there, Pope Francis.
* * *
Catholicism, like anything real and vital, is rife with particularities. The saving creed is not that God became Man, but that the One True God became a unique man at a unique place in a unique time. To mangle or omit those particularities is to junk the whole thing. It is for this reason that Christian civilization has always prized the “distinguo“–the saving difference, the crucial nuance. To the Catholic mind, there is a world of difference between homoousios and homoiousios, while to the outside mind, it is the rankest sophistry. As Chesterton (?) said, “There are a thousand ways to fall, but only one way to stand up straight.” In this sense, the popular saying that the Devil is in the details is exactly wrong: God is in the details.
What does this have to do with Our Lady of Doubts? The subtle caveats and qualifiers provided by John Paull II rescue his seemingly identical claim from the error implied by Pope Francis’s account of Mary at the foot of the Cross. There is a very pertinent biblical illustration of this same dynamic. When I was grappling with my objections to Catholicism years ago, I hit a wall with Our Lady’s sinlessness. I mean, to a Protestant, saying that any human is sinless is like saying that light is darkness. Precisely in the biblical declaration of her sinlessness–or rather, her fully-gracedness–we see how a subtle difference in words and in spirit can be the difference between a blessing and a curse.
When the angel hails her as “full of grace” and prophecies her motherhood, Mary responds (Luke 1:34) by asking, “How will this be, … since I am a virgin?” Only a few verses earlier, when the angel prophesied fatherhood to Zachariah, he asked the angel (1:18), “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” They both inquired about the cogency of the promises, yet Mary was blessed for all ages while Zachariah was struck dumb. As a Protestant, trying to come to terms with Immaculate Mary, that discrepancy always really bothered me. It just didn’t seem fair. After all, Mary and Zachariah replied in the same way, right?
Well, no, for while the words seem very similar, and both could be read as defiant challenges to the angel, the Bible and Holy Church teach that Mary’s words merited an unfathomable blessing while Zachariah’s merited a penalty. God is in the details. While Zachariah asked for certainty, since he felt that the obstacles were too great, Mary simply asked for clarity so that she could obey the word of the Lord. A subtle difference in tone and choice of words meant the difference between being struck dumb and bringing salvation to the whole world.
Apparently, being mute did Zachariah a lot of good. As soon as he repented of his skepticism and confessed what the angel had passed onto him, his mouth was loosened and he regained his place in the worship of God (Luke 1:57-66). Analogously, while Francis’s and John Paul II’s comments about Mary at the foot of the Cross share striking verbal and conceptual features, the subtle, saving particularities about John Paul II’s account rescue him from the scandal inherent in Pope Francis’s treatment. Seeing as I’m not the only one dumbstruck by his denigration of Our Lady–couched in a sermon all about silence, no less–perhaps silence would do Pope Francis as much good as it did Zachariah.