Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Mary And The Fathers Of The Church

Finished! I finally made it through Fr. Luigi Gambero's Mary and the Fathers of the Church.

While Fr. Gambero is easy to follow, I think I read this book in three different segments. I had to put it down for major life events like a move and law school finals, but also because at times it was deeply difficult emotionally. As a non-Catholic, I did not find the early Church evidence to compellingly point toward modern Catholic Marian expressions and teachings. But I don't think compelling me or making an argument was the author's intent; it should be insightful and edifying for a Catholic reader.

Fr. Gambero ended with John Damascene (d. ca. 750). It wasn't until he covered the later Church Fathers, and only by looking East, that clear expressions of Mary's mediation of all graces, her Assumption, and her Immaculate Conception began to emerge. But giving doctrinal development the room it requests, this late arrival is not of major moment for me.

What was difficult was the opening chapters, which described the spring of Marian developments from which the Church Fathers later drank, the apocryphal Protoevangelium of James. When I read this opening, it was a time when my wife and I were a bit more caustic in our discussions about Catholicism and Orthodoxy. She thought that I was buying books only to learn arguments to support what I had already decided to do in my heart. And I wish it could have been that easy. But even in my time of eagerness, I struggled with the effect this apocryphal text later had. I learned how it "cast an undeniable spell over the Christian mentality of the first centuries" and "profoundly conditioned Christian liturgy, preaching, popular devotion, and art." From it we are told the names of Mary's parents, their sterility, Mary's premature birth, and Mary's presentment at the Temple. Many miraculous events are also described.

For one inclined to panic at the drop of a Marian needle, this was like a cherry bomb dropped into my trousers. It was just too much to handle, and I stopped reading this book further. I'm glad I've been able to get through it since, but still feel anxiety over the influence that this (largely tall) tale had on the Church.

I guess I need to reflect more on the belief that the Holy Spirit allows the Church to preserve and develop doctrines. This could ease my concerns over the use of texts that were outside the deposit of faith as major sources for later development.

However, concerns remain. Marian development strikes me as having a unique historical attribute. While there was great and often painful hedge trimming done in other areas of doctrinal development (for example, anathematizing predestinarianism and semi-Pelagianism alike), I don't think there was similar hedge trimming related to Marian excesses. I was hoping to see in this book that there had been some tension between various ancient scholars on the proper roles and attributes to ascribe to Mary. Instead, I found none. That may be the way the Holy Spirit has chosen to commend a truth. I simply note that it appears different from the development of other doctrine.


Gil Garza said...

Indeed, the influence of The Book of James is considerable through a large family of texts which borrowed from it. The work is composed to match 2nd century piety towards Mary. The work uses this piety in order to authenticate its other hagiographical elements. Insofar as this work reflects early piety towards Mary, its impact moving forward is important.

I would suggest that you have it exactly backwards concerning The Book of James. I would suggest that the work correctly describes late 1st and early 2nd century Marian piety rather and prescribes it. I think it would be a stretch to say that out of the blue Christians suddenly begin adopting Marian piety prescribed in this work in the late 2nd century. Don't you?

Kim said...

Very interesting thoughts, Thos. I'm very curious to see where this subject goes.

Should I call you Thos or Thomas? :)

Tom S. said...


I hope this may be helpful. With respect to Mary, the reason for the development of her role, is really a defense of her Son. The difficulty has been when the focus for why those defenses were needed in the first place aren't being taught well.

Example - GK. Theotokos God-bearer, English-Mother of God. The conflict was Bearer of Christ or Bearer of God. Confusion on whether Christ was God & Man, Just God or just Man.

Because Catholics are credal in our faith, this gets passed over at times. But the defense is really on the fact that Christ is both God & Man.

Tim A. Troutman said...

This reminds me of when I read "Mary the Queen Mother in Catholicism" early in my conversion process and slammed it here.

I still have more problem with the title "Queen Mother" than with "Mother of God".

Anyway - Mariology is a tough one. Good luck ;)

Thos said...


Thank you. I don't think I have it exactly backwards, but don't mean to get into a "chicken and egg" contest. I understand what you mean, that the Protoevangelium can be properly seen as a recordation of existing belief and piety. Fr. Gambero certainly took this view in his book. But he also noted (as I said) that it, in its own right, strongly influenced the development of Marian thought *centuries* later.

I meant to say that the doubting side of me sees that this fallible text (even self-contradictory at points, says Gambero) may have unduly influenced later developments. That's why I said that I should probably focus more on the possibility that the Holy Spirit preserved the Church in its dogmatic development and proclamations on this topic.


Please call me what you like: Thos, Thomas, Tom... macht nichts.

Tom S. (or homonym Thomas),

Thank you. I understand well the notion that Marian doctrine and dogma developed to support Christology. Thank you for noting the obvious (that I missed), namely, that there was hedge trimming (at least on one side of the hedge) with respect to the title Theotokos. This also reminded me that the iconoclast controversy, while not directly Marian, certainly had significant potential ramifications for later Marian thought.

I'm hungry for evidence that the other side of the hedge was trimmed, beyond the obvious formalistic statement that one cannot attribute to creature Mary what is attributable to the Creator alone (a strikingly low standard). When statements appear to do this in common Marian devotion, they are explained away as obviously not doing this, because it's a no-no. Consequently, I feel like I've seen every statement that could be made of Christ made of Mary, and I'm supposed to know *implicitly* that such statments don't mean what they say. It's just tough to take sometimes, being of Protestant roots and all.


Thanks. Maybe instead of trying to become a Marian super-apologist, I should spend more time looking into how much I'd be able to practically dissent (or maybe "abstain" would be better than "dissent") from the Catholic mainstream on Mary. I mean, I certainly know that dogma is dogma. But beyond that, can I say "aw phooey!" when I'm with a circle that starts in with certain Marian prayers (*not* the Hail Mary, but some others) that I find objectionable? Nasty thought, not a crowd-pleaser, I'm sure. But if infallibility is limited to morals and dogma, then one can't be expected to devour every (fallible) common teaching with uber-enthusiasm before converting...

Peace in Christ,

Gil Garza said...

The Christian piety of the late 1st century/early 2nd SHOULD have a heavy influence on Christians of later date. Indeed that early piety should deepen in understanding as Christianity marches through the centuries. One would be startled to find a radical break or discontinuity of faith or piety at such an early stage. What would cause such a breach this early in the game? The fact that some Christians read early documents like The Book of James and find it so foreign and unsettling (hagiographical accounts aside, of course) only underlines the discontinuity that exists between communities that derive their genesis from the Reformation and early Christianity.

As Chesterton once quipped, “Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise (to vote). Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.” Orthodoxy, Chapter 4

Tertium Quid said...


Some Protestants embrace the Church through Mary, but most embrace some other element, e.g., the Eucharist, and discover Mary over time. I'm among the latter.

I didn't work very hard to solve the Mary "problem" during my journey. Once I accepted the need for sacraments, once I accepted that sacraments were impossible without sacramental authority, and once I understood that the Church's sacramental authority had to extend to all aspects of doctrine, then I could accept Mary's role in the history of salvation as established by doctrine and tradition.

Any fundamentalist would tell you that my argument is weak, but no fundamentalist would accept my argument that the Bible's authenticity is not a case of res ipsa loquitur. How do Protestant evangelicals prove the authenticity of the canonical scriptures without what we lawyers call parol evidence, that is, evidence outside the original documents?

When I was in no-man's land, I had to focus on the things I knew to be true about the Church: the Eucharist as the Real Presence, the miracle of the Incarnation, God sharing himself with us, the priest serving in persona Christi, the prayers of the saints over 2,000 for me in my daily grind. My hurdles, such as Mary, the Papacy, the Renaissance Popes, cultural excesses of all sorts, eventually fell.

The best writers were me were Thomas Howard and G.K. Chesterton. Through them I understood that everything I always loved and still love about Christ and His Church is Catholic in origin and best practice.

------- Theo ------- said...

"I guess I need to reflect more on the belief that the Holy Spirit allows the Church to preserve and develop doctrines. This could ease my concerns over the use of texts that were outside the deposit of faith as major sources for later development"

Indeed, one should recall that it was not uncommon for Church scholars to even cite pagan philosophers as having stumbled upon some light in the darkness. Aquinas cites Socrates and Aristotle. The idea that because God created the universe, even the ungodly can pick up on godly truth around them is older than Christendom. Recall that the magi were not Jewish, but pagan. If Christianity is allowed to draw from insight that pagans derived from looking at God’s creation, surely they can also draw from the observations of their fellow Christians and their grafted parentage, the Jews.

Your bro,