I thus spent some time re-looking at these two issues, and realized that any lingering uncertainty I felt about them no longer constituted a barrier to my entry into the Catholic Church. Here’s a stab at explaining why:
Development of Doctrine
This phrase is most heavily associated with a man named John Henry Newman. Newman had a conversion experience to Christ when he was 15 and enjoyed a long career as an Anglican minister. He died in 1890, by which point he had become a widely known figure in England and a cardinal in the Catholic Church. As he was preparing to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church, he wrote “An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine”. (a misleading title since it’s actually a pretty large book)
And the basic idea is that true Christian doctrine “develops” or “evolves”. Not all apparent changes can count as developments; some are corruptions and Newman dedicated a fair amount of his book to addressing the ways to distinguish between the two. Proper developments appear new, and in at least one sense they are, but the point is that they were there hiding all along in the basic principles that we started out with. The plant was always there “hiding” in the seed. There was and still is only one Christian faith, but the Church continually grows in its understanding of its faith.
To take a striking and still controversial example, very early Christianity continued to affirm the oneness of God just as Judaism had for centuries before. Yet later, the belief that God is three in one became absolutely fundamental to Christianity. With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, we see why this is the case. In no other way could we make sense out of salvation history, and we see the Trinity all over our Bibles, even if it's hard to find a "proof-text" convincing enough to our oneness Pentecostal or Unitarian neighbors. We know that Christ had to be both divine and human, and we know that God’s very Spirit works within the Church. It’s still a mystery, but as time has gone on, we realize more and more that the Trinity was always there. The crazy thing is this: if I went back to a first or second century Christian community and tried to explain the doctrine of the Trinity as best as I could describe it—I don’t think absolutely everyone would necessarily immediately sign onto the details of how we talk about the Trinity. (3 in 1? How can God be three?) We hold the same faith, but it’s taken time to discover how to put our faith into the right words.
I honestly think that the Marian dogmas fit into the same category. So that was a stab at explaining why I’m ok with the fact that they were only defined as dogma relatively recently. I believe that Christ is both fully divine and fully human and have no problem with the fact that the Church solemnly defined that centuries after Christ’s ascension. That was quick, so if you want to hear more about development of doctrine please shoot me an email and I’ll try to write more later. Now for why I’m ok with the Marian dogmas in general:
The Immaculate Conception
There were two things I found fishy about this. For one, it seemed like saying that Mary was conceived without original sin somehow takes away from Jesus’ unique status as a sinless human being. It feels like an attempt to deify Mary. Secondly, it just felt impossible.
The incarnation itself also “feels” impossible so if I’m going to continue to think from a perspective of faith at all, then only the first objection was possibly valid.
So does being conceived without original sin make Mary less than human? No! If anything, it makes her more human! After all, was Adam or Eve created with original sin? From Genesis and the Church’s reflection on the doctrine of original sin (another doctrine which more fully developed later yet is fully accepted by evangelicals), we can see that the human proclivity towards evil was not part of how God created us. We were made to live in community with God, as children of God made in the image of God. By becoming more like Christ we become both more human and more like God in whose image we are created.
In a sense, Mary is a gift to the Church, a partial anticipation of what the Church is and will be. Mary is, after all, the mother and exemplar of the Church. And the fact that she was immaculately conceived means it was certainly done through no merit of her own! Indeed, she calls God “my Savior” in the Magnificat that I quoted last week. The angel rightly addressed her as one who has been graced (with the present passive participle leaving room for continuing action beginning in the past). By emphasizing that she was preserved from original sin from her conception, the Church affirms that our salvation comes entirely by grace. Note that she also made a free decision to invite Christ into her, but it was grace that gave her the freedom to make that decision. By a unique act of God, Mary was able to stand where Eve stood, and with the God’s grace respond to God’s call for her to invite Christ into her life in a radical way.
Due to her righteous life, Mary is properly looked to as an excellent intercessor by millions and millions of Christians. Does this take away from Christ’s role as the mediator between God and man? No, I don’t think it does. Does it take away from Christ’s unique role when I pray to God for others? In the evangelical world, we thank those who pray for us and attribute a lot of power to the prayers of others, yet we know that ultimately it was God who answered the prayers and is worthy of all our gratitude. So in the case of Mary, we see that all of “her” power comes simply by the fact that she knows to go to Jesus, and to point people to Him. Like the queen mothers of the Davidic kingdom, she can pray for us to the King.
The Bodily Assumption of Mary into Heaven
I don’t even know why I thought this was wrong…other than the fact that it just seemed kind of ridiculous I guess.
And I guess that’s an indicator of how far I’ve come. The fact that people in the Church have believed this for such a long time is pretty much enough for me. It certainly flows with our understanding of Mary as the “Queen of Heaven” and casts light on the way Mary is mentioned in the book of Revelation. And it draws attention yet again to the fact that God’s redemptive work is not limited to our souls—even our bodies are meant to be saved, sanctified and raised up in a new way at the last day. Yet again, Mary provides us with an example of what we can hope for, what we are called to.
Any historical evidence (by which I mean things like documentary sources) on her assumption is relatively thin. It was a long time ago, after all. Here’s the historical part that I find most compelling: Whether we like it or not, the early Church loved relics, and yet no early Christian community claimed to have her bones. (her tomb yes, but not her bones). Given the amazing value placed on the bones of the saints in early Christianity, I’m hard pressed to answer why someone would steal her bones and yet not later produce them. I can certainly admit that it’s possible, but if one is going to steal or lie about something like that, it makes a lot more sense to do it in a way that benefits you. It’s hard to see who would benefit by claiming that she had been assumed into heaven. (Since it flies against the very obvious incentive to claim that she had not in fact been assumed into heaven and that her bones can instead be found at X spot).
Is her bodily assumption into heaven a simple conclusion from historical facts? No. Has it taken time to be sure about it? Definitely. Remember this wasn’t solemnly proclaimed as dogma until 1950 (although the belief was very widespread even before the Great Schism). When defining the dogma, Pope Pius XII noted that “in our own age…the bodily Assumption into heaven of Mary…has certainly shone forth more clearly.” (par. 3)
Perpetual Virginity of Mary
I decided to throw this one in at no extra charge.
It never bothered me as much since it was defined as dogma relatively early on. Again, does this mean that this was the first time anyone had heard of it? Not at all. Doctrines are usually only solemnly defined after they’ve been challenged. In this case, the number of Church Fathers who supported the dogma stretches back pretty early. From what I remember, most of the Protestant Reformers maintained their belief in it as well.
What of the references in Scripture to Jesus’ brothers and sisters? Since so many early Christians believed in Mary’s perpetual virginity, we’ve had some time to ask the question. Like in many cultures, the word employed here sometimes carries a much broader meaning than “biologically from the same two parents”. Some proposed that they were Jesus’ cousins—others that they were Joseph’s children from an earlier marriage.
Whether it’s entirely historically true or not, the Protoevangelium of James portrays a story in which this is exactly the case. Joseph was an older widower with children from his first marriage. Mary had been consecrated to live life as a virgin, but was given into the care of Joseph in a sort of “spiritual marriage.” Part of the point of the document appears to be to defend Mary’s perpetual virginity. So, true in its details or not, when was this written? Is it a medieval legend? Dating old documents can be very difficult, but the dates I’ve seen range from 120-150AD. Again, whether it's completely historically accurate or not, it shows that there were Christians seeing to explain how Mary could remain a perpetual virgin, and the closer we get to Mary's lifetime, the harder it is to just make stuff up without getting called out on it.
For clarification, I don’t think that a simple investigation of Biblical texts or historical evidence will compel anyone to believe in the Marian dogmas. No one posted footage of Mary’s Assumption into heaven on youtube. (which would undoubtedly remove all doubt from the situation) If one accepts Scripture, I think a compelling argument can be made and certainly believe that nothing in Scripture contradicts the Marian dogmas. As we just saw above, there are some interpretations of Scripture which do conflict with them. (if you understand “brothers and sisters” to necessarily imply sharing both biological parents, for instance)
In the solemn proclamation of the bodily Assumption of Mary into heaven as dogma, Pope Pius XII himself noted that, “the Blessed Virgin Mary's bodily Assumption into heaven- which surely no faculty of the human mind could know by its own natural powers…” (para. 12) could be known by the teaching authority of the Universal Church.
And that brings us to the question of authority. A giant, giant topic that I will probably try to take a bare stab at some other time. Asking questions about authority helped me to realize how flawed my "Church search" methodology was.
This was a whirlwind tour of some huge stuff. Hope it was coherent.