Errors in describing the Mother of our Lord, the Blessed Virgin Mary, sometimes understate her blessedness. Those who see her as not much different from fallen sinners, or who underestimate her role in the plan of salvation, err gravely, as her place in the plan of God is well-established by the dogmatic teachings of the Church.
On the other hand, some persons err by overstating her greatness. They incorrectly speak about Mary as if she were divine, or quasi-divine, or as if she had a role that is reserved to Christ or to Persons of the Trinity. This article will refute some of these types of errors.
Is Mary greatest in creation? No.
In truth, the Virgin Mary is the greatest created person. She is greater than any holy angel or Saint. She is not greater than Her Divine Son, Jesus, as He is a person both human and divine. We cannot say that Jesus is a created person, as His Personhood includes a created human nature and the uncreated eternal divine nature. But if we compare only the created human nature of Christ to the human nature of Mary, she is neither greater than, nor equal to, the human nature of Jesus — even when we are not considering His divinity. The greatest created thing is the human nature of Jesus, and so we must be careful in praising Mary as great within Creation.
The Blessed Virgin Mary is not the greatest thing in creation. She is not the highest and most perfect created thing. Whether she should be called the greatest among creatures depends on whether one considers the human nature of Christ to be creature or not. If creature is the whole being, then Mary would be the greatest mere creature, as Christ is creature in His human nature, but uncreated in His divine nature, as one Person.
The human nature of Jesus is the greatest thing in creation, greater even than the human nature of Mary.
Is Mary a “peerless Virgin”?
Jesus and Mary are each perfect in virginity. There is no imperfection in her virginity. So while Mary is not equal to Christ, they can be equal on certain points. They are each free from all personal sin and all original sin, which makes them equal on those points. They are each perfect in virginity, having no faults against bodily or spiritual virginity. Thus, Mary is not a “peerless Virgin”, as Jesus has the same perfection of virginity.
Was “Mary alone, among all creatures, was preserved from original sin”?
Holy angels are free from all sin, and certainly have no original sin. And they are creatures. The human nature of Christ is a created thing, and He was preserved from original sin. (Jesus absolutely could not have original sin, as He is God.) Then Adam and Eve were created without original sin. Their personal sins were the origin of sin in humanity, but they did not inherit original sin, as the rest of fallen humanity does. Mary’s immaculate conception was “a singular grace and privilege” because she would have inherited original sin, if not for the intervention of God in her conception.
Does Mary have “the complete absence of the slightest shadow of an imperfection”?
There are three types of “evil”, in the sense of deprivation: moral, physical, and metaphysical. Moral deprivation is sin. Physical deprivation is suffering or harm, which can be literally physical, or it can be mental, or spiritual. And then metaphysical deprivation relates to the nature of the person or thing. Created things do not have the full perfection that is God: infinite eternal perfection. Created things are deprived of the full perfection found only in God.
When we consider imperfection, sometimes moral choices are not sinful, but are imperfect. We imitate Christ in our moral decisions, and we sometimes fall short, though without sin. Physical imperfection can take the form of weakness with old age, emotional problems, health issues, even if these are short of disease or injury. As for metaphysical imperfection, all created things fall short of the full perfection of God.
Mary is perfect as regards morality and perfect as regards her unfallen human nature, which has no blemish or failing. But as a mere created person, she does not reach to the perfection of God. She is imperfect in that she is a created person, who is not infinite in goodness, who is not infinite in perfection. So the claim that she has “the complete absence of the slightest shadow of an imperfection” would only be true if she were God — which she is not.
Did Mary cooperate with every grace she received from God?
No. Grace is divided into prevenient grace (first grace) and subsequent grace. Prevenient grace is God operating, not cooperating. It is not possible to cooperate with prevenient grace. Even the human nature of Christ does not cooperate with prevenient graces received from His divine nature. So Mary did not cooperate with every grace received from God. She did cooperate with every subsequent grace.
Is Mary the “holiest of creatures”?
Is Mary the creature “most completely united to God”?
Again, this depends on whether the human nature of Christ is considered a creature. Mary is the holiest of created persons, but the human nature of Christ is holier than the human nature of Mary. On earth, Mary was not as completely united to God as she is now, in heaven, with the Beatific Vision. In heaven, the human nature of Christ is more completely united to God, as the divine nature and the human nature of Christ are united, in the hypostatic union, as one Person. Mary does not have a hypostatic union with the Divine Nature, so she is not “most completely united to God”.
Was Mary’s human will “moved in all and through all, only by the will of God”?
Could Mary “act only under the inspiration and motion of the Holy Spirit”?
Is it true that “nothing moves” Mary “to act apart from the divine will, apart from the inspiration of the Holy Spirit”?
No, no, and no.
Jesus has two wills, a human will and the divine will. If Jesus were moved in all and through all, only by the will of His Divine Nature, then He would not have a human will. So describe a human will as if it were without any ability to freely choose, is to deny free will and to enslave that human will. That is not how the relation between God and any human will works. Even the human will of Christ has the ability, permitted by the divine will, to choose freely. Christ and Mary each never chose anything sinful, nor anything contrary to the divine will. Each human will, that of Christ and that of Mary, chose only in harmony with the divine will. But this does not imply that each did not have the ability, in human will, to choose freely. Love requires the ability to choose freely. True freedom of choice is certainly found in the human will of Christ, and therefore also in the human will of Mary.
The claim that Mary’s will was only moved by the will of God is to claim, falsely of course, that she was enslaved by God. That is not the plan of God for any created persons. God does not wish to make every decision for Mary, and to have her merely comply with His will. God treats Mary as a free person, who makes her own free choices. True spiritual perfection does not lie in enslaving oneself to the will of God, but in cooperating, in one’s own free choices, with the will of God.
The above quoted descriptions of the will of Mary resembles the error of the Monothelites, who thought that the human nature of Christ was moved only by the divine will, having no will of its own. The heretic Sergius of Constantinople held that all human activity in Christ was only of God. Saying the same about Mary is also heresy. She was a human person with an intellective soul, free will, and the ability to love. They do not love who have no free choice in their will.
By comparison, God has free will. He is not constrained to only do what is most perfect, as if He had no choice. And this is clear from the dogma that God both created the universe (all creation), but not of necessity. God freely chose to create. The utter perfection of God does not require only one course of action. Similarly, the perfection and holiness of Mary in cooperating with the will of God does not necessitate only one course of action at every turn, as if she had no free choice.
The claim that Mary was, in her entire life, moved only by the impulse of the Holy Spirit is false, deprives her of true freedom of will, and portrays God as enslaving Mary, rather than as loving her.
So while Mary was entirely obedient to God, yet God did not make all her decisions for her. He did not have one and only one will at every point, in every decision. Rather, God willed that Mary act freely, in grace and love, yet without compulsion.
We also know that God never fails to grant the prayers of Mary. So if she were moved only by the impulse of God, the teaching that God grants the prayers of Mary would be meaningless, as her prayers would be nothing but what God willed her to say to Him. It would be as if God were talking to himself, rather than as Mary, beloved daughter of God, speaking freely to God.
Holiness is not slavery to the will of God.
In what sense is Mary the spouse of the Holy Spirit?
In a limited and figurative sense. The Church teaches that Saint Joseph was the spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary. And Mary cannot have two literal spouses. Mary is the figurative spouse of the Holy Spirit, since she conceived Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. However, this does not imply that the relationship between the Third Person of the Most Holy Trinity and Mary was any type of literal marriage.
Moreover, the figure by which Mary is the spouse of the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is the spouse of Mary is limited. The Spirit is not eternally the spouse of Mary. Their relationship in heaven is not that of spouses. In Luke 20:34-36, Jesus teaches that there is no marriage in Heaven. Thus, Joseph in heaven does not have the role of spouse in relation to the virgin Mary, nor does the Holy Spirit. So this figure by which the Holy Spirit is, correctly, said to be the spouse of Mary is limited to His role to conceive the Son of God in her womb, and His role in her life on earth. The Holy Spirit is not eternally and fully the literal spouse of Mary.
The First Person of the Trinity, the Father, is defined as the Person who does not proceed, and from whom proceeds Son and Holy Spirit. The Second Person of the Trinity, the Son, is defined by His procession solely from the Father. The Third Person, the Holy Spirit, is defined by His procession from the Father and the Son. Procession defines the Persons of the Trinity.
However, the Holy Spirit is not defined by His limited figurative spousal relation to the Virgin Mary. Spouse is not who the Holy Spirit is, from all eternity.
In what sense is Mary the Mother of God?
The Blessed Virgin Mary conceived of the Holy Spirit the Son of God in her womb. She carried and bore him; she raised him as her child. Since Jesus is one Person, both human and divine, we correctly say that the Virgin Mary is the Mother of Jesus, not merely the mother of his human nature. Every other mother bears mere human persons, whose souls are created directly by God. The soul is not created by the parents who conceive the child. Yet we do not say that they are only the parents of the body, and not of the person. So Mary is the true Mother of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. This certainly makes her the God-bearer, the Mother of God.
However, Mary is not the mother of the Trinity. She did not exist before the Trinity, as if she had brought God into existence from nothing. Rather, God brought her into existence from nothing, as is true of all creation. Mary is not the mother of the Father, nor the mother of the Holy Spirit. And the eternally begotten Son proceeds only from the Father. The Second Person of the Trinity does not proceed from both the eternal Father and Mary. The sense in which Mary is the mother of God is limited.
What is the relationship of Mary to the Trinity?
Some commentators exalt Mary, as if she were divine or quasi-divine, by calling her: Daughter of the Father, Mother of the Son, Spouse of the Spirit or similar expressions.
The eternal Father has only one eternally begotten child, the Son. They are the First and Second Persons of the Trinity. The Holy Spirit eternally proceeds from Father and Son as the Third Person. Mary is a daughter of God just as all created persons are children of God. She is also child of God just as all persons in the state of grace are adopted children of God. Christians are children of God by spiritual adoption, as are all other human persons in the state of grace, such as by baptism of desire. Mary is also a child of God by spiritual adoption due to the state of grace given to her in her Immaculate Conception.
Mary is not daughter of the Father any more so than other women in the state of grace are children of God, and so are daughters of the Father. Mary is not uniquely the daughter of the Father, as Jesus is uniquely the Son of the Father. Mary is not eternally begotten of the Father.
Mary is the Mother of Jesus, the Son of God. Therefore, Mary is the Mother of God. But the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, is not eternally begotten of both the Father and Mary. She is Mother of Jesus, the Son of God, but not in the same sense that the First Person is Father of the Son.
And Mary’s relationship to the Holy Spirit is not that of eternal spouse. So it is misleading to call Mary, “Daughter of the Father, Mother of the Son, Spouse of the Spirit” or similar expressions which seem to make her a fourth person of the Trinity, or which seem to equate her to the Persons of the Trinity. There is a sense in which Mary is each of those quoted expressions, but the set of expressions together seems to exalt her to be nearly divine.
Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.
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All good clarifications. But I have wondered: What does St. Paul mean when he writes “Blessed be the God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name”, if there are not families in heaven? Angelic choirs can’t be said to be “families,” can they? And what of the eternal character of the sacramental bond of marriage, if the spousal relationship is abrogated in heaven? Is marriage on earth a figure of a more perfect union between God and all the souls in heaven?
The marital bond is broken by death. Marriage ends with death. That is why a widow can remarry in the Church. There is a type of family in Heaven, but it is not marital. Marriage is a figure of the union of Christ with His Church, and, yet, a figure of the union of the souls in heaven with God. Angels in heaven are part of our family of faith, so are the blessed souls there. Every family “takes its name” from the Father, since fatherhood is perfect in God, and God is the father of all humanity.
I see, thanks for clarifying.
Ron, correct me if I’m wrong.
If Joseph has no longer the role of spouse of Mary in Heaven, then there is no Holy Family that we might venerate?
Because to me it is as if Joseph is prolonging his fatherhood (that he receives from the Father) on the members of the Church, somehow.
Joseph is patron of the universal Church. The holy family that we venerate (and in the case of the Christ-child, worship or adore) is that family in history, as well as its members in Heaven. But in heaven, Joseph is not the head of his wife, Mary, nor does Jesus the Lord and Savior act like a child before Joseph and Mary. Joseph will always be the man who raised our Lord, and the man who married Mary and took care of her and her child. But he certainly does not have a spousal relationship to the Queen of Heaven and mother of God now that they are both in Heaven.
We still venerate the holy family, but this does not mean that the members of that family have the same roles in heaven. Joseph does have a fatherhood role towards us on the members of the Church, just as you correctly said.
I see it now. Thank you very much for your detailed answer.
I can’t seen to recall who wrote this but the Blessed Virgin Mary did experience spiritual dryness at times in her life. Also, did the Virgin Mary experience labor pains during the birth of Jesus Christ. I understand that he did not have a vaginal birth.
Also, did the Blessed Virgin Mary experience sickness, such as colds or flus?
Did the Blessed Virgin Mary physical appearance remain the same, age 19-33, until she was assumed to Heaven.
The answers are all in the realm of speculative theology, not doctrine. The one point of dogma is that Mary did not have original sin in body or soul. So this would, I believe, imply that she did not experience sickness. She could only die because it was the will of God accepted by her, as she was not subject to death due to original sin, as we all are. She aged only in the sense of maturing, but probably did not age in the sense of physical or mental decline, as she was unfallen.
My speculation is that the birth of Christ was miraculous, so that one moment He was in the womb, and the next moment He was out of the womb, without moving through the in-between places. So the birth was entirely virginal and miraculous, and not so in a limited way, as is usually said.
She would not have had labor pains, as she is unfallen. I never heard about “spiritual dryness” in the case of Mary, so I don’t know about that.
Thank you for your insights. On the preservation of the physical, virginal integrity of Mary in giving birth, the footnotes to Lumen Gentium, 57 of Vatican II might be of interest. In support of Mary’s freedom from labor pains in giving birth, I have found these references helpful:
Isaiah 66:7: “Before she comes to labor she gives birth; before the pains come upon her she safely delivers a male child.”
The 1566 Catechism of the Council of Trent (the Roman Catechism) states:
He [Jesus] is born of His mother without any diminution of her maternal virginity, just as He afterwards went forth from the sepulcher while it was closed and sealed, and entered the room in which His disciples were assembled, the doors being shut; or, not to depart from every-day examples, just as the rays of the sun penetrate without breaking or injuring in the least the solid substance of glass, so after a like but more exalted manner did Jesus Christ come forth from His mother’s womb without injury to her maternal virginity … preserving her virginal integrity inviolate, she brought forth Jesus the Son of God without experiencing, as he have already said, any sense of pain (sine ullo doloris sensu).
In the Collection of Marian Masses (1986), the Preface for the Mass of Mary at the Foot of the Cross II reads: “and she who had given birth without the pains of childbirth was to endure the greatest of pains in bringing forth to new life the family of your Church.”
So that point is not speculative, it is doctrine.
I believe both the “virginitas in partu” and the freedom from labor pains are doctrines of the Church. I know some might believe otherwise, but the witness to these two doctrines is substantial in the tradition (especially the virginitas in partu).
Yes, I agree.
Good input by Dr. Fastiggi letting us know the the Catechism of Rome explicitly teach us that our Lady did not have labor pain. I also want to point out that in Munificentissimus Deus, which is the Apostolic Constitution where Pope Pius XII defines the dogma of our Blessed Mother’s Assumption, the Pope also states the following by quoting St. John Damascene:
“It was fitting that she, who had kept her virginity intact in childbirth, should keep her own body free from all corruption *even* after death.”
This “even” after death” emphasizes that Mary was free from body corruption (sickness, physical decay) during her lifetime as well. Now, something that I have noticed, is that in all her true apparitions, our Lady appears as a young lady. To my knowledge, never as an aging or middle aged woman. I find this interesting.
Regarding our Lady’s freedom from labor pains:
“It was fitting that she, who had seen her Son upon the cross and who had thereby received into her heart ***the sword of sorrow which she had escaped in the act of giving birth to him***, should look upon him as he sits with the Father.”
(Munificentissimus Deus # 25).
At least the English translation gives the idea the Holy Father Pius XII also taught that our Lady never had bodily corruption and that she did not suffered of labor pain (escaped the sword of sorrow in the act of giving birth to our Lord); which makes sense since it was a miraculous childbirth by keeping her virginity intact.
Thank you very much for the citation from Munficentissimus Deus, no. 21, which clearly affirms Mary’s freedom from “the sword of sorrow” (doloris glaudium) in giving birth. Here is the pertinent passage in Latin:
Oportebat eam, quae Filium suum in cruce conspexerat, et, quem pariendo effugerat doloris gladium, pectore exceperat, ipsum Patri considentem contemplari. Oportebat Dei Matrem ea, quae Filii sunt, possidere et ab omni creatura tamquam Dei Matrem et ancillam excoli » (S. Ioan. Damasc. Encomium in dormitionem Dei Genitricis semperque Virginis Mariae, hom. II, 14; cfr. etiam ibid. n. 3).
Thank you Dr. Fastiggi, I appreciate your input. Pope St. John Paul II seems to agree, he said:
“Yes, she [Mary] is betrothed, but she is a virgin because she is a type of the Church which is immaculate but a bride: a virgin, she conceived us by the Spirit; a virgin, she gave birth to us without pain” (In Ev. sec. Luc., II, 7, CCL, 14, 33, 102-106). Thus Mary is a type of the Church because of her immaculate holiness, her virginity, her betrothal and her motherhood.” – (Pope Saint John Paul II, General Audience, Wednesday, August 6, 1997).
My comment: It can be said that Mary gave birth to us without pain because she gave birth to Christ without pain. We are His Body (1 Corinthians 12:27). Therefore, “her virginity” is in the true sense of the word.