In the Catholic vs. Protestant blogosphere, you’ll find plenty of Protestant blogs in which the author quotes a Catholic prayer to Mary, or quotes a pope or saint writing about Mary, and says something like, “Man, if that isn’t idolatry, I don’t know what is.”
For example, in 1849, Pope Pius IX wrote in the encyclical Ubi Primum:
Great indeed is Our trust in Mary. The resplendent glory of her merits, far exceeding all the choirs of angels, elevates her to the very steps of the throne of God. Her foot has crushed the head of Satan. Set up between Christ and His Church, Mary, ever lovable and full of grace, always has delivered the Christian people from their greatest calamities and from the snares and assaults of all their enemies, ever rescuing them from ruin.
I was certainly struck by things like this when I was looking into becoming Catholic. They were, for me, the number one hurdle, and in my experience, the strongest reactions I’ve encountered from Reformed people concerned what the Catholic Church says about Mary.
But the facts of Church history create a major problem for Protestants, one that even on its own was enough to convince me that it was my Reformed misgivings that were wrong, not the claims of the Catholic Church. It’s a problem that arises from taking what Scripture reveals about God’s contempt for idolatry and His love for the Church, and comparing that revelation with what has transpired in the history of the Church.
II. There’s no sin like idolatry
An accusation of idolatry is in many ways the ultimate accusation, since idolatry is the ultimate sin. In committing idolatry, you remove God as the center of your life and replace Him with something else. You break the first and greatest commandment, setting your soul in an unstable orbit around an object that will only lead you to crash and burn.
God gives no quarter to idolatry in the Bible. There are no “faithful idolaters” – a contradiction, seeing as idolatry is by definition unfaithfulness to God. The moment idolatry becomes part of His people’s religious life, God acts. He punishes Israel immediately for the golden calf; He sends enemy after enemy during the time of the judges; He takes the kingdom away from Solomon for worshipping the gods of his many wives. He sends a centuries-long parade of prophets to warn His people against becoming hardened in idolatry. He is never passive; He is never silent. He is at war with idolatry.
How much more must this be true of Christ and the Church, seeing as that relationship is the fulfillment of the relationship between God and Israel in the Old Testament? Christ promised that He would be with His Church always, to the end of the age. The New Testament speaks of Christ as being as inseparable from the Church as your head is inseparable from your body. When Christ confronts Saul on the Damascus road, He doesn’t ask Saul, “Why do you persecute my Church?” He asks, “Why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4) That’s how closely Christ identifies with His Church. This is God and Israel, but magnified to heavenly proportions.
So, if we take God’s hatred of idolatry as revealed in the Old Testament, and Christ’s closeness to and love for the Church as revealed in the New, we can easily imagine how intolerant Christ would be of idolatry in His Church. I’m not talking so much about personal sins of idolatry, which will always be present in the Church. I’m talking about institutional idolatry, where idolatry is actively practiced and promoted by those in charge, such that the whole organism is infected by it.
Clearly, Christ would never be passive or silent in the face of such wickedness, a wickedness tantamount to His Body choosing a different Head. Clearly, He would act just as He acted against the idolatry that corrupted His Old Testament people. Scripture leads us to conclude nothing less.
And yet veneration of Mary was not some later medieval corruption that worked its way into the Church. We find it in full bloom already in the era of the Church Fathers. And most importantly, we don’t see anything like we’d expect to see if it were actually idolatry.