Catholic Meditations

A Catholic-themed opinion blog about various topics, including theology, philosophy, politics and culture, from a Thomistic perspective.

Monday, March 15, 2021

Tolkien and Civilized Masculinity

Imagine a man whose greatest passions in life are reading poetry, writing stories about elves, acting in plays and inventing fictional languages. This man weeps at the choices of his own fictional characters, recites whole passages of ancient poetry from memory, dresses up as medieval warriors, mourns the perceived needless felling of trees, and writes letters from Father Christmas for his children.

Who would automatically associate this man with classic images of virile, chivalrous and inspiring masculinity?

What if to this description you also added that this man was a veteran of the First World War, where he encountered death at an immediacy which no one should ever have to face, where he saw his fellow soldiers horrifically destroyed before his eyes and was forced to eat and sleep surrounded by rotting corpses in fetid trenches, where he knew that at any moment his life could end and he would never see his beloved wife again. Imagine also this man riding his bicycle during the Blitz during World War Two, giving out warning signals for the next Nazi air raid. This man stood up to the anti-Catholic prejudice of his English homeland, never shying away from proclaiming his Faith in lectures at Oxford University whose own dons made discriminatory remarks against Catholics with no regard for himself. This man remained ardently faithful to his wife until death, taught his children to live virtuously and faithfully, hiked the Swiss Alps, escorted immigrant children through France, communicated in German with captured Nazi officers, smoked a pipe, drank beer, and shared tales of heroism and adventure with his friends.

This man was J.R.R. Tolkien, known by most only for his popular stories set in Middle-earth, yet his life of friendships, self-sacrifice, adventure, holiness and intellectual accomplishments is known by few.

If the only description of Tolkien one knew consisted of those added in the third paragraph of this article, many would indeed consider him to be ideally masculine. But what if the details of the first paragraph are added to it? These disparate qualities bring to light an issue of masculinity which has led many to denigrate men with the false notion of ‘toxic masculinity,’ and thus for many men to be ashamed of their masculine natures while women are equally coerced by feminism to (poorly) imitate masculinity themselves, often according to mistaken notions of it that they have been told.

True masculinity, authentic and worthwhile masculinity in accordance with the God-given nature of real men, can take two forms, one good and one corrupted: civilized masculinity, and barbaric masculinity.

Civilization and barbarism have become neglected terms in modern times, when any criticism of behavior or distinctions between persons or groups is considered provocative and offensive, but for the correct roles of human beings in society to be properly understood, particularly for men whose masculinity has become one of the factors most often labeled as responsible for wars and crime, these concepts must be recovered. To be applicable for the pivotal mission of restoring and purifying masculinity today, we must understand what it means to be civilized or barbaric and how these are expressed in the modern world.

Human nature is distinguished from that of other animals by our intellect. Unlike irrational animals, whose actions are driven involuntarily and without resistance to their bodily passions, humans are capable of understanding the true, the good and the beautiful, to judge our actions based on them and then discipline ourselves to live up to these transcendent values. In this way, we do not, contrary to modern popular opinion, adopt artificial behaviors forced onto us by social norms; rather, we become more authentically human, with our highest faculty - the intellect - ordering our animal passions toward the good and thereby granting us true freedom.

Civilization and being civilized are based on this understanding of human virtue. Since the time of the Platonic philosophers, the purpose of society, of the polis, has been the promotion of virtue. The life, liberty and pursuit of happiness acclaimed by the American Founding Fathers were understood within the framework of the promotion of virtue as the foundation of a civilized society. Without this understanding, human society cannot be what it is meant to be and will fall into barbarism.

When a society loses the ordering influence of the intellect, orienting culture and each human person toward the true, good and beautiful via the life of virtue, that society loses its orderly and rational character. Barbarism occurs whenever a society has become determined by the animal passions to which its people are enslaved; like animals, they shun the difficulty and self-sacrifice required for virtue and civilization and instead become so habituated by fear, hedonistic pleasure-seeking and desperate competition that their wills become atrophied and servile. Society thus decays into violence and self-indulgent destructiveness, led like sheep by the elite who use their corrupted intellects as instruments of tyranny over those who lack the will or wisdom to fight back.

This is the environment inhabited by modern men, which they have both inherited and caused themselves. To regain what has been lost, it is essential for men today to recapture not only masculinity itself, without which society becomes not more feminine but more androgenous, confused and immature, but a civilized masculinity, free from the chains of barbarism which debase the good gifts of gender and of the human person.

How can this goal be achieved? What tactics can be employed to rescue masculinity from the darkness of barbarism and sterile effeminacy into which it has been connived? To help answer these questions, it can be useful to recall two examples of men from literature, one a paragon of civilized masculinity, and the other a pariah of barbaric masculinity. Following the exemplary model of J.R.R Tolkien given earlier, these literary illustrations can be taken from his magnum opus, The Lord of the Rings.

While his great epic, a tale of heroism, sacramental transcendence, simple joys of friendship and home, and poignant insights into the very heart of evil can yield many examples of both types of masculinity, arguably the most civilized man depicted is Aragorn. An orphan, like many of Tolkien’s great heroes, Aragorn is raised within the enchanted atmosphere of the elves. Under the tutelage of Elrond, elven-king and possibly the greatest scholar in the history of Middle-earth, Aragorn is taught the true, the good and the beautiful. He learns of the history of Middle-earth, the traditions of his own ancestry through the relics preserved by Elrond himself, and his destiny as the prophesied restorer of the royal house of Men.

He absorbs the immortal wealth of knowledge and art whose marriage characterizes the nature of elves, once symbolized by the Two Trees of Valinor in ancient days. From the elves, to whom knowledge is gleaned immediately and art realized more effortlessly than for men, Aragorn gains true wisdom - the understanding of truth and its application in the moral life of virtue - while also discovering the riches of poetry and song which open the door to the connatural intuition of beauty, lifting his spirit above the brutality and evil which he will face in the journey of his life.

Alongside this humanistic upbringing, Aragorn also explores the world, self-sufficiently subsisting in its wildernesses, encountering its diverse environments, adversaries and free peoples, and during these exploratory meanderings he becomes further trained in virtue by lending his services as a warrior, helping to defend the lands of Rohan and Gondor which will one day be under his royal protection, as well as the regions of the north whose ancient loyalty to his ancestral kingdom of Arnor has long been forgotten - except by the hobbits, whose idyllic Shire becomes of special interest to him and the remnants of the men of Arnor, known as the Rangers of the North, of whom he is their chieftain. Acting as guerilla sentinels and knights-errant, fighting off unseen evils in the wilderness unbeknownst to the hobbits and their human neighbors, these valiant men serve to protect an oasis of simple peace and natural goodness for which all who struggle against evil hope to one day enjoy themselves.

When the time comes, Aragorn begins his fated journey not only for the sake of Middle-earth, but also inspired by the love of Arwen, the elven daughter of Elrond, whom Aragorn has loved since his youth. Like a chivalrous medieval knight, Aragorn loves Arwen not for what she can give to him, but for the transcendent beauty and virtue which she upholds and inspires him to pursue, as well as to the new life which will one day personify the love they share for one another. Unlike the pornographic debauchery of self-indulgence and dehumanized debasement of modern ‘romances,’ the romance of Aragorn and Arwen is one of true, authentic love within the complementarity of man and woman, each giving of themselves fully to the other according to their unique sexual and personal gifts. Aragorn refuses to wed her, much less indulge any bodily urges, until he has completed his quest and become worthy of her; not until he has accomplished his destiny and become a true, authentic man of virtue and honour does he finally fulfill his deepest longing.

What does this brief sketch of Aragorn’s life show us? Even without any familiarity with Tolkien’s work (something that should be remedied as soon as possible!), Aragorn is a powerful and shining example of true civilized masculinity. He is not merely a warrior, a man of strength, power and determination - yet he is these things as well. Similarly, he is not merely a poet, a man of compassion, artistry, wisdom and romance - yet he is these things as well. These two sides of his character, the spirit of the warrior and the spirit of the poet, are fused as the civilized, chivalrous warrior-poet, the king who, like Alfred the Great, Charlemagne and St. Louis IX in history, was truly worthy of his authority. Following his example, we men should strive to neglect neither side of our masculinity, the warrior or the poet. To neglect either is to become barbaric, whether the savage brute or the effete degenerate. 

Opposing this image of civilized masculinity in Aragorn is not one particular character, but rather the spirit of the orc, what Tolkien called “orkishness.” While many characters in The Lord of the Rings could be said to represent both the effete degenerate, such as Gríma Wormtongue or even Denethor, Tolkien portrays few individual villains who are truly savage brutes, since even the Witch-King and Saruman are both learned and scheming figures. However, the orcs are savage brutes par excellence.

Like those throughout history who have despised the monuments of order, reason and virtue in society and have sought to tear them down or corrupt them with vile defacements, the orcs of Middle-earth did not wish to build up a rival civilization or to accomplish some perceived higher end using evil means. Rather, they were bestial slaves to their passions, interested only in domination, corruption, and placating the wills of their masters of whom they lived in terror and yet groveled at their feet for cast-off scraps of favor within the hierarchy of evil. Corrupting the grand halls of the dwarves of Khazad-dûm; defiling the holy ground of Lothlórien with their wanton destruction and murder; ripping down the venerable forest of Fangorn to fuel the hellish furnaces of Saruman’s war machine; mocking Aragorn’s attempts to convert the deceived Dunlendings at Helm’s Deep; and defacing the decapitated head of a statue from an ancient king of Gondor in Ithilien: all of these acts are representative of what could be called the barbaric masculinity of the savage brute. They are indeed strong, in a physical sense; they are dominant, ruthless and insensitive to concerns other than their own. And yet, their wills are corrupted, weakened and servile. What appears as strength is in fact desperation.

This observation leads into the other aspect of the orcs’ barbaric masculinity, namely, effete degeneracy. It could be difficult to image both brutality and effeminacy existing simultaneously, but in orcs they evidently do. While they are brutal, warlike and destructive, they are equally craven, totally devoid of courage and fortitude, averse even to sunlight, water and anything that is natural or holy, like the blessed visages and artefacts of the elves. Like the Nazgûl, who are themselves orkish, the orcs have no self and are thus abominable, reduced from what is natural to a lack of being, grasping in the dark for whatever may give some temporary satisfaction for their subjugated desires. Driven by fear and desperation, they lack the courage to become vulnerable, to reach out for what is transcendent in the true, the good and the beautiful, and instead only ruin things that are made by others or clutch onto what is beneath their dignity as created beings. Indeed, in Tolkien’s later writings, he described orcs not as corrupted elves, as in his earlier notes, but as mere beasts possessed by Sauron, his mouthpieces without any independence of their own; the application of this to humanity, by their own free will, can be seen by the Nazgûl, who are undead and yet unliving, walking shadows without any will other than that to which they have submitted themselves and which can never bring true freedom or happiness.

As Tolkien intended, this spirit of orkishness is widely observable in the primary world. While Aragorn is an ideal exceeding what even the most heroically virtuous men are likely to achieve in this life, yet a role model to whom we should look as we strive to improve and grow, the orc is a taint on our nature, caused first by original sin and compounded by our own daily choices. Whenever we succumb to our passions, giving no consideration of right or wrong and allowing our reason to be swayed by baser urges, popular fashions or diabolic temptations, we become more and more orkish. Treating others with indignity, acting dishonorably as children of God made in His image, insulting women, taking advantage of the weak, or promoting that which is corrupt in enmity to God and the heritage of tradition handed down to us, we become savage brutes. Likewise, when we shirk our duties, failing to give what is justly due to God, country, family and honour, to defend the weak or fight for justice against evil, sacrificing our own security and comfort for the good of others according to the will of God; or when we fail, through laziness, acedia, despair or hedonism, to not only defend what is good but to actively build it up, risking the scorn of others while promoting truth and beauty through the arts and humanities, we become effeminate degenerates, weaklings who are unworthy of the divine mission appointed for all men: to fight for the good by both conserving and constructing it.

By these examples from Tolkien’s life and writings, the true nature of masculinity and its potential to fall into either savage or degenerate barbarism if it is not civilized by virtue may become clearer to us, as has been one of the primary purposes of hagiographies and great myths throughout history. Becoming authentic men is not only a matter of worldly strength and power; nor is it only a matter of tentative fragility, hedonistic desperation and the domination of those weaker than ourselves. Rather, masculinity involves a higher calling, a vocation to true strength and vulnerability that are far higher than any debased orkish corruptions: the vocation to virtue and the building up of truth, goodness and beauty. This is civilized masculinity - chivalrous knighthood, the warrior-poet, the saintly king and the elven ranger of legend.

Friday, January 1, 2021

Theotokos: A Defense of the Mother of God

 To celebrate this joyous feast of the Solemnity of the Mother of God on New Year’s Day, it can be fruitful to explore and hopefully gain a fuller understanding of one of the greatest Marian doctrines of the Catholic Church: that Mary is the Theotokos, the Mother of God. This is a claim that, despite going back to the earliest days of the Church and promulgated by official magisterial teaching, is often neglected or shied away from even by faithful Catholics. After the claims of some Protestant reformers that, by this doctrine, Catholics are idolizing Mary or giving her equality or even supremacy over Christ have been popularized throughout the West, we can find it difficult to witness our veneration of Mary as the Mother of God.

The identification of the mother of Jesus as the Mother of God has been met with controversy throughout the history of the Christian Church. To some, the title seems almost self-evident, since the mother of Jesus, whom Christianity professes to be God, the Second Person of the Trinity, would necessarily also be the Mother of God by her son’s own divine personhood. However, others have raised various objections to this claim, particularly Christian thinkers during and after the time of the Protestant Reformation, causing even many who hold to this historic doctrine to doubt its veracity or to show reluctance in openly proclaiming it. The ancient history of this teaching, which has been inseparably linked to the Incarnation of Christ since the time of the Church Fathers, as well as strong theological answers to the objections raised can help to encourage all Christians to profess Mary as the Mother of God without reservation. Through an exploration of the biblical, historical and theological evidence, the role of Mary as Mother of God can be demonstrated, and the objections answered conclusively.

The disputations of the claim that Mary should be considered the Mother of God have taken many forms throughout the centuries, depending on the specific theological lens of the objector. A question commonly raised in Fundamentalist circles concerns the proposition that the term “Mother of God” cannot be found in Scripture. If the Bible is the ultimate source and rule of Christian faith, how can we hold to a doctrine that it does not seem to contain? Further, even if the divine maternity of Mary can be inferred from Scripture, can we justifiably nominate this interpretation using words which, to all appearances, are not to be found in the Sacra pagina itself? “If this doctrine were as important as Roman Catholics claim,” they might ask, “would not at least one of the inspired writers have used it?”[1]

Another objection, from a more theological rather than textual perspective, is that titling Mary as Mother of God would cause her to be the source not only of Jesus’s human nature, but his divine nature as well, thus making Mary herself divine. Even in the biblical example often used by Catholics and other proponents of the divine maternity of Mary, namely the exclamation by Mary’s cousin Elizabeth at the Visitation, “And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Lk 1:43 DRA), the Greek word used for Lord, kyrios, can be used interchangeably to mean either God (as it is most often used in the Septuagint, or Greek Old Testament) or a human ruler. Thus, this passage can be interpreted to only identify Mary as the mother of Jesus’s humanity, not his divinity.

Along these lines, it can be problematic and even heretical not only to see Mary as the source of Jesus’s divine nature in her maternity, if she is called the Mother of God, but she could even be seen as the source of the Trinity itself. Since Jesus as the Son of God is the Second Person of the Trinity, and the persons of the Trinity, while distinct, are not separate but rather are a single Godhead, would not the divine maternity of Mary also make her the source of the Trinity and thus superior to it, becoming a kind of supreme goddess figure akin to many pagan deities? If her son is eternal, would not Mary as his mother be equally eternal as well as divine, thus forming a “Quadrinity” rather than a true Trinity?[2]

For other Christians who have raised doubts about Mary as the Mother of God, the above difficulties are ultimately unimportant precisely because of their understanding of what Mary’s maternity involved. For them, Mary was not a true “mother” in the fullest sense, as the term is applied to human and even animal mothers, but was only the vessel of the Incarnation, the medium or conduit through which the Word of God chose to take on a human nature. This, they argue, does not confer any kind of maternal relationship between Mary and Jesus, even if she is understood to have raised Jesus as her own child according to the norms of human family life; she is not the source of his nature or personhood, nor does she have any kind of authority over him, since as God no mere human could claim either role in relation to Jesus. It is even possible that, while Mary did incubate Jesus for nine months and gave birth to him, his human nature was created instantaneously by God at his conception and so they do not actually share a bodily relation, such as the same DNA or physical resemblance.[3]

Finally, even if someone were to accept that Mary is the Mother of God, the titles employed in this designation can become misleading. The ancient and biblically-based name Theotokos, or God-bearer, is only meant to honor Jesus, not Mary, it can be argued; Mary is merely the means through which God is ‘borne’ into the world purely through the divine will, irrespective of Mary’s cooperation or human maternity, and so the Incarnation honors God alone. Taking this argument further, even the common title ‘Mother of God’ can lead to a superstitious worship of Mary as a divine figure or at least to a misunderstanding of what her divine maternity entails, and so it is best to simply disuse the term, ignore Mary’s role in the Incarnation, and focus entirely on Jesus without distraction. As Protestant reformer John Calvin explained, “To call the Virgin Mary the Mother of God can only serve to confirm the ignorant in their superstitions”, or as Protestant apologist Matt Slick wrote, “The term ‘mother of God’ runs the risk of suggesting that Mary is somehow divine and part of the Godhead.”[4]

Before answering these objections, in order to avoid unnecessary confusion and the many errors it can lead to, a correct definition of the title “Mother of God” for the Blessed Virgin is needed. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “[T]he One whom [Mary] conceived as man by the Holy Spirit, who truly became her Son according to the flesh, was none other than the Father's eternal Son, the second person of the Holy Trinity. Hence the Church confesses that Mary is truly ‘Mother of God’ (Theotokos).”[5] The Catechism’s commentary on the words of Elizabeth at the Visitation succinctly describes the doctrine of Mary as the Mother of God. There are two fundamental points to this definition which are essential for refuting the arguments against giving Mary this title: for one, that the Son became Mary’s own child “according to the flesh,” after the manner of human maternity; and for two, that Jesus can only be considered a singular divine person, the Son of God, even in the hypostatic union of his divine and human natures. All errors about this doctrine derive from a misunderstanding of one or both of these points.

A study of the writings of the Church Fathers can quickly dispel the concern that this doctrine is in any way a new invention of the Church. From the earliest days of the Church up to the present, Mary has been called the Mother of God. The Fathers recognized, especially in response to the proliferation of errors regarding the natures and personhood of Christ, that the divine maternity of Mary is inextricable from Jesus’s hypostatic union as fully God and fully man. While the assignation of the title Theotokos to Mary was officially promulgated through the magisterial teaching of the Council of Ephesus in 431,[6] as early as 189 AD, St. Irenaeus of Lyons wrote, “The Virgin Mary, being obedient to his word, received from an angel the glad tidings that she would bear God.”[7] The description that the Blessed Virgin would “bear God” demonstrates that from the earliest days of the Church, Mary was considered not the bearer of Jesus’s human nature alone, but the bearer of God. Later, in 365 AD, St. Athanasius of Alexandrea would provide an even fuller explanation: “The Word begotten of the Father from on high, inexpressibly, inexplicably, incomprehensibly, and eternally, is he that is born in time here below of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God.”[8] Since patristic times, the doctrine of the Theotokos was connected to the Incarnation; if Mary is not the Mother of God, then God was not truly incarnate as one divine person who is fully God and fully man. The Council of Ephesus corrected the heresies of the time that made this error, and the significance of this teaching can be seen in the words of St. Gregory of Nazianzen in the previous century when he wrote, “If anyone does not admit that holy Mary is Mother of God (Theotokos), he is cut off from the Godhead.”[9]

One way to understand the divine maternity of Mary is to see her as the “New Eve,” the New Covenant typological fulfillment of Eve, “the mother of all the living.” (Gn 3:20) Like all fulfillments of Old Testament types in the New, Mary is not merely a copy of Eve but is far superior to her. The Wedding at Cana is the clearest sign of the identification of Mary as the New Eve. St. John in his Gospel includes Jesus’s naming of her as “Woman.” Rather than being a sign of disrespect, this title echoes that used for Eve eleven times in Genesis. As Raymond Brown explains, “John thinks of Mary against the background of Genesis 3… Mary is the New Eve.”[10] Again, at the Crucifixion, when the Blessed Virgin and St. John stood at the foot of the Cross, Jesus repeats this title: “When Jesus therefore had seen his mother and the disciple standing whom he loved, he saith to his mother: Woman, behold thy son.” (Jn 19:26)

From this analysis of Mary as the New Eve, the question naturally arises, “If Mary is the New Eve while Jesus is the New Adam (1 Cor 15:22), how can she also be his Mother?” To answer this question, it is necessary to turn to the Book of the Apocalypse (Revelation) of St. John. Here, in a vision, Mary is seen to be not only the Mother of God but also the New Ark of the Covenant, as well as the Mother of the Church. Like the old Ark, Mary bore within herself the bread from Heaven, the Word of God, and the High Priest - like the manna, the Ten Commandments and the rod of Aaron of the first Ark.[11] The image of Mary as the New Ark is previewed in the Visitation, when Elizabeth, in her exclamation “And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Lk 1:43),

 

was referencing, almost verbatim, a text from 2 Samuel 6 in which we discover the Ark of the Covenant being brought into the newly conquered city of Jerusalem in triumphant procession… Kind David exclaimed, ‘How can the ark of the Lord come to me?’ (2 Samuel 6:9).[12]

 

This preview is made clear in the Apocalypse. Mary, who like the old Ark was “overshadowed” by the Holy Spirit at the Annunciation (Ex 40:35, Lk 1:35), is described in St. John’s vision accordingly:

 

And the temple of God was opened in heaven: and the ark of his testament was seen in his temple… And a great sign appeared in heaven: A woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars… And being with child… she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with an iron rod: and her son was taken up to God, and to his throne. (Rev 11:19; 12:1-2, 5)

 

While these verses are taken from separate chapters in modern Bibles, their repetition of the phrases “seen/appeared” connects them as a single vision.[13] From this vision, in which the “woman” can be clearly recognized as Mary, whose relation to “her son” who was “taken up to God, and to his throne” evidences her divine maternity, one can also identify her as the Mother of the Church from a succeeding verse: “And the dragon was angry against the woman: and went to make war with the rest of her seed, who keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.” (Rev 12:17) Here, the offspring of the woman, of whom the divine Son is the firstborn, are those who “have the testimony of Jesus Christ.” Thus, all Christians are also her children, and she is their mother, just as Christ gave her to be their mother from the Cross (Jn 19:27); in this way, she is also the New Eve, the mother of all those who live in the new life of Christ.

As corroborating evidence outside Scripture and Tradition for the doctrine of Mary as the Mother of God, it should be remembered that the early Protestant reformers, particularly Martin Luther and John Calvin, clearly shared this belief themselves. Luther gave one of the clearest declarations of belief in the Mother of God amongst the reformers when he wrote:

 

[S]he became the Mother of God, in which work so many and such great good things are bestowed on her as pass man's understanding. For on this there follows all honor, all blessedness, and her unique place in the whole of mankind, among which she has no equal, namely, that she had a child by the Father in heaven, and such a Child.... Hence men have crowded all her glory into a single word, calling her the Mother of God.[14]

Luther’s teaching remains the official and predominant view of Lutherans today; because Protestantism itself and most of its denominations descend from Luther, his words should carry great weight for Protestants who are wary of this doctrine. Despite Calvin’s warnings quoted above against the “superstitious” use of the term itself, which he applied particularly to Catholic Marian devotion, he also believed in the truth of this doctrine. In his commentary on the Visitation, in Luke 1:43, Calvin wrote:

 

[Elizabeth] calls Mary the mother of her Lord. This denotes a unity of person in the two natures of Christ; as if she had said, that he who was begotten a mortal man in the womb of Mary is, at the same time, the eternal God.... This name Lord strictly belongs to the Son of God 'manifested in the flesh,' (1 Timothy 3:16,) who has received from the Father all power, and has been appointed the highest ruler of heaven and earth, that by his agency God may govern all things.[15]

Thus, even with his reservations about the potentially superstitious or idolatrous nature of Marian devotion, John Calvin – the originator of many Protestant branches which were not founded by Luther – also believed that Mary is the Mother of God. The perspectives of these reformers help to solidify the historic nature of this doctrine and show that it is not necessarily contrary to a Protestant worldview.

Based on these arguments for titling Mary as the Mother of God, the objections against doing so can be answered. As mentioned above, the objections to this title are founded on two misconceptions: on the nature of Mary’s maternity, and on Jesus’s singular personhood within the hypostatic union. By explaining these two points, the objections can be answered. First, the divine maternity of Mary does not make her the source of Jesus’s divinity, nor does it make her his Creator or “goddess.” Further, in authority, she has no more over Jesus than do any human mothers. Her motherhood, while certainly nobler and more universal than that of a normal human mother, due to the supreme nobility and universality of her Son, is still that of a human mother. As St. Thomas Aquinas explains, 

 

The Blessed Virgin is said to have merited to bear the Lord of all, not because she merited God to be incarnate, but because she merited, from the grace given to her, that grade of purity and holiness, which suited her to be the Mother of God.[16]

In the disputation of Elizabeth’s use of the term “mother of my Lord” at the Visitation, described above, the specific meaning of the word kyrios in this instance is not the most important point; rather, it is that Elizabeth considered Mary to be the mother of the one to whom she was referring, namely Jesus. Thus, Mary is truly the mother of Jesus. Accordingly, the term Theotokos is proper and fitting to Mary because, since Jesus is God and she is his mother, she is truly the “God-bearer,” and this phrase is essentially synonymous with the title “Mother of God.” The roots of the title Theotokos go even deeper, however; it is ultimately rooted in an explicit biblical use of the compounded term. As Catholic Bible scholar Brant Pitre explains,

 

Theotokos is a compound word that comes straight from the Bible… The Greek word for ‘God’ is theos, and the word “bearer” (Greek tokos) comes from the verb “to bear” (Greek tiktō). With this in mind, look closely again at the Gospel of Matthew: ‘A virgin shall conceive and bear (Greek tiktō) a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel,’ which means, God (Greek theos) with us. (Matthew 1:23)[17]

The compounding of these terms, drawn from the prophecy of Isaiah quoted by St. Matthew, was the basis of the official authorization of the title “Mother of God” for the Blessed Virgin by the Council of Ephesus in 431. St. Athanasius made this connection himself when he wrote:

 

Now the scope and character of Holy Scripture, as we have often said, is this — it contains a double account of the Saviour; that He was ever God, and is the Son, being the Father's Word and Radiance and Wisdom ; and that afterwards for us He took flesh of a Virgin, Mary Bearer of God , and was made man… but in fullness of the ages, He sent Him into the world, not that He might judge the world, but that the world by Him might be saved, and how it is written 'Behold, the Virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a Son, and they shall call his Name Emmanuel, which, being interpreted, is God with us Matthew 1:23.'[18]

From this evidence, it can be understood that, as the Mother of God, Mary was the “God-bearer,” bearing the person of Jesus just as a human mother bears her child – not as the source, creator or ultimate authority over them, but as their mother. The presumption that calling Mary the Mother of God will imply that she is the source of his divinity is equivalent to the early Mormon error and Islamic accusation that the conception of Jesus involved physical sexual relations between God and Mary, based on the use of Jesus’s title “Son of God.”[19] While the exact term Theotokos, like the term Trinity and like the biblical canon itself, cannot be found explicitly in Scripture, the roots of the title and its meaning certainly can.

The second misconception, concerning the singular divine personhood of Christ within the hypostatic union of divine and human natures, gives rise to the error that, as the Mother of God, Mary would necessarily be the mother of the whole Trinity, or that she could have been only the mother of his human or bodily nature. At the Council of Chalcedon, in 451 AD, the Church definitively declared, in correction of errors prevalent at the time, that Jesus is only one divine person – the Son of God – not a human person and a divine person at once, and in his person he has two natures which are both complete and in perfect union, namely a divine nature and a human nature. According to this definition, then, Mary cannot be the mother of a human person, nor can she be the mother of only a human or divine nature; rather, Jesus, as a singular divine person with two natures, is her Son. From this, it can also be concluded that Mary is not the mother of the Trinity as a whole, since Jesus is the Son of God who, while fully God in the Triune Godhead, is distinct from the Father and the Holy Spirit; Mary is the mother of only one person, Jesus the Son of God. The divine maternity of Mary so defined is the source of the historic veneration of Mary by the vast majority of Christians from apostolic times to the present; as the royal greeting of the archangel Gabriel at the Annunciation (Lk 1:28), as well as Mary’s promise in her Magnificat prayer that “from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed” (Lk 1:48), demonstrate, she, because of her Son, should be duly honored.

The biblical, historical and theological arguments for the divine maternity of Mary are sufficient to answer the most common objections to the use of the title “Mother of God,” as well as any other obstacles that may be brought up against it. While this title has been misunderstood at various times throughout history, its fundamental truth and importance must deter us from disregarding it or being afraid to cause scandal by openly proclaiming it. God chose to honor the faith of the Blessed Virgin by making her his mother, and so we as Christians should not disregard God’s providential plan. Like the other Marian doctrines, such as the Co-Redemptrix and Mediatrix, we must work to defend the doctrine of Mary as Mater Dei all the more rather than denying or ignoring these teachings to avoid facing the challenges of those for whom the teachings have not been properly explained.



[1] Tim Staples, “How can Mary be God’s Mother? Answering the top three objections to Mary as ‘Mother of God’,” at Catholic Answers (1 May 2008), at www.catholic.com.

[2] Staples, “How can Mary.”

[3] Trent Horn, “Why ‘Mother of God’ Matters,” at Catholic Answers (1 January 2018), at www.catholic.com.

[4] Horn, “Why ‘Mother of God’.”

[5] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 495, at St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church, www.scborromeo.org.

[6] Council of Ephesus, Epistle of Cyril to Nestorius Intelligo quosdam meæ (431), at New Advent, www.newadvent.org.

[7] Irenaeus of Lyons, Adversus haereses, 5, 19, 1, trans. Alexander Roberts and William Rambaut, Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 1, Irenaeus: Against Heresies (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature, 1885), at New Advent, www.newadvent.org, quoted in Jimmy Akin, The Fathers Know Best (El Cajon, CA: Catholic Answers Press, 2010), chap. 50, Mary, Mother of God, Kindle.

[8] Athanasius of Alexandria, Incarnation of the Word, The Faith of the Early Fathers, 3 volumes, ed. William Jurgens (Collegeville, Minn.: The Liturgical Press, 1970–1979), quoted in Jimmy Akin, The Fathers Know Best (El Cajon, CA: Catholic Answers Press, 2010), chap. 50, Mary, Mother of God, Kindle.

[9] Gregory of Nazianzen, Letter 101, trans. Luigi Gambro, Mary and the Fathers of the Church (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1999), 162.

[10] Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel according to John, 2 vols. (New York: Doubleday, 1965, 1970), 1:109, quoted in Brant Pitre, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of Mary (New York: Image, 2018), 28.

[11] Tim Staples, Behold Your Mother (El Cajon, CA: Catholic Answers Press, 2014), 23.

[12] Staples, Behold, 22.

[13] Brant Pitre, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of Mary (New York: Image, 2018), 62.

[14] Martin Luther, Luther's Works (Concordia Publishing House, 1968), 21:326.

[15] John Calvin, "Commentary on Luke 1:43", Harmony of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, at Christian Classics Ethereal Library, www.ccel.org.

[16] Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, III, q. 2, a. 11, ad. 3.

[17] Pitre, Jesus, 92.

[18] Athanasius of Alexandria, Against the Arians, trans. John Henry Newman and Archibald Robertson, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Second Series, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, revised by Kevin Knight, vol. 4, Four Discourses Against the Arians (Athanasius) (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature, 1892), at New Advent, www.newadvent.org.

[19] Trent Horn, “Why ‘Mother of God’.”