May is the month when the Virgin Mary is especially celebrated by Catholics. Our own celebration will involve a brief examination of two aspects of Catholic doctrine about Mary: her Immaculate Conception and her bodily assumption into heaven. Both of these claims, which have become part of Catholic dogma, rest not on scripture but on theology: on the Church’s agreement, though logic parsing and “interpretation” of scripture, that these things happened even though there’s no direct evidence for them in the Bible. Doctrines like this show, more than anything else, that essential elements of Catholic belief are not only ludicrous, but man-made and based on “evidence” that wouldn’t convince anyone not already blinded by faith.
Since atheists know more about religion than the faithful themselves, most of us probably realize that the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception does not refer, as commonly thought, to the divinity of Jesus at birth. Instead, it refers to Mary having been born, uniquely among humans after Adam and Eve, without the stain of sin.
Mary’s sinlessness, however, is not mentioned in the New Testament. It appears to have arisen about 1000 A.D., and then became a tradition among Catholics. It did not, however, become official Catholic “dogma” (a word that refers to truths that are revealed by God) until December 8, 1854, when Pope Pius IX, in his statement Ineffabilis Deus, declared Mary’s purity. Of course here the Pope was speaking ex cathedra (‘from the chair’) which means that the Pope’s statement could not be in error (in other words, as Archie Bunker used to say, “The Pope is inflammable.”) Pius declared:
Wherefore, in humility and fasting, we unceasingly offered our private prayers as well as the public prayers of the Church to God the Father through his Son, that he would deign to direct and strengthen our mind by the power of the Holy Spirit. In like manner did we implore the help of the entire heavenly host as we ardently invoked the Paraclete. Accordingly, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, for the honor of the Holy and undivided Trinity, for the glory and adornment of the Virgin Mother of God, for the exaltation of the Catholic Faith, and for the furtherance of the Catholic religion, by the authority of Jesus Christ our Lord, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own: “We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.”
So Mary’s purity from birth is taken as a rock-solid spiritual “truth” by the Catholic church. What’s the evidence for it? Very little. There are three sources: scripture, tradition, and “reason”.
SCRIPTURE. On the scripture side, the the Catholic Encyclopedia admits this: “No direct or categorical and stringent proof of the dogma can be brought forward from Scripture.” Nevertheless, some Biblical verses, if examined with half-closed eyes, the ardor of faith, and perhaps a chalice of communion wine, are said to point to the Immaculate Conception. Some quotes from the Catholic Encyclopedia:
Luke: “The salutation of the angel Gabriel — chaire kecharitomene, Hail, full of grace (Luke 1:28) indicates a unique abundance of grace, a supernatural, godlike state of soul, which finds its explanation only in the Immaculate Conception of Mary. But the term kecharitomene (full of grace) serves only as an illustration, not as a proof of the dogma.”
And check out this tortuous passage, a prime specimen of theological interpretation:
Genesis: “But the first scriptural passage which contains the promise of the redemption, mentions also the Mother of the Redeemer. The sentence against the first parents was accompanied by the Earliest Gospel (Proto-evangelium), which put enmity between the serpent and the woman: “and I will put enmity between thee and the woman and her seed; she (he) shall crush thy head and thou shalt lie in wait for her (his) heel” (Genesis 3:15). The translation “she” of the Vulgate is interpretative; it originated after the fourth century, and cannot be defended critically. The conqueror from the seed of the woman, who should crush the serpent’s head, is Christ; the woman at enmity with the serpent is Mary. God puts enmity between her and Satan in the same manner and measure, as there is enmity between Christ and the seed of the serpent. Mary was ever to be in that exalted state of soul which the serpent had destroyed in man, i.e. in sanctifying grace. Only the continual union of Mary with grace explains sufficiently the enmity between her and Satan. The Proto-evangelium, therefore, in the original text contains a direct promise of the Redeemer, and in conjunction therewith the manifestation of the masterpiece of His Redemption, the perfect preservation of His virginal Mother from original sin.”
Other parts of scripture have also been interpreted as supporting this doctrine, including the part of the Song of Solomon that says this: “Thou art all fair, my love; there is no spot in thee.” Of course, there’s no evidence at all that the woman in this passage is the Virgin Mary. Although the song could be (as I think it is) a rather salacious love poem, theologians prefer an allegorical interpretation. But the woman could also be—and has been interpreted as being—the children of Israel, the Church itself, or even the Messiah.
TRADITION: The Catholic Encyclopedia and Pius’s pronouncement cite a number of “traditional” sources for Mary’s spotlessness, including various theologians who called her “immaculate”, church fathers (e.g., Tertullian) who compared Eve (created without sin) to the Virgin Mary, and so on. These are, of course, simply glosses on or interpretations of scripture, with no basis more substantial than wishful thinking.
“REASON”: Here’s one example of why “logical” doesn’t belong in “theological”—a specimen of Catholic reasoning that supports the Immaculate conception. From the Catholic Encyclopedia again:
There is an incongruity in the supposition that the flesh, from which the flesh of the Son of God was to be formed, should ever have belonged to one who was the slave of that arch-enemy, whose power He came on earth to destroy. Hence the axiom of Pseudo-Anselmus (Eadmer) developed by Duns Scotus, Decuit, potuit, ergo fecit, it was becoming that the Mother of the Redeemer should have been free from the power of sin and from the first moment of her existence; God could give her this privilege, therefore He gave it to her.
In other words, Mary must have been born without sin because otherwise she couldn’t have whelped Jesus. I guess Jesus was born without sin, too (I don’t know my Bible well enough to say that with certainty), but is “spotlessness” transmitted through the mitochondrial DNA? And if it is, why weren’t Mary’s own parents, and other ancestors, “spotless” as well? They were all, presumably, sinful descendants of Adam and Eve.
This whole enterprise underscores the profound difference between scientific truth and religious “truth.” Catholics take the Immaculate Conception as something that in indubitably true—the Pope has told them so. And it’s not a provisional declaration, as are scientific truths, but an absolute, unchangeable truth. But the evidence behind this dogma is ludicrously thin. And almost none of it comes from the prime source of Christian “truth”: the Bible. And yet the Catholics do adduce evidence: they don’t just say that Mary’s purity is a revelation from God, but rely on scripture, tradition, and “reason.” Sadly, these are no better than revelation itself, for all three sources, interpreted differently, could equally well produce opposite conclusions.
It’s stuff like this that makes me despise the entire enterprise of theology. How can one say, after reading this nauseating exegesis, that science and faith are both equally valid ways of finding truth? In contrast, Biblical scholarship is (or should be) scientific, in that it seeks empirical verification of its claims about how the Bible came to be.
Do note that Catholicism is a “mainstream” faith, one that supposedly accepts the truth of science (including evolution). Yet its own “truths” are palpable nonsense.