Monday, 18 October 2010

Something About Mary

Yesterday saw the canonisation in Rome of Australia's "first saint", Mary MacKillop. The TV and print news was saturated with coverage of the event. The local newspaper in the city I live in supplied a poster of Mary in its weekend edition. Even the Australian Broadcasting Commission (the Australian equivalent of the BBC), usually no friend to Christianity, broadcast the canonisation mass live - and a very dreary liturgy it was, too, but that's beside my point at present (But while on the subject, just why is it that Catholics can't sing? Does their religion give them no joy?).

What has been for me the most remarkable aspect of the occasion is the relative silence of the Protestant church bodies in this country. Does their silence reveal their doctrinal confusion(most have long ago succumbed to theological liberalism,and no longer know what they beieve)? Or, with all the emphasis on ecumenical rapprochement in recent decades, does the obligatory ecumenical niceness prevent them from speaking up? Are they afraid of being seen to be re-igniting the sectarian divisions of an old and fast disappearing Australia where confessional commitments mattered? Or could they simply not get the media interested in what they have to say, even if they wanted to?

Whatever the reasons may be, I've been particularly perplexed by the silence of our own Lutheran Church of Australia. Perhaps, I wonder aloud, the silence of the LCA is the result of acute embarrasment that this could happen 11 years after a claimed "substantial agreement" was reached on the doctrine of justification? Not only was the LWF-Vatican sponsored Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification well received by the LCA, but we also forged our own agreement with local Catholics, an agreement which some in the LCA touted as being actually better than the international one. I was at seminary at the time; we were told that this was the beginning of the re-integration of "the Lutheran movement" with Rome and that one day the JDDJ would be appended to the Book of Concord (sic!). Everyone seemed eager to go along for the ride, with a few dissenting exceptions (Quite a different few apparently took what the LCA said about JDDJ quite seriously and rode all the way to Rome. After all, wasn't that what the Reformation was about - justification? If substantial agreement on it had been reached, why remain separated?).

But the wheels have now fallen off that particular bandwagon, haven't they? At least, so it seems to me. The whole notion of Mary MacKillop being canonised because she exhibited "heroic virtue", which even the theologically illiterate secular press here have picked up on, reveals that the Thomistic-Aristotelian synthetic notion of justification as consisting of the infused grace of God which must then be "perfected" by the human subject through the habitual and extraordinary practice of the various virtues, thus meriting final justification and immediate entry into heaven, is still very much in play in Roman Catholicism. As Dr Sasse remarked apropos the Roman cult devoted to another, more widely-known Mary, behind these apparently harmless expressions of devotion to supposedly holy human beings is the teaching of synergism - that we co-operate with God in our salvation, a teaching which the Lutheran confessions unequivocably reject.

The canonisation of Mary MacKillop has brought out all this out in sharp relief, and revealed that Rome still takes its stand with the Council of Trent, JDDJ notwithstanding (how could it not? Trent was, in Rome's eyes, an authoritative ecumenical council). For example, one can find the Thomistic-Trentine teaching in outline in the relevant passages of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. There is no place for the "justification of the ungodly" in this system, and no immediate place in heaven after death for the ordinary believer who remains simul iustus et peccator to the end of their days on this earth. He or she can only look forward to time in purgatory, where the necessary purification required for them to enter heaven is undergone.

Just where, I ask, is the "good news for sinners" in this teaching?

As I have said before on this subject on this blog, I have no problem with lauding Mary MacKillop's achievements, which were done in admirable service to the poor, but if we are still confessionally Lutheran we can not buy into the whole theology which supports her canonisation as "Australia's first saint" (as if there weren't millions of such saints before and since her time). In fact, I think that we need to have a good look at the teaching behind the canonisation and ask whether it is not a perversion of the Biblical Gospel, and therefore ultimately "another Gospel"? We may yet be grateful that the canonisation of Mary has brought all of this out into sharp relief - it may compel us to ask ourselves the question: "What does it mean to be Lutheran today?"

Curiously, but perhaps not surprisingly, it is the Sydney Anglicans who have struck the most evangelical, "Lutheran" note in the lead-up to Mary's canonisation. They used the interest sparked by the event to run a series of talks in a Sydney pub called "Laugh with the Sinners". A free beer was offered to all participants! The talks were given by an ex-Catholic, who said by way of introduction that “The Catholic church, by putting Mary MacKillop forward as a saint, adds to the guilt felt by many of the 1.2 million Roman Catholics in Sydney. It also obscures the clarity of the Gospel that Jesus is our only mediator. They also obscure peoples' understanding of the biblical concept of sainthood by using this biblical word to mean something entirely different [from what it actually means].”

Perhaps Sydney Anglicans can say such things publicly because they have the freedom of not being hampered by a "substantial agreement" with Rome on justification?


Matthias said...

Pastor, mary mckillop was a great worker but,the whole idea of cannonisation is unScriptural and as you say it is the Thomist-aristotlean hangover that still pervades the RCC. the hymn " for all the saints ,who from their labours rest..." means all of those Christians who have gone before us. I count amongst them St marie and st charles-my parents, and St perceval-my uncle a well known Church of Christ pastor in South Australia of the previous generation.
Incidentally i recon mary would have quesitoned all the money being spent and perhaps have aksed why it was not goin gto the poor!!
I think of a saying in a film of a Quaker being shown a picture of a catholic saint. The priest said " he was known as John until he was cannonised" The Proddy replied " I am sorry to hear that".

Kevin Davis said...

I read the Joint Declaration a few years ago, and I was shocked that any Protestant body would sign it, especially in light of the 1994 Catechism's clear affirmation, in many places, of the Tridentine position on Justification. The Catechism remained normative while the JDDJ was being signed, which should have been a big clue to any level-headed observer that Rome had not changed.

The JDDJ itself is so ill-defined as to be worthless for any coherent dogmatic system, whether Roman or Protestant. Only at a very shallow level does it appear to offer any sort of advancement in dogma, which is why the deeper theologians (e.g., Eberhard Jungel) rightly recognized it as a betrayal of Paul's radical witness to the total righteousness of Christ received by sinners -- sinners who remain sinners until they receive their glorified bodies in the new creation.

Pr Mark Henderson said...

I agree, and especially about Jungel. If memory serves correct, he was one of most prominent of the German theologians who protested the JDDJ signing by issuing a public statement in several German newspapers.

Pr Mark Henderson said...

Well said! I have a lot of respect for Mary MacKillop, and I do wonder what she would think of this whole affair. I also happily note that she was a daughter of Scotland (though Australian born), and I think a lot of her tenacity came from her typically Scottish character, inherited from both her mother and father. What a pity she was playing on the wrong team!

Pr Mark Henderson said...

Note - A fellow Lutheran pastor thought what I wrote in this post sounded angry. It wasn't written in anger, I assured him, but it was written with passion! After all, this all boils down to the Gospel, what it is and how it applies to sinners.

Anonymous said...

(But while on the subject, just why is it that Catholics can't sing? Does their religion give them no joy?).

I have to chuckle, my Lutheran sister has asked the same question when attending Mass with the Catholics in the family.

Of course, under the Tridentine Rite one might have encountered trained choirs singing Palestrina, etc. but that was far too complicated for the average parishioner to sing although I have to say that I have heard post-Vatican II parish choirs doing a great job with both Gregorian chant and Polyphony. For many preconciliar Catholics, not having been brought up to sing at Mass, music is still sometimes considered an intrusion. The high point of the liturgy for them is the consecration of the elements into the Body and Blood of Christ.

Irish Catholics developed a tradition of not singing at Mass simply because they did not want to draw the attention of their Anglican overlords when it was illegal for Catholics to gather for Mass.

Recalling my childhood when my Catholic Dad still attended the "old" Rite I remember how awesome I found the atmosphere of a traditional High Mass, with the incense, the mystery of hearing the liturgy in Latin, the beauty of the church building itself. It had a numinous and otherwordly effect so that I didn't even realize that the congregation wasn't singing.

Which is not to take away, at all, the marvelous tradition of music in the Lutheran Church, for which she is justly famous.


Pr Mark Henderson said...

Hi Christine,

For some reason (I get an error code from Blogger)your first comment refuses to be posted! So, I'm cutting adn pasting it here:

" 'The talks were given by an ex-Catholic, who said by way of introduction that “The Catholic church, by putting Mary MacKillop forward as a saint, adds to the guilt felt by many of the 1.2 million Roman Catholics in Sydney. It also obscures the clarity of the Gospel that Jesus is our only mediator.'

Oh dear, a mistake that some Catholics make. The Catholic church does not teach that Mary and the Saints are "mediators", Christ alone is our mediator. Mary and the Saints are intercessors and their intercession is always offered in union with and through the one mediator, Jesus Christ.

Of course, I recognize that gets into another whole spectrum of related issues and there's no doubt that some Catholics have not always understood the distinction clearly.

In Catholic teaching our baptism unites the entire church in living bonds of communion which is not broken by the temporary separation of death.

St. Therese of Lisieux was known for her simple and heartfelt trust in Christ -- to her, fear had no place in her relationship with Jesus and she maintained that she would stand before Him with empty hands as regards her "works" and that His righteousness would have to fulfill them.

As for the "guilt" aspect -- I have found that the love Catholics have for the Mother of God and the Saints (and the Catholic church acknowledges that there are saints among us who will never be known by name in this life) is anything but guilt-ridden. They are part of the Family. It was for good reason that the Second Vatican Council declared Mary, the first and faithful disciple of the Lord, to be Mother of the Church, which brings forth new Christians in the font of Holy Baptism.


Many thanks for your comments; I'll get back to you as soon as possible with a response. Btw, I was married some 19 years ago in the Catholic Cathedral in Suva, Fiji (my wife was Catholic) and I have many happy memories of that day - but not of the singing! ;0)