Ray Galea is an Anglican minister who leads the pastoral team at St Alban’s Multicultural Bible Ministry at Rooty Hill in western Sydney. His special brief is to work cross-culturally among second-generation Mediterranean and Middle Eastern people in the region.
Ray grew up as a member of a devout Roman Catholic family, and played an active role as a boy in his local parish church. Prior to training for the ministry, Ray worked as a social worker in Wollongong for three years where he specialized in marriage and family counselling. He is a graduate from Moore Theological College. He is married to Sandy and they have has three children: James, Amy and Madeleine. He has recently authored the book Nothing in My Hand I Bring (Matthias Media, 2008) which has become a focus of interest in the lead-up to Pope Benedict’s visit to Sydney in July for Catholic World Youth Day.
Ray, what was it like to grow up as young Maltese Catholic boy in Sydney’s west? Did you have a positive experience of Catholicism during your early years?
Yes, I had a positive experience within the Catholic Church as a young boy. I came from a loving Maltese Catholic family where religion was certainly an integral part of our lives. We went to mass three times a week: Friday nights, Sundays and Tuesday night Novenas. It was a loving home. Of course, no-one is perfect but my mother had a genuine desire to be a good Catholic and so did my dad. We said the rosary every night, and that was often lead by my mother. I wasn’t particularly aware of any lack of integrity on the part of priests or nuns. The teachers and the nuns at school were quite kind and loving. I recall only one sister who taught me in third grade who was a bit unpleasant. All the other sisters were gracious ladies.
I had a warm relationship with our parish priest, Father John Morreau. He was a kind and honourable man. He certainly didn’t molest me and he was never harsh to me. He used to tolerate me asking questions like, “If the Pope died while visiting Australia, would he be buried here or back in Rome?” These were the sort of questions that interested me as an altar boy of eight years’ standing. There were a couple of teaching brothers in the high school who generated some fear through wielding the strap. However, for the most part, my experiences in the Catholic Church were overwhelmingly positive.
So you served Father Morreau for eight years, assisting him with the mass?
Yes, I was a long-standing altar boy. And I didn’t drink the altar wine on the side, either! I used to ring the bells at mass, and I would pour the water over the priest’s hands as he washed before consecrating the host. My job was mainly to help him in the administration of the mass, but obviously in a very simple role. I wasn’t a priest. A friend of mine once said to me, “You know, Ray, every altar boy has to become a priest”. Actually, that scared the daylights out of me. I never thought that when I said ‘yes’ to serving as an altar boy, I was saying ‘yes’ to celibacy. Thankfully, my mother clarified that for me.
What did it mean to be a Catholic as a young boy?
I had a sense that I was part of something that was really large and international. It’s funny that until about 15 or 20 years ago, I always thought that the Catholics were the majority within Australia. I was quite surprised when I discovered that they were only 25-30% (nominally) of the population. So there was a deep sense that I was a part of something quite big and large, with the Pope as the head of a famous, international organization. As far as I was aware, there were Catholic churches everywhere, and they were the biggest ones.
Did that make you feel secure?
Yes, I certainly felt secure in being a Catholic, especially a Maltese one. I had a strong sense of ethnic and religious identity. All my cousins were Maltese and Catholic as well. I went to a Catholic school, so I actually knew very few Protestants. The only Protestant I knew was in high school. His name is Grant Sutcliffe. He’s still a friend of mine today. He was a nominal Methodist back then.
So what did you think of the local Protestant church on the corner?
Well, not much, really. I thought of the Protestants as being part of a Mickey Mouse outfit. How could they be right when they always seemed to have smaller buildings? I don’t think I had a negative view of Protestants as such; it’s just that they seemed to be irrelevant to my way of thinking. I had no real sense of their presence. It’s as though they didn’t exist.
You grew up during the tumultuous times of Vatican II. Where you aware of any big changes that were taking place in the Catholic Church at the time?
I had a sense that there were some significant changes happening at an official level because there were changes happening in the parish in the celebration of the mass. For example, I noticed that we now had a Greeting of Peace. There was more of an attempt at a communal approach to the mass, rather than the priest doing it all for us. There was a sense that the congregation now had a role to play in the service. The whole approach to worship became more friendly and inclusive. I remember that, as an altar boy, I didn’t have to learn Latin like my brother, who was older. Vatican II had introduced a number of changes to do with the mass—one of which was to drop the Latin version and put it into the vernacular. It was relief to know that after 400 years, we could be like the Protestants and actually understand what was going on. I know about some of the changes, although I didn’t experience them myself. I have no memory of the Latin mass, for example. I am the fruit of some of those changes in the sense that, as an altar boy, I didn’t have to learn Latin, which is what my brother was forced to do. The other thing I remember was that ecumenism was really high on the church’s agenda.
So there was a more friendly approach taking place in the way Catholicism presented itself to the world.
Yes, and for me as a young boy, it was captured in a number of symbolic ways. One of them took place in my school. The order of nuns who taught us in our first years at school changed from the Josephites to the Sisters of Charity. With the change of order, there was a change in uniform. The nuns wore a habit—you know, their outer garment—which went from a dark brown to a white. I know it probably sounds a little funny but it seemed to symbolize the fact that we went from having a God who was terrifying to be around to one who was your friend in heaven. It was typified for me in that famous Catholic TV advertisement about 30 years ago which said, “When ya get to heaven, whaddya think you’ll say? G’day!” So Catholicism was trying to be very inclusive. It was a major shift in direction at the ground level. We went from being a very exclusive church to one that was a lot more open to the outside world.
Do you think there were substantial changes taking place at a level of belief?
Not really, in terms of ordinary Catholics. The changes in our church were more about the form of liturgy and church organization than about doctrinal content. The liturgy changed slightly, becoming more corporate than individualistic. It was now in the vernacular. However, the Vatican made it clear that the essential doctrines of the church hadn’t changed. There were always suggestions that Catholic understanding might be a little more nuanced now than it was before, but no-one ever admitted that fundamental doctrines were changing. It was exactly the same horse as before; it just had a newer saddle.
I think one of the things that Vatican II initiated was a new emphasis on certain aspects of God’s character. Whereas pre-Vatican Catholicism had emphasized the severity of God, Vatican II encouraged Catholics to think of God’s love. I remember my father went to a mission run by a Catholic order about 10 years ago, and he heard a monk preach about the Prodigal Son. He said to me with tears in his eyes, “You know, Ray, I never knew that God loved me”. He went on: “I have always been taught that God was angry”. So there was a real sense that there was a change of emphasis, even if the essentials remained the same.
What are some of the things that you most admire about Catholicism?
I admire the Catholic Church’s ethical concerns. They have a great passion for protecting unborn life which puts nearly everyone else to shame. Protestants, especially, have a lot to learn from Catholics on that score. Catholics also have a more corporate sense of the church, whereas Protestants are sometimes far too individualistic in their understanding of salvation and the body of Christ. I know some Protestants talk a lot about being saved as individuals and having a personal faith, but they have no sense of belonging to the church and playing a responsible role in God’s family. For some of them, it’s like, “Who needs the church?” It’s almost as though they need a second conversion so they can appreciate the church as the body of Christ. A lot of Protestants are just too individualistic and don’t see the importance of the family of God.
How do Catholics think of God? Do they tend to fear him more than Protestants?
It varies. I guess it depends on the kind of Catholic you are speaking to. There’s a whole range of views in the Catholic Church. For instance, there are nominal Catholics and really hardcore ones. If you speak to a member of the Opus Dei order, you will discover a view that’s very affirmative of traditional Catholic theology. On the other hand, if you talk to a liberal Catholic, you’ll probably find someone who doesn’t believe that Vatican II went anywhere near far enough. Liberals think the Catholic Church should be ordaining gays as well as women priests. So, within the Catholic Church, you have the full spectrum.
I came from conservative Catholicism. We took our religion seriously. However, many of my family today are quite liberal in their approach. Nevertheless, they are still involved in the church at the moment.
However, despite all the variety amongst individuals in the Catholic Church today, there is a certain stability that is imposed by the Catholic liturgy. There is something substantial about having an expression of worship that is consistent everywhere you go. Of course, such rigidity has its dangers and downside. But there’s a certain psychological appeal in being able to go to mass anywhere in the world, and fitting in. There’s a commonality about the Catholic mass. It’s familiar to everyone everywhere. In that sense, it’s pretty much like McDonalds: there will always be a few local tweaks, but basically you know what you are going to get. You don’t even need to know the local language because you know the meaning of the liturgy at every point.
Actually, one of the things that I have most appreciated about the ancient prayers in the Catholic liturgy (some of which are still in the Anglican Prayer Book) is the fact that they are so God-centred and uplifting. Take the Gloria, for instance: I love that prayer and its rich theology. Again, I was first introduced to the wonder of the Trinity in the Catholic Church. I am grateful for that too. On this doctrine, at least, both Catholics and Protestants share similar views.
What did you understand by the term ‘Christian’ as a young Catholic?
It’s hard to remember exactly what I thought, but I am reasonably sure I thought of ‘Christian’ as a sort of generic term that encompassed Catholics and Protestants. Actually, I thought of Australia as a Christian country, which obviously included Catholics, Anglicans, Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists and probably even Jehovah’s Witnesses. I guess I thought that anyone who believed in Jesus, who was upright and moral, and who went to a church was a Christian. I thought of being Christian in a very general sort of way, as I best recall. It was a very loose term that was non-exclusive. I probably would have said that anyone who was a good person was a Christian. I was actually quite liberal in my thinking between the ages of 15 to 20.
Were you reacting at that time to Catholic conservatism?
No, I was actually going with the flow of Vatican II. The type of Catholicism I experienced at high school was heavily influenced by Vatican II. Following Vatican II, Catholic theologians became a lot more open to theological liberalism. This filtered down into our religious instruction at school. I remember being taught some liberal notions about the Bible in particular. We were taught to question the historicity of the Exodus and the parting of the Red Sea. We were told that the historical events of the Old Testament were nothing but myths. Slowly this dumbing down of the Bible began to seep in, and I found myself taking a more open view of things. It wasn’t as if I was reacting against anything in the church because I was being taught by a Catholic institution that was following the trajectory of at least one strand within Vatican II. Sydney now has a very conservative spiritual leader in Cardinal George Pell, but he presides over a rather a liberal diocese. This is a problem Catholicism faces: it may have conservative leaders, but it still has a lot of liberal theologians and teachers.
How do most young Catholics understand Jesus?
I’m not sure that many of them really understand that he is fully God, even though it’s clearly stated in the mass. I think a large number would think of him more as a wise, moral teacher—an exemplar, someone you follow. He’s thought of more as a heroic teacher who gives his life for us—but not someone you would necessarily pray to. I grew up in a Maltese culture where my parents literally referred to him as ‘Il Bambin’, the baby. It wasn’t just the statues that portrayed him as a baby; the Maltese language did as well. He wasn’t just ‘Christo’, which is a way that Maltese people sometimes refer to Jesus (although rarely). Certainly, in my family, he was always ‘Il Bambin’, the baby. The great irony of this was that I used to love the Gloria as a prayer. Perhaps you remember the words, “You alone are the Holy One, you alone are the Lord, you alone are the Most High, Jesus Christ …” On the one hand, I loved this prayer which exalted Jesus in his divinity, yet culturally I still thought of him as an infant. How spiritually schizophrenic is that! In practical terms, Mary was the one who had our affections and loyalty. We believed that she was the one who had influence with God. We didn’t think about Jesus in that way.
What was it that led to the change in your outlook towards Jesus when you became a Christian?
It was my conversion experience. My mother had laid a foundation for me by teaching me that I could know God personally. However, beyond that, it was a friend at university who helped me. She had become a Christian from an atheistic background. She had read one of those Gideon Bibles that she had been given at school, and had surrendered her life to Christ. Then she began witnessing when she started going to church and could articulate her faith. She would often read me sections of the Bible at Manning Bar in Sydney University. I was studying there at the time. I knew she had something I didn’t have. I was a strong theist, I suppose, but Jesus didn’t rank high in my kind of spiritual experience. Yet I knew she had something I didn’t have. I remember she shared with me the CS Lewis trilemma—you know: Jesus is either “Lord, lunatic or liar”. She told me I needed to make a choice.
I didn’t act straight away, but her challenge was like a stone in my shoe that kept coming back to trouble me. About 12 months later after a series of events in my life, I dropped out of my social work degree. I realized I didn’t have the motivation to care for anyone else in spite of my warm family upbringing. At the end of that year (I think it was 1980), I went for a reflective walk and realized that if Christianity is true, then I was in big trouble. I made a deal with Jesus there and then. I said, “Lord, the Bible says, ‘Seek and you will find; ask and you will receive’. I’ll meet you halfway. I’ll read the Bible, based on this promise. If you are really out there, please reveal yourself to me. Furthermore, I’d appreciate it if you could do it within three weeks because I’m a rather impatient man!” In God’s kindness, he allowed me three weeks in a hotel in Bondi with some friends who tried to discourage me from becoming a Christian.
It sounds amazing that you ever became a Christian!
That’s right! I remember sharing the room with Vince. He was on his bed reading Playboy, and I was reading the Good News Bible. He would say, “Take a look at this!” and I would say, “Vince, you should listen to this!” As we chatted back and forth, I was implicitly counting the cost. It soon became crystal clear to me that I was facing a fork in the road. Going with Jesus seemed to be the only logical thing to do. That was my conversion. However, it really took me six months after that before I officially said ‘goodbye’ to Catholicism.
How did your new understanding of Jesus affect your relationship with your church, and especially with your mum and dad and brothers and sisters?
In one sense, they could still understand what had happened to me as long as I remained a Catholic. I had just become more zealous. Some Catholics are like that: they become more Mary-centred; others become more social justice-centred. I just happened to be Jesus-centred. They say Catholicism is like the Hinduism of the western world: it can absorb lots of things. It is only when you decide that you can’t be a part of it that the trouble starts. That’s when everything hit the fan for me. My mum was actually quite pleased with my new-found faith, but she changed her tune the moment I said that I could no longer in good conscience remain a Roman Catholic. We had a few discussions about the place of Mary in the Christian life. She asked me, “Ray, what about visions of Mary?” Mum is quite a devotee of Mary. It was hard to say to her, “Look, Mum, if the visions are real, there’s a possibility that they could have come from Satan”. That didn’t go down well at all. My poor mum cried every day for two years. It really struck her hard.
Were you living at home?
Yes, I was. Mum was weeping all the time. It was incredibly hard to bear because I loved her so much. She is a wonderful lady.
How did you cope with it?
It was one of the toughest trials I have had to face. Jesus’ saying in Matthew 10—“Unless you love me more than your mother or father, you are not worthy of me”—became a key verse for me to hold on to. I love my mum a lot and I am still very close to her. When I went to church each day—morning and evening—as well as Bible study on Thursday, I would leave her in tears. It’s funny how my conversion at the age of 20 coincided with mid-life changes for her as well. Mum was passing through a number of changes at that time which I didn’t really understand. All I knew was that when I began to call Jesus, ‘Lord’, it caused my mum a lot of grief. However, it crystallized everything for me. From that moment on, I knew that Jesus had to be first and that he wouldn’t tolerate being second, and rightly so.
For Catholics, the mass lies at the centre of their religion. The climax of Pope Benedict’s visit to Sydney will be the celebration of the mass at Randwick Racecourse. Why is the mass so central? What concerns do you have about it?
When I was growing up, I didn’t fully understand everything that was happening in the mass. I knew one thing took place very clearly, and that was the transubstantiation of the wafer and the wine into Christ’s actual body and blood. When I took my first Holy Communion, a nun told us about a girl who took the host home and put it in her drawer, only to discover later on that the drawer was full of blood. Transubstantiation was taken very seriously. The mass was where you met God in a very physical way. The sacrament wasn’t a sign, it was a reality of Christ’s physical presence. That was made very clear to us. The other aspect of the mass—namely, that Jesus was meant to be re-sacrificed in the rite—was not so clear at the time. I didn’t really think about that until I started investigating the differences between Catholicism and Protestantism. I think that sometimes you understand more about your faith when you are leaving it; it was certainly that way for me. The more I thought about the mass after my conversion, the more I realized that it undermined the sacrifice of Christ for our sins because it repeated a sacrifice that God had intended to be once-for-all. It was never meant to be done over and over again. Catholicism is essentially Old Covenant religion with human priests taking the place of Jesus, our High Priest. Catholics look at the communion table as an altar where Christ is re-sacrificed. It really is an insult to God once you understand what is taking place at each mass and compare that with the unrepeatable nature of what Jesus has done at the cross.
Why is the Roman Catholic idea of priesthood of concern to you as a Protestant?
Well, I have a number of reasons why I can no longer accept Catholic teaching about priesthood. My major objection to it is that it subtly undermines the person and work of Christ. Scripture tells us that Jesus Christ, as our great High Priest, “offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins” (Heb 10:12). It is this perfect sacrifice offered by Jesus Christ that makes us perfect. My difficulty with Catholic teaching at this point is that it allows its own priests to share in a role which can only be accomplished by the one perfect priest. All priests other than Jesus fail at every point. Only God in Christ can offer the perfect sacrifice.
The problem with Catholic teaching is that it panders to the inherent desire within the human heart to cooperate and participate in its own redemption. This desire is at the core of every major Catholic error. When you think of distinctive Catholic doctrines, the one factor which is common to them all is that they undermine the person and work of Christ in some way. For instance, the doctrine of purgatory teaches that Jesus didn’t really complete the work of purification on the cross. Again, the need for a priest to mediate between us and God undermines the fact that Christ is our sole mediator. Furthermore, the Catholic teaching about priesthood ignores the fact that God has given all his people certain priestly functions and privileges. For instance, Christians now have direct access to the Father through Christ. However, the Catholic Church has removed this in a variety of ways so that now people are forced to go through human priests and the repeated celebration of the mass.
What other aspects of the mass trouble you?
I am also troubled by the mass because the Church teaches that Jesus’ death on the cross within time and space 2,000 years ago was not enough. Although Catholics are careful to point out that they are not repeating Christ’s sacrifice (they are very strong on that), they do claim that they are somehow tapping into the eternal reality of Christ’s death that happened outside of space and time. The only problem here is that the Bible says that Christ’s death for our sins is described as occurring within space and time. It was while we were sinners that Christ died for us. Surely that locates Christ sacrifice for our sins in time.
Our role with respect to the crucifixion is simply to look to Christ as our Saviour and trust him; we don’t offer anything to God. The thought that we can offer something to God as guilty sinners is unthinkable. Of course, many people think of the mass as just another service, and are unaware that the re-offering Christ as victim by a priest is deeply offensive to God because it undermines the ‘once-for-all’ nature of Christ’s work for us.
Protestants say that people should rely on the Bible alone. Why don’t Catholics take the same position?
There are probably a couple of reasons. The first one is that every distinctive Catholic teaching requires oral tradition, and you can’t find that in the Bible. So you can’t really find the teaching of purgatory in any part of the canonical Scriptures. Catholics claim that these ideas are there in embryonic form, but you really need something in addition to the Scriptures to come to any conclusion about them. If you just refer to the Bible alone, then you can’t hold to any of those teachings. The other thing, too, is that there is a lack of understanding amongst Catholics. They have been taught to believe that you can’t make sense of the Bible without the church, and that you must have the Pope’s authoritative interpretation as well as the councils and traditions of the church to understand the Bible properly. They believe that the Bible is not clear enough or sufficient to communicate these truths to us.
Until recently, the Catholic Church used to actively discourage their members from reading the Scriptures for themselves. This is now beginning to change. Nevertheless, Catholics are still supposed to read the Bible through the lens of Catholic doctrine. This means that if you get to the point where your interpretation of Scripture contradicts some Catholic dogma, then you have to assume that you’ve got it wrong, and you must defer to the church.
How should Christians view religious tradition? Is it always bad?
Tradition, in its technical sense, simply means that which is handed down. So the word of God is ‘tradition’, but it originates from God. When we talk about human tradition, we talk about that which originates from man and therefore has no final authority. So if we claim that human tradition has final authority, then we are giving it an authority which it doesn’t have. It then undermines the word of God that has been passed on. So it’s impossible not to have tradition. However, we shouldn’t reject tradition outright, but understand what is from God and what is not, and then keep that distinction clear in our minds. Non-biblical teachings and customs obviously have no final authority.
Nevertheless, we would be foolish to think that we don’t have things to learn from Christians in previous centuries. We need to test our own understanding of the Bible against the best insights of Christians in previous ages. The Reformed conviction of sola Scriptura doesn’t mean that we don’t listen to Christians in other ages; it just means that the final authority rests with Scripture, not with the tradition of the church. Evangelical Christians need to have a certain degree of humility as they assess the contributions of Christians down through the ages. At the same time, they must always remain completely under the authority of Scripture.
Why do Catholics believe that the church has the final authority in matters of faith and practice?
The reason why the church claims infallibility is that it believes that Jesus entrusted to Peter and his papal successors the authority to speak infallibly about issues of faith and Christian practice. Catholics heed the so-called infallible teachings of the Pope. Of course, not everything that the Pope says is deemed to be infallible, though, in practice, the distinctions are often blurred anyway. However, when the Pope makes an official pronouncement, say, for example, that Mary was assumed bodily into heaven as he did in the 1950s, it becomes official Catholic dogma. Catholics are bound to believe it. This is because the Pope is deemed to have the kind of authority that the Apostle Paul had among the other 12.
As Protestants, we naturally differ from the Catholic position. We believe with Jesus that the Scriptures have final authority over the church. He said that it was wrong to “leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men” (Mark 7:8). We must always be subject to God’s word, and let it have the final say. Now, at some point, the church has to come up with its understanding of what the Scripture says. The church only has authority when it is declaring the truth of Scripture, not because it is the infallible agency for interpreting Scripture.
Protestants say that we can only be justified before God on the basis of faith in Christ alone. What do Roman Catholics say?
Catholics like to think of justification as a process which begins with baptism and continues throughout our lives. The process involves two parts. In the first, God forgives us. The second part involves us working with God to become more righteous and acceptable to him. God thus makes us righteous, infusing us with justice and righteousness over time through the sacraments and our own good works. This means that when the Judgement takes place, God will judge us in part upon what Christ did on our behalf to remove our sin, but it will also depend upon our own efforts to strive after his righteousness.
Protestants understand justification by faith quite differently. We say that the Bible teaches that justification is an event, not a process. It’s a one-off declaration by God that a sinner is cleared of all guilt, and is thus completely blameless and righteous in God’s sight because of—and only because of—the death and righteousness of Christ which is imputed to us. Righteousness is credited to us apart from works (Rom 4:5-6). According to the Bible, when God justifies us, he doesn’t do it gradually by infusing righteousness into us; he declares us righteous when we put our faith in Christ. The real problem is that Catholics confuse justification with sanctification—they confuse God’s declaration of our righteousness with God’s work in us.
Is this an important difference? Yes, it is. Some time ago I had to speak to a class of 13-year-olds at a Catholic high school. In the course of the class, I asked them why they thought God would save them. Some wrote, “I don’t know”. But the majority appealed to their good works in some form or other: “I’ve tried hard all my life to be a good person”, “I was good on earth”, or “I have gone to church every week and tried to be a good Catholic all my life”. This is where Catholicism ultimately leads its followers through its teaching on justification. This is where the Roman Catholic ship ends up, given the direction charted by the church. People who believe this are ultimately robbed of any meaningful assurance, and have to rely on their own good works to get them over the line.
You claim that only as a Protestant have you come to understand the true nature of grace. What do you mean?
Catholics and Protestants understand God’s grace differently. While we could have a lot of discussion about the exact meaning of the term, grace is best summarized as ‘God’s favour towards the undeserving’. It is a disposition within God towards unworthy sinners that reflects his unmerited kindness and love, chiefly through the kind provision of his Son and Spirit.
Within Catholicism, grace becomes much more complicated because Catholic dogma tends to emphasize the work of the Spirit in transforming the sinner, as opposed to God’s favour towards him. So Catholicism end up emphasizing what God is doing in a person, rather than what God is doing for him/her. As a result, Catholics think of being justified by grace as cooperating with the Spirit of God to become more righteous. Unfortunately, when we think of grace in this way, we evacuate it of all its meaning. Grace is grace precisely because it is unmerited and free. If we think of grace in terms of God helping us to do good works through the Spirit’s help, then we lose the idea that grace is about what God has done for us in Christ.
Why is Mary so essential to Catholicism? Are you concerned about it?
In the hundred years leading up to Vatican II, Catholic teaching about Mary underwent some incredible changes. Pope John Paul II brought about many as well. Catholics regard Mary as the mother of God and the mother of all Christians as well. In 1854, Pope Pius IX declared that she was without original sin. The emphasis on Mary focuses on the claim that she is the mother of God, or the ‘God-bearer’. The term was originally used at the Council of Ephesus to affirm the divinity and humanity of Christ. It was not meant to be a statement about Mary; in its original context, the title was quite appropriate.
The problem is that the term is now abused. People think of Mary as a special mediator who has a privileged, intercessory role with Jesus and the Father. The way this plays itself out in practice is like this: imagine yourself as a child who wants something really badly. To whom will you go: an angry father or a loving mother? The answer is obvious: you’ll go to your mother every time. You know that if she takes your request to your father, you have the best opportunity to get what you want. Of course, this is an example that has instant appeal. The problem is that it doesn’t square with Scripture. It’s disrespectful to the Father because the gospel tells us that his wrath has been turned away by the sacrifice of Jesus. We can now draw near to God in complete confidence. It’s also insulting to Jesus because it completely ignores what he did at the cross by opening a new way for us to approach the Father.
The problem is that Catholic theology misrepresents the roles of the Father and the Son in salvation. It also throws an emphasis on Mary which is entirely unsupported in Scripture. Mary is presented as a tender and gentle mediator who is one with us and who has the capacity to plead for sinners. As a Catholic, I grew up praying prayers like, “Hail, Holy Queen, mother of mercy, hail our life, our sweetness and our hope. To thee do we cry for the banished children of Eve. To thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in the valley of tears.” As you can see, this is quite emotive sort of language. If you really need a sympathetic ear, you don’t go to an angry father or a baby; instead, you go to your mother.
I suspect a couple of trends in theology may have contributed to the rise of Marian doctrine. First, quite early in the history of the church, Christians lost the biblical emphasis on the sufficiency of the cross. This meant that they felt insecure and unable to come before God with confidence. The second factor contributing to the popularity of Marian dogma was an early stress on the divinity of Christ at the expense of his humanity. This meant that it became less clear that Jesus was the believer’s High Priest who empathizes with us. When this aspect of Christology was neglected, the door was opened to Marian theology. The last Pope, Pope John Paul II, developed this as far as he could by proclaiming Mary as co-redemptrix with Jesus. Frankly, it is hard to think of any other doctrine that so robs Christ of his glory. The only word to describe it properly is ‘blasphemy’.
The interesting thing is that the only time my mum stopped and pondered this issue seriously was when I used her own empathy towards Mary against her. I said, “Mum, if Mary knew that you were praying to her (and I am not sure she does), then I know she would be crying right now in heaven because I know she loves and honours her Son. She would be deeply hurt that you were taking away his glory.” For a moment, she actually stopped and thought, “Really? Do you mean that?” The thought that she might have been upsetting Mary really caused her some grief.
How should we think about Catholic World Youth Day? Is it appropriate for the government to be spending so much money on it?
First, I am surprised that our politicians, both State and Federal, have kicked in over one hundred million dollars for the conference. Would they do the same for other religious conferences? However, what does annoy me is that the Premier issued an edict to all principals to renegotiate every contract with people hiring schools on Sundays so as to keep those two Sundays free so that overseas visitors to the conference can meet in the schools.
Personally, I think this action is unfair and unjust. The members of our church are citizens of NSW and we pay $12,000 each year in rent for the use of the local school building. Now we are kicked out for a few visitors. What has happened to separation of church and state in Australia? I am a strong advocate of it. This is a problem that lies with the government at that point, and a particular government. I think that this is a justice issue. If regular contracts were being broken to favour Protestants, it would still be wrong. So there is certainly a justice issue involved here.
On the other hand, I think we should be open to any opportunities to witness about Jesus.
If the Pope receives a copy of your book, Nothing in My Hand I Bring, and asks you over for a cup of tea, what will you do?
I’ll go. I will talk to him about the claims of Jesus. Interestingly, he was behind the Catholic Catechism that was released in 1994, so he is as conservative as the previous Pope. Anyone who thinks that the Catholic Church is really changing its core teachings is a million miles away from reality. At the time, Benedict was nicknamed the ‘theological watchdog’. He is clearly concerned, like Pope John Paul II, about liberalism gaining the upper hand within Catholicism.
I think Christians should be alert for any opportunities that arise through the Pope’s visit to gently and respectfully witness to Christ. We should pray that God will use his visit to raise important religious issues, and that God will use the focus on the conference in ways that surprise us to bring people to himself. One thing I do know is that this will only happen through the faithful preaching of the gospel, not through the teaching of the Pope.
Copyright Australian Presbyterian, June 2008. Used with permission.