July 2013 Print

Mary as Malleus Hereticorum: A Brief Historical and Scriptural Meditation

by John Rao, Ph.D.

St. Anthony of Padua was a very public man of many words and vast and inimitable preaching experience. In contrast, only a few rather private words and actions of the Mother of God have been passed down to us. Despite this difference, Tradition has ascribed to both the effective practical orator as well as the gentle and retiring Blessed Virgin Mary the same activist role of “Hammer of Heretics.” Moreover, while unambiguously praising the crucial importance of the work of the holy and loquacious Franciscan friar, the Church has nevertheless always given pride of place to the quiet Mother of God in the public battle against the enemies of Catholic Truth. Why should this be the case?

One answer that St. Anthony himself would have appreciated is provided us by a number of those leaders of the great nineteenth-century Church revival movement who were most responsible for Blessed Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors (1864) and the ensuing development of Catholic Social Doctrine. These men longed to pull Christendom out from underneath the rubble left by the revolutions of the late eighteenth century and their subsequent imitators. They recognized that such a task, which must always involve intense political and social activity, was nevertheless first and foremost an internal spiritual and intellectual one. Before all else, it entailed convincing a population deeply befuddled by Enlightenment naturalism that the universe was not an independent entity free to go about its business on its own terms, but the creation of a supernatural God who also had to correct and redeem it due to the evil effects of voluntary human sinfulness. And Marian doctrine and devotion seemed to the Catholic activists in question to be the best lever to lean upon to fight an internal secularism with crippling external effects detrimental to everyone’s search for salvation.

In 1851, the Roman Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica published an article dealing with a book by the Count Emiliano Avogadro della Motta (1789-1865) that emphasized the special value of the ancient doctrine of the Immaculate Conception for precisely this kind of internal combat with external consequences. Both della Motta and the Civiltà argued that belief in the Immaculate Conception, rooted in the scriptural accounts of the Annunciation and the lines of the Magnificat, directly attacked the central modernist principle of nature’s independence from God. Belief in Mary’s unique exemption from the consequences of the Fall—and this only through the life, death, and resurrection of her Son—contradicted all revolutionary claims that a just social order and human dignity could and indeed must be protected while rejecting the omnipresent reality of individual sin and the need for supernatural Redemption from its curse. Moreover, it did so not in some abstruse textbook fashion, which only a handful of intellectuals might grasp. It did so in an “incarnate,” flesh-and-blood manner, centering the believer’s attention on a gentle woman submissive to a Truth outside herself and deeply in love with her Divine Son—whatever the consequences might be. Any and every human creature of body and soul, the clever and the simple alike, could appreciate and respond to such a tale of devotion to God both on High and on earth.

Towards the Immaculate Conception

Devotion to the devout Mother of God had stirred nineteenth-century Catholics who would never have been able to talk theologically and philosophically about the problems of naturalism to press for the dogmatic confirmation of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception in greater numbers than ever before in the Church’s history. This inspired the Civiltà to argue that even tepid and totally estranged souls might be moved to abandon secularism and all of the nefarious political and social evils it engendered if a similar devotion to Mary could be stimulated in them. It was with this in mind that the Roman journal claimed that a dogmatic proclamation of the Immaculate Conception could also be used to spell out explicitly and precisely the illusions that the denial of nature’s dependent character, Original Sin, and Redemption engendered—in what amounted to a syllabus of heretical revolutionary errors. In short, a love for the Virgin could lead to a love of what she represented in Salvation History and a turning away from what displeased her.

Pius IX was fervently attached to the Virgin, especially the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception, on whose feast day he made many of his most important pronouncements. Stirred by the arguments of the Civiltà, the pope established a commission in May of 1852, headed by Cardinal Raffale Fornari (1787-1854), charging it with a study of the question of a joint definition of the “private” Marian dogma and the “public” condemnation of the revolutionary lies that its teaching very simply but very directly contradicted.

Nevertheless, by January of 1853, the project of providing a detailed condemnation of modern naturalist revolutionary heresies was separated from that of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, which was itself finally proclaimed in December of 1854. Separation was due to some dampening responses from the men consulted by the commission. Many pointed to the intricate problems entailed by a unique general condemnation of errors of this kind. Della Motta offered to do his best to help, but expressed doubt regarding the entire enterprise. The intensity, extent, and sophistic nature of modern naturalism, he explained, would make even the largest listing of falsehoods stemming from such an admittedly simple source incomplete. Proponents of these delusions would easily be able to find ways of evading responsibility for each specific point mentioned. Besides, he continued, theological pronouncements of this kind were of little concern to people who thought of theology itself as being utterly absurd. In other words, love for Mary was not a sure-fire recipe for escape from an ideological labyrinth.

Still, neither the calls for a syllabus of errors addressing all of the heresies of naturalism nor the conviction that its chief thrust could best be understood in conjunction with Marian devotion and doctrine ever disappeared from nineteenth-century Catholic activists’ minds. Such a Syllabus finally came to term in 1864, and, fittingly enough, on the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception. And Blessed Pius IX’s seemingly “negative” attack on the errors of the modern revolutionary world then became the springboard for the future development of a “positive” and substantive Catholic Social Doctrine. Not surprisingly, the practical public teaching of both continued to reflect Marian themes—two of them in particular.

The first of these concerns Mary’s sharp theocentric and christocentric focus. Let us remember that faced with an extraordinary and unexpected message from above, the Mother of God responded openly to a higher value than that offered by her personal experience to date. She bent herself to fulfillment of the external Divine Will. When she did once again turn inward we are informed that she did so to treasure all the things that her Son had accomplished, to ponder them in her heart (Luke 2:19), and to pray over them along with the Apostles and the other disciples (Acts 1:14). When the voice of the Christ she accepted was heard, she urged those around her, quite simply, to “do whatever He tells you” (John 2:5).

Our Lady Against Naturalism

Nothing could better summarize the starting point of the Syllabus of Errors and Catholic Social Doctrine in its fight against the modern revolutionary naturalist heresy. Nature is the creation of a supernatural God. It cannot fully be understood without seeing it through God’s eyes. Hence, the need for everyone to imitate Mary, emerge out of one’s narrow—and in our case in no way immaculate—natural experience, observe and listen to what Christ does and says, and then “do whatever He tells us.” This, the heretic never has been willing to do, and the modern naturalist heretic determinedly so. The Syllabus and Catholic Social Doctrine, following Mary, tell the world in no uncertain terms to look to the Father of Lights for illumination; the heretical naturalist, the anti-Mary, to the dull, parochial, back wall of the modern revolutionary cave, closed to the message of an angel, closed to pondering in his heart what the Incarnate Son of the Father of Lights has to say to him.

A second Marian theme is that of motherly defense. Mary is the Mother who wanted to protect her beloved Child and desires still to protect those who become one with her Son in His Mystical Body. Motherly protection involves both a defense against what harms children as well as encouragement of what is good for them and leads them to eternal life with God. It was her concern for defending her Son from the evils of fallen existence that caused her frantic hunt for him when not finding him in the pilgrim throng returning from Jerusalem—although here, too, we are shown that natural concern must be corrected when the “business” of the Father of Lights is in question (Luke 2:48). And so important was her concern that her spiritual children enjoy those good things of nature that urge us to partake of the banquet of heaven that brought her lamentation that the wedding guests at Cana had no wine (John 2:3)—and her Son’s first miracle.

It is the Church’s two-sided, motherly, Marian role as defender of the weak against the evils of the fallen “naturally” strong and as the patron of natural goods that can be used to facilitate our transformation in Christ that also motivated the Syllabus of Errors and the growth of Catholic Social Doctrine. Only Christ can provide us the tools to fend off the powerful evils around us. And only Christ can purify and solidify the tottering natural goods that are meant to help us to perfect ourselves as individuals. Modern heresy takes us down an opposing pathway, either giving all the wine to the strong who abuse it or taking it out of the hands of those whose hearts it cheers and opens to God. Mary, the Syllabus, and Catholic Social Doctrine have a defensive and offensive role providing the only recipe for happiness possible in this valley of tears.

Public defense of the Faith and creation of a Christian order suitable for leading men to Heaven as opposed to hell require the kind of open Hammer of Heretics represented by St. Anthony of Padua. Without their labors all our dreams of a renewal of Christendom are doomed. But the external work that they do is dependent upon an internal renewal requiring an abandonment of self, an observation of Christ, a pondering in our hearts of what He says and does, and a carrying out of His will as opposed to our own. This internal change is the greatest weapon against heresy, including the most potent of heresies, that many-headed heretical hydra called modern revolutionary naturalism. In this battle for internal and external victory, the model provided by that Hammer of Heretics called Mary is the best of models to cultivate.