Writings by Dr. John C. Rao

Mary as Malleus hereticorum

A Brief Historical and Scriptural Meditation

The Angelus Press, September, 2013

St. Anthony of Padua was a man of many words and vast and inimitable public preaching experience. In contrast, only a few rather private sentences and actions of the Mother of God have been passed down to us. Despite this difference, Tradition has ascribed to both the powerful 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 seemingly endless 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 serious 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 in a “flesh and blood” manner appropriate to all men, engaging the whole of the believer’s being and centering his attention on a gentle woman submissive to a Truth outside herself and deeply in love with her Divine Son---whatever the consequences might be. The human mind is a noble part of God’s Creation, and failure to provide an intellectual defense of the truth and assault on the error of naturalism would be a mindless disaster. Nevertheless, most men accept truth and recognize falsehood in a more personal way, and even those of superior intellect have to mobilize their hearts and souls alongside their minds in order to give flesh and blood reality to what might otherwise be abstruse mental formulae. Mary’s tale of dependence upon and devotion to a God both living on High and walking upon the earth could touch everyone, the clever and the simple alike.

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. In other words, a stimulation of private love for the Virgin might also stimulate devotion to God’s plan for Creation, understanding of what had gone awry due to human sinfulness, and public abandonment of naturalism’s ill-conceived declaration of independence from the realities of a world in need of Redemption. 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 grotesque misconceptions about existence that the denial of nature’s dependent character, Original Sin, and Redemption engendered---in what amounted to a syllabus of heretical revolutionary errors.

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 and very humanly 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 revolutionary error, he explained, would make even the largest listing of intellectual falsehoods stemming from the naturalist declaration of independence from God incomplete. Proponents of these delusions would easily be able to play word games 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. Private love for Mary could indeed be stirred by proclamation of the Immaculate Conception, but a public intellectual guide providing a sure-fire escape from an ideological labyrinth could not be built upon it.

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. Blessed Pius IX’s seemingly “negative” attack on the errors of the modern revolutionary world in the Syllabus then became the springboard for the future development of a “positive” Catholic Social Doctrine emphasizing substantive Truth and the happy consequences of obeying its dictates. Two Marian themes in particular continued to stand guard over the entire enterprise.

The first of these was 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 any of her personal experiences to date. She bent herself with heart and to soul 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 said and 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 clearly heard and understood, she urged those around her to follow her lead and, quite simply, to “do whatever He tells you” (John 2:5).

Nothing could better summarize the underlying principle of the Syllabus of Errors and Catholic Social Doctrine in its fight against the manifold heresies of modern revolutionary naturalism. Nature is the creation of a supernatural God. It cannot fully and organically 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 says and does, 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, tells the world in no uncertain terms to look to the Father of Lights for illumination. The heretical naturalist—the anti-Mary--- tells it to turn to the dull, parochial, back wall of the modern revolutionary cave for guidance. This is hermetically sealed to the message of an angel; closed to pondering in its heart what the Incarnate Son of the Father of Lights has to say to it.

The second Marian theme reflected in the work of the Syllabus and Catholic Social Doctrine is that of motherly protection. Mary was the mother par excellence, concerned to shield her beloved Child from danger. She continues that role as mother of all those who become one with her Son in His Mystical Body. Motherly protection involves a two-fold role: that of defense against what harms children as well as encouragement of what is good for them and mobilizes the help of everything that leads them to eternal life with God. It was her eagerness to defend her Son from the evils of fallen existence that motivated her frantic hunt for him when not finding him in the pilgrim throng returning from Jerusalem------although here, too, we are shown that her natural concern had to be supernaturally calmed and enlightened in order to accept the risks necessarily accompanying going about the “business” of the Father of Lights (Luke 2:48). And so important was her eagerness to ensure that her spiritual children utilize those good things of nature that develop our longing to partake of the eternal banquet of heaven that she incited her Son’s first miracle over a simple lack of wine at a natural union of man and woman at Cana (John 2:3)

It was the Church’s motherly, simultaneously defensive and encouraging Marian role, that also motivated the Syllabus of Errors and the growth of Catholic Social Doctrine. Holy Mother Church had to defend her weak children from the errors and evils of those manipulating fallen “independent” nature to the ultimate detriment of everyone. She did so through the Syllabus’ anathemas against a revolutionary naturalism that spat on the Revelation and Grace making earthly life livable and suitable for fulfilling man’s true supernatural destiny. And Holy Mother Church, just like the Blessed Mother, had to combine this “negative” defense with a “positive” encouragement of the proper use of those tools of nature intended to help us to open our hearts and minds to Christ’s true “story” with its happy ending in the bosom of the Trinity. She did so with Catholic Social Doctrine’s discussion of the many natural kinds of “wine” around us in the form of everything from the family and the State to music and art, all of which, when handled correctly, create for us an earthly banqueting hall eager for transformation into its infinitely more beautiful and real heavenly model. Heretical revolutionary naturalism tells us that there is no heavenly banqueting hall to strive to reach, that “what you see is what you get”, and that the “wine” of life belongs only to the strong, who then swill it with revolting barbaric abandon, destroying its intrinsic value and themselves along with it. No true Marian force could allow her children to accept the naturalist mess of pottage in place of the nourishing food on the table she longs to set for them.

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, a theocentric and christocentric spirit, a pondering in our hearts of what Our Savior says and does, and a commitment to carrying out 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. A St. Anthony cannot ignore his intellect in either his internal change or his public hammering of heretics---but it has to be an intellect that has the model of his mother---the mother of all us---stamped upon it. Holy Virgin, Hammer of Heretics, pray for us.

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