Fall 2011

The Infallibility of the Church: A Marian Mystery

Roch Kereszty

A few theologians, however, discovered not only its roots in the biblical doctrine of apostolicity and Petrine ministry, but also its link to the Marian mystery of the Church. In other words, whereas most of contemporary theology treats the Church’s infallibility as required by the effectiveness of God’s revelation, patristic and medieval theology see the incorruptible permanence of the Church in the divine truth as a requirement of the Church’s virginal and, ultimately, Marian nature. In this article I plan to summarize the relevant data of this nearly forgotten tradition, and explore its implications for a deeper understanding of the doctrine of infallibility. Finally, I will show how the mystery of Mary is indeed the “Catholic dogma”—to use in a positive sense Barth’s disparaging statement—that assures the orthodoxy of the main doctrines of Christianity.2

1. Mary and the Church

The mystery of Mary and that of the Church appear so closely linked as to imply a certain identity already in the Book of Revelation (12:1–18). The vision of the Woman clothed with the sun, resting her feet on the moon and giving birth amid loud wailing and under attack by the dragon, the ancient serpent, is a complex symbol. The twelve-star crown on her head symbolizing the twelve tribes presents her as Israel; and her struggle with the ancient serpent indicates that she is the new Eve who will not be conquered by Satan. Her giving birth in pain, however, cannot refer to the happy birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. In the light of John 16:21 and 19:25–27, she is also Mary, the virgin daughter Zion, who completes her birth of the Messiah when she suffers the “sword piercing her heart” (Lk 2:35) as she witnesses Jesus enthroned on the cross and taken up to heaven in the resurrection. Finally, Mary, the new Eve and the virgin daughter of Israel, is also the Church, the mother of those who bear witness to Jesus (Rev 12:17).

In the same perspective, Irenaeus presents the symbol of the womb, which is both the womb of Mary and the Church:

The pure One [Christ] opens purely that pure womb, which
regenerates men unto God and which He Himself has made
pure. 3

There is a plethora of patristic texts in which Mary and the Church interpenetrate each other and are seen as it were in a perichoresis. The Marian church is a spotless, immaculate virgin, the spouse of Christ, the mother who bears children configured to Christ, the first-born of many brothers, or—what is equivalent to the latter—she gives birth to Christ unceasingly by regenerating people through baptism and by preaching to them the word of Christ. In the Letter of the Martyrs of Lyons and Vienne, written probably by Irenaeus, we find the Church described as a virgin and mother who rejoices over those Christians who had first denied the faith under torture, but with the help of their martyr brothers and sisters were “conceived” again and “reanimated” and thus made ready for martyrdom.Watching the revived Christians being torn to pieces by the wild beasts in the arena, Alexander, a Christian physician, acted out in pantomime the pangs of labor. By acting out Mother Church’s childbearing, he was interpreting to the martyrs what was happening to them in the arena.4

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2On Barth’s comments see Henri de Lubac, The Splendor of the Church (New York: Paulist Press, 1963), 198–200. Next to the invaluable studies of Hugo Rahner, Symbole der Kirche. Die Ekklesiologie der Väter (Salzburg: Otto Müller Verlag, 1964) and Our Lady and the Church (Chicago: Regnery, 1965), I relied most on de Lubac’s The Splendor of the Church for his comments and for his rich collection of patristic texts.

3Adversus Haereses IV.33.2; cf. also IV.33.4.

4Letter quoted by Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiastica V, 1, 45–46.