Over at his own blog, Mr. Shea has provided comments on what he calls: “For My Money, One of the Weakest Arguments Against the Immaculate Conception” (link). One of the reasons its such a weak argument against the immaculate conception is that it’s not actually an argument against the immaculate conception. Someone with average reading skills will quickly spot this fact when reading the argument:
I have always understood that the woman of Revelation to be the Blessed Mother. I was discussing the Immaculate Conception with a Baptist co-worker, specifically how she had no pain during child birth; he replied that if that was the case that she couldn’t be the woman of Revelation as “she cried travailing in birth, and was in pain to be delivered.”
Yes, this is an argument that came up during a discussion of the immaculate conception, but it is not actually against the immaculate conception, at least not in any direct way.
Instead, the argument is an argument against Rome’s attempt to connect their conception of Mary, the mother of Jesus, with the woman of Revelation 12. They want to connect her with the woman of Revelation 12 because of this:
Revelation 12:1 And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars:
Doesn’t that sound grand? And Mary, in Roman Catholic theology, has a very grand place. In fact, they use as an excuse for crowning Mary (compare this discussion of the impropriety of crowning Mary) the idea that Mary is the woman of Revelation 12. But is that so?
One approach we could take is to see whether anyone in the early church believed that Mary was the woman of Revelation 12. However, when we do so, we discover that the unanimous opinion of the early church was not that this was about Mary, but that the woman in Revelation 12 signified the church (as demonstrated here).
Another approach is to make an internal critique of modern Roman Catholic theology. That critique accepts, for the sake of the argument, Rome’s teachings about Mary and then asks whether they are contradictory:
1) On the one hand, Rome teaches that Mary did not suffer birth pangs with Jesus; and
2) On the other hand, Rome teaches that Mary was the woman of Revelation 12, but
3) The woman of Revelation 12 did suffer birth pangs, and consequently
4) Rome’s theology is self-contradictory.
What is Mr. Shea’s response to this internal critique? It is very flowery but flawed. Wherein lie the flaws?
First, Mr. Shea changes the argument a bit. Mr. Shea presents the argument as though the person criticizing Rome’s doctrine is saying that because the birth pangs are part of the curse for sin, Mary couldn’t have had them.
Mr. Shea then responds to this argument by stating: “By the logic of this argument, it would also be possible to indict Jesus as a sinner since he suffered, toiled, sweated, and died, just like Adam (cf. Gen. 3:17-19).” Two things must be distinguished here, however. Jesus suffered, toiled, sweated, and died, just like Adam because Jesus was bearing the sins of his people. Jesus is our mediator. Mary is not. No one’s sins are imputed to Mary: the sins of the elect were imputed to Jesus. Thus, there is a reason consistent with divine justice for Jesus to labor under the curse: there is not a reason consistent with divine justice for Mary likewise to do so, unless Mary was a sinner. And that, of course, is the real reason why she suffered and died.
As Augustine put it:
For to speak more briefly, Mary who was of Adam died for sin, Adam died for sin, and the Flesh of the Lord which was of Mary died to put away sin.
– Augustine, on Psalm 34:13
Mr. Shea’s argument, though, makes it sound as though he is unaware of the Roman view that Mary did not suffer pain in giving birth to Christ. This view does not come from the view of the immaculate conception, but from the view of the perpetual virginity (in its most extreme form). Aquinas (who did not accept the immaculate conception) affirmed the perpetual virginity and argued that Mary must not have suffered for several reasons, among which:
But the mother’s pains in childbirth did not concern Christ, who came to atone for our sins. And therefore there was no need for His Mother to suffer in giving birth.
– Aquinas, Summa Theologia, Third Part, Question 35, Article 8, Response to Objection 2
But most of all, for Aquinas, it was the idea that Jesus came out some other way than through the birth canal that proved that Mary did not suffer at Christ’s birth. It wasn’t based on her being sinless, or not suffering the corruptions and curses brought on by the fall. Instead, it was based on her remaining a virgin (as I discuss at greater length here).
Mr. Shea doesn’t seem to get it, though. At one point in his discussion he seems to recognize the fact that this is an internal critique, but then he uses the argument:
It’s like saying, “Okay! I grant that Mary is the Cosmic Queen of the Universe, crowned with twelve stars, clothed with the majesty of the sun, and treading the moon under her feet with the awesome glory that God has bestowed upon her! But what’s this? Is that a thread I spy hanging loose on her garments that outshine the sun?”
Sorry, Mr. Shea, but it’s not like that. No one is criticizing Mary – they’re pointing out the inconsistencies of your doctrine. It’s rather more like saying, “Okay! I grant (for the sake of the argument) that Mary is the Cosmic Queen of the Universe, crowned with twelve stars, clothed with the majesty of the sun, and treading the moon under her feet with the awesome glory that God has bestowed upon her! But what’s this? This Mary is not the Mary that your church worships, because this one had birthpangs, while yours did not.” See the difference?
Mr. Shea wraps things up with what he seems to think is a bolstering argument:
It’s a very silly argument, particularly since the language used by Revelation is so close to the imagery of the “birth pangs of the kingdom” (Matt. 24:8) used by her Son and can easily be taken to refer to the “sword” that pierced her soul at the Passion, not to physical labor pains.
Here’s the problem, though. Practically the only reason anyone would link the Revelation 12 woman to Mary in the first place is that she gives birth to a man child. But if the birth pangs are to be allegorized into something else, why wouldn’t we allegorize the birth into something else? This attempt is transparently the sort of selective allegorization that Mr. Camping is so fond of. It lets a desired outcome dictate what gets taken literally and what gets taken figuratively. Never mind that the birth pangs in the text happen before the child’s birth – since that doesn’t fit the outcome that Mr. Shea wants, he just ignores it.
The weakest argument against the immaculate conception? Hardly. Yet it was a very weak rebuttal to an argument that demonstrates the internal inconsistencies of the Roman Catholic religion.