Having scandalized certain readers at Called to Communion by the fact that Catholic appeals to Mary in prayer go back as far as AD250 or so at least, I thought I would give them a break and spread the Marian joy here this time.
The important thing to remember about Mary is that everything she was, and everything she did in participating in our salvation—all this stuff that gets under Protestant skin—all of them are effects of God’s grace.
In the first place, we have to remember that when Trent enumerated the causes of our salvation, all of them were divine. In short, no human effort contributes per se to our redemption. This is only to be expected: Our salvation raises us to a supernatural end, and because it is above nature it is not possible for natural means (which are the only ones available to us on our own) to get us there. It is a metaphysical impossibility (by the way, see here for Trent’s declaration of the causes of our salvation (especially chapter VII). The upshot is that the miraculous things we attribute to Mary are gifts of grace, not intrinsic qualities of her nature.
In the first place, the Church teaches (and has always taught) that her sinlessness is a gift of grace. See, for example, §411 in the Catechism:
Mary benefited first of all and uniquely from Christ’s victory over sin: she was preserved from all stain of original sin and by a special grace of God committed no sin of any kind during her whole earthly life.
She did not do this on her own, nor by her own strength; she lived sinlessly with the help of God’s grace. Even her assent to being the Mother of the Savior was a gift of grace:
To become the mother of the Saviour, Mary “was enriched by God with gifts appropriate to such a role.” The angel Gabriel at the moment of the annunciation salutes her as “full of grace”. In fact, in order for Mary to be able to give the free assent of her faith to the announcement of her vocation, it was necessary that she be wholly borne by God’s grace. [CCC §490]
So even her assent, which was freely given, was likewise a gift of grace.
Lastly for this post, it is worth mentioning that Catholic acknowledgment of Mary’s unique role in salvation history goes all the back to at least the second century. St. Irenaeus wrote:
Being obedient she became the cause of salvation for herself and for the whole human race. [A slightly different translation, but with much more said on the subject, may be be found in Book III, chapter 22, §4 of St. Irenaeus’s Against Heresies, here; the quotation I have used here is found in CCC §494 (emphasis added).]
This of course presents some difficulties for Protestants. We Catholics say, consistent with Trent, that the Blessed Virgin was the instrumental cause of salvation: not that she could do anything by her own power to save us (after all, she isn’t God!) but rather that through her we receive salvation because Christ was born of her.
But that is not the difficulty for Protestants. No, the difficulty for them is that St. Irenaeus died in the late 100s or early 200s AD (see here), wrote Against Heresies no later than around AD 180, and was a disciple of St. Polycarp (who was in turn a disciple of St. John the Apostle). See here. In short, what Protestants must say is that within just two generations the Christian Church was already going off the rails with respect to Mary. Now, quite frankly, I find that to be completely and utterly absurd. St. Polycarp knew St. John and lived until around AD155 (see here). Is it really, truly credible that God would allow the Church to fall into error—especially that quickly? If He did, why should we expect that the Reformation resulted in a rediscovery of truth? If there were no guarantees for St. Polycarp and St. Irenaeus there certainly are none for Luther or Calvin or their theological progeny. In the end, to deny the truth of what Irenaeus wrote about the Virgin Mary is to toss all certainty about the Gospel into the ashbin of history.