Catholic Teaching is a beautifully simple thing even in its complexity. Every word has meaning, every phrase is the result of centuries of thinking and prayer and the fruit of MANY discussions and the decisions of ecumenical councils. It is a rock on which to build one’s house. Solid in the storms that come because it is the Truth about God.
I have a favorite Marian hymn which I sing with a single word changed from the original. Why would I do this? I make the one word change in this fine song because as it is worded it reflects a heresy condemned by the church and I prefer rock to sand.
The songwriter, in my opinion, was not thinking about orthodoxy when writing this lyric. Being a pretty lyric does not make it good theology. In the end, the objective truth is this song contains an unintended heresy: Arianism. Sadly, even when one knows to reject Arianism, the heterodoxy of this lyric can lead to other heretical positions such as Nestorianism.
So I sing it with the one word change that sets it free from heresy. In fact, in my personal copy of the Adoramus Hymnal, the word is marked out and replaced with the one that is theologically correct. That this lovely hymn is found in such a respected hymnal just goes to show that just because a song is older and well loved does not make it without theological errors.
So, what IS the phrase that causes so much trouble? It is “Mother of Christ” which seems innocuous but the theologically correct phrase is “Mother of God.” “Mother of Christ” can be used to support the positions of Nestorianism, which claimed that Jesus was two separate persons, and Arianism, which taught that Jesus is only human and not divine at all. If Mary is not “Mother of God” then, as these heresies argue, she must be mother of Jesus’ humanity alone.
The wisdom of God is reflected in the decisions of the ecumenical councils (the gathering of Bishops under the guidance of the Holy Spirit to pray and discuss how to best define and teach Truth), who decided that it was absolutely essential to teach that Mary is “Mother of God” so as to clearly communicate the truth about the divinity of Jesus. Jesus is not just a man (Arianism). Jesus is not God and Man as if a cart with two wheels like separate persons (Nestorianism). Jesus is not God and Man as yellow and red pigments mix to make orange.
Jesus Christ is ONE PERSON with two natures, one divine, and one human, which he has fully and completely all the time without separation, without mixture or confusion. We call this Truth a Mystery of the Faith, revealed by God, verified by the Holy Spirit working through ecumenical councils, to be held as Truth by all Catholics.
One little phrase “Mother of Christ” instead of “Mother of God” is a problem because ordinary Catholics do not study theology and so can be confused into unintentional heresies. For example: I was discussing this song with a Catholic acquaintance who would never consciously CHOOSE heresy. This person loves this song and cannot bear to change a single word of it. To this person, Christ and God are synonymous so to say, “Mother of Christ” and to say “Mother of God” is no difference. EXCEPT that in trying to defend keeping the lyric unchanged this person said, “I think of Christ being the name which reflects his Divinity and Jesus being the name which reflects his humanity.” And in that one sentence made my point that deviating from the Church’s phrasing will lead to unintended heresy. The wisdom of the Church in stating that the CORRECT phrase is “Mother of God” is demonstrated by the accidental Nestorianism.
Music that is not strictly orthodox in its theology will train every person who sings it to hold heterodox positions. Then when they teach their children, they will be teach them to believe, not the orthodox teachings of the Catholic Church but, the heterodox or heretical teachings they learned from the music.
I and others have written on the power and importance of music to the theological development of believers. What we sing we internalize over and over again. What we sing we take into our minds and hearts more deeply than what we read or hear spoken. In the end, what we sing shapes our consciences, our theological foundations, and becomes the subconscious guide to our lives.