I read this very interesting article over at Catholic Lane about a Catholic man who seems to have been somewhat shaky in his faith. Some Protestant family members picked up on his apparent ignorance of the principles of Catholicism and moved in on him like sharks at the smell of blood. They asked him, "If you died and stood before the Lord and He asked you why He should let you into heaven, what would you say?" Well of course the Lord doesn't let us into heaven based on whether or not we answer some questions correctly; the purpose is a Protestant ruse in order to find out where the Catholic puts his trust.
Well, the Catholic gentleman in question failed the test. When asked why he had confidence in his salvation, he replied, "I just ask the Virgin Mary to pray for me.”
This answer, while not wrong if expressed to another Catholic who understands the tremendous graces that come to us through our Lady's intercession, it is nevertheless problematic in this context for two reasons.
First and foremost, when a Protestant asks you this question, beyond testing you to find out where you place your trust, he is implicitly seeking to either confirm or debunk the myth that Catholics do not know our Lord. It is not primarily a theological, but an ecumenical question. He is thinking to himself, "I have come to know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior; do you know this same Christ? Have you come to believe and love the same Jesus who I believe in and love?" Even if this is not stated, this is the purpose. It is an opportunity to build bridges and to establish firm footing for a true dialogue.
The average Protestant already suspects that we Catholics pay too much honor to Mary; many accuse us of worshipping her. When he asks this question to a Catholic, he is looking, faintly hoping, for confirmation that this is (or is not) true. To answer, then, by saying, "I just ask the Virgin Mary to pray for me" leads them to suspect the worst about us. It takes what could be a very fruitful ecumenical discussion and ends it before it starts by portraying us as ignorant. As the article above says, "you have to be about as dumb as a box of rocks to sit in Mass for any time and not figure out that your salvation has something to do with Jesus."
But, to come to the second point, why would this answer confirm the worst suspicions of the Protestant? Perhaps we could agree that this answer is "bad form" but it is theologically sound, right?
Not exactly. The Protestant is here inquiring about the primary cause, or efficient cause, of our justification. We know there are many secondary causes. Reading the Bible helps me go to heaven Prayer. Fellowship with other believers. Attending Church assists me on my way to heaven. The intercession of the saints. Even looking at a beautiful piece of art or visiting a beautiful spot in the wilderness might assist me on my way to heaven. Of all these things, in one way or another, it can be said that they "save" us in that they contribute to rendering our salvation more secure.
But this is not what the Protestant is getting at when he asks this question about where we place our trust. He wants to know the efficient cause, the cause from whence all these other secondary causes derive their efficacy. For the answer to this question, there can be no other answer other than the redemptive death of Jesus Christ. This is the only appropriate answer to this question.
St. Thomas agrees. When writing on the cause of sanctifying grace, he of course goes right to the primary cause - God. Nobody but God can save us, and no creature, not even the Blessed Virgin Mary, can possibly be the cause of grace. St. Thomas says:
"Now the gift of grace surpasses every capability of created nature, since it is nothing short of a partaking of the Divine Nature, which exceeds every other nature. And thus it is impossible that any creature should cause grace. For it is as necessary that God alone should deify, bestowing a partaking of the Divine Nature by a participated likeness, as it is impossible that anything save fire should enkindle" (I-II, Q. 112 art. 1).
Protestants and Catholics may disagree over how exactly Christ's death saves us; this is something that is a subject for discussion between us - but this discussion will never happen if we do not know how to skillfully answer the questions posed to us by Protestants who are seeking to challenge our beliefs.
Sometimes we may be ill-prepared and lose an argument; we may forget our Scripture and look foolish; we may say something and later regret it; but, if we are going to lose the argument, let's at least lose an argument that has been had, not lose it before it even has a chance ot begin. We can't begin to properly explain Mary's role as a co-mediator unless we first establish common ground with Protestants that we believe in the one Mediator. We can't convince them to share our beliefs about Mary if they aren't convinced that we share belief in Christ.
So, as I have said with regards to our relations with non-Christians, so I say with our intercourse with Protestants - preach Jesus Christ and let the rest follow. That's the only way things will ever work out.