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Mary for the Third Millenium: Mary the Woman

Kieran Fenn fms

Scripture

February 2014

Kieran Fenn fms

Pope Paul VI said in 1975 that devotion to Mary for many in the church was a problem. Our approach to Mary reflected outdated ideas of the medieval and Counter-Reformation church, which lack appeal for contemporary people.

He cited some theology that presents Mary as timidly submissive which, he said, was repellent to the piety of modern women. The church was not bound to these older images of Mary, he said. In Marialis Cultus, he called on Christians to develop an appealing view of Mary suitable for our culture.

The anthropological approach

In this series, we have touched on the biblical, liturgical, ecumenical and anthropological dimensions of a Mary for today. By anthropological, Paul VI meant a mariology that would be aware of the changing role of women in society – clearly in line with Pope Francis’ call for a new appreciation of the role of women in the church.

Theologian Karl Rahner reminds us that it was the image of the woman Mary that enabled the church in past centuries to prevent society from setting up a purely patriarchal domination. The church, he said, had to learn slowly and painfully amid the changes in secular society, To give woman what is her due by nature and by right is an historical process which is still far from complete.

But, in its understanding of faith, the church has a starting point of its own for this process. And what is its own is in fact present as an archetype in its image of Mary (Writings 211).

Official views of Mary have been shaped by men in a patriarchal system; the marian symbol as ideal woman emphasised obedience, virginity and primary importance as a mother. But now women’s self-definition is bringing a new understanding of women’s nature, capabilities, role, status and relationship to men and male-created structures. These thoughts echo a challenging statement of Paul VI:

‘In the home, woman’s equality and coresponsibility with man in managing the family are being justly recognised by laws and the evolution of customs. In the sphere of politics women have in many countries gained a position in public life equal to that of men. In the social field women are at work in a whole range of different functions, getting daily further away from the restricted surroundings of the home. In the field of learning new possibilities are opening up for women in scientific research and intellectual activities.’ (MC 34)

Traditional mariology had little to say about the aspirations of modern women. Homilies on marian feast days could alienate rather than inspire. It is hardly surprising that many bypassed Mary in favour of such biblical figures as Mary and Martha or Mary Magdalene, the ‘apostle to the apostles’ and first witness to the Resurrection.

But Mary represents a tradition that, however tainted, constitutes the only abiding womanly presence in the history of the church. In her, the ‘feminine values’ essential to the wellbeing of any society have been kept alive.

When these values are seen as the exclusive preserve of the female, leaving men free to develop ‘masculine’ qualities of power and dominance, the just and loving community of God is turned into an arena where the battle to reinforce sexual stereotypes is waged beneath a flimsy veil of theological justification. Mary and her associated values have to be re-presented in a way that is relevant and liberating for all modern Christians. She represents a rich resource for women’s spirituality and for the rediscovery of the neglected element of womanliness in the church. This is valuable for women and men, especially for religious men who base their spirituality on a woman such as Mary. She offers men the opportunity to reclaim the motherly aspects of their own natures, just as she offers women the opportunity to reclaim their sense of autonomy and selfworth before God.

Christian art reveals Mary as the most adaptable and beloved of icons, appearing in many guises as an expression of the ways in which people have interpreted their faith through the ages.

Doctrines the church has officially endorsed represent only what ordinary men and women believed for centuries. That these doctrines are sometimes incompletely expressed or misused as instruments of oppression does not mean that they cannot be true.

Leave the past behind

Older writings on Mary consisted largely of pious tracts aimed at keeping girls out of trouble. But recent writings offer Mary as a source of hope and inspiration for the poor, a feature of Third World liberation theology. In the West the question is what does Mary mean for women (and men) today?

Her image as theotokos, the Great Mother of God, must not be allowed to conceal her humanity. Any religion concerned only with the otherworldly is suspect and even boring. Christianity is a religion of the body as well as the spirit.

At times we may derive enormous comfort from identifying with the Nazarene woman who shared in the hopes and heartaches of women through the ages. But to reduce every aspect of Mary’s life, including the profound mystery of her role as the Virgin Mother of God, to merely an earthly example for good Christians is inappropriate.

There are times when we need to respond to her as the Great Mother of God who is profoundly ‘other’ than us and her role as mother of the poor is essential for an understanding of her.

Reference to her as mother can impose limits because of arguments about the extent to which it is helpful to identify women with motherhood. The understanding of Mary’s role, like that of the humanity of any woman, goes far beyond the mothering role – the wider community needs women to play a more influential role.

The Catholic Church has recently sought to distance itself from some past excesses of marian devotion. Vatican II decided by a narrow margin to incorporate its discussion of Mary into Lumen Gentium (The Church) rather than devoting a separate document to her. This changed the nature of marian writings and made Mary more central to Catholic theology.

Papal encyclicals and mariological works in line with Vatican II tend to be more centred on Mary’s relationship to Christ, rather than isolating mariology from the central life of the people of God.