Kieran Fenn fms
This article is a response to a request to reflect on the call for new Marian dogmas.
Rather than go down new paths, we need to give life to the truths about Mary we already have, to let them speak anew to our 21st century Church and faith.
We need, first, to consider some issues surrounding dogmas and, second, to listen to what the Church says about a renewed approach to Mary.
For pastoral reasons, Church authority has an obligation to strive to make the way to salvation less onerous. Faith must remain a reasonable, as well as a graced, act.
The two most recently proclaimed Marian doctrines have a chequered history: the Immaculate Conception was unknown to the Church Fathers and was explicitly rejected in the Middle Ages by major theologians such as Ss Bernard, Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure. Rome forbade the term ‘Immaculate Conception’ in 1644, declaring that one should talk of the Conception of the Immaculate Virgin. It is the virgin who is immaculate, not the biological phenomenon of her conception.
As for the Assumption, the stories that tell of this are apocryphal.
The Orthodox Church has not accepted the definitions of these doctrines and the consensus of Anglicans and Protestants was against their formulations. It is never good to deepen the separation between Christian believers.
Pius IX’s proclamation of the Immaculate Conception (in Ineffabilis Deus, 1854) was the first time a pope acted without the support of a council to define a doctrine as being essential to the Catholic faith.
While bishops were consulted prior to the proclamation of the Immaculate Conception, the dubious element was the pope’s already publically known desire to define the doctrine. The most disturbing feature was not the preparation, which was thorough, nor the way it was proclaimed, though it is generally better for a dogma of faith to be proclaimed in council as expression of the universal church. The problem lay in the bull itself.
‘The Catholic Church … has ever held as divinely revealed and as contained in the deposit of heavenly revelation this doctrine concerning the original innocence of the august virgin’ just does not apply to the early or even the middle times in the church. The appeal is made to liturgical practice which again has a late starting point.
‘This doctrine always existed in the Church as a doctrine that has been received from our ancestors, and has been stamped with the character of revealed doctrine.’ The development of doctrine becomes a controversial theological issue.
For Pius XII (in Munificentissimus Deus, 1950), the Assumption flows from Mary’s Immaculate Conception, with both connected to her mission as Theotokos (God bearer). As the Immaculate Conception was a pure, undeserved gift, so was the Assumption. The end balances the beginning.
The two dogmas are then seen to underline the separation of Mary from the ordinary conditions of life in the people of God. While the wording of the bull asserts Mary’s Assumption ‘is based on the Sacred Writing’, no attempt is made to identify the exact place (in contrast to the definition of the Immaculate Conception). The doctrine is based entirely on tradition.
Pius XII believed the definition of the Assumption met the needs of the church in the mid-20th century, in response to World War II, the Communist Party in Italy, the rise of the Soviet Union, existentialism. The definition owes much to the personal piety of the pope: ‘the moment appointed in the plan of divine providence for the solemn proclamation of this outstanding privilege of the Virgin Mary has already arrived’.
The two modern definitions of Mary stand in need of rewriting, which ought to be done ecumenically, so that the whole Christian tradition contributes.
The point is not to renounce one’s own tradition but to incorporate and own the insights of others. This will be a slow process and may be the ultimate test of ecumenical commitment. Mary as a ‘woman for others’ is a treasure that Catholicism must share with her Christian children in other denominations.
Not a path to go down
The early Church dogmas centred on Christ and the Trinity as core to Christian belief. Paul VI laid down four guidelines to shape the future direction for Mariology: scriptural, ecumenical, liturgical, and anthropological.
The drive to have Mary declared Mediatrix or Co-Redemptrix violates scripture: ‘There is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself as a ransom for all.’ (1 Timothy 2:5). The two most recent dogmas did not violate scripture; they just were not in scripture.
It would not be fair to the memory of Mary to spend two thirds of a bull trying to explain what we are not saying and one third what we are saying about Mary’s unique contribution to her son’s role as Mediator and Redeemer.
Such titles are expressions of personal piety and should not be taken literally lest they seem to detract from the unique and universal
mediatorship of Christ. It is dangerous to place a mediator between Christ and the faithful or between the faithful and Christ, as if to suggest that we cannot reach Christ without his mother’s mediation.
Mary can stand with us as we turn to Christ, our mediator. Vatican II gave her back to us as mother of, and in, the Church.
A major topic for ecumenical dialogue among Christian believers and churches will be the significance of Mary for the Christian faith.
Mary, an ideal to aspire to
Every age has formed its image of Mary according to its own ideal of discipleship. She has been the ideal of the discipleship to which the Church aspires.
What would our 21st centuryideal of a church with the face of Mary look like? A good mother listening to all her children, not just those who agree with a particular ideological position? Taking the word of her son in scripture seriously? Ministry for service rather than power, prestige, and position? On the side of her forgotten and betrayed daughters and sons? Hearing John Paul II’s reminder that the Church was Marian before it was Petrine?
After the bitterest battle of Vatican II, the chapter on Mary, which says more about her than any previous council, ended up in the document on the Church, Lumen Gentium.
That is the context for future reflection and direction.
Sources: Kathleen Coyle Mary the embodiment of God’s Love; George H Tavard The Thousand Faces of Mary.