Mary for today 4 – compromise at Vatican II

Columns Kieran Fenn fmsMay 2012 No text could satisfy both sides of the council discussion. The group that saw Mary as a type of Christ continued to define her as…


Kieran Fenn fms
May 2012

Mary for today 4 - compromise at Vatican II Archdiocese of WellingtonNo text could satisfy both sides of the council discussion.

The group that saw Mary as a type of Christ continued to define her as mediatrix or, at least, as mother of the church.

The title of the chapter on Mary shows the compromise, ‘The Role of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, in the Mystery of Christ and the Church’. Lumen Gentium (the Constitution on the Church, LG) opens with the ringing words, ‘Christ is the light of all nations’; the church helps shed this light by proclaiming the gospel to every creature.

Mary is a pre-eminent member of the Church and faith-filled mother of Jesus Christ, once a pilgrim herself and now with God in glory.

The Marian chapter returns to biblical and early Christian sources to sketch Mary’s significance to Christ and the Church.

The gospel emphasises her motherhood by which the redeemer entered the world and her faith which led to her creative response to God’s call.

The dynamism of her life lay in the way she grew in her pilgrimage of faith leading her into the glory of God from the annunciation to Pentecost. The reality of Mary’s life is intertwined with the great events of saving history.

Mary, Christ and community
As mother of the redeemer, Mary’s unique role in salvation gives her a special relationship to the Trinity (as type of Christ). ‘At the same time, however, because she belongs to the offspring of Adam, she is one with all human beings in their need for salvation’ (as type of church and humanity) LG #53.

United with her son in the work of salvation from his birth to her presence at his side in heaven (type of Christ), she nevertheless did not understand his reply when she found him in the temple (Lk 2:46) but pondered it in her heart (as type of church and humanity) #57.

Besides relating Mary to Christ, the chapter also positions Mary as a member of the Church. The mediatrix issue touched a raw nerve and a carefully worded statement was included: the Blessed Virgin is invoked in the Church under the titles of Advocate, Auxiliatrix, Adjutrix, and Mediatrix.

These, however, are to be so understood that they neither take away from nor add anything to the dignity and efficacy of Christ, the one mediator. For no creature could ever be classed with the Incarnate Word and Redeemer #62.

The title is now one of several, in a context of piety rather than doctrine, and describing practice rather than prescription.

In place of Mary as mediatrix, the council reached back to early Christian theology to emphasise Mary as a model of the Church. St Ambrose taught that ‘the mother of God is a model of the Church in the matter of faith, charity, and perfect union with Christ’ #63. As a model, she signifies the church called to its spiritual best.

Limitations within the chapter
Unlike the most significant council documents, the chapter on Mary fails to place Marian theology in dialogue with the modern world.

It fails to clarify what belongs to the Holy Spirit rather than Mary, an absence that causes functions of the Holy Spirit to be attributed to Mary’s maternal mediation.

Nor was any connection established between Mary and women, Mary and the poor.
Yet more is said about Mary in this chapter than by any council in history and, by placing her within the doctrine on the Church, Mary was reconnected to the communion of saints living and dead.

Reform, renewal not rejection
After Vatican II, interest in things Marian rapidly diminished in industrialised countries. Theology focused on questions of Christ and faith in God alongside social and moral issues arising in the modern world.

The council had intended that devotions be reformed rather than eliminated, which is what happened despite the heroic efforts of Paul VI in Marialis Cultus.

Paul VI does not promote the pious practices previously followed because they are linked with the social and cultural patterns of a past age.

He calls on the Church to creatively renew these forms in accord with contemporary sensibilities, as respectful of sound tradition and open to the legitimate desires of today’s people (MC #24).

Four guidelines were set in place: in which the fault line between the two millennia becomes evident. From the principles of singularity, analogy, eminence, and suitability (basic to the second millennium) we leap to biblical, liturgical, ecumenical, and anthropological.

Rather than the skilful use of certain texts, ‘biblical’ means steeping devotion to Mary in the great themes of the Christian message of salvation. ‘Liturgical’ calls for practices of piety that should flow from and lead back to the Eucharist and harmonise with the seasons, notably Advent and Christmas.

‘Ecumenical’ implies that honouring Mary should be based in sound scripture and clearly focus on Mary’s relationship with Christ, avoiding any exaggeration that would mislead other Christians about the doctrine of the Catholic Church (#62).

That renewed devotion to Mary should be ‘anthropological’ means attuning to the human sciences that chart the changed psychological and sociological conditions in which people live today, most notably, women.

Pope Paul pointed out that women feel alienated from Mary because traditional piety presents her as a ‘timidly submissive woman or one whose piety was repellent to others, a picture formed by previous generations who drew on their own cultural norms regarding women.

The Church ‘does not bind itself to any particular expression of an individual cultural epoch or to the particular anthropological ideas underlying such expressions’ (#36). The task of our times is to employ our own awareness, name the problems honestly, and offer an attractive presentation suitable to this age.

Theologian Karl Rahner suggested that the image of Mary in the church has reflected the image of women at any given time. With today’s image of women undergoing radical change, this raises important questions if we are to have an image of Mary for our times and our Church.

Source: Johnson, Elizabeth A. (2004) Truly Our Sister. Continuum: New York. Ch 6