Kieran Fenn fms
Among the new factors emerging in the Church of the second millennium was a growing legal system within church bureaucracy, an increasingly severe penitential system and a growing remoteness from the risen Christ as a saving figure who now became a stern and just judge.
Eternal salvation was regarded as exceedingly difficult; the torments of hell could be avoided by recourse to Mary, a powerful help for sinners as mother to the judge and to the sinner. Mary became detached from the gospel story of salvation history.
By the 12th century with the revival of European culture in the High Middle Ages, devotion to Mary was widespread. Great cathedrals were built; St Bernard and the Cistercians expressed her glories through the time of the Crusades, the era of feudalism and of courtly love.
Social and historical developments had their influence on Marian doctrine and devotion. Terms from chivalry emerged and Mary was addressed as ‘Our Lady’ and ‘Madonna’ – respectful titles given to feudal aristocrats.
Mary, simple maiden of Nazareth, is made one of the aristocracy, the great Queen of Heaven with a place above the Church, between God and the highest angels.
From mother to mediator
What began as an understanding that Mary was the means by which God came to earth – the vehicle, so to speak, of Christ’s saving presence in history – now becomes a mediation that functions in reverse to effect sinful humanity’s return to God – the ‘neck’ connecting Christ with his body the Church or the ‘aqueduct’ through which the graces of Christ flow.
St Bernard was to say that God ‘wills us to have everything through Mary’.
Today, Protestant criticism has made theologians aware that, in the undeveloped Catholic theology of the Holy Spirit, Mary had replaced the Holy Spirit as advocate, mediator, comforter and bestower of graces.
We are now called to give back to the Holy Spirit what belongs to the Holy Spirit and to Mary what belongs to Mary.
Consciousness of sin and fear of judgement were characteristics of this era.
The awesome God the Father was seen as stern king and just judge, difficult to approach.
Christ, too, was far removed from ordinary people as a distant feudal king.
Divine mercy found its expression in the mother of Jesus, intercessor for those who sought her aid in pleading with her Son.
Given the climate of fear, it is little wonder that devotion to Mary blossomed into a profusion of prayers, hymns, cathedrals, pilgrimages, poems, miracle stories, dramas, songs, images and practices in an outpouring that is impossible to codify.
The effects of the Reformation
During the Reformation in the 16th century, theology and piety were at a low ebb and Marian devotion was by turns sentimental and superstitious – a virgin beautiful but not sacred, or a powerful mother who promised salvation despite the lack of ethical living.
French Mariologist Rene Laurentin sums up the era as
Repelled by a desiccated intellectualism, people sought life on the imaginative and sentimental plane. Throughout this period of decadence, popular enthusiasm for the Blessed Virgin never faltered, but the adulterated fodder it was nourished on consisted of trumpery miracles, ambiguous slogans, and inconsistent maunderings.
The reformers’ criticism was largely justified and the Council of Trent (1545-1563) called for correction of abuse. But, regarding Mary, Catholics developed a severe case of fixation, while Protestants had severe amnesia. Devotion to Mary became a badge of identity, and promoting her glories was virtuous.
Rather than turning against Mary in herself, the reformers rejected her veneration on Christological grounds.
Luther, who wrote one of the best treatises on Mary’s prayer, the Magnificat, protested at what he saw as false honour; praying to and asking favours of Mary could be detracting from Christ as sole mediator between God and humanity (1 Tim 2:5).
It is encouraging to see the current widening acceptance of Mary in Protestant circles, especially of her role in the Incarnation and in the process of salvation.
The loss of tenderness and a harsh, judgmental and thoroughly masculine ecclesial emphasis is the price paid for the loss of Mary in any church!
From then on
The end result was to cut off thought about Mary from the rest of theology, especially treatments of Christ, salvation, the Holy Spirit and the Church.
As the late and internationally respected mariologist, Fr Pat Bearsley SM, says, ‘we have a picture of a vigorous mariology growing luxuriantly in an otherwise impoverished theological garden’. At this point we have an independent subject governed by its own rules:
• The rule of singularity – Mary is unique
• The rule of analogy – in her own way Mary parallels Christ in all things
• The rule of eminence – Mary surpasses other Christians in all things
• The rule of suitability – God could have, should have, and therefore did do great things for his mother. Duns Scotus.
From these rules flows the view of Mary as the unique, immaculately conceived virgin mother of God par excellence, graced with perfect virtue, the totally obedient, humble handmaid who was also Queen of Heaven with power to intercede for our salvation and who was assumed body and soul into heaven. But this pattern retains its fatal flaw, its isolation from theology as a whole, especially christology; mariology had indeed gone off on its own track. It had lost touch with modern forms of thought, theology and spirituality. However, filling a great need, it flourished.
Source: Elizabeth Johnson and Kathleen Coyle.