Reflecting on our classes on modern and post-modern Mary, it seems to me that during this period both those who studied Mary and the Church were grappling with the problem, “Why Mary?”. Why has Mary always been such an important figure and object of intrigue in the Christian (and more recently, specifically Catholic) faith? The implicit claim of this question is that she fulfills some purpose that Christ and the Church alone cannot. Henry Adams asked and answered this question most directly, but Warner and Daly are also clearly addressing it when they claim she exists to fulfill the Mother Goddess role, or as a tool to control women.
I think that this is actually an unanswerable question, because Mary has been interpreted so many divergent ways throughout history. She was important to different people at different times for different reasons; no one thread of thought can satisfyingly sum up her emergence as a central figure in Christianity. Indeed, we have seen that every attempt to identify this thread has only led to another, new way of looking at Mary.
However, looking at Mary’s rise as a chain of historical coincidences and convergences would undermine the authority of the Church because it would challenge the notion that its doctrines around Mary were from God. So, while Mary the Symbol or Mary the Mother Goddess was unacceptable to the Church, the Church needed to provide its own epistemological reason for “Why Mary”.
Reading Joseph Ratzinger’s “Mary” helped me see the Mary chapter in Lumen Gentium as one of the Church’s first attempts to grapple with this question. Ratzinger claims that this chapter was necessitated by a “charismatic” (19) Marian movement driven by apparitions. While we know that viewing the Marian movement as popular is somewhat ahistorical, describing the Marian movement in this way allows Ratzinger to allude to the issue of Mary as a force , and by extension the “why Mary” question, without directly referencing Adams, Warner, etc.
The Lumen Gentium’s answer is Mary as Church. However, Ratzinger correctly recognizes that the Lumen Gentium alone is an unsuccessful solution to the “Why Mary” problem. Firstly, the close vote on whether to center Mary as Church or Mary as Christ showed that even the Vatican Council could not agree on “Why Mary”. Secondly, both the Mariology as Ecclesiology and Mariology as Christology approaches intensify the “Why Mary” issue, because why not have just the Church and just Christ? Why does Mary need to be important too? So, Ratzinger identifies “the immediate outcome of the victory of ecclesiocentric Mariology” to be “the collapse of Mariology altogether” (24). He claims that Mariology may be Ecclesiology and Christology, but it is more than that too.
Ratzinger then provides a couple different frames for answering “Why Mary”. The first is to focus on “the mystery of the listening handmaid”(27). He discusses in depth how Mary represents the mystery within the Church. This is genius, because if “Why Mary” is unanswerable, as I have claimed above, then turning this unanswerability into an intentional feature of faith is the only way to maintain the legitimacy of the Catholic Church and religion. If Mary is supposed to be a mysterious figure, than the inexplicability of her force can be a facet of the mystery.
One could still question, however, why Mary, and not Christ, needs to be the mysterious figure. So, Ratzinger provides a compelling explanation of what differentiates Mary from Christ. He writes, “Christology must speak of a Christ who is both “head and body”, that is, who comprises the redeemed creation in its relative subsistence. But this move simultaneously enlarges our perspective beyond the history of salvation, because it counters a false understanding of God’s sole agency, highlighting the reality of the creature that God calls and enables to respond to him freely. Mariology demonstrates that the doctrine of grace does not revoke creation; rather, it is the definitive Yes to creation” (31). Ratzinger is arguing that while Christ is key to salvation, since Christ is God, Christ is not an example of human agency. Drawing from the tradition that Mary is impregnated only after saying “Yes” to God, however, Mary can be seen as a model of human agency choosing God.
I found this to be very beautiful and the vision of Mary that I have encountered that resonates the most with me personally. This is not to say that I think it is the one true Mary or the explanation for why Mary became such an important figure. It certainly doesn’t jive with every single history of Mary we have looked at. Still, I think it is a particularly fitting Mary for the present day, because it is about the individual choosing religion. Ratzinger has provided a Mariology that is neither a threat to or subsumed by Christ and the Church.