Thursday, December 3, 2015

Ratzinger's Answer to "Why Mary?"

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.   


To Infinity and Beyond: What Postmodernity Gets Right (and Wrong) about Mary

As the concluding conversation of our final class made abundantly evident to me, there can be no discussion of the Church without some inevitable recognition of and appeal to the Mother of her Lord. For that matter, this is so not only for the Church, but this quarter has proven that there is not a single aspect of the Christian Faith that can be considered apart from the Blessed Virgin Mary: from what translations of Scriptures are used, to why daily prayers are performed as they are, to the manner in which the Fall and Redemption of humanity is accomplished, all of Christianity looks to Mary to see Jesus. As such, this quarter has demonstrated to me in a new way the inescapable expansiveness of Mary. And postmodernity, to put it simply, seems to explore this expansiveness of Mary against the very real boundaries of who she is, asking if the two are harmonious or if the development of Mary as a figure has created a tension within her own identity. 

Appreciating the relationality of all things to Mary within the Faith as it was demonstrated through the arc of St. Irenaeus, St Bernard, Sister Mary of Agreda and many others, it seems that the final impasse of our study this quarter is addressing the matter of what of Mary slips into the realm beyond reasonability, or more specifically in what sense we can possibly discuss Mary independently of her womanhood and her meaning to Christianity, independently of her relationship to the Church in particular. This dilemma might be summarized then as the difficulty of answering two questions posed by postmodernity: the first about Mary’s gender, and the second about her relationship to the Church. While these interests seem distinct, both inquiries flow from the inevitable angst of the postmodern thinker when posed with Mary’s expansiveness as the Mother of God, and the finite weight of both her personhood and her Church insofar as it is an institution. Our authors ask questions like: is Mary not, in fact, so bound to her Son as to eliminate the distinctiveness of her gender, and in doing so to minimize the necessity of femininity in God’s plan? Or, might Mary be even greater than her Christian articulation? That is to say, is Mary not so majestic and eminent that no institution, not even the Church, can fittingly reflect, encompass, or be symbolized by her? After centuries and centuries of meditation and contemplation, has postmodernity finally made the realization that Mary challenges the us to think beyond potential “bounds” that Christianity set for her, in terms of gender, ecclesial significance, etc.? Our readings through the quarter have paved the way for us to see what Christianity did with Mary, and if nothing else postmodernity reviews this development carefully. [Granted, our third week of readings included passages from the Qur’an that were certainly illuminating in their own right and in some way reflective of a non-Christian encounter with Mary, yet even those passages seemed to reflect an understanding of Mary that depended on a pre-existing and distinctly Christian tradition.]

In our postmodern authors, who either critique or innovate the Christian tradition within their respective fields in order to respond to these questions, we have become acquainted with the fruits of impulses unique to modernity. If taken in respect to the postmodern fascination with the Mother of God’s feminine gender in Daly and Warner, we might laud one of these postmodern impulses as a long awaited analysis of (I contend, an artificially flattened) “woman-ness” (a term which in this case seems to be burdened with utterly modern baggage and almost no definitively Christian denotation). Daly and Warner, as an academic and as an articulate observer respectively, claim that the femininity of Mary is so swallowed up in the centuries of her growth toward Christ that the conflict apparent between her gender and her stature implies a neglect of women within the Christian religion. To respond to these claims, I confess that I find this point made distinctly by both Daly and Warner unconvincing, especially on account of their colored reading of the history of Mary as a “woman”, as if this is a category of set meaning and interest for those whom these postmoderns judge so critically. “Woman” – this term employed by Henry Adams with an unfortunately unqualified denotation, fails to appreciate the terminology of previous Marian rhetoric. Mary’s femininity is of little to no interest in the theological dialogues of the ancient and medieval Christian – the Eve typology of Mary as a theological lens for her role in soteriology or the Virginity of Mary in a Bernardine metaphor of humility or the Motherhood of Mary in Hildegardian language of creation are all concepts of great significance, but these are completely overlooked in the criticism of postmodernity that claims Mary is at odds with her own femininity. So in this respect the desire to take Mary into the infinite beyond of postmodern, self-referential criticism turns up unsatisfactory in respect to its obligation to reckon with the history of the woman Mary.

If taken in respect to the postmodern theological motivation in Ratzinger and Jane Boss that looks at Mary through an ecclesiological lens, we might criticize this movement as a mere attempt to stretch Mary’s distinction like a skin over the Church (and to do so in a suspiciously symbolic rather than typological fashion).  Yet, these authors if nothing else manage to innovate a new aspect to the ever-growing Marian portrait without contradicting or misunderstanding the Marian tradition. Ratzinger posits Mary’s expansiveness in a two-fold manner that has followed our studies from the first week of the quarter – to Ratzinger, insofar as Mary is a historical figure she contains “history A” and “history B” qualities – Mary as a person and in her person both mothers the Church as she also concretizes the Church. Ratzinger marries the expansiveness to Mary with her own complexity as a creature born in time yet Assumed into timelessness in order to reconcile the postmodern fear of the infinite in tension with the finite. Jane Boss makes a similar theological motion to square the expansiveness of Mary against her theological shape by forming a new image of Mary: Mary as the created and fully potential chaos of Genesis being glorified by the Incarnation of Christ. Rather than as an insult to her womanhood, Jane Boss finds Mary’s glorification by the Incarnation of Christ within the longer tradition of Marian devotion.

In conclusion, our postmodern writers demonstrate that postmodern readers of the Marian tradition stand at a similar crossroads that the early Christians stood at. That being, our postmodern authors seem to desire to reinterpret their own antiqua traditio just as first Christians and Jews did: as Christians found the birth of Christ within their Scriptures as the fulfillment of God’s covenant while Judaism set itself upon a different path, so Daly and Warner reinterpret the Marian tradition in a separate and arguably ahistorical fashion to the manner of interpretation sought by Ratzinger and Jane Boss which realizes the potential of the whole tradition. To continue to find the expansive weight of Mary in every image and symbol is the principle of devotion to the Blessed Mother, as this reconciliation is the first step to finding the harmony within the paradox of the God who becomes man. To set the two against one another is to tragically mistake the nature of the Christian’s love for Mary, and arguably the Christian faith.

- W.K.

Faith Lost in Marian Translation

The solidarity among all the forces of the cosmos Boss discusses is what, in my opinion, invalidates the feminist theologians, more so than the persuasiveness of the medieval tradition. She says, “To believe that God is truly present in Christ thus depends upon our ability to believe that when Jesus was conceived by Mary, he was fundamentally united to the rest of the world, from which it then follows that God himself participated in that wider union. And by the same token, God’s unique presence in Christ cannot be neatly cut off from the mother whose flesh he made his own, unless we are to abandon our ability to discern God’s presence in the material world at all” (28). Boss brings in the necessity of faith in the unity of Mary, Christ and God, a crucial piece to Marian devotion that I try to highlight through this post. I will attempt to see how this faith disintegrated from modern discourse and how Boss convincingly brings about its restoration.

Warner and Daly seem to buy into Henry Adam’s “dollhouse” interpretation of Mary, and attack it as if it is not just the Protestant interpretation of her, but rather has existed since the inception of Christianity. In addition to Henry Adam’s symbolism of her, the Church’s“corporate takeover” of Mary by monopolizing on her motherhood, virginity, subordination and other sexist tropes, only exacerbated her newly feminized persona, and Ratziner says “the immediate outcome of the victory of ecclesiocentric Mariology was the collapse of Mariology altogether” (24). We mentioned in class that one flaw of Warner and Daly’s arguments is that they fail to recognize that Mary was not always gendered, as our studies of medieval Mary never distinguish her gender as being particularly advantageous or disadvantageous; more often she was praised by both men and women, not just the latter as Warner and Daly assume. I am not completely skeptical of their arguments, because I think that medieval Mary was gendered to some extent, and there is older grounding in this oxymoron of “Mary establishes the child as the destiny of woman, but escapes the sexual intercourse necessary for all other women to fulfil this destiny (336) that Warner highlights. There was the issue of women being unable to serve as priestesses, because Mary was, as Epiphanius of Salamis vehemently argued, definitively not a priestess. There was also the paralleling of her and Eve, as she absolved women of the original sin that Eve imposed on them. That parallel in itself genders sin, separating the sins of woman to align with those of Eve and those of man to align with Adam. But still, to see Mary’s full potential only as a feminist icon, whether pulling from medieval or modern examples, is ignoring the bigger picture of Mary as an omnipotent force in the cosmos that Boss argues.

Ultimately, these new characterizations of Mary as a gendered rag doll of sorts to be tugged at back and forth between people like Henry Adams and the Church, are what desensitized the role of faith in appreciating her. So when we brought up the question that Maria asked in a previous blog post, where does faith come into this, I see Boss’s notion of Mary come into play, as a force more overarching than the constricted vision that she is a “façade of semi-identification of females with the Christ” (Daly 81) or an object of the self-interested corporate church. Faith is lost in this translation of Mary’s purpose over time, from when medieval monks saw her in the imagery of the Old Testament and viewed her as a model of piety, to when modern day scholars see Mary solely as an isolated symbol and model of sublime femininity.

Warner considers Mary a myth, a “protagonist in the drama of the Incarnation and the Redemption of Christ” (xxiii) and compares her to Aeneas. Ironically, Warner and Daly criticize people like Henry Adams for symbolizing Mary, and yet symbolize her in their own way. One does not have spiritual faith in a “Protagonist” or a mythological character. Faith, to me, means having a well-grounded understanding of Mary’s history so that one trusts ultimately embodies her power and judgment. Like Professor Brown said in class, history is a powerful tool and we should be aware of how it is used, and to pin her as a standalone symbol or a goddess detaches her from her history, as AN said in a previous blog post, “Mary the Symbol can be worshipped without tracing her role in scripture, her relationship with Christ, or her importance to Church doctrine”; this leaves her as only a shallow superstition.

Jesus can appear to a disbeliever with crucifixion marks on his hands to prove his resurrection, revealing himself as an individual among individuals. However, Mary cannot simply appear to a disbeliever by revealing herself within every piece of matter to prove her cosmic existence, for as Boss says, “It may be that the solidarity of things, one with another, and of God with creation, is a more fundamental truth about the world than is their separation from one another” (8). Thus, Mary requires us to have a faith, in her history, her existence, her as a humanist model rather than strictly feminist one, a faith stronger than any an individual or opportunistic Church can muster that will result in worship of her as Theotokos, the perfect image of God, the Temple and the Star of the Sky.


"Dare": Thoughts on Daly's Epigraph

When I was scrolling through the title pages of Mary Daly’s Beyond God the Father: Toward the Philosophy of Women’s Liberation to reach the main text, the epigraph caught my eye. Daly includes the final stanza from William Blake’s “The Tyger.” I found this choice intriguing. Though the poem certainly references religion (“Did he smile his work to see? / Did he who made the Lamb make thee?”), the connection between the poem and Daly’s desire to create a new, feminist theological lens is not immediately obvious. Why this poem? What about Blake’s work did Daly feel reflected her own ideas?

At first, I considered whether the tiger might be Christ. The chosen stanza’s last two lines, I felt, recalled earlier class discussions about Mary as a way to see Jesus. If it is through Mary that God becomes visible, then, she functions, in essence, as the “immortal hand or eye” working to “frame” Jesus. Yet, though this interpretation fits easily with earlier Marian tradition, it seems questionable to apply these earlier notions to interpreting Daly’s work. After all, Daly is actively bucking against tradition as she understands it and seeking to institute a new theological understanding of the Christian religion and Mary. Interpreting her work in light of earlier tradition seems flawed. While I do believe that Daly intends the stanza to reference Mary, I believe she seeks to highlight the exact opposite of Mary as a frame for Christ; her choice of this poem I believe, speaks to and works with her desire to move Mary outside of the shadow of Christ.

Certainly, one of the initial criticisms she levels against Marian tradition is that she feels “as symbolically portrayed then, Mary is ‘good’ only in relation to Jesus” (82). Further, she believes: “The inimitability of ‘Mary conceived without sin’ ensures that all women as women are in the caste with Eve” (82). But, because Mary functions as a symbol, she argues that Mary has the ability to be used a different manner. She writes, “the burden of my analysis is to show that the symbol has been a two edged sword” (83). I believe that “The Tyger” meshes with her desire to show the potential for Mary to be a feminist symbol.

Breaking down Blake’s poem supports this notion. The first line runs “Tyger! Tyger! burning bright.” This image, along with other more explicit industrial images later in the poem (“What the hammer? what the chain / In what furnace was thy brain? / What the anvil? what dread grasp”), calls to mind Henry Adams’ depiction of Mary. Daly specifically references Adams’ text. She cites him as an example of those who “have intuited something” different that the trend to reject connections between Mary and “the Great Mother” (90). She excerpts from Adams, quoting him saying:

Symbol or energy, the Virgin had acted as the greatest force the Western world ever felt, and had drawn men’s activities to herself more strongly than any other power, natural or supernatural, had ever done.  (91)

To Daly and to Adams, Mary is a “symbol” and “a force” (91). Further, Adams, elsewhere in his work, draws explicitly on industrial imagery through his discussion of the dynamo. In choosing “The Tyger,” Daly pulls on the same imagery as Adams, reinforcing the argument she uses Adams to support: Mary, to Daly, works as “free-wheeling symbol” (87). Mary, and more specifically, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, when used to see Mary as this “free-wheeling symbol,” “can be seen as reflecting the power and influence of the Mother Goddess symbol which Christianity was never able to wipe out entirely” (87).

Further, Daly’s project argues that Mary can be interpreted in a way that somehow challenges, even threatens to overturn what Daly characterizes as “the stranglehold of Christian patriarchalism” (83). She claims, “the image of Mary as the Virgin, moreover, has an (unintended) aspect of pointing toward independence for women” (84). She talks about how the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception “can be understood as a negation of the myth of feminine evil, a rejection of the of religion’s Fall into servitude of the patriarchy” (86). She speaks of “the unintended threat to male supremacy” posed by the doctrine (87). The language Daly uses when discussing these concepts is language of subversion and revolution (“independence,” “negation,” “rejection,” “servitude,” “threat,” and “supremacy”). Daly sees Mary as holding the potential, through her potency as a symbol, to subvert the status quo.

The language of Blake’s poem, too, is revolutionary, complementing Daly’s stance. George Norton, in a short piece dissecting “The Tyger,” observes:

The poem is full of references to rebellion: to Satan’s revolt in Paradise Lost (‘the stars threw down their spears’), to Prometheus, a favourite rebel of the Romantics (‘What the hand dare seize the fire?’), and, perhaps to Icarus (‘On what wings dare he aspire?’ – though this line might just as easily evoke Milton’s Satan).

Norton goes on to note that the tiger, too, was often associated with revolution in the France of Blake’s time.

Finally, it is worth noting that the poem is circular. The first and final stanzas are nearly identical, differing only by a single word. The first stanza ends with the question, “What immortal hand or eye, / Could frame thy fearful symmetry?” The final stanza replaces “could” with “dare.” As Norton aptly notes, dare “implies transgression and disobedience.” Daly chose between the two stanzas, chose between “could” and “dare.” Unsurprisingly, Daly chose “dare.”

This final point, I believe underscores exactly why Daly selected “Tyger” for her epigraph. Daly sees her project, her desire to see more in Mary than she feels past theologians have, to view Mary as powerful and good outside of her relation to Christ, as just that, daring.


Adams, Henry. "The Dynamo and the Virgin (1900)." In The Education of Henry Adams by Henry Adams, 379-90. New York: Modern Library, 1931.

Blake, William. “The Tyger.” Accessed December 3, 2015.

Daly, Mary. Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation. Boston: Beacon Press, 1973.

Norton, George. “An introduction to ‘The Tyger.’” Accessed December 3, 2015. Norton also comments on the industrial imagery I highlight.


What Is Our Context?

What I have found especially interesting in this week’s readings and class conversation was being challenged to think about the ways in which our modern world appropriates the cult of the Virgin into our own context.  As Warner puts its, “A myth of such dimension is not simply a story, or a collection of stories, but a magic mirror like the Lady of Shallot’s, reflecting a people and the beliefs they produce, recount, and hold.”[1]  The theme of a refractory of light off of which people are to learn the ways in which they can become better Christians is more or less imagery that we have seen throughout the range of time periods out of which our assigned readings have been thus far.  The platonic quality of the myth of the Virgin is paradoxically something one must work ceaselessly to imitate, while on the other hand, knowing that no mortal can ever fully imitate the Virgin Mary (and/or Christ) in her entirety. 

Today, feminist[2] theologian Mary Daly calls out the tension within the doctrinal theology of the Virgin Mary which leaves women in a sexual caste, fundamentally different than men; a sexual hierarchy which extends to everything from church leadership to gender/sex roles within the private family system.  Woman is essentially stuck into a class of human who, like Eve, is stuck in a state of sin that can only be salvaged by God.  In this system of salvation, what constitutes being a “good woman” relies her relation and dependence on a man.  While the Virgin has been able overcome original sin as the doctrine of Immaculate Conception teaches, according to Daly, Mary the Virgin is still not deemed “good” without her connection to Jesus as his birth-giver and mother. What further makes the theological system sexist in Daly’s observation, is the fact that a woman’s salvation is only possible through her service to God and toward man.   The service to God Mary offers is only possible through her absence of sin through her own Immaculate Conception is ontologically superior to any service any earthly woman can give, including Eve. “The inimitability of ‘Mary conceived without sin’ ensures that all women as women are in the caste with Eve.”[3]  This well known Platonic reading of the myth of the Virgin Mary highlights well the theologically unequal nature woman has compared to her counterpart.  What is lacking, however, is a working definition for what is “inimitable” in today’s context with regards specifically to the systemic oppression of women.  In other words, before we appropriate a feminist reading onto these ancient texts and dialogues, we must first ask whether or not the images and descriptions of Mary being used fit our world today.  What is it about Mary today that we cannot imitate?  Since Daly is comfortable with admitting that the work being done is not about historical Mary but rather about the contextual Mary, these questions are important to address in order to understand the complications associated with superimposing something as nuanced as women’s equality onto an ancient tradition that has evolved as many days as it has existed.

By way us describing the contemplation and worship of Mary as an model that is inimitable, while helpful to her definition of the role Mary plays theologically, leaves much for those following Mary to interpret for themselves.  In the context of contemporary issues with gender, both in greater society and within the church universal, Daly does a fine job explicating the inherent sexism in traditional Marian doctrine and theology.  What she does not do, however, is construct in our contemporary world how we are encountering the Virgin Mary.  Based on her own proposal that the world being done has little, if nothing to do with the historical Jesus and Mary[4].  So, if one is to take seriously the contextual facts of the time from which one reads a Marian text, it is important to fully define the context out of which Daly is hoping to construct a new theology of Mary that uplifts women.

In taking a feminist lens to observe the cult of the Virgin both historically and in today’s context, for the first time in this course, we have encountered an unprecedented move in Marian work.  As was made clear at the very beginning of the quarter, Daly echoes the notion that the focus of our work should not cannot be the historical Mary.  It is not about the historical mother of Jesus around whom beliefs and eventually dogmas have formed.  Rather, it is the very beliefs and dogmas about her that we must take seriously, as it is the systems of belief and the aesthetic movements that have formed out of those systems that have carried on the tradition of the myth of Mary the Virgin.  Based on the work we have done in class and the careful work our secondary source writers have put into exegeting the context into which particular writings on Mary were written/received, Daly has missed a step in her own work by not examining the context from which she is criticizing traditional Marian theology and doctrine.  In other words, I find it irresponsible academically to criticize a text(s) and/or tradition from another time period with one’s own contemporary issues without taking the care necessary to extrapolate the nuances of these comparisons and their limits.

[1] Warner, xxiii
[2] By feminist, I mean a theology that substantiates woman’s equality, both equal to men in the eyes of God, but also a theology that equalizes women to men ecclesiastically and doctrinally, as well.
[3] Daly, 82.
[4] Daly, 81.