Thursday, May 24, 2012

Mary: The Woman

I should start my post by saying that I have no idea where I am going with it, and so I apologize if [when] this turns into a ramble. The issues involved in the “modern Mary” are tricky, and I suspect that I will only be able to pose questions rather than answer them. I heartily invite conversation and comments –and answers, if you have them. I would like to talk about Mary’s femininity and in which contexts her femininity is important.

Somehow the idea arose that the “institutional Church” and the “popular Church” are two opposing factions at war over the issue of devotion to Mary: that the patriarchy is suppressing the grassroots piety of the Catholic lay people –particularly of Catholic lay women. I could talk for a long time (as we did in class) about why this is a misconception. However, I think it will be more interesting to look into why it persists.

So many controversies today about the Catholic Church center on femininity, and I think it’s very easy for people to just categorize the Mary question as a social/feminist issue: “the old guys that run the Church are trying to keep women from roles of power by suppressing devotion to Mary because she is a powerful woman”. Spretnak makes virtually this exact same argument: “Containing the influence of Mary has been a recurring concern for the Church since the 4th century….Such a huge female presence included with Christ in the central focus of the Catholic faith! Is this really necessary?”

I think the confusion stems in part because Mary’s femininity is an integral part of who she is and why she is venerated, specifically in the context of the economy of salvation. Mary is the Mother of God. It was her womb, her female body, which brought forth Christ Our Redeemer. The roles of Daughter, Mother, and Spouse of Christ are not roles that can be fulfilled by a man; a woman was needed in a very particular way to participate in God’s plan for the Incarnation.

The Church has always recognized this. Far from de-emphasizing Mary’s femininity, Catholic
Marian doctrine focuses on her femininity and the femaleness of her body. One obvious example is the Hail Mary: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.” Other examples can be found in readings we’ve done for this class: Irenaeus’ theological arguments that Mary is truly the Mother of God, Mechthild’s description of Mary as the bride of the Trinity, Bridget’s reflections on Mary’s maternity and her relationship with her Son, etc. Ample praise is bestowed upon the womb that bore the Lord and the breasts that nourished Him. Mary is invoked as Mother of God, Mother of the Church, Our Lady, Our Blessed Mother, and Queen of Heaven. Surely it cannot be denied that the Church venerates Mary in the fullness of her femininity!

Actually, maybe that is the problem; maybe the argument is not that the Church does not acknowledge Mary as a powerful woman, but that it tries to limit Mary to her femininity, rather than recognizing her as a person. In other words, one could argue, “Yes, the Church honors Mary’s womb. But does it honor Mary herself?” On one hand, the Church has a great history of praising Mary for her virtues as well as her maternity: her obedience to the will of God, her wisdom with which she taught the Apostles and guides the Church, her faithfulness to Jesus even up to his final moments on the Cross, her compassion and mercy on those who call upon her for aid, etc.

On the other hand, Lumen Gentium is a bit of a different story. Spretnak criticizes Lumen Gentium for emphasizing Mary’s obedience and ignoring her other virtues –the implication being that the council honors Mary’s obedience because it thinks that obedience is the proper virtue for women. I think Spretnak’s observation of Lumen Gentium’s lack of a robust depiction of Mary is a valid one; Lumen Gentium poses Mary as a model for the Church in its obedience to the Will of God to the neglect of her other laudable qualities. But what conclusions can we draw from it? Spretnak seems to make the following argument:

The Vatican II Council praises Mary for her obedience.
Mary is a woman.
The Vatican II Council is made up of men.
Therefore, the Church wants women to be obedient to men.

Her argument is probably more subtle than this. [Again, I invite discussion! The Spretnak reading made me very uncomfortable and I didn’t entirely follow her.] In fact, I hope it is, because that syllogism is awful.

Even if this isn’t quite the argument Spretnak is making, however, it is certainly in the line of popular modern criticisms of the Catholic Church. To be perfectly honest, I’ve caught myself making similar arguments when I’m annoyed with the Church. It can be tempting to say that the council was simply being misogynistic, especially when 1) it was sitting on almost 2,000 years of patriarchy that wasn’t exactly at the forefront of women’s rights, and 2) it made several other statements that feminists don’t like.

I get muddled here. To what extent are these secondary factors relevant to the issue at hand?

Concerning issue 1: How relevant is the Church’s history of misogyny to the specific arguments about Mary? If the institutional Church of ages past, with all its suppression of women and what not, didn’t see devotion to Mary as a threat to the patriarchy, why would the Second Vatican Council of the 20th century view it that way?

Concerning issue 2: What does demoting Mary have to do with the Catholic social teachings which have sparked such controversy? Or, rather, what do these other teachings have to do with demoting Mary?

Again, I apologize for the rambliness of my post. I feel like I'm staring into a cluster of knots trying to figure out which knots are connected by the same strings and which merely look like they're connected because the strings are wound about each other so closely. If I had to pick out the gist of what I'm trying to say, I guess my point is that the Mary question is not simply a feminist issue; it’s not just a matter of the Church trying to suppress women by suppressing devotion to a powerful woman. The Church is a very theologically, philosophically, socially complex entity and there are a lot more motivations at work in the demotion of Mary than simply the desire to keep women from having power in the Church. I’m not saying that these secondary issues were not at play in Vatican II, but I am saying that reducing the question of devotion to Mary to a power grab on the council’s part is a representation that fails to grapple with the true nature of Mary’s relationship with the Church.



  1. I really really like the second concern you get to at the end of your post—how does the new formulation of views on Mary in Vatican II relate to the other questions and issues at stake in the council? That is a great question that even as I reread the document, I am not sure I have an answer to yet. Someone may have mentioned this in class (if so I agree)--it does occur to me that the changes in ideas about Mary expressed in the council could relate as much to an ecumenical move toward Protestants as to changing gender roles in the period. I think you came around to something true in the end—that the role of Mary in the Church cannot be framed solely as a feminist issue despite being an issue of concern to feminists. There are so many issues at play that while I definitely think it is important and worthwhile to investigate how Marian doctrine relates to changing gender roles in the 20th century, it doesn’t seem fair (which is perhaps what you are saying) to state categorically that the members of the council saw Mary as a threat to the patriarchy. For that matter, as we were discussing in class, I’m not sure whether or not it is fair to talk about “the Church’s history of misogyny”—as you say, the Church is a theologically and socially complex entity and if one thing has remained true of the Church throughout all contexts it is probably that. There do exist many examples of patriarchy and even misogyny within the Church in various periods which are important to recognize and investigate; at the same time, there might be just as many examples within the tradition of respectful reverence and empowerment. It seems to me that Marian devotion can fall on either side of this divide depending on the context and on who you ask, and given all of the other theological and social issues at stake in addition to Mary’s gender, there is probably not one correct “feminist” way to view Mary. (as there is no one correct feminist way to do anything, but that is another story…) I would be really interested to hear anyone else’s thoughts on how the various issues at play for the Church in Vatican II relate to its statement on Mary and how all of this relates to Mary’s gender.

  2. ELM, I'm not sure if someone did mention it in class, but it did seem to me that the change in ideas about Mary being an ecumenical move toward Protestants was one of Spretnak's more worthy arguments. This was the answer that kept coming to mind in reading your post, LM, because while I certainly do not have an answer for some of the questions you pose, I think Spretnak seems right when she says that Vatican II's Mary is a lot more similar to say Luther's conception of Mary than it is to anything else. The Mary in Lumen Gentium is lauded for her obedience, like you said, so my question for you is whether you think something has been lost in Mary's supposed demotion in the Church? In class, we noticed that what seems to be lost in Lumen Gentium is the cosmological understanding of Mary. So what does that mean for everyday devotion? Most obviously, I think it narrows Mary's scope, in a way that perhaps lessens veneration? I don't know how true this is, as I am not Catholic, but I do wonder whether the loss of a cosmological understanding would lessen the honor or maybe the kind of honor given to Mary.


  3. LP, thank you for your post; I enjoyed it because it raised many thoughts that I too was having while reading and discussing in class. I wanted to comment a little about the comment you made regarding the centrality of Mary's femininity and slack that both the Church and scholars seem to be getting for both emphasizing it and de-emphasizing it. I think this again highlights our the analytic preconceptions we have as we approach these questions about Mary in the Modern Era.

    What is the femininity that we are seeking in these documents/writings? I think our desire to see Mary as "a powerful woman" is indicative of our own conceptions of what it means to have power and greatness. The arguments that Spretnik seems to make highlights this discrepancy in our self-reflection, I think. As I see it, Mary is pretty darn powerful especially within the devotional practices of the Church. She is only limited in her power to the extent that she is not a person of the Trinity it seems. If the power we choose to acknowledge is that of force and confidence, I am not sure that we would be talking about Mary. The kind of power she represents is the power that Christ himself preached.

    I agree that Mary at least the Mary I have come to see and love through this course seems to disappear or at least get watered down in the Lumen Gentium document. I do not want to excuse "Luthernizing" of Mary there. However, I think it is important to consider that perhaps we (specifically Spretnik)see Mary as cornered and small because we (especially in the West) see the virtues such as humility, obedience, kindness, etc., as small. Something to reflect upon, I think.

  4. LP:
    I agree that these are thorny issues which, moreover, can tend to become murkier rather than clearer as scholars use Mary and Mariology to think through myriad other problems. The “turnaround” on Mary that we read about and discussed, 1. Does not seem to me to be “just a matter of the Church trying to suppress women by suppressing devotion to a powerful woman” (I agree with you about this), 2. Does not seem entirely novel nor unique to the mid-20th century either. This is an elusive thing, to be sure; throughout the quarter we have read *about* struggles with appropriate Marian devotion, but the matter of objection itself is rarely on display (“Against Collyridians” and the sections of the Qur’an being the most notable, direct exceptions). The Reformers and Reformation scholarship certainly puts a great deal of emphasis on disapproval of Marian devotion, but, as we have noted, pre-Reformation Catholics carefully (excruciatingly, even) considered the implications of Marian devotion, though, again, the “objections” seem to appear as hypotheticals more than concrete examples.

    I do think that gender or sex is almost always in play in some form or another in considerations of Mary, and you weigh carefully when you write: “maybe the argument is not that the Church does not acknowledge Mary as a powerful woman, but that it tries to limit Mary to her femininity, rather than recognizing her as a person.” I ask, though, if this is the case. It seems to me that Mary is mostly recognized “as a person” over the course of the centuries that we covered. By nature of her role and relation to Christ, she is necessarily a powerful *woman,* but in the literature that we read, has this “gotten in the way of” or impeded treatment of her power or importance simply as a being? (I know my answer to this, but leave the question open).

  5. I would tend to agree more with you, LP, that what we are seeing in the modern discussions of Mary is something different, for precisely the reasons that TA suggests they are not: Mary's "femininity" (indeed, "femininity" as such) is a feature of the contemporary (modern and postmodern) discussions in a way that it simply was not during the preceding centuries. (I am a little confused here about what TA is suggesting, so please forgive me if I simply restate.) But precisely because the earlier discussions highlight the fact that Mary was a woman (i.e. female human being) it is possible to read back into those discussions our present concerns with what it means "to be a woman" (in de Beauvoir's formulation), if, that is, one ignores the major conceptual changes that have taken place since the 19th century in thinking about men and women. One of these changes is the introduction of the problem of misogyny posited as a persistent feature of all previous societies rather than, as it actually was, an aberration typically condemned even at the time. Which is not to say that there have not been men who argued against women's having prominent public roles or symbolic importance culturally; only that there have also been, at least throughout the Christian tradition, men arguing very strongly in support of women's importance, starting with Jesus Christ (or, if you prefer, the Gospel authors who give us our image of him). This, to my mind, is why it is so frustrating when modern authors get into "blaming the patriarchy" mode: it is an argument that is possible only if you utterly distort the complexity of the tradition of which even the argument against patriarchy is very much a part.


  6. LP, you raise a lot of really interesting points here. I also feel fairly muddled about much of this! There's one part of your post, though, that I take issue with on behalf of Spretnak. You argue that "Far from de-emphasizing Mary’s femininity, Catholic Marian doctrine focuses on her femininity and the femaleness of her body. . . Surely it cannot be denied that the Church venerates Mary in the fullness of her femininity!" I do think it's possible to deny that "the Church venerates Mary in the fullness of her femininity" by considering the way that, throughout history, representatives of the Church have sought to strip Mary of any bit of sexuality. This seems to me to a huge problem in today's Church, but it is not only a modern phenomenon: there's this line in one of Ephrem's hymns that we read that says that Mary "hated sexual union." Doesn't denying Mary her sexuality diminish her femininity?

    One of the problems I had with the Spretnak chapters we read was that this seems to be a really important undercurrent to her work, but she doesn't ever address it face on (again, at least not in the chapters we read). But I think she's getting at this by identifying her problem with today's Mariology as the demotion of Mary to "housewife." To me, using "housewife" as a negative term in the way that Spretnak uses it suggests a domicile, de-sexualized woman whose femininity is diminished or degraded.


  7. I would like to address the first of your two concluding points. I may be assuming much when I say this but I think the reasoning for bringing up the "misogyny" of the past has to do with its relation to the past. The Catholic Church is full of tradition and its history is very important to itself. For some priests to go and either change the mindset of the Church or to deny the past of the Church could potentially lead to an open door for more change to the tradition of the church. (Again, this could be a huge assumption.)

    And yet, we have in Vatican II the entrance of what looks like a rewording of a doctrine in order to favor the patriarchal structure. What could potentially be occurring is a mix of things. We have already established in this class that Mary is one to be imitated, in so far as we can being non-Marys that we are. She's a role model for women especially. Add in the feminist mindset that has entered the scene as of late and what we have is a potential threat to the patriarchal Church hierarchy. This is why the Vatican II discussion must clarify this issue so as not to mess with the tradition that has been established over 2,000 years.

    Just some thoughts...


  8. LP - cool post! I have been thinking about questions of Mary's femininity and sexuality for a long time. CCF, it does seem like the authors that we have been reading recently have been stripping Mary of her sexuality, even after a long tradition of "Song of Songs" imagery. What could have caused this change? And if the Mary of this devotion is like Spretnak's 'housewife,' then what does that mean for those of us who use Mary as a model for devotion?

    I don't know if we can just limit the de-sexualizing of Marian devotion just to Mary, though. Many medieval female mystics spoke of their experiences with Christ in very erotic terms (bride of Christ, mystical union, etc.). Where did the sensual imagery in all of Catholic religious devotion go?

    And another thought. Based on your outlining of Spretnek's argument, what can we say about a man's devotion to Mary? All Catholic Popes have been male - are they not devoted to Mary? To a woman? I just think that criticism of a patriarchal Church 'putting women in their place' is a verrrrry tricky path to go down.

    That's all!


  9. I think the distinction has to be made here between an objective and a subjective 'sexuality' in the characterizations of Mary as feminine. Just because the emphasis in early writings about Mary was on her physical sex, particularly her womb and breasts, that was just because these were seen as instruments in creating and nourishing Christ. They were motherly sexual functions, not the subjective sexuality we think of now, when women have control of their own reproduction (though maybe this is being threatened now, the way politics are going!). Thus I wouldn't say that the shift of emphasis away from Mary's physical sex after the middle ages was a "de-sexualizing" or "de-eroticizing" of the female in the way we think of it, but rather a widening of the definition of sexuality to include more than a utilitarian perspective. I'm not sure if I agree with Spretnak that the Church is simply mysoginistic in its emphasis on Mary's obedience, etc., yet it certainly seems that the Church is uncomfortable with accepting modern views of female sexuality into its worship of Mary; while you can picture them worshipping Mary's womb for holding Christ and Mary herself for being obedient and submitting to God's will, you can't picture them saying Mary had erotic pleasure in the conception of Christ...for some reason, female pleasure still seems anathema and profane at such a moment of communion and redemption. After all, if Mary is the new Eve, isn't she supposed to both conceive and give birth in the chastest way possible (immaculate conception)? That's one thing we never talk about when we talk about immaculate conception doctrine: it excludes the subjective sexuality of women altogether.
    -Alice B.