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.