In class, we left off by considering the Church’s developing role as a corporation in modern times. Revisionist histories of Mary (such as Henry Adams’s popular one) saw Mary as a popular force largely outside of the control of the Church; thus, subsequent Church constitutions needed to reaffirm their control over Mary. This blog post will explore how modern Church leaders used Mary to cement Church hierarchy and reassert Church power.
The Church was facing a new school of thought around Mary that made them look weak. Henry Adams’s writings on Mary typified this ahistorical, but common, modern take. He claimed there was a popular tradition of “the power of Mary as Queen” which was at odds with “orthodox church-conception of the Virgin’s legitimate station” (The Virgin of Chartres, 92-93). This made the Church look like it could not control its followers. If one believes Adams, Marian worship appears to be evidence of the Church leaders’ feebleness. Furthermore, Adams asserted that historically Mary had been viewed as “Woman” and “Mother”, “functions, all, which priests could not perform” (98). Gendering Mary sets her up as a force in opposition to male Church authority. It precludes an understanding of Mary as creature that allows her to serve as a model for priests, and thus connected to approved Church worship procedure.
Perhaps most dangerous for the Church, however, was Adams’ conception of Mary as “symbol or energy” (The Education of Henry Adams, 388). As I argued in class, symbols, because of their abstract nature, can stand alone. Mary the Symbol can be worshipped without tracing her role in scripture, her relationship with Christ, or her importance to Church doctrine. For an example of this, see Adams’ description of Mary on page 88 of the “The Virgin of Chartres”; it personifies the symbol, but ruminates on her power without including almost any traditional Church teachings on Mary. Mary the symbol could be divorced from the Church.
All of this created a strong incentive for the Church to want to take back control over the narratives around Mary. Thus, while Pope Pius XII’s Munificentissimus Deus obviously does not directly reference Adams, one can see reactionary lines of thought in it. It makes the bodily assumption of Mary into heaven into an official church teaching. Such a physical, embodied Mary is not a symbol but a creature. She is dependent on Christ for the privilege of assumption, so once again worship of Mary can be seen as really worship of Christ, not its own cult.
I found the most striking part of the Munificentissimus Deus, however, to be how it laid claim to the Church’s supreme teaching authority and the Church’s special relationship to God. In Paragraph 6, Pope Pius XII claims that “the minds of the faithful were filled with a stronger hope that the day might soon come when the dogma of the Virgin Mary's bodily Assumption into heaven would also be defined by the Church's supreme teaching authority.” This is a claim that there is a desire for Vatican Council leadership, and that there is popular dissatisfaction with doing things just because it is popular tradition and not Church doctrine. Then, in paragraph 12, he goes on to write that “This ‘outstanding agreement of the Catholic prelates and the faithful,’ affirming that the bodily Assumption of God's Mother into heaven can be defined as a dogma of faith, since it shows us the concordant teaching of the Church's ordinary doctrinal authority and the concordant faith of the Christian people which the same doctrinal authority sustains and directs, thus by itself and in an entirely certain and infallible way, manifests this privilege as a truth revealed by God and contained in that divine deposit which Christ has delivered to his Spouse to be guarded faithfully and to be taught infallibly.” This denies the existence of divergent popular and Church traditions around Mary. More specifically, popular belief is subsumed into the power of the Church, because while God has put the beliefs into the minds of both the ordinary faithful and Church leaders, the Church is identified as God’s chosen originating source of them: “For, as the Vatican Council asserts, "all those things are to be believed by divine and Catholic faith which are proposed by the Church, either in solemn judgment or in its ordinary and universal teaching office, as divinely revealed truths which must be believed’”.
It is also noteworthy that Paragraph 12 includes three citations to other Vatican Council Constitutions. This works to strengthen the importance of these constitutions and establish a thread through time connecting these pronouncements. The Church authority is placing itself at the center of the faith. The Munificentissimus Deus continues this by going on to provide a detailed, long history of a Church tradition of belief in the assumption. This counters Adams’s history by showing that Church has always been the leader on Mary and the controller of her legacy.
Next, in 1964, came the Lumen Gentium. Some see it as contradictory to the Munificentissimus Deus because they see the Munificentissimus Deus as expanding the importance of Mary, while the Lumen Gentium stresses the “subordinate role of Mary” (par. 62) to Christ. However, if you buy my above arguments about how Church authority is built through releasing doctrine around the Assumption, the Lumen Gentium appears to be a natural progression from earlier Vatican Council constitutions. It acts to further Church leadership ownership over Marian tradition by asserting that official doctrine should be the source of beliefs around Mary. By lumping its proclamations about Mary in with lots of others, it denies that the thread of Marian worship is separate from the history of the Church and its teachings.
Turning to the actual content of the chapter on Mary, it focuses on Mary as Church, meaning that worship of Mary will be an act of devotion towards the Church. Additionally, if Mary is the Church, she cannot be a symbol. By urging theologians to “abstain zealously… from all gross exaggerations” about Mary, Church officials chastise those who would worship Mary in ways that do not support Church hierarchy.
Adam’s “popular faith” view of Marian worship may be ahistorical, but what the Church does in these constitutions is also fundamentally new. In the past, theology around Mary has been developed by priests, etc.; now it is held to be the purview of the Pope and the Church’s other highest authorities. In the new corporate model of church hierarchy, power is concentrated at the top. As we have seen time and time again in this class, Mary is a battleground for carrying out broader shifts in theology and the Church.
Commenters: What part of the constitutions on Mary stood out to you? Do you agree that they represent a corporate shift in who controls doctrine around Mary?