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.   



  1. I have been mulling over the argument of Mary as Church for the past couple days, and I think there really is something to be said for tying that title to the mystery of the handmaiden and the agency Mary shows in saying “yes” to God. I have been talking to a lot of people about who Mary is to them for my final project and there is something that my mom said that has come back to me in reading Ratzinger’s piece, as well as your commentary on it. My mom talked about the way that Mary echoes through the Church even in the small part she has in the Bible through her very agency in saying “yes”. Mary answers in the affirmative of God’s will, to let it be done according to His word, and it is this sentiment that carries through centuries of the Church’s existence in a prayer that is said every week in mass, that Jesus taught to his disciples: the Our Father. Mary in her agency sets the model for the Church that we pray every week “thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”. Mary in her position as lowly handmaiden who accepts God’s will, in a way fits the title of Church because she gives the Church a tenant for a foundational prayer, a way of living as a person within the Church as always letting God’s will be done in their life.

  2. To be completely honest, Ratzinger's view of Mariology's place in relation to the rest of the theology and ecclesiology struck me as something of a copout. Ratzinger reinforces the significance of Mary's maternity, bringing up Mary's acceptance of her role as mother of Jesus to underscore the covenant that God had made. "At the moment when she pronounces her Yes, Mary is Israel in person; she is the Church in person and as a person... this biological fact is a theological reality, because it realizes this deepest spiritual content of the covenant that God intended to make with Israel." His argument that Mariology's connection to the hermeneutics makes it stand out, distinct, from the rest of the church makes sense, but it still doesn't quite satisfy me—it doesn't quite identify what the mystery that he alluded to before is. Maybe it's just that I'm not really satisfied by concluding that something is a mystery and that that's all there is to it, but to me her inexplicability is unsatisfying.


  3. You have put your finger on exactly the question that was so troubling me, but like EC, I still find Ratzinger's discussion unsatisfying (although for a different reason--I like the idea of her being a mystery!). How, after all, do we end up talking about Mary in terms of Christ or the Church--and assuming that the answer is only either/or? Why is she not Mary, a wholly different element in the equation? I think you and SM are right, Ratzinger is trying to find this place for her, while diplomatically acknowledging the arguments that would make her more Christ-like or Church-like, but the whole point is that she does something different from either: she is not the Son of God, but neither is she the Body of God (i.e. the Church). She is the Mother of God, and, therefore, unique. Something we did not talk about but that comes up in both Daly's and Warner's criticisms is that Mary is, in fact, sui generis: unlike all other women, indeed, unlike all other creatures. Medieval Christians celebrated this uniqueness. Why do we modern [Americans/Christians] find it so troubling? RLFB

  4. I really like the way you tie Ratzinger in to Daly and Warner's analysis, I think the way you read his “Thoughts” as a response to post-modern interpretation of Mary was very inspired. I do think, however, that there is an answer to the question of “Why Mary.” Or at least there must be something there, for though, as you point out, Mary is venerated in different ways at different times for different reasons, she is always in this place of prominence, at least within the Catholic Marian tradition, of being the most important, holiest, and most-invoked saint. Literally no other non-divine person (so, excluding Jesus) has received so much attention, devotion, and study from Christians as Mary, even by those who considered her role to be merely peripheral to Jesus’ (like Martin Luther). Though the method of this devotion has changed, its scope has remained as strong as ever, and the Mary of today is just as central to Christian devotion as she was in the eighth century. I think the reason behind her importance, the answer to “Why Mary,” lies in what RLFB said about Mary’s uniqueness: she is a created being, certainly not an incarnation or element of the Godhead, but she is also clearly unique from all other humans, even the holiest of the saints. Mary is a human being who is more than just human, a perfect model because she is like us in being but an object of veneration because her example is beyond the capability of any other human being. This is perhaps why Mary is so important a figure in a religious tradition that centers around God becoming man, that Mary is in a class all her own, distinct from God and humanity, and worthy of the love and veneration of both. - GT

  5. With regard to GT's post, I think your point that Mary's uniqueness ties in well to Ratzinger's point brought up by AN in the original post, that "Mariology may be Christology and Ecclesiology, but it is more than that too." One can not account for Mary's uniqueness as a being, her perfection as a model, nor her being an object of veneration for centuries by placing her into a simple binary of Christ or Church - she's her own being proper, as RLFB argues. I too like the idea of Mary being a mystery and think that it lends credibility to the idea that we have undoubtedly been chasing after all quarter - why is Marian tradition not an entirely separate thing, why is it always held in subservience as a discipline to an overarching discourse about either the Church or about Christ? AN's glossing of Ratzinger is poignant here, because reading Mary as the original yea-sayer in Christ's narrative does give us a convincing reason for why we might be paying more attention to her. I find myself curious as to what Daly, Warner and company would say about such an assertion, whether the "yes" that slips from Mary's lips does give her any more possibility for being accepted by feminism or not. My guess is that, as this is not something we have necessarily seen as part of an overarching historical tradition, it might not be on consequence to them.


  6. It's interesting how you identify the modern-day controversies that we've studied over the past few classes as Western Christianity's way of asking, "Why Mary?" The author mentions the Lumen gentium of Vatican II as addressing this explicitly, but I'd say this sentiment dates back to the turn of the century with Henry Adams' writings. Nevertheless, this is a relatively new sort of question we're asking. Earlier theologians, even Martin Luther, always took it for granted that Mary meant _something_, but it's only in these latest works that we've had everyone, from popes to genteel agnostics like Adams, grappling with an awareness that Mary as a thing within Christianity needs to be explained. I identify this issue with the broader trend that began in the 18th and 19th centuries, a trend that tried to provide rational explanations for Christianity as a cultural phenomenon. It's not limited to Mary alone; the effort to place Jesus within his socio-historical context has identified him variously as a doomsday prophet, nationalist hero, etc., yet these explanations fail to account for the sheer magnitude of Jesus' impact on humanity as a whole. These explanations are also doomed to be unsatisfactory to the theologian. But as we saw in previous discussions, many of the responses to these modern historians and writers' arguments are on the same "plane of discourse" as them; that is, we tend to think of the Lumen gentium as a direct response to Adams' assessment of Mary, even if the writer isn't mentioned once.

    Unfortunately, this modern discourse is also incommensurate to the language we have seen used in the distant past. Not only do we talk about Mary in a different way, but we also reason about her differently. I wonder whether Marina Warner was aware of the irony of describing Mary as a "mirror...reflecting a people and the beliefs they produce, recount, and hold." (xxiii) We have seen Mary described as a mirror before, but not in her role as an anthropological tool. To writers like Warner, Ratzinger's response, that Mary's "unexplainability" is comprehended in her greatness, is bound to be inadequate. Whether it succeeds in convincing everyone or not, I feel like Ratzinger's work is also an attempt to escape our usual way of talking about Mary, and possibly about Christianity as a whole. I'd be very interested in seeing whether the work of the future pope was the first blast in a coming paradigm shift, one that will change the way historians and philosophers, as well as theologians, think about Christianity.