Wednesday, April 17, 2024

The Metamorphosis of Mariology

March 14, 2009 by  
Filed under Featured, Other

In latter years mariology seems to have lost its nerve. In the wake of Vatican II what had once seemed a thriving industry, flourishing with a life of its own, slowed down and ground virtually to a standstill. On the whole this has been a good thing. It has allowed a breathing space, a time for reflection – an opportunity to sniff the wind and sense the direction in which the Church is heading. But now marian theologians seem to be shaking off their dogmatic slumbers and emerging again with something valuable and relevant to say in today’s world.

Vatican II is a convenient milestone with which to mark the beginning of an extraordinary upsurge of theological endeavour in the life of the Church. Theology itself has begun to be understood in a new light. The scholastic model of theologizing has gone which had dominated for so long and spawned a plethora of `manuals’. Scripture studies have shown that theology can no longer use the Scriptures in the naive uncritical way that had spoiled many an otherwise respectable manual. The revolution in logic and scientific methodology has shown that reasoning through syllogisms is not the correct way to theologize. The Council’s own embrace of ecumenism has freed tender consciences to study the works of the great Protestant theologians and to profit from their insights into the Christian Mystery. The sense that theology should be `relevant’ to today’s world has led to a great emphasis on contemporary human and social experience, and the findings of anthropology, sociology, psychology, and other social sciences have been mined for the light they might shed on questions of theology.

In fact no theological question has been left unexamined. We are at present passing through a whole rethinking of theology. The results are not all in yet. But a contemporary understanding and reworking of all the major questions of theology is available to us today. Such has been the plurality of approaches that indeed we may be suffering from an embarras de richesses.

There is one possible exception to this mariology. There has been a dramatic drop in serious theology about Mary and her role in salvation in those post-conciliar years. This may seem surprising to those who were accustomed to seeing weighty tomes of mariology appearing with great regularity prior to the Council. The mariology industry seemed to be booming and there appeared to be no limits to the market for such material. The Council itself spoke warmly and beautifully about Mary. Although the bishops’ decision to incorporate what they had to say about Mary into the Constitution on the Church may have implied a rebuke to those who tended to view Mary somewhat in isolation, this could in no way be interpreted as an attempt to dampen the whole mariological enterprise. Yet for some reason this conciliar statement on Mary and her role in the plan of salvation did mark the end of mariology as it had come to be understood. The balloon had been punctured and once all the hot air of the over-inflated mariology of pre-conciliar years had been dissipated there was nothing left to keep it afloat.

To be sure, not all has been dead on the mariological front during these last twenty years. Paul VI followed up Vatican II’s teaching on Mary with his Marialis Cultus (1974) which charted the future development of devotion to Mary but whose theological riches have not been exploited fully yet. Mariological Societies have held conventions and congresses, but they have yet to have significant impact on the life of the Church at large. Rahner, Schillebeeckx, Congar and von Balthasar have all made serious contributions to mariology in the post-conciliar years. All these are signs that the study of Mary is still alive within the Church. Mariology in fact has not died. Rather, like a well-fed squirrel, it has gone into hibernation for the winter, ready to emerge rested and reinvigorated at the coming of Spring. And already the first signs of this Spring are appearing. The butterfly (to change the metaphor) is emerging from its cocoon more splendid than before when it was but an over-inflated caterpillar.

But before we look at this new shyly emerging `butterfly’, it would be well to look first at the `caterpillar’, for it will tell us much about the metamorphosis in mariology that we are at present witnessing.

In the years preceding Vatican II mariology appeared to be vigorous and full of life, but in reality it was like one of those fireworks whose final dazzling burst of colour and stars disguises the fact that it has expired. For mariology had really gone as far as it could go. Pius XII’s proclamation of the Assumption in 1950 was its climax and final burst of glory. Nothing else it could do could match that triumphant moment. It had no further resources to draw on, and what was more serious – the foundations upon which this impressive edifice had been erected were being shown by recent scholarship to be slim and shaky indeed.

For this had been a style of mariology which concentrated on the person and privileges of Mary. Although responsible mariologists repeatedly stressed that Mary was always subordinate to Christ, this relation of subordination was never satisfactorily analysed beyond a few obvious and superficial qualifications. The enthusiasm with which mariology was propounded at the time, together with the death of innovation in christology, combined to give the impression that instead of being subordinate Mary was in fact, the rival of her Son in bringing salvation to the world. Popular devotion reflected this exaltation of Mary to almost `goddess’ level. She appeared to be the true mediator between God and man. She was the warm and loving one, brimming over with mercy and compassion, to whom everyone, no matter how unhappy and wretched, could turn in confident expectation of receiving comfort and redress. Christ was moved back a distance in the popular consciousness. People did not seem to think they had immediate access to him; rather they approached Jesus through Mary – ad Jesum per Mariam.

And mariology itself in those years did much to reinforce this exaggerated view of Mary albeit unwittingly. For it was a mariology which placed great emphasis on Mary’s relationship to Christ. This in itself is a healthy theological instinct. But in this case it resulted in a mariology which ran in parallel with the accepted christology of the time. Mary and Jesus were viewed in tandem, as it were. The dominant characteristics of Jesus found their counterpart in the `privileges’ accorded to Mary. He was Christ the King; she was Queen of Heaven. Jesus was absolutely sinless; Mary was immaculately conceived and remained sinless throughout her life. Jesus was the mediator of all grace; Mary was full of grace and mediatrix of all graces. Christ was the Redeemer; Mary was the Co-Redemptrix. Christ ascended into heaven; Mary was assumed into heaven. Christ was the Hypostatic Union; Mary was `of the hypostatic order’. And so on.

The effect of this type of mariology was to bind her ever more closely to her Son. This in turn had the effect of removing her further away from identification with the lot of ordinary men and women. She seemed more the Co-Redemptrix than one of the redeemed. She became more isolated, an object of specialized study.

This `isolation’ of Mary was assisted by the paucity of creative study in other areas of theology. Because there was not a strong theology of the Holy Spirit at that time, Mary was accorded roles and functions that more properly belong to the Spirit. She was hailed as `Seat of Wisdom’ and `Mother of Good Counsel’ whereas wisdom and counsel are more properly gifts of the Spirit. She was considered to be the `Throne of Grace’, whereas grace is properly a gift bestowed by the Spirit who lives within each Christian.

A weak theology of the Church did not help matters either. Ecclesiology was dominated by a hierarchical model which viewed the Church in terms of a `perfect society’, organically structured, in which each member had his proper place and function. Most of the theological energy of these years was spent in developing and explanation and justification for the office and function of the hierarchy, and in particular that of the Pope. Although it was generally agreed that Mary was part of the Church, and indeed its pre-eminent member, it was also agreed that she was not a member of the hierarchy. (Images depicting Mary as a priest offering her Son on Calvary met with papal disapproval.) The hierarchical model thus did not provide a congenial setting for the development of a theology of Mary within the Church, still less did it have much use for the age-old image of Mary as model or `type’ of the Church (St Ambrose). These developments had to await the articulation of new models for the understanding of the mystery of the Church, which was to come during and after the Council. In the meantime this lack of a comprehensive ecclesiology and a clear understanding of Mary’s role within the Church meant that there was nothing to counterbalance the exaltation she was given by association with her Son. She thus became further removed from the lot of ordinary mortals.

Christology too was just marking time. Theological controversy was limited to debates among the protagonists of rival schools about relatively insignificant matters of detail. The `big’ christological issues were considered to have been settled centuries before. Christology in general accented the divinity of Christ and the transcendental aspects of his humanity. By tying Mary so closely to Christ, mariology tended to view her through the spectacles of transcendence too. The parallelism of her privileges and functions with those of Christ had the curious effect of seeming to duplicate the work of salvation. To unsophisticated minds it did not seem to matter much whether one went to God through Jesus or through Mary; and many seemed to opt for Mary, with the result that Jesus receded into the background of their spiritual consciousness.

Thus we have a picture of a vigorous mariology growing luxuriantly in an otherwise impoverished theological garden. To be sure, in the twenty years or so prior to Vatican II, pioneering theologians were already planting the seeds that would come to full bloom at the council and afterwards, but the mainstream of theology was doing little more than mark time. Mariology, on the other hand, seemed to be flourishing. It had developed into a quasi-autonomous branch of theology, far outstripping the achievements of its peers.

But herein lies a reason for its apparent downfall. Traditionally mariology has followed advances in other areas of theology. Historically it has not been a leader in the field; rather, it grows out of developments elsewhere in the theological spectrum. For example, in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Mary’s virginal conception of Christ was part of an endeavour to safeguard Jesus’ divinity, and her glorious title Theotokos was proclaimed at Ephesus in 431 A.D. in the context of heated debates over the Incarnation.

The period prior to Vatican II did not encourage theology in general to advance along new avenues of inquiry. Rather, it was a period of retrenchment and defensive play as the Church sought to ward off attacks from an increasingly secular and scientific world. The seemingly vigorous development of mariology at this time was a growth within an enclosed garden. It was phenomenon peculiar to the Roman Catholic Church, not shared by other Christian denominations. As such it bolstered the defensive stance of the Roman Church, giving it a clearly defined mark of identity. But it did not really speak to the other Churches, nor did it have a message for the world at large.

In the wake of the Council mariology could no longer proceed as before, because the new directions that theology was taking in other fields had cut the ground from under the mariologist’s feet. Christology `from above’, which had been a great ally in the past, was now being replaced by new christologies `from below’ with their great stress on the humanity of Jesus and the historical conditioning of his person and message, with the consequence that there was a lessening of emphasis on the transcendent and divine aspects of his being. This new style of christology took away one of the crutches on which mariology had been leaning.

Moreover, the new ecclesiology both reflected, and helped to bring about, the new sense of identity that Christians found in their Church. The reform of the liturgy and the theology of the laity did much to renew the spiritual life of the ordinary Christian. A greater sense of belonging to a community and the drive towards community participation led to new forms of devotional practice. Marian devotions which were not community oriented tended to die away.

The blossoming of the charismatic movement and its strong emphasis on the work and gifts of the Spirit affected almost everyone in the Church, even if they were not drawn to the movement itself, for it heightened awareness of the life and presence of the Spirit within the Church. Pneumatology as a legitimate branch of theology has waxed vigorously and has enriched almost every other area of theology, in particular christology, ecclesiology, theology of grace and the spiritual life. But at the same time it has contributed to the decline of mariology. For the gifts and graces that had been attributed by default to Mary were now reclaimed as more properly belonging to the Spirit. Another fruitful source of speculation was thus being denied the mariologists.

For these reasons, and no doubt for other reasons as well, mariology was forced into recess in the years immediately following the Council. But this did not mean that it had died. Rather it was undergoing a metamorphosis. The old way of thinking about Mary was giving way to a new mariology more suited to the needs of our age.

As yet we do not have a major work in creative theology about Mary and her role in salvation. comparable in scope to the all-embracing manuals of the past, but suited to our times. However, the conditions are now right for the emergence of such a work. And already we can detect the main lines that such a study should take.

Preparing the Ground
Much of the preliminary groundwork has already been done. The Scripture scholars have led the field and have done much to show a richness in the biblical data that emerges unscathed even after the most severe practitioners of the historico-critical method have had their say. One immediately thinks of the valuable contributions of Raymond Brown in several important papers and talks on a proper biblical understanding of Mary, as well as his careful exegesis of marian texts in his commentary on the Gospel of John (1966) and The Birth of the Messiah (1977). The Johannine texts on Mary (Cana and Calvary) have also received expert treatment in Rudolf Schnackenburg’s magisterial commentary on John’s Gospel, the last part of which has just recently appeared in English translation. And the Lukan infancy narrative has received detailed attention in Joseph Fitzmyer’s commentary on the Gospel for Anchor Bible.

Working from a different exegetical tradition the French scholar, Rene Laurentin, has covered much the same ground as Brown and Fitzmyer in his recently published study of the infancy narratives. But his conclusions are often different from those of Brown, whom he has frequently criticized in the past. Deeming the historjco-critical method (generally favoured by German and American scholars) to be incapable of revealing the full spiritual and theological meaning of the sacred text, he uses a structuralist approach to uncover these meanings. Although he does take into account the aims and theologies of the original authors, he is primarily concerned with taking the text as we have received it today and rendering it theologically and spiritually meaningful to the modern Christian.

Besides his exegetical work Laurentin has been a prolific writer on all things marian, ranging from theology of Mary in the Church and her relationship with the Holy Spirit to the apparitions at Lourdes. His biennial surveys of marian literature are treasured by scholars, not only for their usefulness in locating some of the elusive literature, but also for the personal observations and criticisms he makes in the course of the survey.

Other French scholars join with Laurentin in seeking theological and spiritual meaning in the texts of Scripture. Andre Feuillet, Jean Galot and Auguste George bring in immense knowledge of the Old Testament and a feeling for symbol to their exegesis. The scholars of the French Mariological Society have maintained a high standard of scholarship and the papers they publish in the annual Cahiers Marrials always show an alert awareness of what will be of contemporary interest.

The French approach to the Scriptures does not in general find favour with German and American scholars, who consider that it reads more into the text than sober scholarship can sustain. These same scholars were also critical of the work of the English scholar, John McHugh – and for similar reasons. In 1976 McHugh published his The Mother of Jesus in the New Testament – a major work incorporating a study of all the marian texts in the New Testament. One of McHugh’s professed aims was to show that traditional Catholic teaching concerning Mary is solidly based in the Scriptural evidence, or at least consonant with it. His critics have charged that he has allowed his Roman Catholic beliefs to influence his exegesis of the texts, instead of allowing the texts to speak for themselves in the context in which they were written. Their irritation is all the greater, because McHugh uses the same historico-critical methods that they themselves espouse.

However, in judging the work I think the critic must take McHugh’s intentions seriously. Although a positive claim that all major Catholic doctrines concerning Mary can be found, at least rudimentarily, in the New Testament would be hard to sustain, the more modest conclusion that all the major doctrines are consonant with the New Testament evidence has been well argued by McHugh. Moreover, an added value of his study is his judicious use of the early tradition of the Fathers to aid in interpretation of the Scriptural texts. He sees the New Testament and the early patristic traditions as forming a continuum of meditation on the mysteries of faith. There is no great division between the two. They are parts of the one unbroken tradition and each sheds light on the other. In this McHugh is setting an example that other scholars would do well to take seriously.

Another aspect of the groundwork for a contemporary mariology should be mentioned. In recent years much valuable scholarly work has been done on the history of theology and doctrines concerning Mary. This is indispensable for a renewed mariology, for if it is to make an enduring contribution to the Church’s life, it has to have solid roots in the earlier tradition. A totally new mariology, starting from scratch as it were, would have little chance of survival, for it would be nothing more than a passing fad, subject to the caprices of a fickle intelligentsia worshipping at the shrine of `relevance’. Certainly mariology must be renewed, but only through a creative blend of fidelity to the past and sensitivity to the present. To assist in this fidelity to the past, the renewed mariologist will be grateful to the painstaking work of those scholars who have made so much of the tradition readily available to us today. Anyone who has spent hours wading through Migne in search of patristic teaching on Mary will be relieved to find the Corpus Marianum Patristicum, which has already appeared in five separate volumes with more to come. An excellent survey of the history of marian doctrine was published in 1978 by G. Soll (Die Mariologie: Handbuch der Dogmengeschichte, III). And most recently Michael O’Carroll has published his Theotokos: A Theological Encyclopaedia – a comprehensive up-to-date compendium, the fruit of a lifetime’s work.

Thus the modern marian scholar has a wealth of research, both scriptural and historical, to draw on. And a noteworthy mark of the new mariological life that is now emerging is its profound appreciation of the Scriptural evidence and its healthy respect for the marian tradition of previous generations.

A shrewd observer can also detect other pointers to the shape of this renewed mariology. In the reaction that set in after the Council some theologians welcomed the decline of mariology. They considered its status as a quasi-distinct branch of theology to be a relatively recent development in Catholic thought – and not a very healthy one at that, focussing as it did on something not at the centre of Christian revelation, a cancerous growth on the body of orthodox theology. Some more moderate theologians eschewed the name `mariology’ and did not want to be known as `marialogists’, preferring to talk of a `marian theology’ (Rahner) or `theology of Mary’ (Laurentin). They sought to reintegrate mariology into the mainstream of theology. Nowadays many seminary programmes do not have a separate treatise of mariology, but instead treat of Mary (if they treat of her at all) as part of their christology or ecclesiology courses.

While these criticisms have some validity and should be taken into account, I think there is also an element of over-reaction to some of the excesses of the `heyday’ of mariology. Granted that prior to the nineteenth century there was no `mariology’ as we now know it – Mary was always viewed in the context of other doctrines – this is not a reason to deny its status now as a quasi-distinct discipline under the broad umbrella of theology in general. It is not impossible in principle that theology should develop into different branches of the one tree according to specialized interests. The number of `-ologies’ now flourishing in the theological garden attest to the fact that this has indeed occurred. And this is merely one of the `signs of the times’ with regard to human knowledge in general: the last two centuries have witnessed the branching off and development of a whole host of quasi autonomous sciences, whereas in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries there was only `natural philosophy’. So if today theology can countenance an `ecclesiology’, there is no reason why in principle it cannot accept a `mariology’ as well.

Fresh Expectations
However, the mariology that is now emerging does show itself sensitive to these criticisms. It is consciously unlike pre-conciliar mariology in both its methods and presuppositions. It seeks to show itself in tune with the times and a true partner to the other post-conciliar theological developments. The very name `mariology’ may indeed be a hindrance in this, for it still conjures up the spectre of an old style of theology and reawakens fears that it is somehow akin to the dreaded `rriariolatry’.

There is therefore some advantage to changing the name of the discipline to `marian theology’ or `theology of Mary’, for these titles make it clear that mariology is primarily a theological enterprise. Its primary purpose is to elucidate some aspect of the mystery of God and his saving action in the world. Mariology is not primarily about. Mary. It is theology, and a renewed mariology will have to be sensitive to this and show forth this priority clearly.

But with this priority in mind, the title `theology of Mary’ (and to a lesser extent `marian theology’) now appears something of an anachronism. For theology properly speaking is a `science of God’ and talk of a `theology of Mary’ tends to confuse the proper object of the study. Is it about God or about Mary?

I myself prefer to answer this question by saying that mariology is the science of God from Mary. In other words, it is not a theology of Mary in the sense of about Mary; rather, it is a study of God and his dealings with humankind from the point of view of Mary. It should be possible to look at God from the perspective of one who has benefitted most from his gracious action. Mary is the one most perfectly redeemed, the perfect Christian. Thus by studying the effect we should be able to gain knowledge of the cause. This is the special value of mariology: it provides us with a point of view from which to study the whole field of salvation history. It is not the only point of view of course, but it is a valid one; and if pursued sensibly and rigorously, it can only enhance and enrich the whole theological enterprise.

If one adopts this understanding of mariology, Mary cannot be taken simply as a `private person’. The historical person of Mary as a private citizen of first-century Nazareth will not be central to the study. Rather, in this renewed mariology Mary will be viewed theologically as the recipient of God’s saving graces: she will be the one who most perfectly `heard the word and put it into practice’ (Luke 8:21). She will be the perfect disciple, the representative Christian. From this perspective one will be able to gain a knowledge of the God who saved her most perfectly, of the Christ whose disciple and mother she became, and of the Holy Spirit who transformed her into the perfect Christian when he made the Word come alive in her womb. As the perfectly redeemed she will throw light on the nature of sin and grace; as a disciple in the community of disciples she will teach us much on the nature of the Church and what it means to be a disciple of Christ; as one who has reached the fulfilment that God offers the redeemed, she shows forth the destiny to which every Christian is called. Thus mariology, so conceived, has a scope as broad as theology itself. Its distinguishing mark will be its distinctive vantage point – Mary, the fully redeemed, the perfect Christian. It will in fact be theology in the proper sense – a theology from Mary.

Already there are signs that this is the way mariology is renewing itself. True to its historical nature mariology is following developments in other areas of theology. For example, new insights into ecclesiology inaugurated at the Council have already had repercussions in writings about Mary. She is no longer viewed in isolation from the Church, almost as being above the Church (the `neck’ of the Mystical Body!); rather, she is to be found within the body of believers, as one of us. She is the first disciple at the heart of the community of disciples. (Paul VI’s calling her `Mother of the Church’ must be viewed in this light.) Taking their cue from Lumen Gentium theologians have found new applications for the age-old image of Mary as the model or prototype of the Church. Hans Urs von Balthasar has some particularly beautiful developments of this theme. He sees Mary’s act of consent at the Incarnation not only in terms of a personal act of faith on her part (and thus as a model for every Christian’s act of faith) but also as the prototype for the personal act of response of the Church as a whole to the redeeming love of God. The Church as bride of Christ finds her model in Mary, the virgin daughter of Sion, from whom the Saviour was born. The theme of virginity calls to mind the beautiful theology of `covenant’ in the Old Testament where God pledges his undying love for his people, his virgin bride. The Church as the new People of God sees herself as the responding partner to that covenant, committed to returning love for love, and thus sees in Mary’s virginal response to the word of God the perfect expression of her deepest nature.

Another pre-occupation of today’s theologians has been the issues of feminism, not only within the Church but within society at large. Not unnaturally this has had repercussions in the field of mariology. Theologians have sought to counteract earlier pictures of Mary which present her as the model of womanhood – docile, obedient and receptive – pictures which have tended to reinforce male-dominated stereotypes in the Church. The Scriptures have been mined for evidence to present her in a light more appealing to contemporary women and much ingenious thought has gone into showing that she was the `liberated woman’ par excellence (U.S. Bishops). In a religion dominated by patriarchal symbols Mary has been seen as the one who reveals the feminine face of the Church (Rosemary Ruether) and the feminine side to God (Andrew Greeley). Latterly theologians have been studying the Holy Spirit as the `feminine principle’ in the divinity (Dan Gelpi) – another example of the similarity in understanding of the roles of the Holy Spirit and Mary in the economy of salvation. Much remains to be done in resolving this confusion in roles, but already it is clear that the relationship between the Holy Spirit and Mary is a fruitful area of theological inquiry.

Perhaps the profoundest contribution to a theology inspired by the masculine/feminine polarity comes from von Balthasar. Rather than look for the feminine in the Godhead itself, he sees the divine initiative in redemption as typically `masculine’ and creation’s response to this initiative as its `feminine’ counterpart. Mary as the most perfectly redeemed embodies this `feminine’ response to perfection and thus sets the pattern for the response of all disciples, both male and female. Von Balthasar’s thought is both complex and subtle, and these few remarks do not do justice to the richness of his thought. However, they may suggest something of the fruitfulness of this approach, particularly with regard to the relevance of Mary as a symbol enriching our understanding of redemption and the community of the redeemed (the Church).

Thus there are good grounds for hoping that a renewed mariology will shortly emerge from its dormant state to enrich the intellectual life of the Church as a respectable discipline in its own right. As yet we have not received a full-scale treatment of Mary and her role in salvation, that is in tune with other advances in post-conciliar theology and able to speak easily to the hearts of modern men and women. But there are signs that it is not far away. The groundwork has been done. The fulness of the theological enterprise will not be complete until we have a theology from Mary to take its place alongside all the other `-ologies’ that are at present adorning the life of the Church.

– Patrick Bearsley S.M
CLERGY REVIEW vol. LXIX, no.2, February 1984

Some further writings (not mentioned in this essay) which point to the new direction mariology is now taking:
P.J. Bearsley: `Mary the Perfect Disciple: a Paradigm for Mariology’, Theological Studies, 41, 1980, 461-504.

Raymond Brown: `The Meaning of Modern NT Studies for an Ecumenical Understanding of Mary’, Biblical Reflections on Crises Facing the Church, (London, 1975); `Roles of Women in the Fourth Gospel’, TheoIogical Studies, 36,1975, 688-699; `Mary in the NT & Catholic Life’, America, May 15,1982, 374-379.

R. Brown, K.P. Donfried, J.A. Fitzmyer, J. Reumann (eds.), Mary in the New Testament (Fortress/ Paulist; Philadelphia/New York), 1978.

Yves Congar: I Believe in the Holy Spirit, (Sea bury; New York),1983.

James Heft: `Marian Themes in the Writings of Hans Urs von Balthasar’, Communio, VII, 1980,127-139.

Hans Urs von Balthasar: `The Marian Principle’, Elucidations (London,1975).

Comments are closed.