I am going to sound extremely Roman Catholic right now. So even though, when I think about myself as a theologian-in-training, I probably conceive of myself more as negotiating the Christianity-world axis theologically, I suppose there are some questions that simply single me out as having some distinctively Catholic concerns.
I am doing an exam question on feminist Mariologies with special attention to Elizabeth Johnson’s Truly Our Sister (2003), so I’ve been thinking quite a bit recently about how significant Mary is for today, both in Catholic systematic theologies and more specifically in feminist theological discourses.
On the one hand, Mary has not really been on my radar as a source for theological reflection–as the illustrious, theologically astute Bob (Bridget, fellow WIT blogger) succinctly put it in a way that cuts rights through the crap, “I don’t care about Mary at all–what does she really get us?” Indeed, it is difficult to make sense of Mary’s meaning and importance while still making sure to maintain the absolutely singular importance of Jesus in the economy of salvation. If we find ourselves saying that Mary is somehow soteriologically important/necessary for us because she provides us with an image of humanity perfected and fully holy before God, then we’ve indirectly undercut the mystery of the Incarnation by subscribing to an implicit docetism. If Jesus was like us “in all things except sin” (Hebrews 4:15), then we can’t turn around and insist on adverting to another figure to gain a premier sense of what it means to be fully human and flourishing for the sake of God and neighbor.
Some theologians and thinkers throughout the Christian tradition have suggested that Mary uniquely embodies perfection specifically for women in a way that Jesus does not (Leonardo Boff, in his Maternal Face of God, is an apt contemporary example), but of course I think that argument is problematic first and foremost because it injects gender concerns and gender role differentiation (whatever such differentiation is even supposed to mean) into a discussion of the economy of salvation, where it is supposed to be enough, and everything, to say that the Son has become fully human. (If you think I’m somehow denying the reality of Jesus’ human embodiment by speaking of his humanity rather than, specifically, his maleness, think about all his other possible particularities related to his socio-economic location and ethnicity, and ponder why we don’t elevate these particularities into the drama of salvation enacted through Jesus, and the Catholic priesthood that develops from him. So I in no way mean to deny the reality of Jesus’ identity as concrete and concretized, including his identity as a man, but it becomes a different discussion when we start contemplating the soteriological meaning of his life. And when we think about the Patristic principle that “what is not assumed is not saved,” then I think we have to speak more generally about the Son having assumed full human nature rather than focusing on any one element of Jesus’ identity. In this way we preserve the crucial idea that Jesus’ saving invitation was maximal and directed to all of humanity. I suppose one could counter that sexual identity and gender are somehow more important for identity than other features may be, but then that’s another conversation altogether, and one that is largely centered around anthropological considerations. Ah, another time.) The Son doesn’t become human in a way that somehow applies more directly to men; the Incarnation does not happen “according to the male sex” (Inter Insigniores #28). (Though, as a side note, some feminist theologians have argued that it is important that Jesus was male, because his sensitivities toward others, his invitation to table fellowship and friendship, and his refusal to engage in grasping for power demonstrate the undoing of the operative paradigms for sinful forms of masculinity functioning within patriarchy/kyriarchy. So in this way Jesus’ male sexual identity does supposedly play an important role in the economy. For some reason Elisabeth Schuessler Fiorenza is coming to mind on this point but I could be wrong about that. I think this point is well and good, but still, I’d like to emphasize Jesus’ fundamental humanity first and foremost.) Moreover, such a sentiment tends to trade on romantic gender stereotypes (Mary embodies “the feminine principle,” which centers around silence, darkness, intuition, passivity, etc.) that don’t do justice either to the full range of modes of flourishing witnessed to by women or to Mary herself, who displayed not only a contemplative spirit but also a courageous and fierce desire to proclaim God’s justice (“My soul magnifies the Lord…”).
To problematize Mary further, one may examine trends in Catholicism, at least in the United States since Vatican II, in which devotion to Mary has been on a downward spiral. One may perhaps turn to the events and compromises of Vatican II to begin to find out why. The final text of Lumen Gentium, the council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, is seeking a middle ground Mariologically, in Johnson’s words, between a more christotypical impulse which posits Mary almost as the soteriological equal to Christ and the “Mediatrix” of grace and a more ecclesiotypical impulse which situates Mary within the Church, as one member (and a type of the Church, which is problematic in other ways). This relativizing of Mary’s role as Mediatrix has unfortunately since Vatican II caused Mariological reflection to slow down to a trickle, if not a dead stop. On this point, Johnson muses, “One might wonder at the very least why the conciliar breakthrough regarding Mary as model of the church did not catch the imagination of the faithful” (131). (However, I in no way deny the fact that many Catholics still practice devotion to Mary in the preconciliar style.) In other words, it seems to me, descriptively, that if the majority of Catholics no longer view Mary as some larger-than-life, near super-human Christological doublet, working hand-in-hand with Jesus to accomplish salvation for all, then we don’t quite know what to make of her. Who is she, and why does she matter?
So, in short, I think Bridget’s question is still very much in play, and I’ve tried to sketch out a couple reasons why I think we are currently trying to shore up some pieces against our own Mariological ruins.
But it seems that we (I’m not sure who this “we” is, but just go with it), or at least somebody among us, should be able to formulate rich answers to these questions. I’m intrigued partly because our two ex cathedra statements are both Marian: the Immaculate Conception by Pius IX (1854), and the Assumption by Pius XII (1950). What does it mean that we believe that Mary had a special fullness of grace, and that she was assumed in her entire bodily existence, into heaven? If our very own Julia has anything to say on this front, that would be marvelous.
I think Elizabeth Johnson’s reclaiming of Mary as a concrete, historical, poor, Jewish woman has tremendous implications, and just as many questions, for new directions in Mariology, and I will have to chart some of that soon in an upcoming follow-up post. But…bored now. And I need to go spend time with my husband for our one-year wedding anniversary!