Misgivings About Mary | Dr. James Hitchcock
Nowhere is the gulf dividing Catholics and Protestants wider than on the subject of Mary. Those conservative Protestants with whom Catholics increasingly find that they discover common ground, in defending Christian morality and the historic core of Christian revelation, are precisely the kind of Protestants who most quickly object to what they consider Catholic distortions in this regard.
Given their assumptions, these Protestant misgivings are also quite understandable, since an appreciation of Mary's place in the economy of salvation required centuries of inspired theological meditation on the relatively few biblical texts that mention her. Looked at merely through common sense, there is validity in the Protestant argument that, if God intended Mary to have a crucial role in the lives of Christians, she ought to have been featured more prominently in the New Testament.
But it is not a Catholic conceit to think that the Bible is a dense repository of divine truth in need of careful and continuous interpretation in order to fathom its depths. Without such a process it would be relatively easy to make the secularist error of seeing Jesus as merely an exalted moral teacher who ran afoul of the religious authorities of his time. Protestants who in principle balk at a serious consideration of Catholic Marian doctrines are inconsistent, for example, in accepting the doctrine of the Trinity, a word which nowhere appears in the Bible and the very concept of which is by no means obvious there.
Protestantism as a whole has a bad conscience about Mary, not in the sense that Protestants realize they are slighting her but in that the strong anti-Marian reaction of the Reformation period has frozen later Protestants into a permanent state of aversion to taking Mary seriously, except in marginal ways.
Thus in the annual reenactments of the Nativity scene which take place in Protestant as well as Catholic churches, Mary seems usually to play almost a background role, the entirely appropriate focus on her Son allowed to obscure even the central place which mothers occupy at the births even of merely human children, as though family members are so enamored of the new child that they ignore the woman who brought it into the world. Thus the fear of exaggerating Mary's importance causes her to be denied even ordinary human recognition.
Some churches in the Anglican communion are dedicated to St. Mary, but otherwise she is so honored only among Catholics and Orthodox. But some Protestant denominations do name churches after biblical saints - Peter, Paul. John, Stephen and it is illogical that there is no St. Mary's Methodist Church, for example. However unwilling Protestants may be to accord her extraordinary honors, there is surely no warrant for considering her less holy than Jesus's apostles.
Some historians have identified Catholicism as a feminine religion, Protestantism (and Islam) as masculine, part of that categorization deriving from how each church views the role of Mary. The masculine religions are so unwaveringly monotheistic that they shun honoring Mary lest there be any suggestion that she is being deified. Not surprisingly, these masculine religions have historically slighted the distinctively religious role of women, however much they have valued women in their ordinary social roles.
So the failure even to acknowledge St. Mary, and to extol Mary as an exemplar for women, has over the centuries deprived Protestant women of what ought to be their chief model of Christian womanhood. Ironically, Protestant women seem more likely to look to Old Testament figures like Ruth or Naomi, as though the coming of Mary's Son made no difference in the way women ought to live.
But, like many other things which helped provoke
the Reformation, the authentic cult of Mary was difficult to separate
from its numerous excesses, some of them theological (the proposal, now
seemingly dormant, to name Mary "co-redemptrix"), most of them
perhaps matters of taste or proportion (gaudy statues and lachrymose hymns).
Related IgnatiusInsight.com articles:
The Medieval Mary: The Introduction to Mary in the Middle Ages | by Luigi Gambero
Immaculate Mary, Matchless in Grace | John Saward
Mary in Feminist Theology: Mother of God or Domesticated Goddess? | Fr. Manfred Hauke
The Disciple Contemplates the Mother | Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis
Assumed Into Mother's Arms | Carl E. Olson
Dr. James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University, writes and lectures on contemporary Church matters. His column appears in the diocesan press. He is the author of several books, including The Recovery of the Sacred, What is Secular Humanism?, and Years of Crisis: Collected Essays, 1970-1983.
Princeton University Press just published his two-volume history of the Supreme Court, The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life: The Odyssey of the Religion Clauses (Vol. 1) and From "Higher Law" to "Sectarian Scruples" (Vol. 2). He is also a regular contributor to many Catholic periodicals, including Catholic World Report.
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