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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
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).
Marian devotions began in the early Middle Ages in large measure as part
of the wider process of discovering the merciful face of God, and no symbol
was more immediately accessible in this regard than that of the kind mother.
But the comforting figure of Mary with her infant Son on her lap itself
ought to have precluded later distortions which held that, even though
Jesus is humanity's mediator with the Father, Christians some how also
need Mary to mediate between themselves and Jesus.
That such an idea gained so much currency in popular piety over the centuries,
to the point where in some cultures Jesus became a remote figure indeed
and all attention was lavished on his mother, shows the inherent danger
of attitudes underlying the Marian cult, the familiar reality whereby
one's vices are likely to be a distortion of one's virtues. The emotional
accessibility which Mary offered sinful supplicants easily released emotions
which became more and more extravagant over time.
Thus the de-emphasis on Mary which the Second Vatican Council seemed to
authorize had several causes - ecumenism, a more careful approach to biblical
texts, that desire to purify and prune back the lushness of devotional
life which was one of the principal goals of the liturgical movement.
(After hearing for years Gounod's "Ave Maria" sung by weepy tenors and
sopranos I found it a cleansing revelation to hear, for the first time,
the same text sung in plain chant around 1955.)
But with Marian devotion as with almost everything else, Catholics have
come full circle since the Council. In a way the keynote of the conciliar
reform of piety was sobriety, and Catholics were instructed to stay close
to the actual words of Scripture, to rein in their subjective yearnings,
to keep their attention focused on core doctrines. (Mary as significant
solely because she was the mother of the Redeemer). It was a process which
of course closely paralleled the streamlining of the liturgy into a rather
bland and wordy ritual.
But the minimalist assumptions of the reformers entirely misread the direction
of the culture, which would soon explode in every kind of extravagance,
to the point where familiar gaudy statues, for example, would seem, if
not exactly good art, at least fascinating objects to those whose aesthetic
explicitly rejected criteria like "taste," "balance" and "restraint."
The Council fathers did not foresee feminism and hence did not foresee
the inevitable revival of Marian interests under feminist auspices, after
feminism had first given Mary a rude push towards oblivion by stridently
rejecting the images both of virgin and mother which she represented and
with equal stridence smashing the pedestals on which women figuratively,
and Mary literally, had long dwelt. Rather than Mary's being an ecumenical
embarrassment, suddenly she became for liberal Catholics an invaluable
resource of which their Protestant sisters might well be envious.
The spirit of sobriety which was imposed on Marian devotion at the time
of the Council was also based on a chaste historicity - devotees were
not to go beyond what the relatively few Marian biblical texts would bear.
Feminists, on the other hand, have by now totally abandoned even the pretense
of this historicity. Thus on the one hand they engage in utterly baseless
historical speculation (Jesus's father was a Roman soldier, his mother
a rape victim) or merely use Mary as a rich symbol, to be shaped, reshaped,
and exploited in whatever ways serve the interests of the feminist movement.
Ironically, the hoary Protestant charge that Catholicism turned Mary into
a goddess is now literally true, since the feminists who claim her do
not even care about her historical reality but merely treat her as a symbol,
readily set alongside Aphrodite or Astarte. Thus, as with everything else
which touches the Faith, it is now left for orthodox Catholics and faithful
Protestants to begin again to explore this profound and so often misunderstood
area of Christian belief. Questions of gender and of human sexuality are
at the heart of the contemporary religious crisis, and nowhere does it
seem more promising to begin to resolve them than with the Virgin Mother
This article originally appeared in the May/June 1996 issue of Catholic
Related IgnatiusInsight.com articles:
Mary: The Introduction to Mary in the Middle Ages | by Luigi
Mary, Matchless in Grace | John Saward
Mary in Feminist
Theology: Mother of God or Domesticated Goddess? | Fr. Manfred Hauke
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,
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