| || ||
Mater Ecclesia: An Ecclesiology for the 21st Century | Donald Calloway, M.I.C.
In 1974 the renowned theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, concerned about the fading
image of the Church as Mother, wrote:
We must ask ourselves: Is the image of "our Mother the Church" (that has become alien to us, and that we
prefer to replace with the more popular expression "People of God") anything
more than an analogy which was once appropriate, on the basis of prevailing
cultural conditions, and which is no longer appropriate since it no longer
corresponds to our changed ways of thinking and feeling? 
In asking this question, von
Balthasar brought up a very interesting point concerning a classical image of
the Church. While it is true that the Church holds to no one particular
self-expression, that is, ecclesiology, it does appear that on some levels the
image of the Church as Mother has been slowly declining. Does this historical
shift in ecclesiological expression, a result of doctrinal development, do away
with the maternal analogy all together? I do not believe it does, and neither
did von Balthasar. Rather, under the guidance and inspiration of the Holy
Spirit, the Church is currently seeking to inculcate in the hearts of its
faithful other ecclesiological expressions, such as People of God, Communio and Pilgrim People.
These are good and beneficial expressions. However, they do not rule out or
contradict the dominant ecclesiological expressions of the past, for example,
the Pauline image of the Church as the Body of Christ--an image that has also suffered interest in many circles.
Furthermore, while keeping in mind the manifold ways in which the Church
expresses itself, I believe that the recovery of the classical formulation of
Church as Mater Ecclesia will have
enormous theological importance for the 21st century. The heart of the
importance lies in four ways in which we understand the role of motherhood,
namely, childbearing, teaching, protecting and correcting.
Foundation in divine revelation
First of all, if we go to the
fount of all theological inquiry, namely, Sacred Scripture, we note that the
image of the church as Mother is part of the sacred deposit of faith. One of
the best references in the New Testament is found in St. Paul's letter to the
Galatians. It reads, "Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to
the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the
Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother" (Gal. 4: 25-26). In this
passage, St. Paul uses allegory to personify the Church as our heavenly Mother.
It is apparent that this Mother, the Church, has her essence in heaven. She is
the new creation through which all the faithful come to the Father. Thus, in a
certain sense, the Church is understood analogously as a womb. For, as Yves
Congar noted, "She [the Church] is now no longer simply the body of Christ but
also the means for that Body to grow and thrive; she is the Mother and, so to
say, the womb of Christians." 
In acknowledging the maternity
of the Church St. Paul is not depreciating the other expressions of ecclesial
life but is unfolding another image of the mystery we call Church. After all, it was St. Paul himself who wrote of such
manifold ecclesiologies as Body of Christ, Temple, Bridal Spouse, Communion
and Family of God.  Moreover, the Catechism
of the Catholic Church states that, "In
Scripture, we find a host of interrelated images and figures through which
Revelation speaks of the inexhaustible mystery of the Church."  It must be
stressed that all of these ecclesiologies complement each other because they
have as their source of unity the one Spirit of God. Although different, they
all seek to highlight some aspect of God's saving plan. Therefore, what are the
roles of the Church when it is understood to be a mother? Once again, we look
to St. Paul.
St. Paul compares himself to a
mother when he states that, "as a mother feeds and takes care of her child,
such was our tenderness towards you . . . that we would have wished to hand
over to you, along with the Gospel of God, our own life" (1 Thes. 2:7-8).
Likewise, in his letter to the Galatians, St. Paul expresses his longing for
the formation of Christ in them in maternal imagery. He states: "My children,
you for whom I continue to experience the pains of childbirth until Christ is
formed in you!" (Gal. 4:19). From these two Pauline scripture references we can
see four explicit roles of motherhood. These roles are childbearing, teaching,
protecting and correcting. It is precisely these aspects that can be useful in
ecclesiological self-expression today.
The maternal role of childbearing
What is motherhood? Dr. Mark
Miravalle gives a concise definition of motherhood when he states: "Motherhood
is the act of a woman giving to her offspring the same type of nature that she
herself has."  Yet, what does it mean if we apply this definition to the
Church? Since it is true that the Church exists in order to lead all mankind
back to the Father, the Church takes on the childbearing role of motherhood
because it is through her that we receive "adoption as sons" (Gal. 4:5) and
become "partakers of the divine nature" (2 Pet. 1:4). For, as Lumen Gentium states, "The Father, in accordance with the utterly
gratuitous and mysterious designs of his wisdom and goodness, created the whole
universe, and chose to raise up men to share in his own divine life." 
Furthermore, this view of the
Church as Mother, primarily brings about this spiritual birth in us through the
celebration of the sacraments. Recognizing this mystery, Henri de Lubac noted
that, "[T]he motherhood of the Church is a frequent theme in the instruction
for baptism."  This intimate union between the ecclesiological expression of
the Church as Mother and the role of the sacraments is of vital importance in
our day. In an age when so few fully enter into the sacramental life of the
Church, an image of the Church as our mother could bring about a renewal in the
appreciation of the richness of the sacraments. The Church, as our mother,
forever celebrates the sacred mysterious of Christ's life, death and
resurrection. She is the mother who never grows old but forever rejoices in the
Truth and the maturing of her children in grace and virtue.
Mother as teacher
The teaching role is a natural
consequence of motherhood. Not only does a mother share with the child her
nature, she also teaches the child how to do those things that will lead it to
happiness. This is summed up beautifully in the Catechism when it states that "from the Church he [the Christian] learns
the example of holiness." 
Primarily in her role as
spiritual mother the Church seeks to advance her children in knowledge, love
and service of God. In their quest for spiritual maturity the children of the
Church have recourse to the sacred deposit of faith. This wealth of spiritual
includes such things as Sacred
Scripture and the lives of the saints. Through such means as these, just as a
natural mother transmits what she knows to her children in order that they may
grow, so the Church, transmits to us the knowledge she possesses, namely, that
which brings us to our true end, the vision of God.
In an ad limina visit with German bishops, Pope John Paul II, addressing
the need for effective transmission of the faith, stated that, "The Mater is also Magister;
she has the authority to bring up and teach her children, and so lead them to
salvation. Mother Church gives birth to her sons and daughters; she nurtures
and educates them."  This is a very crucial role of the Church in our day when
so many try to change the teaching of the Church and/or put forth erroneous
teaching which brings about disunity. There is the need to emphasize that no
one should seek to usurp the right of Mother Church in her teaching role. This
teaching role is in the Pope and the official Magisterium of the Church, and
not in individual theologians and/or thinkers. Her authority reigns supreme
over her children, and any effort to teach in a way that is contrary to that
which is hers by right of motherhood is not of the Spirit of God.
Mother as protector
Likewise, there is the role of
a mother to protect her children. This role also flows from her motherhood. It
is known by nature that a mother will protect her children from dangers even to
the point of giving her life. Therefore, if this is purely on the natural
level, how much more can we expect to be protected and defended by Mother
Church as we daily live in a pluralistic, materialistic and hedonistic
generation such as ours. As a protectress of her children Mother Church defends
them against the mortal enemies of sin, the spirit of the world and the devil.
In the Book of Revelation we recognize
as one interpretation of the "woman clothed with the sun" (Rev. 12:2) as being
a personification of the Church as Mother. Furthermore, we note how she defends
and protects her child, and her offspring, from the "ancient serpent, who is
called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world" (Rev. 12:9).
Through this hermeneutic we see that Mother Church stands as our strong
defender against the "accuser of our brothers . . . who accuses them [us] day
and night before God" (Rev.12:10). Thus, she stands before God as a loving
intercessor that pleads for the life of her children.
This ecclesiology of the Church
as protector shows us that we are weak and in constant need of succor and aid.
In this age of radical individualism we are constantly in danger from all
sides. Yet, we have the assurance from the savior that "the gates of Hades
shall not prevail against it [the Church]" (Matt. 16:18). Undoubtedly, the
spiritual battle rages on in our day, but with the assurance that Mother Church
is watching over us and giving us the grace and strength that we need we can
conquer and hold fast to the hope of salvation and be united within the
household of God. A mother always unites, and without the stability of
motherhood any child is in constant danger of death.
Mother as corrector
One of the most challenging
roles that the Church as a mother has to face today is her role as a corrector.
Children rarely like to be corrected, but a good and loving mother never turns
away from disciplining her children. This process is very painful for the
mother, but it is a necessary one if the children are to grow and mature. The
Church as our most loving mother only seeks our good by her firm disciplinary
On the other hand, when the
Church is not viewed as a mother but primarily as an institution her correction
can seem harsh and strict. One can get caught up in the rationalistic and
critical spirit of our age and begin to focus on the individual members of the
Church and lose sight of the reality of the true mission of the Church, to give
glory to God and save souls. When we see and understand that the Church is our
Mother, and truly believe this in our heart, then we can accept her discipline
because we know by faith that she is sustained by the promise of God, a God who
cannot deceive. It is no wonder then that with bold language Sirach proclaimed,
"whoever glorifies his mother is like one who lays up treasure"(Sir. 3:4) and
"whoever angers his mother is cursed by the Lord" (Sir. 3:16). These are indeed
strong words, words that are in another time and another context but,
nonetheless, they are just as applicable to our time as they were to Sirach's,
and, one could say, even more applicable to the eternal reality of the
motherhood of the Church. Those who fight against and anger their mother are
sooner or later going to find themselves outside the household.
Although many other ecclesiologies
are in vogue today, the image of the Church as mother can never fade away. This
image will be vital in restoring in the eyes of the world the familial nature
of God's kingdom. In many ways the 21st century has a hostile understanding of
the Church and, thus, feels threatened by many of her teachings. For many, the
church is not a loving mother but an oppressive institution that dictates
doctrines that are received as not up-to-date and sensible. Unfortunately, many
of these people know no better because they were catechized with the
understanding that "we are the Church" and that if we don't like something we
can change it. This is sad because had they been instructed in the maternal
nature of the church many of them would see her doctrine not as oppressive but
as life giving. Therefore, in every area of the Church, but especially in the
catechesis of the young, an understanding of the Church as our mother is
important for the 21st century. This ecclesiology is universal because, no
matter what culture, all people are familiar with motherhood in some form or
another. It is not bound to culture, social milieu or an epoch of time. Rather,
the motherhood of the Church is everlasting!
This article originally
appeared in the November 2001 issue of Homiletic & Pastoral Review (HPR). Learn more about HPR
or subscribe to HPR today.
 Hans Urs von Balthasar, The
Office of Peter and the Structure of the Church, trans. Andrée Emery (San Francisco: Ignatius Press,
 Yves Congar, The Mystery of the Church. (Baltimore: Helicon Press, 1965), p. 70.
 E.g., see Eph. 1:22-23; Col.
1:18; 1 Cor. 3:9
 Catechism of the Catholic
Church. (New York: Catholic Book
Publishing Co., 1994), #753.
 Mark Miravalle, Introduction
to Mary: The Heart of Marian Doctrine and Devotion. (Santa Barbara: Queenship, 1993), p. 36.
 Vatican Council II: The
Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents: Lumen Gentium ed. Austin Flannery. (New York: Costello Pub. Co., 1986), para. 2.
 Henri de Lubac, S.J., The
Motherhood of the Church, trans. Sr.
Sergia Englund, O.C.D. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1982), p. 52.
 CCC, #2030
 Pope John Paul II, L'Osservatore
Romano: "Ad Limina Apostolorum"--German
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Links/Articles:
Motherhood of the Entire Church | Henri de Lubac, S.J.
The Church Is the Goal of All Things | Christoph Cardinal Schönborn
Excerpts from Theology of the Church | Charles Cardinal Journet
On the Papacy, John Paul II, and the Nature of the Church |
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Peter and Succession |
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
"Primacy in Love": The Chair Altar of Saint Peter's in Rome | Joseph
Church Authority and the Petrine Element | Hans Urs von Balthasar
Authority and Dissent in the Catholic Church | Dr. William E. May
Exploring the Catholic Faith! | An Interview with Diane Eriksen
Understanding The Hierarchy of Truths | Douglas
Brother Donald Calloway, M.I.C., a convert to Catholicism, is a
member of the Congregation of the Marians of the Immaculate Conception. He
earned a B.A. in philosophy and theology from the Franciscan University of
Steubenville and earned his S.T.B. at the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate
Conception (Dominican House of Studies) in Washington, D.C. He was ordained to
the priesthood in May 2003. He currently serves as House Superior and Director
of Vocation for the Marians of the Immaculate Conception in Steubenville, OH.
If you'd like to receive the FREE IgnatiusInsight.com e-letter (about
every 1 to 2 weeks), which includes regular updates about IgnatiusInsight.com
articles, reviews, excerpts, and author appearances,
please click here to sign-up today!
| || || |