Theologian proposes changing our view of Mary to the model used in the early church.
By Tony Staley
During May - the month of Mary - it seems appropriate for me to confess that I have had a hard time with Mary. Actually, I think my difficulties are not with the historical or biblical Mary, but rather with the popular devotional image of Mary.
In talking in guarded tones with some other Catholics - it can be dangerous admitting to such a thing in the wrong circles - it's obvious that I'm not alone.
Earlier this month, in the annual Murray Lecture at Fordham University in New York, Sr. Elizabeth Johnson discussed the church's need to change our view of Mary. The lecture is named for Jesuit Fr. John Courtney Murray (1904-67), an expert theologian at Vatican II. The lecture is sponsored by the Jesuits of America magazine, where the text of her talk will appear next month. Some of what she said I agree with, at least in part. But her ideas are interesting and deserve attention, so this week I'll share some of what she said - based on a Catholic News Service story on the talk - along with some of my reflections.
- We need, Sr. Johnson said, to "invite Mary to come down from the pedestal where she has been honored in the past and rejoin us on the ground of the community of grace in history."
Sr. Johnson, who is a theology professor at Fordham and a former president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, called for seeing Mary as "a friend of God and prophet within the communion of saints." That, she said would be a return to a view of Mary held in the early church, rather than one developed in the late Roman empire.
- Originally, she said, the saints were not seen as existing in heaven between us and God. Rather, they were alongside us as sisters and brothers so that the living and the dead related "as companions to each other in the one Spirit-filled community."
On a related note, that is why I don't like statues and other images of the saints in the sanctuary around the altar. I believe such images belong on the walls in the main body of the church, surrounding the congregation. That makes it clear that we and they are part of the Communion of Saints jointly worshiping God. Having these images around the altar, can easily give people the erroneous idea that at Mass we worship not just God, but the saints - a misconception Protestants often have of Catholics.
Anyway, Sr. Johnson said that we switched from this idea of one Spirit-filled community to a "patronage model" developed from the civil patronage system used in the Roman empire. Notice, we refer to a saint we were named for or who is identified with our life's work or who is special to us, as our "patron saint." The problem with that idea, Sr. Johnson said, is that it implies "we little people need more important people to plead our cause."
- Taking Mary off the pedestal also requires us to reject concepts of Mary that view her as "the maternal face of God" or as "the ideal feminine," Sr. Johnson said.
The view of Mary as "the maternal face of God" transfers divine qualities to Mary as compensation for perceived deficiencies in our concept of God, Sr. Johnson said. That view comes from the title of a book by Leonardo Boff, a Brazilian Franciscan priest who was laicized after conflicts with the Vatican.
Sr. Johnson said, instead, "This female imagery should be allowed to travel back to its source and fertilize our imaginations and piety in relation to the mystery of God who is beyond gender." In other words, our concept of God is far too masculine, but we can solve that problem only by broadening our view of God, who, the Bible says, created humans male and female in the divine image (Gn 1:27) - not by turning Mary into a goddess of sorts.
- The concept of Mary as "the feminine ideal" and "model for all other women" was most widely stated by Pope John Paul in his encyclical "Mother of the Redeemer" and the apostolic letter "The Dignity of Women." The problem with that view, Sr. Johnson said, is that emphasizing characteristics such as gentleness and "a nonassertive attitude" blocks the personal development of women, and can even be dangerous by "inculcating passivity in abusive and violent situations." It "also blocks women from functioning in the public order, for by nature they are designed for domestic, auxiliary roles," she said.
She called for seeing Mary as she was: "a Jewish village woman of faith," our "foremother," and a "sister to the unchronicled lives of marginalized women in oppressive situations. It does no honor to rip her out of her conflictual, dangerous historical circumstances and transmute her into an icon of a peaceful, middle-class life robed in royal blue."
As a modern man, the image of Mary that helps me the most comes right from the Bible. Luke's gospel portrays Mary as the model disciple who devoted her life to following the will of God, as we all are called to do.