Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Mary: Feminist Sister or Mediatrix of Grace?

How a given era understands the Blessed Virgin often reflects how that era understands itself.  This is not an original idea, theologians have long noticed, for example, that Mariology and ecclesiology mirror one another.

In an age of feminism, then, Melinda Henneberger, editor of Politics Daily, claims Mary as her own, in "The (Feminist!) Feast of the Immaculate Conception."  At the America magazine blog, James Martin sees this as an example of Catholicism going mainstream, which is of interest, though this theme has been on Politics Daily from the start. I was more interested in Henneberger's very telling use of the setting in which she was celebrating yesterday's Marian feast, the hospital run with which all women are familiar, this time at her mother's bedside.  (At this point my sisters in Minnesota would certainly point out that they are the ones who are familiar with the hospital run, not the sister blogging in her jammies on the east coast!  So noted.)

Henneberger herself, though, is drawing attention to an article by Sally Cunneen, in Commonweal ("Maximus' Mary:  A Minister, Not Just an Icon"), which speculates that Mary was much more active in Jesus' mission than portrayed by the canonical gospels. This re-claiming of Mary from "Mariology" has been a theme in Catholic circles for some time now, highlighted by Elizabeth Johnson's Truly Our Sister, which peels back the patina of history and legend to allow Mary's story to stand in its own "luminous density."

An active, struggling, female agency that is decisive in salvation history:  this is the story.

Yet.  A similar story is being told -- though the various parties might not want to be at the same party -- by another group in the church, this time from the traditionalist wing.  Zenit, yesterday, carried an update on a petition for a fifth Marian dogma, that would solemnly define the "Blessed Virgin Mary as the Spiritual Mother of All Humanity, under its threefold aspects of Coredemptrix, Mediatrix of All Graces, and Advocate."  This effort has been going on for some time, and is fairly broad-based.  Beneath the fancy words, note what is being claimed -- the very basic Catholic story that humanity co-operates with God in the life of grace, and that Mary's fiat (her "yes" to God's initiative) is exemplary of that story.  Not exactly a repeat of the passive statue image we liberals often charge against traditionalists -- this Mary acts, though in a singular fashion from a position of privilege.

There you have it.  In our own feminist/post-feminist era, Mary remains the object of competing stories, this time in competing stories about her agency, whether the story is told "from below," as we are called to solidarity by the struggling everywoman, or "from above" as we are called to prayerful unity through the elevated intercessor.

It's not surprising that our current conflict over what it means to be female is projected onto the Blessed Mother.  Not to worry, she'll get over it -- and continue to act.