Lumen Gentium and the Place of Mary

Ross Campbell FAITH MAGAZINE March-April 2013

In the first of a two-part article Fr Ross Campbell, assistant priest in Kirkintilloch, analyses the background to the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium and its teaching on the role and importance of the Blessed Virgin Mary. At the dawn of the new millennium, we notice with joy the emergence of the "Marian Profile" of the Church that summarises the deepest contents of conciliar renewal. (John Paul II, Wednesday audience, 25 November 1998)

One of the slow growing fruits that has developed out of the Second Vatican Council is an emerging deeper understanding of the relationship between Mary and the Church. This was not always the case and it has been far from a smooth ride. Even today much confusion remains with regard to where we place Mariology within the overall context of theology. Anecdotally, during my seminary formation it was evident that the theology faculty was undecided on this matter. Each year Mariology was taught from a different perspective, using a different methodology: in my first year it was taught as a subject in its own right, the following year it was taught within the Christology course and then in my final year it was taught within the ecclesiology course.

The point here is that there still seems to be some confusion regarding where we should locate the study of Mary in Catholic theology. This article focuses on the relationship between Mary and the Church; however, this is not meant to be exclusive. There is a danger that in subsuming Mariology into ecclesiology we could neglect to study the role of Mary in relation to Christ. Likewise, if Mariology is taught solely in Christology we could easily forget the Marian dimension of the Church, and her relationship to each believer.

In the hope of elucidating some of these issues this article offers a thumbnail sketch of the history of Mariological development during the second half of the 20th century. For the sake of clarity this can be broken into three periods: the situation prior to the Second Vatican Council and the teaching of chapter VIII of Lumen Gentium; the ecclesiological developments immediately following the Vatican II; and finally the rediscovery of the Marian profile of the Church, in particular as expressed in the ecclesiology of the great Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar.

This third period is the focus for the second half of this article, to be publish in the next edition of Faith magazine. This article will focus on the first two periods.

The Second Vatican Council

Chapter VIII of Lumen Gentium is the final chapter of the Council's document on the Church. It is titled The Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God in the Mystery of Christ and the Church. This chapter was intended to mark both a point of arrival for the theological debates regarding Mary which preceded the Council and also a point of departure for further theological reflection in the years following the Council. The
chapter offers a synthesis of what had gone before, but it in no way is it meant to have the final say: it offers no real dogmatic definitions. Thus, the Council Fathers wrote the document with the intention that it would lead to further theological development.

In fact the discussion on the role of Mary in the economy of salvation was one of the most emotive and debated themes of the Council. Three times the Fathers changed their minds on whether Mary's role should be treated in a separate document or included within the document on the Church. When it was final decided to include Mary in Lumen Gentium it was the closest vote of the entire Council (1,114 in favour, 1074 against).

Vatican II as a Point of Arrival

In the years prior to the Council there were two seemingly opposing tendencies that dominated much of Mariological debate. The "Christo-typical" approach tended to consider Mary in terms of her relationship to Christ. It is from her relationship with her Son that Mary's privileges derive. At the Council, proponents of this school sought to defend the traditional Marian dogmas and were even in favour of a fifth definition: Mary as Co-redemptrix or mediatrix. They would assert that Mary is mother of the Church in the sense that she is above the Church. Naturally they favoured a separate document on the Mary.

The second Mariological approach may be called "ecclesio-typical". This approach emphasised Mary as a figure or type of the Church, which implies that her privileges must be understood in light of the Church of which she is the first and pre-eminent member.

Interestingly, Pope Benedict, writing then as Cardinal Ratzinger, suggests that these two approaches were in fact linked to two broader spiritual movements that existed before the Council. The Marian movement (for the Christo-typical) was a charismatic movement emphasising the privileges of Mary. It gave prominence to Mary's closeness to Christ and was based on a subjective and personal piety. The second was the liturgical movement (from which the ecclesio-typical school emerged), which sought a renewal of the Church from the Scriptures and the Fathers. This movement was characterised by an objective and sacramental piety.1

Anyhow, this issue split the Council Fathers. Cardinal Ruffini, arguing that Mariology also had close links with Christology and soteriology, was the main proponent of having a separate document. Cardinal Frings and the German bishops wanted to include Mary in Lumen Gentium. In the end it was Cardinal Koenig who attempted to reconcile the two groups.

Perhaps one reason for such a strong reaction against a separate document for Mary was the fact that the proposed document (De Beata) completely neglected Mary in relation to the Church. Nevertheless, to see chapter VIII as an overwhelming victory for the ecclesio-typical movement would be to oversimplify things. The chapter includes elements of both approaches. It begins by speaking of Mary in relation to Christ and goes on to speak of her in relation to the Church. It is in this sense that the document can been seen as offering a synthesis of the theological debates that had emerged in the years before the Council.

Vatican II as a Point of Departure

"Wherefore this holy synod [...] does not, however, have it in mind to give a complete doctrine on Mary, nor does it wish to decide those questions which the work of theologians has not yet fully clarified..."2

Paragraphs 63-65 of Lumen Gentium detail the relationship between Mary and the Church. Paragraph 63 begins by reaffirming the Christological teaching that had been stated at the start of the chapter. Mary is united to the redemptive work of her Son. It then asserts that in terms of faith, charity and perfect union with Christ, she is the type of the Church. Here the document is alluding to some idea of a future reality: Mary, as virgin and mother, is the perfect type of what the Church is called to be. Paragraph 64 speaks of the response of the Church in light of Mary who is her type. By following the example of Mary, the Church becomes like Mary in responding to the will of God. After the example of Mary the Church is both Mother (of the faithful, through preaching and baptism) andVirgin (through keeping the pledge of fidelity to Christ her spouse, keeping the purity of faith intact). It is that same faith of Mary that enables her to utter her fiat.

Paragraph 65 builds on the previous two paragraphs but moves from typology to moral example. It seeks to show the relevance of this Marian dimension which shapes the Church for ecclesial life. Just as Mary is the model of the Church, so she is the model for each member of the Church. Her example prompts the faithful to come to her Son, thereby shaping the Church's apostolic activity. By following Mary the Church enables Christ to be born in the hearts and minds of the faithful.

In terms of her divine motherhood Mary is the example for the Church to imitate. In terms of her motherhood in grace, Mary is the model for each disciple who is called to bring Christ into the world. Mary is therefore viewed in her relation to Christ and in her relation to the Church. Again we see attempts to reconcile the two Mariological schools.

Post-Conciliar Developments

Although the intention of the Council Fathers was to provide a framework for further theological reflection on the role of Mary within the life of the Church, this never really happened. In the years immediately after the Council things stagnated.

Mariologists such as Stefano De Fiores and Heribert Muhlen put this down to a number of factors. First, there were weaknesses in chapter VIII. It did not adequately deal with Mary's relation to the Holy Spirit. It did not make the necessary clarifications between acts attributed to Mary and acts attributed to the Holy Spirit. In the years after the Council this led to a trend which drew people's attention away from Mary to focus on the Holy Spirit. Secondly, chapter VIII said nothing of Mary's relationship to the Father.

Consequently Mariology was untouched by the general theological renewal that came in the years after the Council. According to Ratzinger, the victory of the ecclesiocentric approach at the Council led to the collapse of Mariology altogether and the development of new forms of theology, such as liberation theology, that attempted to replace the Marian dimension of the Church.

"The fact that later the two fell apart, that Mary was portrayed as an individual showered with privileges and thereby infinitely removed from us, while the Church was seen as being non-personal and merely institutional, damaged both Mariology and ecclesiology in equal measure."3

A further factor was the dominance of the ecclesiology of Karl Rahner in the years immediately after the Council. He concentrated on developing certain parts of Lumen Gentium and despite his vast theological output, he gave no real emphasis to the relation between Mary and the Church. In fact, he appeared not to like using feminine terminology when describing the Church. Again this led to a further separation of Mary from the Church.

The Consequences of this Separation

According to Ratzinger, to understand the Church merely as sacrament and as the people of God is to see her in a predominantly masculine sense.4 He believes that the feminine dimension is essential in that it clarifies and deepens the concept of the Church. Only by recognising this dimension can we understand the Church's maternal and bridal nature and so move beyond a mere sociological understanding of the Church:

"The Church is more than 'people', more than structure and action: the Church contains the living mystery of maternity and bridal love that makes maternity possible. There can be ecclesial piety, love for the Church, only if this mystery exists."5

To reduce the Church to the mere masculine is to lose what is authentically ecclesial about the nature of the Church. For Ratzinger, Mary's motherhood gives the Church her ultimate personal concretisation in history. A particular consequence of such an objective approach to the Church, which characterises Rahner's ecclesiology, is that ecclesial life falls into the trap of masculine rationality.6

This reduces the Church to a merely human-rational institution, which thus ceases to be the maternal womb of Christ.7 This loss in the understanding of the Church's feminine nature, together with an inaccurate postconciliar interpretation of episcopal collegiality, has led to the Church becoming excessively bureaucratic - which, ironically, is something that Rahner himself had initially sought to prevent.

According to Henri De Lubac, the dominance of such an impersonal ecclesiology leads to the following problems in ecclesial life: a dry practice of the faith; an abstract theology which is expressed in objective rather than personalist categories; and a danger of reducing theological mysteries, as well as ecclesial relations, to the impersonal.8

In this context Hans Urs Von Balthasar observed that since the Council the Church has become more than ever a male institution, which without the Marian dimension threatens to become inhuman and irrelevant.9 It is essential that we rediscover the feminine, Marian dimension of the Church because viewing the Church as a mere organisational or institutional entity not only impoverishes her from within but also "severely diminishes her authentic religious appeal and misleads women who are seeking a legitimate and fruitful role".10 The loss of this feminine dimension of the Church gives rise to a false feminism in the Church - one which expresses itself in appeals for the ordination of woman. It has led to an emphasis on the ideology of doing at the expense of contemplation. This in turnmakes the Church over-bureaucratic and functional.

Ultimately, for Balthasar, the answer to these difficulties which arose in the postconciliar understanding of the Church can be found in the concrete, living person of Mary, who constitutes the true life and mission of the Church.



1.  J. Ratzinger, The Chunk at the Source, (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2005) 22.

2. Lumen Gentium 54.

3. J. Ratzinger, Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith, (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2005), 151.

4. J. Ratzinger, The Church at the Source, (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2005) 25.

5. Ibid.

6. L.Blair, Masculine and Feminine Symbolism in the Church: A Reappreciation of the Marian/Feminine Dimension, (Rome: PUST, 1997), 29.

7. L. Scheffczyk, "Mary as a Model of Catholic Faith", trans. Gordon Seely in The Church  and Women: A Compendium, 8.

9. 3H. De Lubac, The Motherhood of the Church, trans. S. Englund (San Francisco: Ignatius,1982), 160. }Elucidations, 70. 

10. Blair, Masculine and Feminine Symbolism, 39.

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