Mary and the Search for the Meaning of Womanhood
Fr Timothy Finigan discusses ways to teach the importance of Mary’s role.
In 1974, Pope Paul VI addressed what he saw as problems of his time which he felt were causing people to become disenchanted with devotion to Our Lady. In his Apostolic Exhortation Marialis Cultus (MC), he said that people were finding it difficult to take Our Lady as an example for their lives “because the horizons of her life, so they say, seem rather restricted in comparison with the vast spheres of activity open to mankind today.” (MC 34) He pointed out that the Church does not propose Mary as an example because of the type of life that she led, and still less because of the socio-cultural background in which she lived.
He was concerned that some of the difficulties people found with devotion to Our Lady might be due to the image of Mary found in popular writings. Referring to the differing sociocultural contexts of different ages, Pope Paul expressed a concern that some outward religious expressions, though valid, might not be so suitable to people of different ages and cultures. (That concern was itself part of the sociocultural context of the early seventies.) It is always possible to cite extreme examples of aberrant Marian devotions: my own favourite is a practice that had to be forbidden by the Holy See, of sacrificing a bull to the Blessed Virgin Mary. However, this shows the problem of accepting the argument from sociocultural context. The sacrifice of a bull in honour of Our Lady could never be acceptable to the Church whatever culture it came from. Conversely, I am not sure that there are many genuine devotions to Our Lady that would be acceptable in another sociocultural context that would not be acceptable now.
In looking for universal and perennial ways in which Our Lady is an example for us today, Pope Paul rightly focuses on her role in the incarnation, her consent to the will of God, her sharing in the role of redemption, and her practical care for Our Lord. As the first and most perfect of the disciples, she who listened to the Word of God and kept it, she is indeed “the outstanding type of womanhood and the preeminent exemplar of life lived in accordance with the Gospels.” (MC 36)
Pope Paul then begins on a path that has preoccupied many in the Church in recent decades, that of answering feminists by presenting Our Lady as the model of modern womanhood.
Unfortunately, Our Lady is rejected immediately as a model by many feminists who accuse the Church of offering women an impossible ideal: that of a virgin-mother.
Pope John Paul made an express attempt to address this question in the context of a more developed feminism which had become more widespread and influential.
To this purpose he wrote the Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem (MD) on the special dignity of womanhood, offering a reflection on the dignity and vocation of women.
A woman’s dignity
Pope John Paul reflects on how women showed to Our Lord “a special sensitivity which is characteristic of their femininity.” (MD 16) Later he notes that in suffering, this sensitivity plays a role for the woman “even though she often succeeds in resisting suffering better than a man.” (MD 20) He notes approvingly that, “It is commonly thought that women are more capable than men of paying attention to another person.” (MD 18) On the order of love, he says that the role of the bridegroom is to love, whereas the bride is “she who receives love, in order to love in return.” (MD 29) This affirmation is a key theme of the Apostolic Letter in which Pope John Paul insists that a woman’s dignity is bound up with the love that she receives “by the very reason of her femininity” and is similarly linked with the love that she gives in return. (MD 30)
These attempts of Pope John Paul to characterise the “feminine genius” are complemented by other ideas of his own and of Pope Paul. Such as Our Lady as the strong woman, the woman of freedom, or the woman charged with decision-making.
While a man or woman of faith might find much to ponder in these sincere suggestions for pinpointing the existential character of womanliness, it has to be admitted that they would be of little use in persuading most of the modern women of today either of the Church’s favourable attitude to women or of the decisive role of Our Lady as the perfect woman. Picture, if you will, the poor priest attempting to use them as arguments in a BBC discussion on womanhood with a cynical and secular female chat show host. One can almost hear the screech of tyres, crumpling of metal and tinkling of glass on tarmac in such a car crash interview. And that is before you add into the mix a gender-fluid spokesperson.
Why Men and Women at all?
To consider the lived reality of defending the place and role of women in an aggressively secular setting, is not intended in any way to downplay the valiant attempts of either Pope Paul VI or Pope John Paul II to present a vision of womanhood with reference to Our Lady. However, they were given for their time and culture, and both have moved rapidly on. Nor need we despair of finding an answer to the question of what constitutes the “feminine genius.” The feminist movement is currently in crisis before the aggressive cancel culture of trans- genderism which attacks them as “trans-exclusionary radical feminists” (TERFs), and serious questions are already being raised over the damage that the sweeping craze for gender fluidity is doing, not least to young people who are irresponsibly guided into devastating changes to their bodies at a stage in their lives when those who care for them should be doing everything they can to prevent them from coming to harm.
In addition, it would not be irrational optimism to hope that there will be a reaction against the cruder forms of feminism that have recently been in vogue. The “Kill Bill” ideal of the woman who has hero status for overcoming the men who have brutalised her, by being even more brutal and violent than them, could run out of steam before too long. Likewise the standard streaming service digital film sermon on how women can confound our dumb expectations by springing the shocking surprise of adopting non-traditional roles is probably no longer the epiphany moment it once was. Culture that is dependent on subjective values is a fickle overlord, whether it is master or mistress.
Pope John Paul began Mulieris Dignitatem by saying that the task set him by the Synod of Bishops to address the problems connected with the meaning and dignity of being a woman and being a man was ultimately “a question of understanding the reason for and the consequences of the Creator’s decision that the human being should always and only exist as a woman or a man.” (MD1) Humanae Vitae was prophetic in holding the line on artificial contraception just as the world began the final stage of dismantling marriage and the family in a way that was unthinkable in 1968. Similarly, Pope John Paul was prophetic in raising the question of why we are male and female, just as the world began to tear apart the very meaning of the sexes in a way that was unthinkable twenty years earlier.
Pope John Paul spoke of his predecessor Pope Leo XIII as the Pope of the Rosary because of his twelve encyclicals and five apostolic letters on the subject. In a more thoroughgoing way, Pope John Paul was the Marian Pope. He adopted the motto Totus Tuus referring to his consecration to Mary, as advocated by St Louis Grignon de Montfort. I remember cynical theological liberals in Rome making the snarky comment: “you think he would have left a little bit for Jesus.” The best response to this was that if Our Lady always and surely leads us to Christ, you should either consecrate yourself to her totally or not at all.
The Place of the Rosary
The vindication of the Totus Tuus motto is found in Pope John Paul’s Apostolic Letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae (RVM). Pope Paul VI had strongly urged that the Rosary was a Christocentric prayer, defending it against those who wanted to downplay the devotion in favour of more biblical spiritual exercises, or those who saw it as having no connection with the sacred Liturgy. Pope Paul vigorously and convincingly showed how devotion to Our Lady was indeed focussed on Christ, was found in the feasts of the revised Liturgy, and was itself capable of being fully integrated into biblical devotion through the Rosary.
Essentially, Pope John Paul II complements the writing of Pope Paul VI on the Rosary being a Christocentric prayer but expounds in a deeper way the Marian dimension of being centred on Christ.
In a brilliant summary of the real meaning of the Rosary, he said that it was “nothing other than to contemplate with Mary the face of Christ.” (RVM, 3)
In this simple explanation we see the lived experience of a man, a priest, a bishop, and a pope who had nourished his spiritual life from childhood on the prayerful recitation of the Rosary.
In addition to the continuity of thought between Pope Paul and Pope John Paul II, there is an interesting element of discontinuity. We need not make too much of it, but it is striking enough to be worthy of comment. Pope Paul was keen to point out that although the Rosary draws from the liturgy and points back to it, nevertheless it is not part of the liturgy. Perhaps he went a little too far when he said that “it is a mistake to recite the Rosary during the celebration of the liturgy, though unfortunately this practice still persists here and there.” (MC n.48) When Pope John Paul was largely incapacitated by Parkinson’s, some students in Rome (now fine apostolic priests) told me that when they were at the Academic Mass for the start of the year, Pope John Paul was not able to be the celebrant but attended in the sanctuary. The keen-eyed seminarians noticed with delight that he had a Rosary moving slowly in his hands during the Mass.
Someone might argue that Pope John Paul knew the texts of the Mass very well and was able to engage in spiritual multitasking so that his full conscious and active participation was not impaired. Perhaps there is more to it than that. If the Rosary is contemplating with Mary the face of Christ, it is entirely suited as one possible form of genuine participation at Mass. Meditating on the life, death and resurrection of Our Lord is precisely what we should be doing in order to offer our praise, thanksgiving, sorrow, and supplication in union with Christ on the Cross, and the priest at the altar who acts in His person. To engage in such meditation with the help of our Blessed Mother ought not to be seen as a distraction if we are contemplating with her the face of Christ. By actively demonstrating a devotional point, Pope John Paul has hammered home a theological truth concerning the centrality of Our Lady in the incarnation and therefore in the plan of God. This is where we need to explore further.
Christocentrism and the Divinity of Christ
Pope Paul VI was rightly concerned to defend what he saw as the Christocentrism of recent theological thought. There are in fact many writers in whom Christ can be clearly identified as central to their theology, not least St Anselm, St Bernard, and St Thomas Aquinas. Indeed, it would be hard to find a doctor of the Church who did not promote a healthy Christocentrism in both doctrine and devotion. The urgency in the time of Pope Paul was to ensure that the Christ at the centre was in fact truly divine. Both among professional theologians and catechetical writers, the focus in the early seventies was on the humanity of Christ, often effectively denying His true divinity. Time and again in issues of Faith during that period the divinity of Christ was defended against popular presentations which undermined the fundamental teachings of the early councils.
Popular writings presented Christ as the “man for others”, questioned whether He actually knew who He was, cast doubt on His miracles, and suggested that He was unsure what to do. By way of example, an influential Study Guide for adult education in the 1980s told of how Mary and Joseph supported Jesus in his adolescence “as he began to examine and question what he had been taught in the course of his religious upbringing.” Of course, Jesus was presented as a thoughtful teenager, so “Along with his peers, he searched for a faith which he could really call his own.” (Purnell, A P. To be a People of Hope. 1987. p15)
A litmus test of whether portrayals of the man Jesus are in line with revealed teaching, is whether there is a real understanding of original sin and its effects, and of the truth that Jesus Christ did not have original sin, nor concupiscence, nor habits of sin. Nor indeed did. Our Lady since she was conceived immaculate. She did not sin and therefore did not have habits of sin. Certainly, she was put to the test, underwent trials, and was attacked externally by Satan, but she did not have disordered desires or the weakness consequent upon them. If we want to find the heart of Mary’s psychological strength as a strong woman, it is in her being full of grace. If we want to find the place of that strong woman in the plan of God, we need to look to the origins and purpose of the universe.
The overall vision of the faith that is presented in the Faith Movement has at its heart a Franciscan understanding of the incarnation. Calling it “Franciscan” rather than “Scotist” is a helpful way to avoid the obfuscation of referring to a brilliant but controversial theologian of the thirteenth century, but also in my view a just acknowledgement of the followers of St Francis, who still proudly adhere to the subtle doctor’s landmark insight. The Franciscan school maintains that the incarnation of Christ was always part of the plan of God from eternity. Although sin meant that Our Lord was also incarnate to redeem us from our sins, the incarnation would have happened even if there had been no sin. Support for the position can be found in the writings of St Irenaeus, St Athanasius, the Cappadocian Fathers and Maximus the Confessor. It has always held a respected place alongside the alternative Thomist thesis that the purpose of the incarnation was redeem us, and that without sin, there would have been no incarnation.
The Thomist-Scotist debate focusses on the purpose of the incarnation; we can equally focus on the purpose of the creation of the human person. If God becoming man was part of the eternal plan of God from the beginning, then so was the creation of the human race.
The incarnation itself requires that there be co-operation between humanity and God. If God visited us without becoming man, there would be no real and ultimate union; if a man was the visitation of God (as in the case of a prophet) there would some communication from God, but no real presence of the divinity. God coming down to earth and becoming man, taking on our humanity, is the perfect union of the human and divine. This incarnation must be achieved through the co-operation of an individual woman with God: a woman because of the two parties involved in he conception of a human person, (contrary to some of the wilder assertions of those who deny a meaning to gender) it is the woman who gives birth.
The original purpose of God
Indeed, the very division of the sexes into male and female may be seen as part of the original purpose of God. Biologically, of course, there are good reasons why sexual reproduction developed, such as genetic variation, adaptive ability, and survival advantage. These contribute to the goodness of creation and are themselves part of the overall purpose of creation in the mind of God. If we see in addition that the very creation of humans as male and female is fundamental to the plan of God for the incarnation and for our destiny in eternal glory, then it is no wonder that this aspect of creation is insisted on twice in Genesis and is one of the verses of the Old Testament quoted by Jesus Christ. (Gen 5:2, Gen 1:27, Mk 13:19).
Saint John saw a vision of The Woman. At one level, she is the earth because she is clothed with the sun and has the moon at her feet. She was in pain to be delivered of the child who would rule the nations with the rod of iron, which we understand as the staff of divine truth and authority. (Rev 12:1-2) The Church has always seen a further level of meaning in the Virgin Mary who is The Woman who fulfils the longing of mankind as she brings forth the Word made flesh in the quiet watches of the night. She is the lynchpin of the material universe and now the Queen of Heaven. If she is, in the mind of God, chosen from before all time to be the mother of His Son who fulfils all mankind as the living bread from heaven, then we need look no further to find the dignity of womanhood.
Fr Timothy Finigan is a priest of the Archdiocese of Southwark.