The Hierarchical Mary and the Real Mary: Assumption Revisited

In Orlando, Florida, on the Feast of the Assumption, 825 U.S. Catholic women religious were meeting to discern their relationship with the Catholic Church’s bishops. Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, the man appointed by the Vatican and ordered to oversee the sisters and exercise control over over their statutes and programs, told the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), that the Virgin Mary teaches the faithful to hand themselves over “completely to the will of God.”

Mary, stressed the archbishop, teaches that it’s only in “submitting ourselves over to the one who made us … that we find fulfillment.” Archbishop Sartain’s message was clear: Mary, said the Vatican overseer “…shows us … what God himself desires to do in us all and through the church when we let the grace of God overtake us without placing an obstacle between ourself and that grace.”

LCWR, represents about 80 percent of the 57,000 U.S. sisters.

Archbishop Sartain’s image of the Mother of Jesus is a convenient image for upper-level male administrators who want to keep lower level women, as some say, “in their place.” But is it biblically correct?

Sister Joan Chittister, writing in NCR on August 30th, offers a different perspective; and I resonate very much with Joan.

Joan writes: “In this homily [i.e. Archbishop Sartain’s homily on the Assumption] Mary is ‘quiet,’ ‘docile,’ submits herself over and has no ‘desire or a need to figure things out … or resolve them to her own personal satisfaction.’ There was, we’re told here, no ‘no’ or ‘mine’ in her. The Mary of this homily is a passive receptacle of what she understands to be the Word of God.

“Well, maybe. But it might be good to think about all that a bit in the light of the other things we also know about Mary….

“The purpose of this column is not to parse what the bishop said about Mary on the Feast of the Assumption. I prefer instead to look at what he did not say about her because, it seems to me, what he left out of that homily says much about what is expected of women in the Catholic church.

“For instance, Mary answers the angel’s declaration to her by questioning it. An angel! Someone of much higher rank, it would seem, than even apostolic delegates, and only then with a ‘Be-it-done-unto-me’ response to a situation to which, apparently, ‘no’ was a viable answer. Otherwise, why bother to have the conversation?

“Even more important, perhaps, is the awareness that despite the seriousness — even the danger — of her situation, Mary did not go to any man — to the high priests of the temple, the local rabbi, her father or even Joseph — for directions about what to do next. She went to another woman for the wisdom she needed and followed that instead….

“In another instance, at the wedding feast at Cana, Mary gives her own set of apostolic orders to no less than Jesus himself as well as to the wait staff, as in, ‘Go and do what he tells you.’

“And finally, if anyone wants to know just how influential and important a figure Mary was to the development of the early church, the very idea of her being part of the gathering of apostles on Pentecost when each of them is anointed into discipleship by the Holy Spirit ought to be enough to dispel the notion that what we have here is a woman without a strong sense of self.

“No, the Mary not mentioned in this homily on the Assumption was a woman not intimidated into the Incarnation, not beholden to male answers, not shy about giving directions about what should be done, not without a high sense of personal responsibility, and not one bit in doubt about her place in the hierarchy of the church.

“Those, I think, are precisely the qualities we see in women in our own time that make for what some parts of the church are now calling ‘radical feminism.’

“From where I stand, that is a sad misuse of language and an even sadder case of spiritual blindness.”

And so, we continue to move forward, step by step……..

(Photo: Sister Joan Chittister)



Is it time to cautiously lower the volume of acclaim for the new Bishop of Rome? Is there a danger of losing a proper perspective on the papacy? Do we need a new papal superstar? Are some people blindly promoting a new cult of the papacy? Is the pope really the heart of the church?

I suggest these are important questions. I leave it to thoughtful brothers and sisters in our community of faith (the church) to ponder and propose the answers.

Historically, superstar popes have not always generated and promoted a healthy institutional church. I leave aside for the moment the Polish Superstar Pope John Paul the Great. We can more objectively examine an earlier papal superstar: Pope Pius IX. (He started at least as a papal superstar, before becoming more of a theological death star; and later a self-centered pontifical megalomaniac.)

Following the death of Pope Gregory XVI (1831–46), the conclave of 1846, not so unexpectedly, began with a struggle between conservatives and liberals. After the first ballot there was a deadlock. Liberals and moderates then decided to cast their votes for Cardinal Mastai-Ferretti . On the second day of the conclave, on 16 June 1846, Mastai-Ferretti was elected Pope. Historian Francis Burkle-Young wrote about him: “He was a glamorous candidate, ardent, emotional with a gift for friendship and a track-record of generosity even towards anti-Clericals….”

Giovanni Maria Mastai-Ferretti, Bishop of Spoleto, took the name Pius IX in honor of his great patron Pope Pius VII (1800–23), who had encouraged him to enter the priesthood despite Mastai-Ferretti’s childhood epilepsy.

Somewhat like today’s Pope Francis, the election of the liberal Pope Pius IX created great enthusiasm in Europe and elsewhere. For twenty months following his election, “Pio Nono” was the most popular man in Italy. Even English Protestants were delighted with him, cheering him as a friend and a reformer who would move Europe toward greater freedom and progress. The press applauded him as pious, progressive, intellectual, a really decent fellow, friendly, and open to everyone. Many religious and secular observers considered him a model of simplicity and poverty, in his every day affairs

Three years after his election, however, Pius IX was already revealing himself as another kind of leader: autocratically imposing an ever-increasing centralization and consolidation of power in Rome and the papal office; and exaggerating the place of Jesus’ Mother, proclaiming her Mediatrix of Salvation in 1849.

At Vatican I of course he had himself proclaimed infallible. Prior to that, in 1864, he had issued the Syllabus of Errors, which set the Roman Catholic Church in reverse gear for almost a hundred years.

Some of the key “MODERNIST ERRORS” condemned in the Syllabus were the following points:

• “In the present day it is no longer expedient that the Catholic religion should be held as the only religion of the State, to the exclusion of all other forms of worship.” (No. 77)

• “Protestantism is nothing more than another form of the same true Christian religion, in which form it is given to please God equally as in the Catholic Church.” (No.18).

• “The Church ought to be separated from the State, and the State from the Church.” (No. 55)

• “Every man is free to embrace and profess that religion which, guided by the light of reason, he shall consider true.” (No. 15)

• “The Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with, progress, liberalism and modern civilization.” (No. 80)

One can argue – perhaps feverishly – that Pope Francis is not another Pope Pius IX. I certainly hope he isn’t. I applaud the new pope’s simple attire, friendly approach, and rejection of Renaissance papal pomp and circumstance.

Nevertheless I do fear a return to the cult of the papal personality. Papal canonizations of previous popes simply underline my concerns. How many former popes is Francis going to canonize? Why?

And very frankly, I have seen very little “progressive” theology or healthy and truly contemporary theological decisions coming from his pen.

Since Vatican II, we have stressed that we are a church of collegiality and shared decision-making. At all levels. I want to see some powerful signs that Francis and his administration are moving in that same direction.

And of course, three years from now I hope Pope Francis has not become a resuscitated Pio Nono!


The Assumption and Other Theological Assumptions


I have absolutely no desire to denigrate Jesus’ Mother. She must have been a wonderfully faith-filled, attentive, and caring mother. She remains as well a source of strength and encouragement for any woman who has lost a son or a husband especially through a violent death. No wonder she is also Our Lady of Sorrows, Our Lady of Consolation, and Mother of Perpetual Help.

Reflecting, on August 15th — Feast of the Assumption — at the end of my vacation, it struck me, nevertheless, that The Assumption is indeed a good case study for Catholic dogmatics past and present.

The Assumption of Mary is a Roman Catholic dogma: a belief which must be accepted and affirmed by all Catholics. Pope Pius XII proclaimed this dogma, infallibly, on November 1, 1950. The document issued that day taught that the “Immaculate Virgin,” the Mother of Jesus, “after the completion of her earthly life was assumed body and soul into the glory of Heaven.” This means that after her death, Jesus’ Mother was assumed into heaven, body and soul, in a manner similar to Enoch and Elijah in the Hebrew Scriptures. The doctrine further states that she was glorified in heaven and is “exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things.”

The dogma of the Assumption, however, is based solely on church tradition and has no foundation in the Christian Scriptures.

The Christian Scriptures say very little, in fact, about the Mother of Jesus. The Gospel According to Mark names her only once (6:3) and mentions her as Jesus’ Mother, without mentioning her name: in 3:31. The Gospel According to Luke Luke’s mentions Mary the Mother of Jesus most often: identifying her by name twelve times and all of these in the infancy narrative (1:27,30,34,38,39,41,46,56; 2:5,16,19,34). The Gospel According to Matthew mentions her by name five times, four of these (1:16,18,20; 2:11) in the infancy narrative and only once (13:55) outside the infancy narrative.

The Gospel According to John refers to the Mother of Jesus twice but never mentions her by name. She makes two appearances in the Johannine Gospel. She is first seen at the wedding at Cana of Galilee (Jn 2:1-12) which is mentioned only in this Gospel. The second reference, also exclusively listed in this Gospel, has the Mother of Jesus standing near the cross of her son together with the (also unnamed) “disciple whom Jesus loved” (Jn 19:25-26). John 2:1-12, by the way,  is the only text in the Christian canonical scriptures in which the Mother of Jesus speaks to, and about, the adult Jesus.

In the Book of Acts, the Mother of Jesus, and the “brothers of Jesus,” are mentioned in the company of the eleven, gathered in the upper room after the ascension (Acts 1:14).

It took a good four or five hundred years, after the earthly days of Jesus’ Mother, for the development of an imaginative and creative Marian tradition that became the basis for nineteenth and twentieth century infallibly-proclaimed Virgin Mary dogmas.

In the second century, St. Justin the Martyr (c. 100 to 165 CE) gave us the understanding that the Mother of Jesus had always been a virgin (based on a mistranslation of Isaiah 7.14, in which “virgin” was substituted for “young woman” as found in the Septuagint). In the fourth century, Christian theologians decided Mary the Mother of Jesus was a very unique kind of virgin: her hymen was not even broken in childbirth. Baby Jesus simply passed miraculously through the wall. (A bit of theological hymenology by celibate males?) But then the learned men had to deal with another Bible-based theological problem.

In the Gospel According to Mark and in the Gospel According to Matthew, we read about Jesus’ “brothers and sisters.” As the doctrine of Mary’s “perpetual virginity” became increasingly widespread so did confusion about Jesus’ siblings. Theologians had to harmonize the New Testament with the new dogma (a bit of biblical revisionism) ….and so “brothers and sisters” became “cousins.” Problem solved……

The fourth century was also a particularly fruitful time for religious archeology. Constantine’s mother, Empress Helena (c. 246 to 330 CE) was a strong supporter of the developing Mary-Mother-of-Jesus cult and created what one could call ecclesiastical archeology.

Helena was quite a tourist. Everywhere she went she found “evidence” of Jesus or the Mother of Jesus; and she then had churches built on the spot! She found, for example, the cave of the nativity (or so the local people had told her), the house of the Last Supper (or so the local people had told her), the Garden of Gethsemane (or so the local people……), the hill of crucifixion, the empty tomb, the cross itself. She even found the very tree from which the wood for Jesus’ cross was cut!

Every shrine that Helena discovered was honored with imperial patronage and became  a profitable pilgrimage site as well. With each shrine went a Mary festival.

But back to my reflection about The Assumption……

The world view and the theological perspective that underlie The Assumption belong to an archaic pre-Galileo cosmology: the older flat earth model of Hebrew biblical and early and medieval  Christian cosmology. Over the flat earth was a dome-shaped rigid canopy called the firmament. God the Father’s throne was in the firmament and he controlled the earthly and human events down below. Heaven was understood as the place and space around God high up in the firmament.

Sitting at the right hand of God the Father was Jesus, his Son, whom he raised from the dead and elevated up to heaven, on a cloud, on Jesus’ Ascension Day.

Later, in the seventh century, thanks especially to the theology of John of Damascus (c. 675 to 749 CE) and Gregory of Tours (c. 538 to 594 CE), the church developed the understanding (another theological assumption) that the Mother of Jesus, as well, was carried on a cloud and assumed body and soul up to heaven.

And my point today?

What do contemporary Catholic believers do when they suspect that a dogma or doctrine safeguarded by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is flawed or is simply not believed anymore by many in the Church, including its best scholars?

There must be an avenue in the Roman Catholic Church for open and respectful and intellectually honest dialogue about these very serious kinds of questions.

The Assumption is probably more of a side issue. There are indeed bigger issues confronting us today, with major implications for Catholic belief and institutional credibility.

What do our leaders fear? Is it disloyal to ask a question? To ask for discussion? To propose a changed doctrinal understating based on new historical or biblical evidence? Yes our statements of belief do change and are shaped by history and culture and new knowledge. I certainly would not go to a cardiologist operating out of a nineteenth century medical understanding. Why do church authorities maintain and insist upon nineteenth century (or medieval) theological understandings?

Some examples…….

— Historians and biblical scholars agree that Jesus did not ordain anyone at the Last Supper. Why do our institutional leaders maintain that he did! (And why do they think the Last Supper was just a group of guys sitting around a table with Jesus?)

— In the early Christian communities, the first people to preside at Eucharist were not “ordained” but were the heads of families: men and women. Why do our institutional leaders insist that women cannot be ordained? When it comes to women presiding at Eucharist, historical evidence says our leaders are simply misinformed or outright sexists.

— Why do our institutional leaders still operate with a distorted and uninformed understanding of human sexuality? This has direct implications for any consideration (or refused consideration) of issues touching on marriage, birth control, celibacy, sexual abuse, and of course homosexuality.

— I am 100% pro-life, but I wonder why we cannot discuss whether or not all procedures called “abortion” are really taking human life. My bio-medical friends — some very conservative — tell me even here we need to make distinctions.

— And if many of our institutional leaders are genuinely appalled by an “anti-life” socio-political America, why have they been, in comparison to the abortion rhetoric, so silent about capital punishment, the war in Iraq, US military activities in Afghanistan, and closer to home: universal health care, child support for the unmarried, and strong criticism for the US rich getting ever richer.

The biggest and most important question of course concerns the Divine Presence.

I would expect authentic Christian leaders to be insightful and trustworthy guides here. Genuine spiritual directors.

Who is God for us today? How do contemporary people speak about and relate to the Divine Presence? God the Father up in the heavens doesn’t work for truly contemporary people. But contemporary people long for an experience the Divine…not up there but right down here where normal people live, make love, raise or educate the next generation, grow older in wisdom from life experience, then pass on to the next life.

Well friends….enough reflections for today…… I have neglected my yard and garden for three weeks. Now I need to get busy in the backyard!