Mary and Human Liberation

Logos Vol 29 Nos 1 & 2, March/July 1990

Centre for Society and Religion, Colombo.

Construct of Traditional Catholic Theology
The development of theology concerning Mary—or of Manology—is a very interesting and intriguing example of how a religious institution can evolve its teaching, patterns of worship, life style of members and spirituality from very simple beginnings. It reveals the importance and impact of the first presuppositions on the course of subsequent evolution of theology. Traditional Marian theology was developed in the Catholic church in the background of its general construct of theology that has prevailed from the early centuries till Vatican II—and in some ways up to the present times.

Many elements of Marian theology specially the defined dogmas are not contained as such in the Gospels which narrate the life and work of Jesus. Mariology is very much an evolution of subsequent centuries—with first references going back to St Irenaeus in the second century.

The Church teaching has been evolving over the centuries with the proclamation of:

  • Mary Mother of God: in 432 at the Council of Epbesus.
  • Virginity of Mary: by Pope Martin I, 649. Perpetual and perfect virginity of Mary before and after the birth of Jesus. Lateran Council—Denz.503.
  • Immaculate Conception: in 1854 by Pope Pius IX.
  •  Assumption into Heaven: in 1950 by Pope Pius XII.

Role of Imagination in Theology: e.g. in Mariology
Some of the foundations of traditional Mariology are derived from the mythical presentations of the Old Testament developed rather imaginatively into theology and at times dogmas. This need not be a problem if the doctrines had no unfavourable impact on the relations among persons and communities.

But in Mariology they have had disastrous consequences on the understanding of the relations of the sexes and religions. The Adam and Eve story has been a foundation of an ideology of male domination: Mariology is linked to it as Mary is presented as the second Eve. Both Mariology and Christology as they have been historically developed are closely related to the myth of the "Fall" of humanity and its consequences such as original sin and the type of redeemer that humanity is in need of. This has [in] turn led to the exclusivist and intolerant teachings and attitudes of Christian theology and "Christian" Powers such as the European colonisers in Asia, Africa, the Americas and Oceania in the past five centuries.

There is much room for imagination in Mariology because the content of the teachings in traditional Mariology have been very much concerning things about which we do not have verifiable information or are beyond the capacity of the human mind to understand and comprehend. For example,

  • the conception of Mary and the relation of divine grace to her from the first moment of conception,
  • the conception of Jesus by Mary through the "overshadowing" of the Holy Spirit,
  • the "perfect and perpetual virginity of Mary",
  • her being "mother of God",
  • her bodily assumption into heaven,
  • her role as mediatrix of grace and coredemptrix of the human race.

Yet these have been (and are) very much the content of the teaching and preaching concerning Mary. Due to their being derived from the mythical elements in both the Old and the New Testament there is much room for the human imagination to interpret them—naturally in favour of the interpreters.

Thus, there are different explanations concerning the origin of Eve from Adam, but generally in favour of the priority of the male. Varying interpretations are given concerning the condition of Adam and Eve before the alleged "Fall". This is spoken of in general Catholic theology as the state of original justice. This is something about which we cannot know anything by reason or experience. The Genesis narrative itself does not describe it except briefly and idyllically. It is later writers who refer to the action of the first parents (in the myth) as a grave sin against God´s commands. The concept of original sin such as we have in Catholic theology is evolved over the centuries of Christians experience—with St Augustine throughout the Middle Ages to the definitions of the Council of Trent in the 16th century.

The differences between the Catholics and Protestants, and even among Catholics and among Protestants show what varieties of interpretation are possible. Each view presents an explanation of the state of original justice, the nature of the "fall", its consequences and correspondingly a concept of redemption. While we know from experience that human fallibility and mortality are combined with the desire for good and for immortality, we cannot know the historical origins of this predicament. But different theories or hypotheses propose varying views about the condition of humans at a time chronologically prior to the "fall" in an earthly paradise. Is not what is said about that state and stage very much a matter of theological imagination—e.g. such as Adam and Eve not being subject to concupiscence or death?

Yet these concepts led to conclusions about the nature and necessity of the grace of Christ and of the Church for the salvation of every human being. From thence it was easy to conclude—as the Churches did— that the other religions were not salvific. Thus very vital theological questions were responded to on the basis of conclusions derived from the interpretation over time of a mythical story. Naturally, each succeeding generation in the Church could give the value of "Tradition" to the interpretations of their predecessors in the faith.

The graces and privileges of Mary are deduced from the presuppositions assumed on the basis of the creation myth and its later reinterpretation, specially by Paul. These in turn led to the proclamation of Jesus as Son of God and Mary as Mother of God. The immaculate conception of Mary depends on the concept of the state of original justice and original sin in Catholic theology.

Developments in theology concerning the virginity of Mary and role of Joseph in the holy family are another area in which the imagination of preacher and writers as well as of ecclesiastical teachers has had much leeway. Who can know, after the time of the Apostles, whether Mary was a virgin even after the birth of Jesus? Yet, due to a desire to affirm a certain perspective of holiness there has been a trend to attribute perfect and perpetual virginity to Mary even when the scriptural evidence itself is of doubtful import, as we mention later.

These considerations show us that it is important that we adopt a hermeneutic of suspicion in order to try to evaluate the impact of myth, ideology, imagination and prejudice in the evolution of dogmas. This is particularly necessary in situations in which dogmas have a divisive impact in the pluralist society or deflect the attention of Christians from the more important issues of human community living and core message of the Gospel.

Mary and Society
The traditional Mariological dogmas are in many senses not adequate for understanding Mary in relation to Society. In many ways they have been used for domesticating Mary, women, religion and spirituality. We have to try to understand Mary in relation to what Jesus was about. A holistic approach is necessary because there would have been a very close relationship and friendship between Jesus and Mary. It would be natural in an ideal family. We should also include Joseph in this for he is perhaps one of those most discriminated against and marginalised by theology.

Mary and Jesus
We can think that Mary had an understanding of Jesus. She thought of him and his views. They grew up together. We can think of a partnership of Jesus and Mary, and later a search together. After some stage Jesus would have had the leading role; but Jesus died young and Mary continued with the group of followers.

In order to reflect on Mary and society! we should not begin with the traditional dogmas of a descending Mariology; immaculate conception, virginity, mother of God, assumption and coronation. We should rather begin with Jesus and his work. Then we can try to see how Mary related to Jesus. More than any one else Mary lived for Jesus. Her life was linked to his.

…it is necessary to consider Jesus in relation to his mission of integral human liberation. Mary participated in this task, perhaps even helped to evolve his thinking, life style and way of presenting himself to the public.

An Individualistic Asocial Mariology? .
While Marian spirituality is historically deep-rooted and geographically widespread among the Catholics in Sri Lanka, its impact is of a rather individualistic and/or even other-worldly nature. It has not contributed adequately to the understanding and growth of new dimensions of mission and ministry required in our day as desired by the popes too…

Marian theology in Sri Lanka has come first from Portugal and in the British period after 1796 mainly from Southern Europe. Hence there is a great accent on external performances such as the processions and feasts. Their type of spirituality fits in readily with our national temperament, our traditions of external celebration and dependence on deities when facing difficulties in life such as in sickness and misfortunes…

(There were) limits of theological development under the Portuguese and later under the British. The Catholics had to develop their theological reasoning in the background of the dominant theology of the day within a framework of European domination of the colonies, and of the popular religiosity of the colonised people themselves.

Hence such a theology, when concerned with Mariology, would find it convenient to elaborate teachings and religious practices that relate to angels, the garden of Eden and idyllic presentations such as shepherds. They would have been rather embarrassed if they directed their attention to the more earthy socio-political realities such as her flight into Egypt, her exile, the later contestation by her son and his companions of the local religious establishment and of the foreign rulers and their false values. Thus we do not find in classical Marian theology this dimension of liberation from social, economic and political oppression that highlighted the Magnificat and is now emphasised by recent Popes. Neither do we find in the Mariology prior to recent decades an inspiration for the liberation of women from male domination in society or within Catholicism itself.

Now that a new approach to Christology is being derived from the Gospel witness to his commitment to human life and social justice, a new Mariology is also emerging and can be developed. Correspondingly the prayers, meditations and hymns to Mary can be evolved so that the prayer life itself would bear witness to Mary´s radical commitment of human fulfilment and social liberation in this life also. This is a task that this generation can fulfil, specially due to our present challenges.

Re-Thinking Theology
In the 19th century, the central leadership of the Catholic Church had long-term objections to accepting democracy and liberty even in civil society, especially due to the French Revolution. Then authority was said to so come from God that it could not be from the people. The objection to the socialistic demands for societal reforms was even more deep seated, till the historic encyclical of Leo XIII on the "Condition of the Working Classes" in 1891. Even this encyclical was very much downplayed in many churches during several decades.

The changes in the situation of colonial peoples after their independence made the churches reconsider the attitude towards other religions. Now due to much work for consciousness raising in some local churches, the Catholics have changed to be among the foremost defenders of democratic rights and of free and fair elections, as in the Philippines in 1986.

In the growth of new theologies, creativity is moving, especially in theology concerning class and religions and cultures, away from Europe, and to some extent from North America also, to the so called "younger churches" or the "Third Church" as Walter Buhlmann calls it. In the different stages of this evolution, the church authorities have had difficulties of acknowledging the validity and significance of these new perceptions. They are attached to the long-standing orthodoxies which have acquired a sacredness due to tradition, not to mention the advantage to them as the dominant society or social force.

The process of re-adjustment of thought and life is not without conflict and much heartburn within the churches. The authorities think they have to preserve the simple religiosity of their faithful. The faithful brought up according to the conventional modes of thinking and pious practices have a sentimental attachment of them even when these domesticate them to accept different forms of alienation and oppression. The internalisation of one´s own subjection to the powerful acquires a legitimation and sacredness.

On the other hand, the more thoughtful—especially the younger generation— tend to lose confidence in the entire system and even become "unchurched". This happened to the working class in Western Europe which Pope Pius XI mournfully regretted in the 1930s as the scandal of the 19th century. If the church does not rethink its theology and spirituality in a manner relevant to the present generation and their needs, the churches will be by-passed as irrelevant to their principal concern. During the past 50 years, there has thus been a large-scale "unchurching" and secularisation of persons who call themselves Christians in Western Europe. The Catholic priesthood is ageing and decreasing in number. In the not too distant future the Catholic Church in Western Europe will be a clergyless church, unless some radical changes are introduced to remedy this irrelevance.

The churches in Asia and Africa have to seriously ask themselves whether and how they can avoid such a fate. The more perceptive among the leaders such as Bishop Julio Labayen in the Philippines, Kim Chi Ha in South Korea, Samuel Rayen in India and the feminist theologians in every country are pathlinders seeking new orientations. But they are still somewhat marginal to the mainstream of the churches.

Mary of the Third World
In most of Asia and Africa today we need a model of Mary that also relates to our presently exploited neo-colonised Third World context. Our local rulers, authoritarian, if not despotic, are often the Pilates and Herods of modern multi-national empires.

Marian Spirituality would be deeply and desperately concerned with the present situation in the world where the condition of the poorest of the poor is worsening in both relative and absolute terms. Mary, as the mother of Jesus and a universal mother of all humanity, would naturally be concerned most with those who suffer so much physically and psychically.

A Marian approach to the Third World would be inspired by the perceptions and programmes implied in the Magnificat of feeding the hungry and exalting the humble. Marian devotion and Marian shrines throughout the world would thus be invited to look into the present situation in the world, to understand the causes of the growing gap between the affluent and the poor and to take steps to remedy the situation.

Third Worldness can be got rid of in a short time if the human community had the will to do so. If Marian spirituality led to such a conviction it would have an immense impact on this situation as many of the dominators are in countries with many persons who are devotees of Mary.

In Asia (and Africa) we need to develop a Mariology that, while incorporating the best in other theologies, is also concerned with issues such as

  • local elites and the marginalisation of the masses
  • patterns of development, specially their impact on women, debt, human life, torture, human rights,
  • economic, political, social, cultural and religious domination and liberation. IMF/World Bank policies of Structural Adjustment.

Asia can also help develop a Mariology that is global and relates to the planetary theology that is emerging.

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