National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Cover story
Issue Date:  April 30, 2004

By Charlene Spretnak
Palgrave, 274 pages, $24.95
Mary makes a comeback

A new book predicts the return of the Mother of God, beloved by ordinary Catholics, but ignored by reformers


The historian and critic Henry Adams, a quintessential New England WASP, wrote a poem to Our Lady that was found in his papers after he died.

Simple as when I asked her aid
Humble as when I prayed for grace
in vain
Seven hundred years ago; weak,
weary, sore
In heart and hope, I asked your help

You who remember all, remember
An English scholar of a Norman
I was a thousand who then crossed
To wrangle in the Paris schools
for fame.

When your Byzantine portal was
still young
I prayed there with my master
When Ave Maris Stella was first
I helped to sing it there with St.

For centuries I brought you all
my cares,
And vexed you with the murmurs
of a child;
You heard the tedious burden of
my prayers;
You could not grant them, but
at least you smiled.

That smile of Our Lady is the metaphor that creates the perennial appeal of the Mary story: She represents the mother love of God. The Ultimate may not love his creatures as a mother loves a newborn child, but the suggestion that this smile is a hint of the nature of the Really Real is such good news that it will persist no matter how powerful or determined its opponents are.

In Missing Mary, Charlene Spretnak, a professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies, details the opposition to Our Lady during and after the Second Vatican Council, how liturgists, catechists, religious educators, ecumenists and feminist theologians have tried to diminish Mary’s role in Catholic life, if not eliminate it all together. She argues that they almost succeeded, but now there are signs of a “return to Mary.” They were surely successful on the level of intellectual discussion. Theologians shy away from the subject. Liturgists insist that screens be put in front of her statue at liturgical events when Protestants are present. Spretnak reports that when she tells women (nuns, usually) that she is a pro-Mary progressive, they reply that is impossible. If you are pro-Mary you have to be a conservative. Such are the constraints of ideology that admits of no nuances, no reservations, no limited dissent -- and no critical thought.

My friend Garry Wills suggests that Mary be discarded and replaced with a feminine Holy Spirit. Sr. Elizabeth Johnson says that because the metaphor of Mary for the mother love of God is “patriarchical” in its origins it must be abandoned. We must rather emphasize the womanliness of God Herself. In an observation that is almost self-satirical, Johnson criticizes Mary for being “passive” at the marriage feast of Cana. (“She noticed the lack of wine and, rather than deal with the lack on her own initiative, performed an act of self-emptying by turning to Jesus for help.”) Such an unintentionally comic reductio ad absurdum is what rigid ideology does even to brilliant people. It is an ideology that wants to sweep away most of the cultural riches of the Catholic heritage, to pretend that nothing worthwhile happened between the last book of the Bible and the middle 1960s.

One could say to both Professor Wills and Professor Johnson that one cannot see the smile of either God or the Holy Spirit, but one can see the smile of the Madonna, and that’s what sacramentalism is all about.

I ask myself why this vendetta against Our Lady and her smile. She has often been distorted as a negative sexual image. The right-wing have declared that she is a champion of their cause. Professional Mariologists seem to believe that one improves the power of the metaphor by adding new and more outrageous titles. The alleged private revelations have been used as a self-righteous, neo-Gnostic club to beat up on those who are dubious. Sentimental and silly songs and creepy, tawdry devotions have caricaturized her. The metaphor has been tattered and battered, distorted and perverted, twisted and turned. It does not follow, however, that Henry Adams’ smile of the virgin is not an awesomely powerful metaphor. Nor does it follow that one should dismiss or ignore the tsunami of painting, architecture, music, poetry and sculpture that the metaphor has produced for the last millennium and a half just because Professor Wills and Professor Johnson think the metaphor is politically incorrect.

Like Charlene Spretnak, I would like to think of myself as a pro-Mary progressive. I would like to believe that it is the genius of Catholicism to say “both … and.” I would like to be able to persuade myself that one can say “both ecumenism and Mary,” “both liturgy and the rosary,” “both Mary and dialogue with Islam” (which devotes a whole chapter of the Quran to her), and “both the Council and the ‘Salve Regina.’ ” It would seem that such deviation is not permitted. In these critical days of the fight for gender equality, such messy paradigms are intolerable.

However, the new generation of idol smashers will be no more successful than were the followers of Henry VIII or Martin Luther or Leo the Isaurian and Constantine Copronymus. You cannot wipe out a 1,500-year tradition with a few keystrokes on your computer. Charlene Spretnak writes of a “return to Mary.” However, in truth she never went away. Dean Hoge, in his study of Catholic identity among young people, lists four criteria that are checked as “very important” by over 50 percent of the respondents -- concern for the poor, the presence of God in the Sacraments, the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist and devotion to Mary the mother of Jesus. Conor Ward and I replicated this in Ireland, where Ward is a professor at the National University of Ireland, and the findings were the same. Indeed the strongest Irish support for Mary was in the cohort who were born since 1978, who do not go to Mass and ignore the church’s sexual teaching.

The sacramental imagination is still alive and well and as long as it is, the smile that charmed Henry Adams will continue to captivate millions of people and to be one of the richest resources of the Catholic heritage.

Fr. Andrew Greeley is the author of three new books, The Catholic Revolution: New Wine in Old Wineskins (University of California Press), Priests: a Calling in Crisis (University of Chicago Press) and The Priestly Sins (Tor).

Q&A: Making more of Mary

Author fosters 'quiet rebellion' in her quest to restore Mary's significance

Editor’s note: NCR’s Antonia Ryan recently interviewed Charlene Spretnak about her book Missing Mary. In it, Spretnak, a liberal Catholic, argues that the diminution in Mary’s stature since Vatican II has resulted in an unfortunate loss of meaning, mystery and beauty.

NCR: Could you say a little about your background and the experiences you brought to writing about this subject?

Spretnak: I grew up in the 1950s and early ’60s when Mary and the other mysteries of the Catholic faith were almost palpable. My mother and grandmother had a beautiful Marian spirituality. Politically, I’m a Green. Professionally, I’m a professor of philosophy and religion and the author of several books that examine the interface between modernity and religion, community, nature and our sense of self.

What made you feel it was necessary to write this book now?

A lot of grassroots Catholics are puzzled about the radical shrinkage of Mary (except in ethnic parishes) over the past 40 years. It resulted from a very close vote at Vatican II, the great modernizing conference of the church. There was a Marian debate of almost mythic proportions: The “modernizers” represented the new preference for the rationalized, historical, semiotic text-based approach to religion while the “Marianists” represented the traditional Catholic sense that the mysteries of the Incarnation, the Redemption, and the dynamic Creation extend far beyond the boundaries of any text, no matter how historical. I call this traditional Catholic perception the “biblical plus” type of Christianity. By the way, I take issue with only one one-eighth of one of the 16 major documents created at Vatican II.

I wrote Missing Mary both to interpret and to advance the case for what I call the “quiet rebellion” of liberal Catholics today who feel that the church went too far in lopping off the full, cosmological sense of Mary. I argue for an inclusive position that honors both the biblical and the “biblical plus” -- that is, the sacramental, the mystical, the aesthetic dimension. Traditionally, Catholicism always situated the Gospel texts within the mysteries -- not set off alone and reified. The text is not the Incarnation.

What, exactly, is the Vatican II teaching that minimized Mary?

In the major Marian vote, on Oct. 29, 1963, the “modernizers,” who sought to “purify” Marian doctrine of all nonbiblical aspects, won by a majority of less than 2 percent. From that slight majority vote came a huge reduction of Mary’s officially recognized spiritual presence. The subsequent chapter on Mary in the new constitution deftly notes that although such nonbiblical titles as Mediator and Advocate have been applied to Mary by the church in the past, Christ is the one and only Mediator. The Marian chapter also warns against “a certain vain credulity.” After Vatican II, a silence about Mary descended, as many of her statues were removed, her devotions phased out and her name barely mentioned in theological instruction of nuns and priests. The sacramental/mystical dimension was strongly de-emphasized in favor of the biblical focus, but I believe that a rebalancing is now beginning.

When did “modernity” and this “disappearing” of the mystical -- including Mary -- actually start? The Renaissance? The Reformation?

All four of the foundational movements from which the ideology of modernity gradually emerged -- Renaissance humanism, the Reformation, the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment -- were unfavorably disposed toward Mary in her larger, glorified, cosmological form. They were right about many things, but they missed -- as in failed to grasp the full meaning of -- Mary.

You say that, in general, progressives within the church think Mary’s identity should be circumscribed within the limits of the little that the Gospels say about her. What are their reasons for feeling this is so important?

The “progressives” at Vatican II achieved numerous constructive outcomes, but when it came to the traditional perception of Mary, they saw her only as an embarrassing medieval vestige that was blocking ecumenical rapprochement with the Protestants. They threw out the entire sense of her full cosmological spiritual presence, allowing only the historical, “rationalized,” text-based perception of Mary as a Nazarene woman mentioned a few times in the Gospels. There are various reasons that most “progressives” strongly support this diminution of Mary today. For one, except in ethnic parishes and the developing world, most young Catholics under 45 have known no other Mary at all. Also, feminism emerged in the post-Vatican-II years, so as women entered theological degree programs feminist thought often became conflated with the new, historicized, “rationalized” view of Mary.

In general, those “progressives,” who are delighted that Catholicism has become nearly as uncluttered, post-mystical and text-based after Vatican II as Protestantism, are comfortable with strict historicism as the only worthwhile approach in religion. I have found, however, that many people who share liberal/progressive views on numerous issues facing the church today are beginning to agree that perhaps too much of the aesthetic beauty, the mystical symbolism, and the richly sacramental dimension was lopped off when Catholicism modernized. They, like myself, wonder why we cannot have both the liberal/progressive accomplishments on social issues as well as the spiritual richness of our tradition.

Why has Mary as Queen become identified with the Catholic right?

Because the Catholic right claims that the full, traditional version of Mary is emblematic of their conservative social and political positions … and most Catholic progressives acquiesce to that appropriation. This holds mainly in modernized cultures, however. In much of the Catholic world, Our Lady of Everything is the patron and protector of social-change movements.

Do you think that the generation of Catholics growing up today are more open to the mystical dimension of Mary?

That’s a lovely thought. I hope, for their sake, that you’re right.

National Catholic Reporter, April 30, 2004

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