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Issue Date:  September 9, 2005

Anglicans make room for Mary

Seattle Statement says what Vatican II should have


Last spring the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission surprised ecumenical circles worldwide when it released a joint statement on doctrinal matters related to the Virgin Mary, “Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ.” Reporting on the document for NCR on June 3, John L. Allen predicted that the Seattle Statement, as the document is subtitled, may well come to be seen as a “significant turning point” in ecumenism. I hope he’s right.

Why was the joint statement from the International Commission so surprising? It was the first time in the 40-year history of ecumenical dialogue following Vatican II that a group of Protestant theologians moved substantively in the direction of Roman Catholic doctrine and practice concerning Mary, instead of the other way around. The Seattle Statement reaches the conclusion that it is perfectly reasonable theologically for Anglicans to accept the doctrines of the Immaculate Conception, the Assumption and the practice of asking Mary to pray for us. Since all three of these aspects of Catholicism are considered by many Catholic “progressives” today to be embarrassing holdovers from pre-Vatican II days before the church’s teachings on Mary were modernized and “uncluttered,” the Seattle Statement squarely challenges prevalent assumptions about the Catholic role in ecumenical dialogues.

In ecumenical conferences and commissions, the Virgin Mary has usually been considered the deal-breaker, the big problem blocking rapprochement. Because the council fathers at Vatican II declared that ecumenism was suddenly the top priority for the Catholic church, it followed that the church’s Marian doctrines had to be streamlined and drastically reduced so as to be more agreeable to our “separated brethren.” In this decision, they reflected the growing influence of the “biblical movement” among several Catholic theologians in the late 1950s. Though only a scant 2 percent majority of the council fathers held this view when the major vote on Marian doctrine and practice was taken at Vatican II on October 29, 1963, that narrow victory sent the church on a new and far more Protestant trajectory regarding Mary.

In the chapter on Mary in the new constitution on the church that emanated from Vatican II, Lumen Gentium (The Light of Humankind), Mary is dethroned as the symbolic Queen of Heaven and even as the Mother of the Church. Instead, Mary is honored solely for being a “helper” and an “associate of the Redeemer.” The chapter does not use Mary’s traditional titles of Advocate and Mediator, noting only that she has been called those things in the past. Rather, it emphasizes that Christ is the one and only Mediator, while allowing that “by her maternal charity” Mary “cares for” Christians still on earth. Mary is celebrated solely as a member of the church, who was a “model and excellent exemplar in faith and charity.”

As expected, this “Protestantizing”of Catholic doctrine about Mary was welcomed by Protestants who were then willing to participate in ecumenical dialogues. In recent decades, the biblical parameters have led many Catholic “progressive” theologians to focus on newly discovered information about the historical conditions of the life of the Holy Family. These theologians are fascinated with archaeological findings that suggest the probable size of Mary and Joseph’s stone house, what food Mary cooked, how close the neighbors’ houses were, and so on. This more “rational” approach is contrasted by some progressive Catholic theologians with the stubborn yet regrettable presence in religion of the symbolization of mystical divine presence. Some even rationally explain away the Virgin Birth, for example, as Mary’s probably having been raped by a Roman soldier or a neighbor because God acts in the real, biological world. In truth, I can hardly recognize this focus as religion at all. Is not the Incarnation and all that followed from it a mystical event? What is to be gained by declaring off-limits the mystical elements in human engagement with divine presence? What remains if we deny the aesthetic, poetic, metaphoric, symbolic, cosmological ways in which humans have sought to describe and commune with the divine? What remains is the modern project, which always shrinks the immeasurable down to human proportions.

In the Seattle Statement, the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission distances itself early on from the dominant “hyperhistorical” emphasis found in contemporary liberal Roman Catholic theology about Mary. It also takes a scriptural tack that is decidedly different from the one used in Vatican II’s chapter on Mary in the constitution on the church. Rather than emphasizing that Mary is merely a model “helper” and member of the embryonic church, the commission builds a scriptural case throughout the first half of the document for the entirely “distinctive” and “unique” (a word that appears 10 times) existence and role of Mary in the Incarnation and the Redemption. Far from being merely the first Christian, merely our sister and a plucky social-change activist who declared the Magnificat, Mary’s utterly unique and extraordinary being, decisions and actions are seen as good reason for her to be given special veneration and a unique status among saints. That is, the Vatican II statement on Mary sought to contain her, while the International Commission’s statement, working from the very same scriptural base, brings to bear a theological sensibility marked by openness, a tender rather than hard-edged mode of reflection and an appreciation of spiritual beauty -- all rather rare in committee writing.

In the conclusion of the document, the commission offers its study as a careful, ecumenical reading of the scriptures that illuminates “in a new way the place of Mary in the economy of hope and grace.” The commission crafted this new way from the middle of the spectrum of contemporary positions on Mary, having nothing to do with the politics of the Catholic right or the hyperrational biases of many Catholic progressive theologians. The Seattle Statement creates a new Marian space not only for Anglicans and for the ecumenical endeavor but also for Roman Catholics who welcome the post-Vatican II focus on scripture but also appreciate the earlier perceptions of Mary’s full spiritual presence. With discernment, the excesses that had developed in that tradition could be left behind without destroying its spiritual depth and radiance. The Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission has expressed what Vatican II should have said about Mary but didn’t.

Charlene Spretnak is author of Missing Mary: The Queen of Heaven and Her Re-Emergence in the Modern Church (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), which is being released in paperback in September.

National Catholic Reporter, September 9, 2005

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