The Theotokos As a Balm

Before the social distancing, I had coffee with my Catholic confirmation sponsor. It was a lovely day; we sat outside at the coffee shop and had a good conversation. Later that weekend, my husband and I went to the art museum, and I attended Mass at the NMMI chapel with my sponsor and her family. I now cherish that weekend, as all city buildings have been shuttered temporarily, including the museum, and the coffee shop is only open for pickup through the drive-thru. Also, public Masses have been suspended in my diocese. Someday, a breezy sunny day on a patio drinking coffee will happen in a public place once again. For now, I’ll drink my coffee from home, on my own patio or indoors while looking out at the flowering apricot tree. The same goes for Mass. I love Mass; I miss it already, but I can be in fellowship with God at my home.

Because this is supposed to be the year I am finally confirmed (with the Coronavirus shut-downs, that’s up in the air, of course), my sponsor asked me if there were any questions that weren’t fully answered for me in RCIA. She gave the example of Marian doctrines as being a stumbling block for her initially. It’s that way for many Protestants or former Protestants, she said. Surprisingly, Marian doctrines have attracted me to Catholicism rather than the other way around. Long before I considered attending RCIA, I had done my due diligence. I had read the relevant parts of the RC catechism to learn what Catholics actually believe. I did have some hesitations going in, mainly about indulgences. RCIA, unfortunately, didn’t provide a clear and concise answer to my question about what indulgences were and why the church practiced them, mainly because they are rarely used anymore, at least in mainstream American churches. The RCIA teacher said as much. I already knew the church had never officially supported the selling of them; what I was after was a definition of what they were in the first place. And I wanted that answer given in plain language, rather than in the language of the catechism. But I digress (as usual).

To reiterate, Marian doctrines weren’t a stumbling block for me. Let me explain why. Growing up in Protestant churches, there was always the sense that women were inferior to men, that it was more shameful to be a woman than to be a man. I believe that’s the reason a Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood was conducted by the Evangelical Theological Society in the first place. Feminism had changed the way women and men interacted in society, and the ripples of it had reached the Christian churches. There was going to be some push-back, obviously. The church had a history of treating women as inferior beings. As far as I’m concerned, Christ offered a different perspective for Christians, and the scathing attitudes towards women largely came from the surrounding pagan cultures. You can find these attitudes reflected in some of the greats of the church, the most influential being St. Augustine. To be more specific, women were considered to be apt helpers to men in so much as they were the bearers of offspring. They were rarely valued for their intelligence or spirituality; men were superior in that regard, so what was the worth of womankind beyond her ability to keep families going? Some explored the idea that women were not created in God’s image as man was, using 1 Corinthians 11:7 as a starting point. Augustine was one — however, I use the word ‘explored’ because Augustine was a philosopher who sought the truth, and the truth of the Bible did not lend itself to this idea.

It is often very difficult for us to shake off the cultural ideas that we’ve been inculcated with from birth. Most of us don’t, really. Even those who seek truth don’t always recognize when our accepted cultural truths have influenced our ideas. Although Augustine-bashing is a trend among more feminist leaning Christians, credit where credit is due: Augustine unpacked his cultural ideas and examined them against the Bible using logic to do so. By the way, you have to be very careful when finding shocking quotes by historical greats on the internet; they are generally ripped from context and/or translated in such a way as to make them appear worse than they actually are. E.g., when Augustine is quoted as saying that women are only a complete image of God when they are joined with a man, but that a man is complete without a woman (a quote often used against him), it is at the beginning of a logical progression that concludes thus: “Why, then, is the man on that account not bound to cover his head, because he is the image and glory of God, while the woman is bound to do so, because she is the glory of the man; as though the woman were not renewed in the spirit of her mind, which spirit is renewed to the knowledge of God after the image of Him who created him? But because she differs from the man in bodily sex, it was possible rightly to represent under her bodily covering that part of the reason which is diverted to the government of temporal things; so that the image of God may remain on that side of the mind of man on which it cleaves to the beholding or the consulting of the eternal reasons of things; and this, it is clear, not men only, but also women have.”

Unfortunately, the average person will not be able to parse these sentences. I have difficulty parsing them, and parsing is a skill I possess. However, it is obvious he’s attempting to parse Paul’s words on men being the image and glory of God and women being the glory of man, which created the original difficulty. Paul is not easy at the best of times. Nevertheless, Augustine comes to the right conclusion, that women have a mind that is able to consult the “eternal reasons of things” just as men have. Augustine did not come down on the side of women lacking the image of God, as far as I can tell. Yet, his initial starting point — that of the inferiority of women — still remains in churches despite the feminist movement. Most people are not as intelligent as Augustine; most aren’t as learned in logic. And remember, his starting point was that of female inferiority. I doubt he fully eradicated those ideas from his thinking, though I’m not an Augustine scholar by any stretch. My point is that having to debate this in the first place says something about the thinking in Christianity. That most people aren’t intelligent and lack the basic tenets of logic and come from a position of female inferiority owing to our emphasis on “classical thinking” means women still have the poisonous seeds of self-loathing inside them. When that is combined with modern feminism, it creates cognitive dissonance, which is painful to our souls. Most people will end up choosing one or the other path to avoid the cognitive dissonance.

I’m not the first person who has conjectured that Mary is the answer to this cognitive dissonance. The fact that God chose her cuts through the errors in mankind and the sinfulness of our thoughts. Mary was a woman who said yes to God, which is not an easy thing to do. In this regard, she is a model for men and women alike. She is, therefore, worthy of an appropriate level of honor. The Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches have honored her for centuries in a right way, and Protestants lost much when they chose to cast her aside. That doesn’t mean Marian idolatry doesn’t occur, but idolatry is hardly a sin that is confined to Catholicism and Orthodoxy. It’s a sin all humans are prone to.* It’s a fine line we walk when we honor great men and women of the faith. And it doesn’t stop at Mary. Honoring the saints can bring much to our lives, but can also cause us to stumble into worship and undo reverence for other human beings. In the end, I still think it’s worth it to use these people as models for us, allowing their lives and stories to soothe our souls from modernity. Among those honored saints, there are numerous women and girls. Mary is the peak of female sainthood, perhaps, but she is followed by many more. As far as I know, Catholicism has adopted the complementarian philosophy, but in name only. They don’t really need it. They’ve been giving women due respect for centuries, for the same reason they give respect to men: having the simple faith to say yes to whatever God has given them to do.

*Idolatry being a general human failing, a bigger problem for me is remaining unconvinced on the necessity for such doctrines as Mary’s perpetual virginity or her assumption into heaven. And yes, I mean necessity, not veracity. They might or might not be true, but they are irrelevant to me. Apparently, they seemed very relevant to someone at some point — I often call this “kicking the can farther down the road.” These are not primary doctrines; that is why I consider them irrelevant. They have nothing to do with the salvation of the believer or how he is to live his life after salvation. They are, at best, secondary or even tertiary doctrines. And until or unless my status in the church is dependent on them, or God gives me deeper insight, they will remain in that status.

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2 comments

  1. The Bible declares God’s sense of irony in regard to leadership. Men are in general to lead–so far, that principle is even more ingrained in Catholicism than Protestantism, which often elevates the pastor’s wife to a position nearly or entirely co-equal with the pastor, something that obviously never can happen with unmarried Catholic all-male leadership. (Though of course Catholicism has Sisters who serve independently of men.)

    The irony comes in Christ declaring leaders are to serve and those who serve are the greatest and “the first shall be last and the last shall be first.” And women are put by Scripture in a “lesser role” in both the Bible and Christian tradition, often serving more. Women are the ones who most often bear the suffering servant role of Christ and women will I think be the overall much more rewarded in Heaven than men. Eternity will sing the praises of the many, many women who acted the way Christ commanded, as Mary herself acted.

    As for Marian doctrine, seeing Mary as great I have no particular issue with. But seeing her as a perpetual virgin, a married Jewish woman of the First Century, is ludicrous. The Bible plainly states Jesus had brothers and sisters–these were not step-brothers in the most obvious reading of the text. They were natural offspring of Mary and Joseph’s marriage.

    Augustine is not to be faulted as much for trying to grasp how women can be spiritual equals to men (in practice women are often spiritual superiors to men, I would say) while still being followers, as he is for considering Paul’s words on sexual abstinence outside the context of the apostle considering marriage unneeded because he believed Jesus would return at any moment. Augustine actually embraced the notion that sex is inherently dirty! That it was necessary for reproduction, but otherwise not a good thing.

    And this is why, well part of why, both Catholics and Orthodox have maintained the perpetual virginity of Mary, even though it’s clear nonsense and dishonors all married women and clearly is connected to a select group of Pagan practices (Vestial Virgins).

    So you of course are free to follow your own convictions, but I personally see problems for women in how Marian doctrine portrays Mary.

  2. Travis has an interesting point about the wives of men in power. In more tribal- or family-oriented, nationalist cultures, the public-facing accomplishments of the husband were also attributed to the wife, as though they performed them together. In a sense they did; he may not have been able to do those without her support, and/or the support of her family of origin. I think it’s only through our individualist lenses that we unduly separate the husband and wife’s “labor” like we do, and we attribute oppression to one side and privilege to the other.

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