Introduction: Vatican II’s ambiguous legacy
Where ever Mary is venerated there you will see the Church’s enemies scatter. Perhaps that is why Marian devotions are so scoffed at by the modern world. Marian devotion is invariably associated with hard identity Catholicism. It is held in contempt by the modern world. It is considered a throw back to pre-enlightenment times–a sure mark of superstitious idiocy. The protestants point to it as a sign of corruption and idolatry and the scientists jeer at it (though they of course “respect” the rosary beads in the hands of a Buddhist…when the Buddhists do it its cool but when the catholics do it its idiocy). It seems to me that if we want to save the church in the modern era we need a revival of hard identity Catholicism –especially in the form of Marian devotions. There is excellent scriptural and theological support for the special veneration the Church shows Mary.
Ever since the Fathers of Vatican Council II decided to place their discussion of Mary, the Mother of God, in the 8th chapter of Lumen Gentium (LG), their document on ecclesiology,theological discussions of the significance of Mary in salvation history have linked that significance, to the nature and mission of her Son’s Church (Jelly 2000). Although the Council Fathers made it clear that Mary could not be given the prerogatives and functions in the history of salvation that belong solely to her Son, the council Fathers did not specify how the Church’s Marian devotions, liturgies and dogmas, should be interpreted relative to the Marian ecclesiology sketched out in Lumen Gentium. The council Fathers endorsed the idea that Mary’s link to the Church consisted mostly in her being an exemplar of piety for, and Mother to the faithful (LG 65-66). Like Mary, the Church is a Mother to those seeking to give birth to love of Christ. In LG 66 we read “The Church indeed, contemplating her (Mary’s) hidden sanctity, imitating her charity and faithfully fulfilling the Father’s will, by receiving the word of God in faith becomes herself a mother.”
Thus, the overall accent of the 8th chapter of LG tended to militate against maximalist interpretations of Mary’s role in salvation history as the exalted one of Co-redemptorix and Mediatrix. She was instead “… hailed as a pre-eminent and singular member of the Church, and as its type and excellent exemplar in faith and charity” (LG 54). As if to underline the downgrading of her status as co-redemptorix, the post-Vatican II reforms of the liturgy entailed a great reduction in Marian liturgical celebrations (Thompson 1989). Some Marian feast days were renamed to de-emphasize the role of Mary (the Annunciation of the Lord, the Presentation of the Lord). Other feasts such as the Immaculate Heart of Mary that had previously been obligatory were downgraded to optional status. Still other feasts were dropped entirely, such as The Holy Name of Mary and Our Lady of Ransom (Thompson 1989).
Although she was “Placed by the grace of God, as God’s Mother, next to her Son, and exalted above all angels and men…” (LG 66), Mary’s former titles of co-redemptorix and mediatrix, surely the object of most of the faithful’s devotions to her, were very tightly constrained by the council Fathers. The faithful were reminded in LG’s chapter 8 in no uncertain terms that Mary’s efforts at mediation between humankind and God flow solely from “…the superabundant merits of Christ, relies on his mediatorship, depends completely upon it, and draws from it its entire efficacy (LG 22, 60). Although Mary was exalted as “Queen of Heaven” (LG 59), she had no special privileges in heaven beyond the honor bestowed on her as one of the foremost disciples of Christ. Mary like every other human being was redeemed by Christ and was just another member of Christ’s Church.
But even these changes left some questions unanswered. If Mary is merely the foremost disciple of Christ, as the council Fathers seemed to argue in LG, why was it necessary for her to be born without original sin? Surely no other members of Christ’s Church were born without original sin. If she, like the Church, was mother to Christ and His disciples in the Church down through the ages, how could she be merely first among equals in her Son’s Church? Who would Mother her? If she was the “Woman clothed with Sun” (Rev 12) who crushes the serpent’s head, does that mean any member of Christ’s Church could crush the serpent’s head, even though scripture ascribes that role only to the woman clothed with the sun?
The desire of the council Fathers to “dialog” with Protestant churches and to treat Mary as a non-unique church member in need of redemption like everyone else, while suggestive, was not entirely successful (Balthasar/Ratzinger 1980/2007). How could she be both exalted above all other men and over all angels, and yet still be what the protestant churches required—just another sinful human being in need of redemption? How could she be ordinary and exalted at the same time? Chapter 8 of LG failed to answer that question satisfactorily in my judgment. The council Fathers themselves seemed to recognize this failing when they noted that the Council did not
“…have it in mind to give a complete doctrine on Mary, nor does it wish to decide those questions which the work of theologians has not yet fully clarified. Those opinions therefore may be lawfully retained which are propounded in Catholic schools concerning her, who occupies a place in the Church which is the highest after Christ and yet very close to us …” (LG 54).
Thus, it was left to subsequent theological debate and to the further inspirations of the Holy Spirit, to more precisely delineate, within the broad outlines established by the Council, the role of Mary in salvation history and in Church.
Enter Von Balthasar
One of the first theologians to address the doctrinal lacunae on Mary noted by the Council Fathers at Vatican II was Hans Urs von Balthasar. A Swiss theologian most well-known for his hundreds of books on philosophy, Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988) also published studies of literature, aesthetics and theology. Perhaps his most famous work was his systematic theology “The Glory of the Lord”, the multi-volume theological aesthetics (Balthasar 1983). He was considered the most cultured man in Europe by none other than the great theologian Henri de Lubac (Ratzinger 1991), and this opinion was seconded by Joesph Ratzinger, now Pope emeritus Benedict XVI (Henrici 1991). He was not only fluent in multiple languages (ancient and modern) but he was also an accomplished pianist (Henrici 1991). He knew and loved all the works of Mozart but gave up the fame of a musical career for a vocation to the priesthood. He entered the Jesuits in 1929 but left the order in 1950. He co-founded a lay order (Community of St John) with the mystic Adreinne von Speyr (1902-1967), and let some of her mystical insights inform many of his theological works. In particular, Von Speyr’s mystical experiences most definitely informed much of Von Balthasar’s Marian speculations and devotions (Roten 1991).
Although von Balthasar did not participate in the Second Vatican Council, he took the work of the Council seriously, calling his theology a “kneeling theology”—obedient to the teaching authority of Mother Church (Henrici 1991). He, like many Council Fathers themselves, did not think that the Council had adequately addressed the theme of Mary. While he welcomed the linking up of Marian theology with ecclesiology, he thought that the council Fathers did not provide the full rationale for taking this step. Nor did they spell out what this step meant for our understanding of the Church itself. He attempted to address these lacunae in some of his most important theological works. In recognition of his many labors, He was made a cardinal by John Paul II in 1988, the year he also died.
Von Balthasar’s Marian ecclesiology
Balthasar had a very definite, if highly speculative, answer to the question as to what the Marian idea had to teach us about the Church. I will first state Balthasar’s general argument concerning Mary and the Church and then unpack that argument in the paragraphs to follow. The central set of concepts that Balthasar contributed (or he would say recovered) for a Marian ecclesiology is, in my view (see also Leahy 2002), the following (see pages 200-206 von Balthasar 1974/2007, and Balthasar/Ratzinger 1980/2007): Given that the Church has a Marian dimension, we must believe that the Church, at least in its Marian inner mystical core, is immaculate, without sin or stain, holy, pure, virginal and incorrupt. That is because Mary as the new Eve has become one flesh with Christ the new Adam. The Church in its truest reality is rooted in the Trinity, and as the mystical body of Christ, is one incorrupt, pure and holy flesh;–derived from the nuptial union of the new Adam (Christ) and the new Eve (Mary).
The primary biblical text that Balthasar refers to again and again in arguing this vision of the Marian Church is Ephesians 5: 25-27 “…just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word,27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.”
Given that Christ made the Church His mystical body, the origin of the Church must be within God Himself and outside of time. The Church must pre-exist in the Trinity from before the foundations of the world (Balthasar/Ratzinger 1980/2007). The Church therefore is immaculate, holy and spotless because it finds it source in the Trinity itself. The “People of God” metaphor or the “Pilgrim Church” metaphors, therefore, cannot be the full story about the Church and if made the sole metaphors would reduce the Church to a mere sociologic entity (Balthasar 1972/2007). The Marian core of the Church is instead supernatural, spotless and without sin.
Balthasar says that the real Church, the true, holy, immaculate Church is composed partly of the communion of saints, that exists across all time epochs, visible on earth and invisible in heaven—an eschatological heavenly city, Jerusalem, spoken of by the Church Fathers and in the apocalypse. In addition, the church is the “woman clothed with the sun” (Rev 12) which is also the sign of this eschatological entity because she gives birth to the savior and she does battle with the serpent. In his forward to “Mary, the Church at the source” an ecclesiological treatise, he states: “The Woman of the Apocalypse (Rev 12) who bears the Savior in the pains of childbirth, is the indivisible unity of God’s entire community of salvation: Israel-Mary-Church.”
While Mary points to this supernatural, immaculate and incorrupt core of the Church, the visible Church is composed of several dimensions that derive their life from the mystical Marian dimension which is always primary for Balthasar (Leahy 2002). The eschatological sign of the woman clothed with the Sun who reigns as Queen in heaven is not the whole story. The heavenly city is only a part of the communion of saints, the invisible part. To get Balthasar’s full story we need to step back and look at Balthasar’s exposition on the various pillars or dimensions of the visible Church. After we have in view these various pillars of the Church we will be better able to see Balthasar’s Marian dimension of the Church in clear perspective.
The pillars of the Church
Balthasar cited Mary as the central pillar of the Church with Peter or the Petrine office as the earthly visible pillar and John the beloved disciple as a mediator between the visible and invisible pillars (Balthasar 1972/2007). To understand the Petrine and Johannine pillars we need to briefly recapitulate some of the Marian themes cited above.
Central to Von Balthasar’s Marian ecclesiology is the Vatican II endorsed notion of the Church as mystery, communion or sacrament (LG chapter I; Wood 2000, Trouve 1998). Interestingly Von Speyr cultivated a special devotion to the Marian mysteries, especially to Mary “Our Lady of the Mantle” (Rotin 1991), the Mother of Jesus shrouded in silence and sorrow, and standing at the foot of the Cross. One of Balthasar’s favorite metaphors for Mary’s role in the Church is that she covers the visible Church with her mantle promoting its hidden works of love, healing and redemption (Balthasar 1972/2007). The signal contribution of chapter 8 of LG for Balthasar was that it raised once again the memory of the Marian mystery as the central pillar of the Church’s life.
Before the Church Fathers restored the link between Mary and ecclesiology the practices of the faithful were realizing this fact in their daily popular devotions to her (Jelly 2000). In these popular devotions to Mary she was deemed immaculate, holy, spotless and supremely close to Jesus. She was treated as a co-redemptorix, along with her son Christ. In the modern era, when the Protestant churches were losing memory of this Marian supernatural purity and mysterion at the center of the Church, popular devotions to Mary were picking up among the Catholic and Orthodox faithful. Marian apparitions, the spread of the rosary, novenas, confraternities and cathedrals devoted to our Lady were all picking up from the middle ages right up to the dawn of the cataclysm of the 20th century. Both Balthasar and Von Speyr attached great spiritual and theological significance to these popular Marian devotions.
Balthasar also attached great theological significance to the spate of Marian apparitions that began to occur throughout the world after the colonization of the world by the European empires. For example, Mary appeared to Juan Diego in 1531 telling him to get the Bishop to build a church in her honor. As the world became one world and entered the modern age, Mary began to appear to other lowly and oppressed peoples, and she had a message for the Church and the modern age. She told Bernadette in 1858 at Lourdes “I am the immaculate conception”. Many more such apparitions were to follow and they were often associated with outpourings of Marian piety among the faithful.
For both von Balthasar and Von Speyr the apparitions meant that Christ wanted to communicate some of his mysteries via the popular devotions to Mary (Rotin 1991). Central to Mary’s message in these apparitions has been to recall that the Church, at its core was like Mary, immaculate, supernaturally incorrupt, holy, pure and spotless. Marian theology had to accommodate these “facts on the ground”. “To the extent to which immaculateness of Mary becomes confirmed…, it can become the original core of that church which remains virginal in relation to her Lord, even in wedded fruitfulness, and which has an all-embracing motherly role in relation to the Church’s paternal and official sphere and in relation to the people as a whole” (Balthasar 1974/2007, 210).
When Balthasar began his mature theological reflections on Marian doctrine after Vatican II, he had the bloody 20th century as background, Von Speyrs mystical experiences, the Marian apparitions and the ambiguous legacy of Vatican II’s reflections on Mary to work with. For Bathasar, Mary’s role in salvation history has to be linked up with the Vatican II idea of Church as sacrament and mystery (Leahy 2002). The triple mystery of Mary’s life as virgin, bride, and Mother is also the mystery of the Church. Like Mary the church is a virgin “spotless and without wrinkle”. She is the bride of Christ and therefore constitutes a nuptial mystery between Christ and His Church, where the two become one flesh. Finally, like Mary the Church is Mother. She gives birth to those reborn in the spirit, now capable of divine filiation.
But the Church in this world is not holy and incorrupt. If the supernatural reality is that the church is holy and incorrupt, its earthly members surely are not. For Balthasar we simply cannot rest knowing that the gates of hell will not prevail against the immaculate invisible Church. We men live in history and a bloodstained history at that. To be in the world but not of it we need the sacraments. For the sacraments we need an apostolic succession and a priesthood, and for these latter charisms and institutions we need a Petrine teaching office. This is the pillar that is counterposed to the Marian mystical core of the Church for Balthasar (Balthasar 1974/2007, 219).
The Marian dimension of the Church, however, comes before the Petrine dimension. This is a key point: If you put the Petrine dimension first and de-emphasize the Marian or the Johannine dimensions you will enhance tendencies for crisis in the church. Balthasar says “Mary as the handmaid of the Lord is in one sense placed on a level with everyone else in the Church…and yet she cannot be put completely on the same level as other believers because only she was Jesus’ physical mother and thus “pre-redeemed”….she is pre-redeemed so that she can give birth to the Redeemer…this is true already from the first moment of the incarnation…” (Balthasar 1980, 139-140), i.e. before the historical last supper and Christ’s crucifixion. Given that Mary’s yes/Fiat was the beginning of the incarnation and given that this was the moment of the birth of the Church itself, it follows (for Balthasar) that “the Church already existed from the time of the incarnation.” The immaculate Church existed before the 12 apostles were called and the Petrine office was instituted by Christ. “The realized idea of the Church comes at the beginning; everything subsequent, even ecclesiastical office with its sacred functions, is secondary…In Mary the Church is embodied even before being organized in Peter” (Balthasar 1980, 140). Thus the Marian element of the Church is prior to its Petrine element. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church put it: “Mary goes before us all in the holiness that is the Church’s mystery as “the bride without spot or wrinkle.” This is why the “Marian” dimension of the Church precedes the “Petrine” (CCC #773).
Von Balthasar added to this a dimension perhaps overlooked? A third pillar of the Church is the Johannine dimension derived from the beloved disciple, John. “In none of the gospels do the Marian and Petrine spheres touch directly. But John is intimately linked with both of them and understand this bond as something laid upon him” (Balthasar 1974/2007 241). The Johannine dimension of the Church plays a mediating role between Peter and Mary. Interestingly, the Marian mystical core of the Church is not given to the Petrine office for protection but is given over to the beloved disciple. At the foot of the cross in John 20, Jesus gives His Mother Mary to John the beloved disciple and he gives John, and in John, all of us, His mother Mary as Mother to all of us in Christ (Balthasar 1972/2007).
To fill out Balthasar’s rich conception of the pillars of the Church we only need briefly mention the Pauline and the Jacobite dimensions-despite their huge importance for the history of the Church. The Pauline dimension mediates the various charisms in the Church and is counterposed to the Jacobite/James, ‘Brother of the Lord’ dimension which mediates the ‘handing down of tradition’ dimension in the Church.
We have now reviewed the essentials of Balthasar’s rich conception of the Marian dimension of the Church. It interacts with the visible dimension of the Church via the Johannine and Petrine offices. If the Petrine dimension loses touch with the Marian the Church draws near to the danger of sinking into a mere sociological organization. If the Johannine dimension loses touch with the Petrine pillar it draws near to the danger of overly mystical excesses and hyper-spiritual Gnostic deviations. In addition if the Johannine dimension loses touch with the Petrine office the Petrine office will lose the ability to protect and serve the Marian dimension. If the Jacobite dimension is neglected the Church will unduly adapt to current circumstances rather than pass on what was given to it intact. If we neglect the Pauline dimension we will get a liturgy without spirit and with empty formalisms. Balthasar never clearly answers who implements the Johannine functions in the Church. He tends to say that these people are the hidden ones and the great doctors and saints of the church. Same with the other dimensions but they all invite further theological investigation.
If we want to reverse the crisis hitting the Catholic church in the modern age we would do well to reinvigorate the Marian pillar of the church. Renewing the Marian dimension recalls the attention of the Church to the supernatural core of the Church. While the Church has never really lost touch with its central immaculate core there was some tendency after Vatican II to emphasize the ‘People of God” metaphor at the expense of the ‘mystical body of Christ’ metaphor and this in turn tended to treat the church as a mere sociologic organization that needed to be democratized and rationalized like any other organization (Ratzinger 2008). For Balthasar, when fathers of Vatican II recovered Mary’s links with ecclesiology they also provided the hints at a corrective against the over-literalizing of the ‘People of God’ motif laid out in other sections of Lumen Gentium. On the other hand all they provided were hints—not a complete theology of Mary and the Church. Indeed the language of chapter 8 of LG tended to treat Mary as merely another member, no matter how foremost, of the Church. Paul VI’s attempts to restore Mary’s mediatory titles in his 1974 exhortation (Paul VI 1974) did not completely address the need for a full Marian ecclesiology either. Balthasar’s effort to meet that need seem to me to be much more successful than earlier efforts.
Balthasar’s fundamental contribution in my view to Marian ecclesiology is that he teaches us to take the incarnation seriously. Just like the Cross, the incarnation has been a stumbling block to people both within and outside the Christian orbit since the days of Jesus himself. The ancient world could not believe that God could become a man. Neither did Jews believe this. Gods could possess human beings and human beings could become godlike but God did not stoop to become man. Flesh was bad and disgusting. Why would God honor it so? But He did, and Bathasar reminds us that certain consequences for Mariological doctrines follow from the central fact of the incarnation.
The flesh that God became was Marian. It depended on Mary’s Fiat. Once she said yes the incarnation began. She gave her flesh so that the Word could become flesh. Her Yes reversed the disobedience exhibited by Eve. Balthasar asks whether any of our Yes-es when we receive the Eucharist would have been possible without Mary’s ability to say Yes (Balthasar/Ratzinger 1980/2007). Before the other pillars of the Church were even aware of Jesus, the Marian pillar was busy at work—though hidden and obscure. Jesus came to self-reflection via reflection in Mary’s consciousness. He came to maturity under Mary and Joesph’s protection and tutelage. To take the incarnation seriously we must grapple with the status of Mary.
Mary cannot be just another creature in need of redemption. She cannot be God either. She is higher than the angels and she is unique among humans given her immaculate conception and glorious assumption into heaven. She is greater than any of the prophets—again because of the incarnation. Her status is therefore unique.
Perhaps the best metaphor or category that the Church theologians and Fathers have come up with to understand Mary is the New Eve. She is, along with Jesus, the first of a new creation. She is an entirely new category of human being. Her flesh is like Jesus’ resurrection body-divinized, -yet still human. She is not to be worshipped. God alone deserves that. But she like all other Mothers deserves veneration. Her status as first of the new creation also gives her powers. She has the ability via her connections to Jesus, to facilitate our re-birth into the new creation as new beings. Devotions and supplications to her, therefore, are legitimate.
As the first of the new creation Mary has a special role to play in the Church. She covers it with her mantle and keeps it spotless. She gives birth to the sons and daughters of the new Jerusalem. She crushes the serpent. Most importantly perhaps she communicates with the saints and doctors of the Church, those members of the Johannine community/pillar, that help the Petrine and other pillars of the Church guide the faithful through the bloodstained fields of history so that they arrive ultimately together at the heavenly Jerusalem.
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Acknowledgement: This piece is excerpted and modified from a longer work by Augustinus submitted to St Joseph’s College in 2012