Reconsidering Mary: An Exchange Between Readers and J. Michael Miller

Marian Feminism

Although I agree with the subtitle of J. Michael Miller’s article on Mariology and feminism in the September issue of Crisis (“Reconsidering Mary: Feminist Criticism Deserves a Response”), I agree only partially with the response he gives. Let me say at the outset that I still consider myself a feminist, even though modern feminists no longer consider me one. I was active at the beginning of the women’s movement and still believe in most of the ideals that we set forth then. However, I cannot agree with the modern feminists who object to the Church as a “patriarchal” institution.

I was raised as an atheist, and one of the things that led me to Catholicism was the evidence that it was the only “institution” in the history of humankind that had persistently avoided sexism, had given women honor and acceptance that no other institution had ever done, had in fact given women a refuge from sexism in every age. After I became a Catholic and began reading feminist theology, I found that theology nearly incomprehensible and, if I may use the term, silly.

My first quibble with Prof. Miller’s argument, then, is that these feminist critics will not accept the response that he proposes. The critics whom he cites reject not only the traditional view of Mary but also the traditional view of Jesus; just as they say they cannot identify with a virgin free of original sin, they also say they cannot identify with Jesus because He was a man. The question remains as to whether they can identify with anyone who is not exactly like them as they would like to see themselves.

Another question is whether we need to “identify” at all in the sense that they and Prof. Miller use the term. If Mary—or Jesus, for that matter—is to be a role model, she (or He) cannot be like us as we are right now; if they were, we would have nothing to strive for. Furthermore, if we demand exact congruence to our own lives, we have to discard everyone who lived in other times and other places; men must not admire Teresa of Avila, nor women Thomas Aquinas; city dwellers may not look to rural figures; and so on ad absurdum. Relevance is more than contemporaneity and congruence, as I keep trying to convince my own college students who cannot see anything “relevant” in literature written by or about people who lived before last weekend.

Prof. Miller does raise a crucial point in his article, but seems to gloss over its greatest importance: the fact that Jesus subjugated His will to the Father’s as much as Mary did. If we discard Mary as being too submissive a model for women, we must discard Jesus as well. What of Jesus’s instruction to “Learn of me, for I am meek and humble of heart”? Jesus was a very manly man, just as Mary was a womanly woman, and both of them humbled themselves before the Father. Humility is a virtue for everyone, especially before the Lord. Jesus had some rather unpleasant words for people (even men) who sought “empowerment.”

As for the so-called patriarchal nature of the Church, the historical evidence indicates otherwise. A brief tour through the old Butler’s Lives of the Saints will yield as many female as male figures, figures from every walk of life. Regardless of how legendary some of the stories may be, the point is that the Church, in holding up these female figures for admiration and imitation, has not only rewarded women equally with men, but has also judged women by the same standards as men. This was one of the main arguments of the early women’s movement: that a patriarchal society (although we did not use the term then) does not expect anything of women.

But the Church has always expected equal things of men and women alike. There has been no double standard. And against the feminist claim that the Church has imposed a Madonna/whore dichotomy on women, the lives of the women saints include virgins, wives, mothers, writers, administrators, missionaries, even one soldier, and, yes, a number of repentant whores, just as the male saints include repentant whores (e.g., St. Augustine), thieves, and murderers.

We might note, too, that Jesus was also a virgin. Does that fact make him “irrelevant” to non-celibate men? Does it produce a hero/whore dichotomy regarding men? If not, we may want to consider the difference between actual causation and things that people use as excuses for their own bad impulses.

Perhaps my historical perspective is colored by my study of literature, but the study of literature again suggests that Catholics throughout history did not hold the view of women that the new feminists at-tribute to them. Prof. Miller also alludes to this fact, but too briefly in an aside. Medieval and Renaissance literature is filled with “capable women” who serve as instructors to and examples for men, many of these women quite active ones, as opposed to the Patient Griselda figure too often emphasized today. Women writers, too, were highly honored by the Church in ages when secular women writers were unheard of.

One of my favorite examples, outside the usual canon of spiritual writers (and the fact that we do have women writers in the canon should give us pause), is Hroswita, a tenth-century Saxon nun whose plays debunk the secular double standard; in one play, three early Christian martyrs in fact give a very modern-sounding rebuttal of the male impulse to view female rape victims as accomplices in their victimization. The point that we should stress about Hroswita’s plays is that we would not now have the manuscripts if Hroswita’s superiors—and male bishop—had objected to them. The plays were apparently thought orthodox and worthy enough to be copied by male scribes and given to men to read.

If there is some need, then, to redevelop a Mariology for today, one that speaks to “North American women and men” (in Prof. Miller’s phrase), I should like to suggest that we reinvestigate the forms of veneration that produced the only equality of men and women in our history. In particular, I suggest we reemphasize the rosary. No one who meditates on the mysteries of the rosary can reduce Mary to a wishy-washy, subjugated figure, or fail to see her relevance to our lives, or the congruence between her and her Son. All five joyful mysteries and two of the glorious mysteries focus on her in her various roles, and of the remaining eight mysteries, she is at least implicitly present in four. Her independence and strength of character are evident in all of them—and there is some important female bonding in the second joyful mystery, the visit to Elizabeth. In addition, the sorrowful mysteries focused on Jesus present a man in a helpless, submissive role—not a powerful male counterpart to a submissive woman, but man and woman alike undergoing hardships on the journey to perfect happiness in the culminating mysteries. The rosary begins and ends with Mary, including the final Chaucerian cry to our Holy Queen, enfolding the history of the Man-God. What could be more inspiring to women, or more instructive to men?

Prof. Phoebe S. Spinrad from Columbus, Ohio


Theological Fact

In his otherwise excellent article, the Rev. J. Michael Miller asserts, “Although popular devotion has assumed that Mary’s virginity exempted her from sexual desire, no theological reason justifies this opinion.” That Mary was exempted from sexual desire is not mere opinion, but theological fact.

It is a common teaching of the Church that “from her conception Mary was free from all motions of concupiscence” (Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma). According to St. Thomas, concupiscence means “inordinate desires” proceeding from the fomes which is one consequence of original sin. In his treatment of the question, “Whether the Blessed Virgin was cleansed from the infection of the fomes?”, St. Thomas answers, “by [her] sanctification in the womb, the Virgin was not freed from the fomes in its essence, but that it remained fettered… by reason of the abundant grace bestowed on her in her sanctification, and still more perfectly by Divine Providence preserving her sensitive soul, in a singular manner, from any inordinate movement. Afterwards, however, at the conception of Christ’s flesh, in which for the first time immunity from sin was to be conspicuous, it is to be believed that entire freedom from the fomes redounded from the Child to the Mother” (Summa theologiae, III, 27, 3).

Fr. Miller goes on to write, “If Jesus ‘was tempted in every way that we are, yet never sinned’ (Hebrews 4:15), it is reasonable to assume that Mary, too, was tempted.” This serious misunderstanding is once again corrected by St. Thomas: “Since in Christ the virtues were in their highest degree, the fomes of sin was nowise in him” (Summa theologiae, III, 15, 2). St. Thomas continues, “And although He suffered no internal assault of the part of the fomes of sin, He sustained an external assault on the part of the world and the devil, and won the crown of victory by overcoming them” (ibid., ad obj. 3).

Furthermore, the Second Council of Constantinople in 553 declared against Theodore of Mopsuestia, “If anyone defends [the thesis] that Christ was subject to disturbance by the passions of the soul and by the desires of the body… let him be anathema.”

Thus, theological fact is at the basis of the Church’s popular devotion, particularly that express¬ed in these titles of the Litany of Loreto: “Mater purissima, Mater castissima, Mater inviolata, Mater intemerata, ora pro nobis.”

George Nesbit from Pittsfield, Massachusetts


Male Attention

It sounds strange to say I look forward to every Crisis. I especially liked the September issue’s “Reconsidering Mary,” although all the articles were good. A few additional thoughts on Mary and the feminists.

At the risk of sounding condescending, has anybody looked in on the probable motivation of feminists? I’m suggesting that not only can we learn by listening to their lament, as Fr. Miller points out, but perhaps we can benefit just as much by monitoring their probable motives.

The feminist seems to be a person who has been rebuffed, perhaps at the formative age, by male authority. Imagine the self-perception of the little girl who “owns” the attention, love, and service of that powerful “Lord and Master” to whom even her own mother defers. I think every little daughter senses the mutual paradise of a happy, loving, father-daughter relationship. Imagine the sadness, and the eventual frustration and resentment of that little one whose father is much too busy, or much too drunk, to give her his time.

I think the feminist is the person who has despaired of male attention and has opted for the male role itself, including not only, as they see it, “power,” but also (as seems apparent with Rosemary Radford Ruether) revenge!

Tony Atkinson from Martinsburg, West Virginia


Bending Over Backward

While I agreed with many points made by J. Michael Miller, the general approach of his response to those who put down Marian spirituality I felt to be wrong-headed. The psychological impact and historical motivation of a defined doctrine are one thing: the doctrine’s truth is another. He speaks repeatedly of Mary as a symbol and talks of changes in emphasis. She is a fact before she is a symbol, and changes in emphasis can be very dangerous. The end result of such changes in emphasis is that truths no longer are taught because they have fallen out of fashion. (I can picture a teacher being told by a speaker at a catechetical conference: “Don’t give the children a negative attitude by telling them about the Virgin Mother, but tell them about the Refugee Mother.”)

Before engaging in debates about things religious and Catholic, one must first ask whether the partners in debate are coming from a position of faith or not. The arguments of the feminists he quotes do not seem to follow from a position of faith, for they talk only of symbols. Like the Thomists of the late middle ages in their debates with Scotists, Miller has countered the feminists’ position, but he has conceded by accepting their terms of argument.

Perhaps there is a subtle undercurrent in all this. On the one hand you have the Blessed Virgin Mary, on the other hand the paradigmatic American woman (the media creation), specifically those who have said their own fiat to the demands made upon them by contemporary American culture. As modern existentialists like to point out, you cannot avoid decisions, for even not to decide is to have decided. In either case there is a fiat. Could it be that the latter is being recommended as a role model and the former should be brought in line with the latter?

There is no evidence that the paradigmatic American woman is happy in her economic and reproductive independence. A case could be made that these liberties are really servitudes. The mother who can work in the marketplace quickly becomes the mother who must: the woman who can say “yes” without fear of pregnancy is going to be the woman who cannot say “no.” As for the passive role of the woman, this may be unpleasant, but it is biologically a fact. A woman can become pregnant even if unconscious, but a man cannot impregnate without consciously initiating an action (this is the case even in artificial insemination).

A third point: “Classical Mariology curtailed man’s ability to identify with Mary.” It is enough to call to mind St. Louis Grignon, Maria de Montfort, and St. Maximilian Mary Kolbe (indeed any of the saints), who found much to imitate in Mary. Miller’s statement would be as ridiculous as saying that classical Christology curtails women’s ability to identify with Christ. By the same token, gentiles, or short people, would have difficulties.

Again, none of the problems the author feels compelled to tackle arise if one regards the content of the Catholic faith as factual. If one is dealing with a game of mere symbols, anything goes. You may play or you may choose not to, and if you do you are free to make up your own rules.

Hugh McDonald from Tepatitlan, Mexico


The Author Replies to His Critics

I should have known my article “Reconsidering Mary” was open to misinterpretation when a colleague of mine distributed it (favorably) to her class on feminist literature. Although I secretly congratulate myself on being able to bend over backward, to give the enemy “his/her” due, I accept that this fairness was purchased at too high a price.

Believe me, I am not naive about the real agenda of radical feminists. Insofar as they are convinced that their duty is to unmask “massive distortions” in the Christian tradition, which began with the New Testament itself, these feminists are wrong. Any theology, feminist or otherwise, which tries to recreate the origins of Christianity on the grounds that from the beginning there was a tragic flaw in the Church’s living and recording of revelation ceases to be Catholic.

But I must also make a case for those who are not quite radical feminists —the many women, especially young women, and some men, too, who need to hear that many of their concerns “for women” find an answer in the riches of the Church’s Marian tradition.

Prof. Spinrad is right; the radical feminists will not be convinced by anything I say. Perhaps the less radical, the not-so-sure, might be.

My critics, however, raise three more substantive objections: that I treat Mary as only a symbol, that I misunderstand her as a role model, that I hold heretical views on Mary’s freedom from concupiscence.

Mr. McDonald is not accurate in claiming that I speak “repeatedly of Mary as a symbol.” I mention her symbolic role because the Church’s perceptions of Mary have changed over the centuries. How else would a living organism stay alive? I readily accept that Mary is, as he says so well, “a fact before she is a symbol.” But I do not share the feminist idea that Mary is only a symbol for different causes—whether it be proto-feminism or liberation theology. Such rhetoric attempts to manipulate Mary and make her serve special interests.

I side with Karl Rahner here. Asked for his opinion on the reason for the decline in Marian devotion in the post-conciliar years, he quipped: “The special temptation that affects Christians today, Protestants and Catholics alike, is the temptation to turn the central truths of faith into abstractions, and abstractions have no need of mothers.” Any symbolic manipulation of Mary must, I agree, be resisted. But “changes in emphasis,” although they “can be very dangerous,” as Mr. McDonald warns us, are not necessarily so. Indeed, I would suggest that from the rich treasury of Marian dogmas and titles, we need to emphasize more than ever her maternity coupled with discipleship. To a culture which is proud of its ability to “go beyond” what is sometimes derided as “mere biological motherhood” Mary’s maternity is a symbolic corrective, precisely, of course, because she was a real mother.

Essential to the Church’s Marian tradition is the importance attributed to Our Lady as a role model for men and women. If Mr. McDonald is worried that my real role model is “the paradigmatic American woman” and that Mary should symbolically confirm this, I can assure him that this is not so. To be a role model is to draw our vision beyond ourselves. I agree with Prof. Spinrad that we cannot demand “exact congruence” to our own lives from those whom we should imitate, but I would also suggest that without any points of congruence imitation ceases to be a real possibility. The rules of analogy call for some similarity, though there is even greater dissimilarity.

What I am arguing is that at this juncture the points of similarity between ourselves and Mary might well be preached to draw more people into accepting her as their role model. Undoubtedly the saints had sensibilities such that they encountered no difficulty in imitating Mary. Most of us, however, need some pointers. A “flesh and blood” Mary—so opposed to the merely symbolic—gives many of us the hook we need to enter more deeply into the heart of Our Lady.

Mr. Nesbit raises the objection which I consider to be very serious and which demands the most careful answer. When I wrote that “no theological reason” could justify that Mary was “exempted from sexual desire” I admit to imprecision. I should have said that it is possible to hold that Mary might well have been subject to sexual temptations. My unfortunate choice of the word “desire” unnecessarily confuses the issue. It suggests that such temptations were internal, from concupiscence. As Mr. Nesbit documents, very good theological reasons, including those offered by St. Thomas Aquinas, the Common Doctor of the Church, can be given for holding that Mary was free from concupiscence as a result of her immaculate conception. Indeed, this is the “common teaching” of the Church, sententia communis, as the once frequently used theological notes label it.

I am not sure, however, what Mr. Nesbit means by saying that Mary’s freedom from concupiscence is a “theological fact.” If he means no more than what I have conceded, then fine. If he means to confuse this with a dogma of faith, however, then he is claiming too much from the sources. It might be “offensive to pious ears” to suggest that Mary could have been subject to concupiscence, as are all the baptized, but it is not contrary to the Church’s teaching. To be subject to temptation is not to give in to it. Mary succeeded in integrating all her passions, adapting everything to its proper place, never failing in her unqualified submission to God’s plan. But just as she could have sinned, but did not sin, so she could have been tempted, but not yield.

In his concern with the nature of Christ’s temptations, Mr. Nesbit cites St. Thomas to the effect that Jesus suffered no “internal assault,” no inner inclination to evil, the concupiscence experienced by fallen man. But is all sexual temptation only the result of concupiscence? The Scriptures do tell us unequivocally that “he was tempted in every way that we are, yet never sinned” (Hebrews 4:15). It is difficult to accept that this “every way that we are” necessarily excludes the possibility of Our Lord himself being externally tempted in this way by the prince of darkness. My own opinion is that such temptations were not the manifestation of concupiscence, but my reason for this is not the authority of canon 12 of the Second Council of Constantinople. Mr. Nesbit cites a portion of the canon, but the real error is the Nestorian dualism of Theodore of Mopsuestia “who said that the Word is one while Christ is another.” The primary object of the canon is not to settle definitively the reason for Christ’s impeccability. In any case, I think a distinction should be made, whatever the conclusions one draws, between Jesus who could not sin (non posse peccare), though he was tempted, but did not, from Mary who could have sinned (posse non peccare) but did not.

J. Michael Miller, C.S.B.

Chairman, Dept. of Theology of University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas


  • Rev. J. Michael Miller

    John Michael Miller, CSB (born 1946) is a Canadian prelate of the Roman Catholic Church. He is currently Archbishop of Vancouver and its 475,000 Catholics. Miller, who prefers to be known as J. Michael Miller, succeeded to this post in January 2009, after serving as Coadjutor Archbishop from June 1, 2007.

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