Something about Mary: Whose Lady is Our Lady?

By Peg Preston, Associate Professor and Chair of the History Department

The majority of my childhood was spent in New Orleans (its French Quarter and Irish channel should suggest the healthy Catholic population there), and while I went to a public high school, I attended Catholic grade schools and had two parents who insisted on regular mass attendance. After graduating from Loyola University in New Orleans (yes, named for Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits), I moved to Dublin, Ireland to get my masters degree. While the media makes much of Ireland’s historic religious divisions — in Dublin you couldn’t throw a stone and not but hit a Catholic. I next attended Boston College for my Ph.D., and there I was back with the Jesuits and, of course, many Irish. When I moved on from Boston to Sioux Falls in 2001, I found myself in a place where Catholics were more outnumbered than with what I was familiar and now I was experiencing a full dose of theological difference. In particular, I was well aware that Protestants had a different — we might even call conflicted — relationship with Mary. However, it was not something that I had spent a lot of time researching, much less dwelling upon. Nevertheless, I had to laugh when during a phone call with my sister, she asked: “Peggy, do Protestants pray the rosary?”

Now, as a child attending Catholic school, Mary featured a great deal. Our Lady has a good few Holy Days of Obligation dedicated to her. We can begin with January 1, and the Solemnity of Mary, The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is celebrated on August 15, while the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception is December 8. Of course, technically, Mary features during All Saints Day, Christmas, Easter and, ultimately, the month of May is all hers. Thus, during my childhood, there were lots of opportunities to celebrate Mary and, of course, to pray the rosary. Again, without much depth of thought, I believed that everyone understood Mary as I had been taught — one prays to her for her intercession — that she would act on your behalf with her Son. I was somewhat aware, but did not deeply consider the fact that there were those who did overstate, if not overstep, the Catholic Church’s position regarding Mary.

Hence, now having lived in Sioux Falls for over ten years, I have finally gotten a chance to know a healthy cohort of Protestants (among other faiths, of course), and Mary has returned from my childhood. Increasingly, I have wondered exactly where the divisions between Christian churches regarding Mary can be found and thus, when my sister asked me about Protestants praying the rosary, I replied: “No, Molly they don’t.” I then went on to somewhat accurately (but mostly wrongly) suggest it was during the Reformation that things got tough for Our Lady. What I have learned after doing a bit more investigation is that opinions and disagreements about Mary date back long before the Reformation and the Reformers were not the first to “toss Mary overboard”. Thus, Mary’s history, and my lack of a full understanding of its complex nature has made her as much a stranger to me as a Catholic as she may be to many Protestants.

In his “Woman of Many Names: Mary in Orthodox and Catholic Theology,” Brian Daly discusses the debates and disagreements about Mary that developed in the 500 years after Christ’s death.  It seems that the earliest debates were over what to call Mary and whether she could be referred to as Theotokos or “God-bearer.” Next, theologians deliberated over Mary’s death and assumption into heaven. Daly notes that by the 8th century, Mary’s position had shifted from being about her as “guarantor of the human reality of Jesus’ flesh…to being a person with a continuing role in assuring Christians of their own salvation.”  To put it simply, by the Middle Ages (which was after the split between the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches) for both Eastern and Western Churches, Mary had become the one who speaks on humanity’s behalf or, in other words, an intercessor. It seems, however, that it was here in the Middle Ages that we can truly mark the beginnings of Mary’s problems.

While both Orthodox and Roman Catholic theologians spoke of Mary’s purity and holiness, the Western church was increasingly speaking of her Immaculate Conception (that Mary was born without original sin) which was something avoided by Orthodox scholars. It was also at this point that the Roman Catholic Church began to formulate a set of dogmas that established Mary as “Mother of God”, her virginal conception and her lifelong virginity. This is when the Orthodox Church further distanced itself and “abstained from enforcing any dogmatic formulations concerning Mary, except that she was truly and really the Theotokos...” However, as Daly points out, other than this, “both branches of Christianity affirm much the same understanding of the uniquely privileged relation of Mary to Christ and to the rest of redeemed humanity.”

Yet, this does not answer the question regarding what happened after the Reformation … or does it? The Reformers’ emphasis on clear biblical interpretation is where we find a greater gulf between Catholics and Protestants. For many Protestants, Roman Catholic dogma about Mary is problematic because while they accept the virgin birth, they do not adhere to the Catholic Church’s argument of Mary’s lifelong virginity. This should be no surprise given Reformers’ call for adherence to biblical evidence. Indeed, it is quite legitimate to advocate that Catholics pause and question their Church’s statements about Mary, given that some of these assertions lack any Biblical substantiation.

Nevertheless, Timothy George stresses that Protestants have too long been too concerned about Mary’s virginity and should return to focus more on her maternity.  In addition, George suggests that Protestants have failed to separate Catholic teaching from a certain over-reaching Marian devotion; Protestants should remember that Mary “is to perform a ministry of unity with the body of Christ.” George reminds us that Mary’s significance for Luther was as the person God chose for his “shekinah glory to enter most deeply into the human story” and as the one who hears God’s Word and responds in faith, “Mary was a disciple before she was a mother.” Thus, George argues that when we praise Mary “it is God whom we praise for his gracious favor in his chosen handmaid.”

As I have come to “Face the Stranger”, I have realized that Mary’s position in history is sadly riven by debates that fail to maintain focus on the frightening step she took to become Christ’s first disciple. Ultimately, while Christians will long continue to debate the state of Our Lady, at the end of the day, we may want to remember a simple point made by the great German theologian Karl Rahner: “Mary is in the most perfect way possible redeemed and graced. She is the full representation of what a redeemed person is and can be.”

* I would like to thank Jan Brue Enright, Geoffrey Dipple and Murray Haar for reading drafts of this paper.
1  Brian E. Daly, S.J. “Woman of Many Names: Mary in Orthodox and Catholic Theology” Theological Studies 71 (2010): 846-869. Daly is the Catherine F. Huisking Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame.
2  Daly, “Woman of Many Names,” 853.
3  Daly, “Woman of Many Names,” 861.
4  Timothy George, “The Blessed Virgin Mary in Evangelical Perspective” Mary Mother of God eds. Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jensen (Cambridge: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2004), 109. George is the dean of the Beeson Divinity School at Samford University. While George, a Baptist, directs his discussion in this chapter particularly toward evangelicals, he suggests that his points have relevance for Protestants generally.
5  George, “The Blessed Virgin Mary,” 113. Daly also warns that devotion to Marian apparitions instead of a focus on the Scripture is a very real issue. Daly, “Woman of Many Names,” 867.
6  George, “The Blessed Virgin Mary,” 116.
7  Daly, “Woman of Many Names,” 865.