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Commentary | MICHAEL McGOUGH

After Decades in the Background, Mary's Making a Comeback

June 13, 2005|MICHAEL McGOUGH

When Pope Benedict XVI was presented to the world on April 19, some Catholics were a little dismayed by one part of his greeting: "The Lord will help us, and Mary, his most holy mother, will be alongside us."

For liberal Catholics of a certain age -- my age -- any mention of Mary can be cringe-making. I was appalled, as a post-Vatican II Catholic schoolboy, when my mother passed along a secret about salvation that her mother had imparted to her: "If Jesus won't let you in the front door of Heaven, Mary will let you in the back door."

Charlene Spretnak has a term for Catholics like me: "minimalist Marians." Spretnak, a professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, is the author of "Missing Mary: The Queen of Heaven and Her Re-Emergence in the Modern Church." She takes pity on Catholics who were raised after Mary was "shrunken and suppressed" by the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s.

"I ... have developed a properly 'bad attitude' about the church's drastic reduction of Marian spirituality," Spretnak writes. "The Roman Catholic Church ... had always recognized not only the biblical dimensions of Mary, as do the Protestant and Orthodox branches of Christianity, but also what could be called the biblical-plus perception of her, as do the Orthodox. That is, the church traditionally held that the Virgin Mary, by virtue of her inherent role in the Incarnation, was an expansive bridge between humans and the Divine."

Spretnak, who links Mary with other images of the female divine through the ages -- a comparison she does not see as undermining Mary's distinctive role in Christianity -- might seem an extreme advocate of a Marian restoration, but there are plenty of others in the pro-Mary party. It includes Latinos and other ethnic Catholics for whom icons like the Virgin of Guadalupe are a cultural and theological affirmation. And support for Mary comes too from "triumphalist" Catholics who were disappointed by the Vatican's refusal in the 1990s to declare Mary "co-redemptrix" with Jesus, and even from some Protestants.

Last month, the renewed interest in Mary became the subject an "agreed statement" by the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission -- a panel of bishops and theologians who try to bridge Anglican-Catholic theological differences. The so-called Seattle Statement concluded that it's acceptable for Christians to ask Mary (and other saints) to pray for them. It also tried to put "in a new ecumenical context" two Catholic doctrines that Anglicans, and Protestants generally, have balked at as unscriptural: that Mary was conceived without sin and that she was assumed, bodily, into Heaven. It said, for example, that "God has taken the Blessed Virgin Mary in the fullness of her person into his glory."

The Seattle Statement has met with mixed reviews from other Protestants. David L. Jeffrey, a Baylor University professor, says that evangelicals in particular, wary of doctrines not supported by Scripture, are unlikely to be convinced by the statement's attempt to gloss over differences on the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption. But he says evangelicals probably would find less problematic the notion that Mary and other saints could intercede for the faithful.

Even going that far implies that Mary's revival -- and the Seattle Statement -- could have historic consequences. As Spretnak says, it carves out a middle ground between the "biblical-plus" view of Mary and the view that she is just a "sister" to us humans, not really a unique figure in the story of salvation. It's a "new space entirely," that takes us "much closer to a pre-Reformation, and (for Catholics) a pre-Vatican II position."

There's the rub -- not just for Protestants but for liberal Catholics who are uneasy with such titles for Mary as "Seat of Wisdom" and "Gate of Heaven," which seem to challenge Christ's central role in Christianity.

Still, the doubters may need to get with the program. Mary's comeback as Queen of the Universe makes her, in Spretnak's words, much more than "a nice lady mentioned in the Bible."

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