Mary’s Divine Motherhood



“My soul is glorifying the Lord and my spirit rejoicing in God my Savior” (Lk. 1:46). With this antiphon Our Blessed Mother herself began an everlasting hymn of praise to the Majesty of God for the wondrous mystery of divine motherhood which God had worked in her. Each succeeding generation has added its voice to the chorus according to Mary’s prophecy, to glorify the divine goodness “whose mercy is from generation to generation” (Lk. 1:50). In making Mary His Mother, God has poured forth on her all the treasures which His loving omnipotence could confer on a person who is not God Himself. Because Mary is God’s Mother, she stands next to her divine Son, at the summit of creation, above the angels and saints, having within her the very fullness of divine grace and purity and holiness. As Pius XII wrote in his encyclical Fulgens Corona, “A higher office than this (the divine motherhood) does not seem possible; since it requires the greatest dignity and sanctity after Christ, it demands the fullest perfection of divine grace and a soul free from every sin. Indeed, all the privileges and graces with which her soul and her life were endowed in so extraordinary a manner and measure, seem to flow from this sublime vocation of Mother of God, as from a pure and hidden source.” (1)


The divine motherhood is not only Mary’s greatest privilege, but it is the key to the understanding of all her other privileges. Not only does this truth hold the primacy in Mariology, but it is so intimately connected with the whole economy of salvation in Christ that for the past 1500 years the recognition of Mary as Mother of God has been a touchstone of Christian orthodoxy. For if Mary is not truly the Mother of God, then her Son, Christ Our Redeemer, is not true God as well as true man; moreover, His salvific work for the Redemption of mankind would be nothing more than vapid imaginings of a restoration that had never taken place.


In one brief article it is obviously impossible to treat adequately of this great privilege of Mary which seems to exploit the very omnipotence of God Himself. (2) We shall limit ourselves here to the following points: 1. the revealed fact of the divine motherhood in Scripture, Tradition, and history: 2. an attempt at delineating the essence of the divine motherhood; 3. some reflections on the relationship of Mary’s motherhood to her other privileges.


I. The Fact of Divine Motherhood


For Mary to be the Mother of God, two things are necessary: first, that she be really the Mother of Jesus; and second, that this Jesus whom she bore be really God. If both these conditions are fulfilled, Mary is truly the Mother of God.


Hence we must try to understand what exactly is meant when it is said that Mary is a real mother and then why it must follow that, if Mary’s child is God, Mary is truly the Mother of God.


Every man who comes into the world has a mother who has conceived him, carried him in her womb, and brought him forth. A woman is prepared for motherhood from the very beginning of her life by the feminine structure of her body. On coming to puberty she develops within herself maternal ova designed to issue in children of her womb when fertilized by the male sperm. This fertilization disposes the ovum in such a way that it calls for the creation and infusion of a rational soul on the part of God. In the very instant that the soul is infused and a new being essentially like herself is formed in her womb, a woman is said to conceive or generate a child. A tiny globular embryo at first, the child is nourished in her womb from her bloodstream and develops there in the course of nine months into a recognizable human baby. Then the mother brings him forth into the world.


No woman can be said to be a mother in the proper sense of the word unless she has generated a child. Generation requires, first of all, that the offspring be a living subsistent being. (3) For what is generated is a being existing completely in itself, not in another, as, for example, a part exists in a whole. It would be wrong, therefore, to say that a woman who conceives a child generates his body or his soul or his nature; these are only parts of her child. She generates the whole child, the being which exists completely in itself. That is why your mother is the mother of you, not the mother of your nature or your body or your soul. (4)


Second, generation requires that the offspring be of the same nature as the parent. This point is too obvious to dwell upon; for God the Father generates God the Son; human parents generate human children, doves generate doves, giraffes generate giraffes.


Third, part of the very substance of the parent must pass into the substance of the child, so that the child is really from the substance of the parent; otherwise there is no real generation, no real fatherhood or motherhood. Hence adopting a child can never bring about real parenthood. Or suppose that God should create out of nothing a child’s body as well as his soul and lodge it in the womb of a woman in such a way that the child would develop there and be delivered by way of natural birth, even then the woman would not really generate the child and thus be its true mother; it would not be from her own flesh that the child had originated. It may seem useless to emphasize this rather obvious point, but it has been misunderstood in the past.


Fourth, the child must originate from that part of the parent which has the specific design and function of bringing about the same kind of nature in the offspring. If God should form an infant from the heart of a woman or from any part of her body other; than from her maternal ova, she could not be truly said to generate the child and to be its mother. The child must originate from the seed or ova of the parent; otherwise there is no true generation. (5) We do not say that Adam generated Eve, that he was the father of Eve; for although Eve originated from Adam’s flesh, she did not come from his seed.


Unless all these elements of generation are verified in the production of her child, no woman can be properly said to be a mother.


Mary the Mother of Jesus


It is astonishing with what clarity the Scriptures speak of Mary as a genuine mother. From the beginning of God’s revelation of the promised Redeemer, it was clear that He would have a real mother. He would be the “seed of a woman” (Gen. 3:15), a descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, of the seed of David according to the flesh (Rom. 1:3; Acts 2:30), a shoot that would spring from the root of Jesse (Isa. 11:1), the fruit of a virginal womb (Isa. 7:14). By the power of the Most High and the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit (Mt. 1: 18-25; Lk. 1:35), Mary would conceive Jesus as her own Son (Lk. 1:31), and bring Him forth (Lk. 2:7; Mt. 1:16). From her He was made (Gal. 4:4), the fruit of her womb (Lk. 1:42). She gave Him His name and brought Him up as her Son (Lk. 2), a man in all things like the rest of men, except sin (Hebr. 4:15).

Difficulty begins to arise only when we try to understand how the Mother of Jesus is truly the Mother of God. We know from Scripture and Tradition that Jesus, the Son of Mary, is the only-begotten Son of God. He has a human nature which He received from His Mother, and He is therefore man like ourselves. But He is not a human person. He is a divine Person who is also man, who subsists not only in the divine nature which He receives in eternity from the Eternal Father, but also in the human nature He has received in time from His human mother. Mary, therefore, in generating her Son, did not generate a human person. Does, then, the mere fact that she gave a human nature to the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity give us the right to say that she generated that divine Person, that she is truly the Mother of God?


We have seen that the object of generation, the being which is generated, is not just a part of the offspring, but the whole being existing completely in itself at the term of generation. If the offspring has an intellectual nature, as is the case in all human generation, then it is a person. Hence a woman’s motherhood always refers to the person of her child. What she mothers, what she generates or conceives, is a person. (6)


The very way in which we speak about a mother makes this truth clear to us. We say, for example, that St. Monica was the mother of St. Augustine. St. Augustine is a person. We ask: “Who is your mother?” or “Whose mother is she?” Who and Whose refer only to persons. Thus we see that our very manner of speaking about a mother and her child indicates that the relationship of mother to child is one of person to person; in other words, what a woman mothers is a person.


It is true, however, that a mother is not the cause of the soul or the personality of her child except in so far as she provides the matter disposed in such a way that it requires the creation of the soul of her child immediately by God. But even though a mother is not the total cause of her child, even though what she gives him by her own proper activity is not his soul nor his personality but only the flesh of his human nature, nevertheless she is truly his mother, the mother of the person of her child.

Although what she gives of her own is only part of her child, she is mother of the whole child.


If Mary did for Jesus everything that any human mother does for her child, then Mary is as much the mother of the person of Jesus as any other woman is the mother of her child. The fact that Jesus had no human father does not make Mary any less His mother. The essential difference between purely human motherhood and divine motherhood is not that Mary did something more or something different in the conception of her child. It is simply this: Mary’s Child is a divine Person, whereas the child of an ordinary mother is a human person.


We know that only God can create the soul of a child and make soul and body as one human nature exist completely in itself; in other words, God alone makes the human nature exist as a human person. Personality is the term of human generation as a gift from God, rather than as produced by human generation. (7) Hence human motherhood is not in the least interfered with or compromised, if God creates the soul in the flesh provided by maternal activity in such a way that the human nature produced does not exist completely in itself as a human person, but is assumed by a divine Person. If instead of giving human personality as the term of maternal activity, God gives the divine Person of His own Son to be clothed with a woman’s flesh, then far from interfering with her motherhood, this action of God raises it to “an almost infinite dignity.” (8) For such a mother bears the most perfect Son that can possibly be born. The divine motherhood leads us right into the heart of the Christian mystery: the unfathomable truth that Jesus Christ is both true God and true man, in whom the human nature received from His human mother and the divine nature received from His eternal Father are united in the one Person of the Son of God. Unless Jesus is true man, Mary cannot be a true mother. Unless the Child Jesus born of Mary is a divine Person and God Himself, Mary cannot be called the Mother of God.


The Scriptures on Divine Motherhood


Although the Scriptures do not explicitly call Mary the Mother of God, the angel Gabriel at the Annunciation speaks of the Child Mary is to conceive as the “Son of the Most High,” “the Son of God” (Lk. 1:32, 35). Elizabeth salutes Mary as the Mother of her Lord (Lk. 1:43). Although Lord (Kyrios) is employed in the New Testament for man as well as for God, in the present context it seems more certain that the Holy Spirit revealed the mystery of the Incarnation to Elizabeth in full. When she asks why should “the mother of My Lord come to me?” Elizabeth speaks of the same Lord of whom Mary sings: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (Lk. 1:47). (9) It is beyond the scope of this essay to expound the testimony of Scripture regarding the divinity of Mary’s Son. Still, because this truth is at the very foundation of the divine motherhood, it may be well to recall the precious prologue of St. John’s gospel in which he trumpets forth the divinity of Jesus Christ. The Word is God, he says (Jn. 1:1). God the Word was made flesh (1:14). God the Word-made-flesh is Jesus Christ, of whom John the Baptist gave testimony (1:15-17). Jesus Christ is Mary’s Son.


In the Synoptics we read that when Jesus was on trial for His life before the Sanhedrin, He professed under oath (Mt. 26:63, 64) that He was the Christ, the Son of God, and was charged guilty of death for blasphemy (Mk. 14:64), a charge having no meaning unless His claim meant equality with God Himself. Moreover, at least three times Jesus is explicitly called God by the Apostles. Recall the profession of faith on the part of doubting Thomas, as Jesus shows him the wound in His side: “My Lord and my God” (Jn. 20:28). St. John in his first epistle is direct and explicit about the divinity of Christ:


We know also that the Son of God is come, and has given us understanding to know Him who is true: and we are in Him who is true—in His Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and life eternal (1 Jn. 5:20).


Furthermore, St. Paul not only says that “God sent His Son, born of a woman” (Gal. 4:4), that Jesus was “in the form of God” (i.e., by nature God) and regarded Himself “equal to God” (Phil. 2:6), but speaks of “Christ in the flesh, who exalted about all things is God blessed forever” (Rom. 9:5). (10)


Therefore, even though Mary is never explicitly called the Mother of God in Scripture, she is explicitly called the Mother of the Lord, the Mother of Jesus; and her Son Jesus, whom she conceived, is explicitly called God. Mary is the Mother of God.


History and Tradition


The history of the Church’s teaching is to a great extent the history of her combat with error. Her infallible authority to interpret the deposit of faith and guard it from error leads the Church to define more and more precisely her own teaching. So it has been with the doctrine of Mary’s divine motherhood.


In the very early ages of Christianity belief in Mary’s divine motherhood found its expression in the creed attributed to the Apostles. According to the form in use at the time of Hippolytus (c. 215), the catechumens were asked: (11)


Dost thou believe in Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary. . . .


St. Ignatius of Antioch, a bishop and martyr who died shortly after the close of the first century, and who was probably a disciple of the Apostles themselves, is an eloquent witness to the early teaching of the Church. In his letter to the Ephesians he says: (12)


God our Lord Jesus Christ was born in the womb by Mary, according to the dispensation of God, from the seed of David, by the power of the Holy Spirit.

As Mary can be the Mother of God only if she is truly the mother of Jesus and if her son Jesus is truly God, distorted views of the Word’s Incarnation logically involve a denial of the divine motherhood. The basic errors about the Incarnation are two: 1. Jesus, the Son of God, did not really become flesh, at least not flesh of our flesh, and hence cannot be said to have had a mother in any real sense; 2. the man, Jesus, who was born of Mary was only a human person, not the second Person of the Blessed Trinity. Therefore we can trace the history of the Church’s teaching on Mary’s divine motherhood by studying the Church’s reaction to each of these two heretical tendencies.


Gnosticism


The first great menace to the doctrine of the divine motherhood was Gnosticism. (13) While to the Jews it appeared blasphemous for any man to call himself the Son of God, the stumbling block for the Gnostics was rather that any god and savior of mankind should become incarnate by taking to himself real human flesh from a woman. To them the flesh was an evil thing, coming from an absolute source of all evil; the body was to be despised, abhorred, even annihilated. While the concern of true Christianity was the redemption and restoration of the flesh through the Incarnation, death, and resurrection of a divine Person, the main doctrine of Gnosticism was redemption from the flesh by a process of purification and deliverance from the flesh through knowledge (gnosis).


Basic in nearly every form of Gnosticism was a fundamental dualism between matter and spirit; it was impossible for any good god or savior of mankind to become enfleshed or to be born of the human substance of a woman. One form in which the Gnostic mind expressed itself was called Docetism—from the Greek word dokein, meaning “to seem,” “to appear,” “to make believe.” These “make-believers” as Ignatius of Antioch called them, taught that Christ’s body was but a phantom, that “the Savior was unborn, incorporeal and without form . . . a man only in appearance.” (14)

Valentinus taught that although Christ had a real body, it was not a material body like our own, but a celestial body, which came down from heaven into this world by merely passing through Mary’s body, as through a channel. Marcion went so far in his effort to obliterate any recollection of Christ’s human descent from David through Mary, that he not only discarded the Old Testament completely but even rewrote the New Testament according to his own Gnostic views. In Marcion’s gospel, Christ appears as a full-grown man without any human parents. Marcion turns the words of Christ, “Who is my mother and who are my brethren?” into a proof that Christ had no mother whatsoever.


St. Ignatius of Antioch about the year 110 is already warning the Christians of Trallia against such doctrine: (15)


Stop your ears therefore when anyone speaks to you who stands apart from Jesus Christ, from David’s scion and Mary’s Son, who was really born and ate and drank, was really persecuted by Pontius Pilate, really crucified and died. . . .


But if, as some atheists, that is, unbelievers, say His suffering was but a make-believe—when in reality, they themselves are make-believers—why then am I in chains? Why do I even pray that I may fight wild beasts? In vain, then, do I die! My testimony after all is but a lie about the Lord!


Justin, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, and Tertullian, all vigorous opponents of Gnosticism in the West, not only used expressions which equivalently affirm Mary’s divine motherhood, but testified explicitly to the basic truths handed down in Scripture and Tradition upon which Mary’s divine motherhood is founded. (16) Here we shall be content merely to present a significant text from St. Irenaeus, who abounds in statements covering the fact of the divine motherhood and founds his teaching solidly on the Scriptures and apostolic Tradition: (17)


That He (Christ) is Himself in His own right, unlike all men who have ever lived, God and Lord, King Eternal, and Incarnate Word, proclaimed by all the prophets, apostles, and by the Spirit Himself, may be seen by all who have arrived even at a small portion of the truth. The Scriptures would not have given this testimony about him, if like others He had been a mere man. That He had in Himself, unlike all others, that pre-eminent birth which is from the Most High Father, and also underwent that pre-eminent generation which is from the Virgin—both these facts the divine Scriptures testify about Him; also that He was a man without comeliness and subject to suffering.


Manichaeanism


Closely related to Gnosticism was the doctrine of the Manichaeans. (18) Under its founder, Mani, Manichaeanism spread rapidly in the West and even claimed for a time the great Augustine who was later to become its most vigorous opponent. According to Faustus, the protagonist of the Manichaeans against Augustine, Jesus was the “Son of God,” but in no sense was He the child of Mary. With telling inconsistency, as Augustine pointed out, Faustus taught that the virgin overshadowed by the Holy Spirit in the conception of Christ was not Mary, but the earth itself. Under the influence of the Holy Spirit, the earth conceived and fashioned the mortal Jesus, who later became the Son of God at the time of his baptism. (19)


Although St. Augustine never used the expression “Mother of God” in his writings against the Manichaeans, he does call Mary God’s Mother (genitrici suae) in his sermons, and sets Mary’s “conception of her Creator” in sharp contrast with Elizabeth’s conception of John: (20)


It was a man Elizabeth conceived, a man that Mary conceived. Elizabeth was the mother of John, Mary the mother of Christ. But Elizabeth conceived only a man, Mary conceived one Who is both God and man. A stupendous thing it is, how a creature could conceive the Creator!


The Manichaeans won adherents in Spain in the fourth and fifth centuries, even among the clergy. The Manichaean errors associated with Priscillian, the Bishop of Avila, were condemned at the Council of Braga in Portugal. Among these we find the following:


If anyone does not honor the birthday of Christ according to the flesh, but only pretends to do so, fasting on the very day itself and on Sunday, for the reason that, like Cerdon, Marcion, Mani and Priscillian, he does not believe that Christ was born in the nature of man, let him be anathema. (21)


If anyone says that the molding of the human body is of the devil’s fashioning, and that conceptions in the wombs of mothers are brought about with the help of devils, and for this reason does not believe in the resurrection of the flesh, as Mani and Priscillian have said, he is a heretic. (22)


The abhorrence of the flesh as something evil in itself which roused the Church Fathers against the Gnostics and Manichaeans in defense of Christ’s true manhood and Mary’s true motherhood is an idea that has been long in dying. It appeared again in the twelfth century among the Albigensians of southern France, probably transplanted there from a Manichaean sect in Asia Minor called the Paulicians. The Albigensians denied not only that Mary really conceived and gave birth to Jesus, but even that Mary herself was a woman of real flesh and blood. She had, they said, a kind of celestial body, and from her celestial flesh the Word of God was born. (23)


Again in the sixteenth century, Simon Mennon, the founder of the Mennonites, came forth with the doctrine that Jesus was not born of the flesh of Mary; he taught that the man Jesus was somehow produced from the seed of the Eternal Father. Likewise the Puritans reflected in their beliefs this abhorrence of the flesh. Even today Christian Scientists, although they verbally admit the virgin birth, regard matter as an illusion; they hold, moreover, that because evil is always associated with matter, evil too is a delusion of the human mind which can be destroyed only by spiritual understanding. (24)


Arians


The Gnostic-Manichaean attack on the real humanity of Christ resulted in the explicit, unequivocal affirmation of Mary’s real motherhood: Mary is truly the Mother of Jesus. Moreover, Christians were all along implicitly professing their belief that Mary is the Mother of God in the recitation of the Apostles’ Creed: “in Jesus Christ, His only Son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and born of the Virgin Mary.” The first to reject this implication were the Arians. Because they denied that the Word of God who became incarnate was the uncreated Son of the Eternal Father, equal to Him in all things, the Arians denied both Christ’s divinity and Mary’s divine motherhood.


It is not surprising then to find St. Athanasius (d. 373), who spearheaded the forces of orthodoxy against the Arians, explicitly calling Mary “The Mother of God” (Theotokos). Moreover, Athanasius does this with the full awareness of its theological implications, because in the same work against the Arians in which he calls Mary Theotokos, he gives theological basis for the doctrine by presenting for the first time the theological explanation of the communication of idioms. (25)


Athanasius was not the first to use the term Theotokos of Mary. Earlier patristic writings frequently make use of the term. (26) In the early fourth century, perhaps even in the third century, the faithful themselves were calling on Maria Theotokos in the prayer, “We fly to Thy protection, O Holy Mother of God.” (27)


Nestorianism


Although the doctrine of Mary’s divine motherhood was generally believed in the Church for more than a half century before the rise of the Nestorian heresy, it was not defined until after this belief was seriously challenged by the Patriarch of Constantinople. Nestorius himself had been a disciple of Theodore, Bishop of Mopsuestia, who in turn had been a disciple of Diodorus, Bishop of Tarsus. All these men were representative of the Antiochian school of theological thought which found itself in opposition to the school of Alexandria on the question of the human-divine relations in Christ.


The school of Antioch tended to separate too much the human and the divine in Christ. They explained the union of divinity with humanity as a kind of indwelling of the second divine Person in the man Christ. They saw two physical persons in Christ, because He had two natures: “The Son of God is distinct from the son of David”; and this is the heart of the Nestorian heresy.


The Alexandrian school, on the other hand, tended to exaggerate the union of the human with the divine and in the end tried to explain this union as a fusion of two natures into one. They saw only one nature in Christ, because He was only one person; this is Monophysitism. The tendencies within both schools culminated in heresies about Christ, which are equally opposed to Mary’s divine motherhood. But opposition to Maria Theotokos came only from within the school of Antioch.


According to Diodorus and Theodore, the Word of God dwelt in the man Christ as in a temple; Mary was not the Mother of God; the one whom Mary brought into the world was not the divine Person of the Word, who united in Himself a human nature with the divine, but only the man Christ in whom the Godhead dwelt substantially.


Nestorius’ doctrine was a repetition of the teaching of Diodorus and Theodore. Pius XI sets down the teaching of Nestorius as follows:


This extremely proud man claimed that two complete hypostases in Christ, the human of Jesus and the divine of the Word, are united in one common “person” (prosopon), as he termed it, and hence denied that marvelous substantial union of two natures, which we call the hypostatic union. He therefore asserted that the only-begotten Word of God did not become man, but that His presence in human flesh was by way of indwelling, by divine good pleasure, and by power of operation; and therefore He should be called, not God, but Theophoron or God-bearer, in much the same way that prophets and other holy men can be called God-bearers because of the divine grace given to them. (28)


Controversy flared to ecumenical proportions only after Nestorius began a series of sermons in Constantinople in defense of his secretary, Anastasius, and Dorotheus, the Bishop of Marcianopolis, both of whom had been preaching to the people that no one should call Mary the Mother of God. With his gift of eloquence and with all the authority to which he could swell as Patriarch of Constantinople, Nestorius did his best to discredit Mary’s title as Mother of God. As was to be expected, his teaching caused considerable unrest and confusion among the people who for more than a half century had been calling upon the Mother of God.


But in the providence of God, what St. Irenaeus had been against the Gnostics, St. Athanasius against the Arians, and St. Augustine against the Manichaeans, St. Cyril of Alexandria was to be against the Nestorians. Once alerted to the dangerous doctrine, Cyril began to turn out letters, sermons, and treatises in defense of the true doctrine of the Incarnation and the divine motherhood. He pleaded with Nestorius to heed the Fathers of the Church, who “did not hesitate to call the holy Virgin the Mother of God (Theotokos), not as if the nature of the Word or His divinity took origin in being from the holy Virgin; but because He took from her that sacred body animated with an intellectual soul to which He was hypostatically united, the Word is said to be born according to the flesh.” (29)


Nestorius could not understand what we call the communication of idioms; how what Christ did as man, e.g., to suffer and to die, could be attributed to the Word of God. He continued to maintain that the exact title of Mary was Christotokos, not Theotokos.

Cyril’s explanation of why the Blessed Virgin is to be called Theotokos has become classic in Marian theology: (30)


Therefore the Word indeed was God, but He became also man; and because He was born according to the flesh, because of His humanity it is necessary that she who gave birth to Him should be the Mother of God. For if she did not give birth to God, certainly neither will He be called God who was begotten of her. But if the divine Scriptures call Him God, she then gave birth to God made man, because a man could not otherwise come to be except through generation from a woman. How then is not she who bore Him the Mother of God? That He is true God who was born of her, we learn from the divine Scripture.


Nestorius first, with several letters, and then Cyril too, appealed to the Pope as judge. After a synod at Rome (430) which condemned the teaching of Nestorius, Pope Celestine commissioned Cyril to execute the sentence of excommunication and deposition against Nestorius, unless he retracted his errors within ten days. But when Cyril dispatched his famous “test letter of the anathemas” (31) to Nestorius, the delegation learned that the Emperor Theodotius II had already called a general council for Pentecost (June 7) of the following year (431). Moreover, it seems that Nestorius had meanwhile admitted in some sense the title Theotokos. Furthermore, when Cyril’s anathemas became known at Constantinople and Antioch, they stirred up a hornet’s nest of opposition against Cyril.


The Council of Ephesus


In spite of considerable opposition, Cyril finally opened the Council on the twenty-second of June, even though the long-awaited papal legates and the Patriarch of Antioch with his suffragans had not yet arrived. In the very first session one of Cyril’s doctrinal letters to Nestorius was read and unanimously approved. Nestorius was declared deposed. (32)


According to historians of the day, on the night of this decree the streets of Ephesus were filled with enthusiastic crowds who waved and shouted: “Hagia Maria Theotokos“— “Holy Mary, Mother of God”—a cry that has never died on Catholic lips.

But four days later, John, the Patriarch of Antioch, arrived, and charging that the Council presided over by Cyril was illegal, organized a separate council favoring Nestorius and condemning Cyril. With the arrival of the papal legates, however, the sessions of the council headed by Cyril were resumed and the acts of the first session were formally approved.


The doctrine formally approved by the Council is contained in the doctrinal letter of Cyril which was read at the first session and unanimously accepted. The letter of the anathemas, although read at this same session, was not proposed for the approval of the Council; the anathemas have doctrinal authority, however, in view of the fact that they were referred to by the Second Council of Constantinople as part of the acts of Ephesus and highly praised. (33)


The most pertinent part of Cyril’s doctrinal letter should be given here: (34)

For we do not say that the nature of the Word became man by undergoing change; nor that it was transformed into a complete man consisting of soul and body. What we say rather, is that by uniting to Himself in His own person a body animated by a rational soul, the Word has become man in an inexpressible and incomprehensible way and has been called the Son of Man; not merely according to will or complacency, but not by merely assuming a person either. And we say that the natures that are brought together into true unity are different; still, from both there is one Christ and Son; not as though the difference between the natures were taken away by the union, but rather both divinity and humanity produce the perfection of our one Lord, Christ and Son, by their inexpressible and mysterious joining into unity…. It was not that first an ordinary human being was born of the holy Virgin, and then the Word descended upon that man; but in virtue of the union He is said to have undergone birth according to the flesh from His mother’s womb, since He claims as His own birth, the generation of His own flesh…. Thus (the holy Fathers of the Church) have not hesitated to call the holy Virgin Mother of God (Theotokos).


All famous causes have their famous battle cries, which serve to rally the common mass of men, incapable of comprehending the nice distinctions of theologians and statesmen. In the fourth century good Catholics (most of whom could neither read nor write) could identify themselves by crying, “Homoousios” which meant that Christ is of the same nature as God the Father. In the fifth century, the battle cry was a happy combination of sound theology with one of the most profound devotional instincts in the Church: veneration of Mary on account of her divine motherhood.


After Ephesus Theotokos became the hymn of the Christian heart. Sermons resounded, feasts were celebrated, and churches dedicated in honor of Maria Theotokos. (35) The memory of the “glorious and ever virgin Mary, Mother of God” began to be commemorated even in the Sacrifice of the Mass.


From Ephesus in 431 to the present day, “Hagia Maria Theotokos,” heralded by the Fathers of the fourth century, has proved to be one of the great touchstones of Christian orthodoxy. It demands faith in the true human nature of Christ; otherwise Mary would not be a real mother. It is a confession of the divinity of Mary’s Son; otherwise Man would not be truly the Mother of God. It is a declaration of belief in the hypostatic union of two distinct natures subsisting in the divine Person of the Word of God; otherwise Christ would not be both Son of God and Son of Mary. It likewise proclaims the truth that the hypostatic union took place in the first instant of Mary’s conception of her Son; otherwise the Mother of the man Christ would not be truly the Mother of God.


Protestantism


For over a thousand years after Ephesus the whole Christian world (apart from a few fitful resurgences of a doomed Gnosticism) hailed Mary as God’s Mother. Protestants who frequently seem offended by the honors which Catholics give to Mary may be surprised at the following tribute to the Mother of God penned by Martin Luther even after his complete separation from the Catholic Church: (36)


The great thing is none other than that she became the Mother of God; in which process so many and such great gifts are bestowed upon her that no one is able to comprehend them. Thereupon follows all honor, all blessedness, and the fact that in the whole race of men one only person is above all the rest, one to whom no one else is equal. For that reason her dignity is summed up in one phrase when we call her the Mother of God; no one can say greater things of her or to her, even if he had as many tongues as leaves and blades of grass, as stars in heaven and sands on the seashore. It should also be meditated in the heart what that means: to be the Mother of God.


However, Luther was not long out of the Church (1522) before he began to change his attitude toward the Mother of God. He objects to the special honor being paid to her, because it derogates from Christ who alone is our Saviour. Luther still calls Mary the Mother of God, but only ”because we cannot all be Mothers of God; otherwise she is on the same level with us.” (37)


The first of the Lutheran confessional writings, the Augsburg Confession (1530) clearly professes the teaching of Ephesus that “the Word, that is, the Son of God, assumed a human nature in the womb of the Virgin Mary, with the result that there are two natures, the human and divine, inseparably united in the unity of the person, one Christ, truly God and truly man, born of the virgin Mary. . .” (38)


Even in the Formula of Concord (1579), the last of the Lutheran confessional writings, the doctrine of the divine motherhood is given accurate expression: “By reason of the hypostatic union and the communion of natures, Mary the virgin most worthy of praise, brought forth not only a man, but a man who is truly the Son of the Most High God. . . . Hence she is truly Theotokos, Mother of God, and yet remained a virgin.” (39)

But Luther had set the style for Protestants when he attacked the Catholic prayer “Hail Holy Queen” which he regarded as blasphemous. “Your prayers, O Christian,” he says, “are as dear to me as hers. And why? Because if you believe that Christ lives in you as much as in her, you can help me as much as she.” Eventually Luther was led to limit the communion of saints to the Church on earth because of his complete rejection of any intercessory power on the part of the saints in heaven.


In the course of Protestant history the lesson of Nestorianism was repeated: any derogation from the Mother inevitably leads to a rejection of the truth about the Son. “The Christ and Satan agreed in this,” wrote Cardinal Newman, “that Son and Mother went together; and the experience of three centuries has confirmed their testimony, for Catholics, who have honored the Mother, still worship the Son, while Protestants who now have ceased to confess the Son, began then by scoffing at the Mother.” (40)

Since the time of Newman, Protestantism has struggled through various phases of sentimentalism, rationalism, and liberalism. In some quarters today, however, there is a tendency to return to the Church of the first four centuries. But even among the “neo-orthodox,” we do not find any outright affirmation of Mary’s divine motherhood. Paul Tillich, for example, whose opinion about Christ is described as a kind of Nestorianism, does not regard Mary as the Mother of God, nor even as the Mother of Christ. A study of his theology is necessary to understand what he means when he says that Mary is only the Mother of Jesus of Nazareth and that it is this Jesus who is sacrificed to Jesus as the Christ. In Tillich’s opinion, Mary has no significance in Protestantism. (41)


Emil Brunner, important neo-orthodox theologian, who looks upon faith not as an acceptance of revealed truth on the authority of God, but as an “encounter with the living Christ” thinks that anything beyond the fact that the Son of God became man is useless speculation. (42) Perhaps for him Mary is the Mother of God, but never does he give her the title.


Karl Barth, who is suspected by some Protestants of “crypto-Catholicism,” speaks of and unhesitatingly defends the “dogma of the Virgin Birth” and the Incarnation of the Son of God, but never speaks of Mary as Mother of God. Will he ever take the logical step and affirm the divine motherhood itself?


The phrase “Mother of God” continues to frighten most Protestants. A recent survey of the present position of Protestantism in the United States gives some indication of the variety of Protestant opinion today. (43) Of the one hundred replies which were received from a questionnaire sent out to Protestant ministers and professors of theology, only twenty-two professed belief in Mary’s divine motherhood; over half of these were Episcopalians. Fifteen did not make their answer clear. Sixty-three denied Mary this privilege.


Undoubtedly one of the foremost objections to the title, Mother of God, springs from a lack of conviction about the divinity of Christ Himself. When pressed with the question, whether Christ is God in exactly the same sense that the Father is God, most Protestants in the United States today will hedge, or at least hesitate, if not give an outright negative answer. Their thinking in this matter is very much akin to Nestorianism.


Other Protestant difficulties stem from rejection or at least a misunderstanding of the nature and role of tradition and the development of dogma in the Church. To the fundamentalist, Scripture is the sole rule of faith. If he does not find a truth explicitly contained in the Scriptures, he is at least skeptical about it. As one Protestant writer says: “He (the Protestant) cannot but be impressed by the considerable disproportion which exists between the attitude of biblical writers with regard to the Virgin and the veneration sometimes tantamount to worship that is paid to her…” (44)


A widespread misconception of Catholic teaching among Protestants today is that Catholic Mariology “divinizes” Mary; some writers who should know better continue to use the term “Mariolatry.” As recently as May 25, 1955, we find 906 lay and clerical commissioners of the Presbyterian Church in the United States, gathered in assembly in Los Angeles, approving unanimously the following statement: (45)


In the figure of the Virgin the church of Rome has created a semi-divine female being who becomes virtual head of the church, the hope of all who are distressed and the sovereign overlord of all that occurs in history. The devotion to Mary now equals, and even exceeds, the devotion to Christ himself.


Although the rejection of tradition is almost invariably accompanied by an opposition to the veneration of the Mother of God, a new trend is discernible in the work of the Protestant theologian, Max Thurian, of the Reformed Church of France. Although critical of the special privileges of “the Mother of the Lord” as proclaimed in the unfolding tradition of the Church, Thurian has taken a strong stand in favor of introducing Mary into Protestant piety and worship. He asks his co-religionists to put aside their fears of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and calls them to task for not realizing in themselves Mary’s prophecy, “Behold, henceforth all nations shall call me blessed.” If Protestants would follow Thurian’s lead, “Catholic Mariology would no longer remain ‘the most agonizing problem for ecumenical thought.'” (46)


We hope that the Spirit of ecumenism (the Holy Spirit) will eventually lead the Protestant world back to the teaching of Ephesus which is recapitulated in a remarkable passage by Pius XI in his encyclical commemorating the fifteenth centenary of the Council: (47)


. . . He who was conceived in the womb of the Virgin by the action of the Holy Spirit, He who is born and is laid in the crib, who called Himself the Son of Man, who suffered and died nailed to the cross, is the same identical person who is called in a wonderful and solemn manner “My Beloved Son,” who with divine power forgives sin, who by His own power restores the sick to health and recalls the dead to life.


All this clearly shows that in Christ there are two natures from which proceed divine and human actions. Likewise it shows no less clearly that Christ is one, God and likewise man, through that unity of the divine person in virtue of which He is called the God-Man (Theanthropos)….


From this principle of Catholic doctrine . . . there necessarily follows the dogma of the divine motherhood which we predicate of the Blessed Virgin Mary …


If the Son of the Blessed Virgin Mary is God, she certainly who bore Him should rightly and deservingly be called Mother of God. If in Jesus Christ there is only one person and that divine, surely Mary is not only Mother of Christ but she should be called the Mother of God, Theotokos. The woman who was saluted by Elizabeth, her relative, as “Mother of my Lord,” who is said by the Martyr Ignatius to have brought forth God, from whom Tertullian says God was born, we can all venerate as the benign Mother of God, whom the eternal Godhead favored with fullness of grace and honored with so much dignity.


Why God Wished to Have a Mother


In treating any theological truth, a theologian must not only establish the fact that the proposition is true and contained somehow in authentic sources of divine revelation, but he must also try to find the divine reasons why the proposition is true so that the truth revealed by God may be assimilated by the human intellect operating under the light of faith; fides quaerit intellectum. What, then, must have been God’s reasons for wanting to have a human mother? We can best approach the answer to this question by looking into God’s own plan for the Redemption of mankind.


To restore His creation which had been ruined by man’s sin, God called upon the infinity of His love and the omnipotence of His divine artistry. Unlike the human artist, who can only imperfectly represent his idea in matter, the Father of heaven and earth could put His very own Living Idea, His Eternal Word, into the very materials of His creation to remold it into His own image with infinitely greater beauty. In taking to Himself human flesh, the Eternal Word summed up within Himself the whole hierarchy of reality—matter and spirit, body and soul, the human and divine, creature and Creator—in order to restore harmony to the world in the Image of God. The mystery of the Word-made-flesh became the supreme communication of God’s wisdom and love to a disintegrated world and opened up for man a vision of the goodness and beauty of every part of creation when rebuilt in the Eternal Image of God.


The flesh assumed by the Word for the Redemption of mankind was not newly created out of nothing, but taken from the stock of Adam in whose flesh sin and death entered the world. For omnipotent love had decreed that the same flesh which through sin had become subject to corruption and death would be instrumental in its own redemption and resurrection. Divine respect for the creature of His making decided that the nature which had fallen should be lifted back to God by the very same nature, so that the victory over the world, the flesh, and the devil could be the achievement of the human race. (48) Infinite justice had ruled that no other flesh than that belonging to the one human family should be fashioned for the redeeming Word of God, because no other flesh had sinned; nor would any other flesh be offered in the holocaust of sacrifice; (49) for no other flesh had to be saved. (50) In this economy of divine love it was necessary that the redeeming Image of the Father be of the same family as those who perished in Adam; the Son of God must become a son of Adam; God’s own Son must be born of a human mother.


In the divine plan the process of restoration was to be an exact counterpart of the process of the fall, a counteraction paralleling and corresponding inversely to the action of the fall—somewhat like the untying of a knot. (51) A virgin had co-operated in the ruin of men by heeding an angel in disobedience to God; likewise, then, a virgin should co-operate in redeeming the world by believing an angel in obedience to God. (52) As the ruin caused by Adam could not have spread to his progeny apart from the motherhood of Eve, so salvation, as it was willed by the Father, would be given to the race only through the motherhood of the New Eve.


These are but a few of the divine reasons why God wanted to have a human mother. They give us a glimpse into the riches of divine omnipotence and wisdom and justice and merciful love that have gone into an economy of salvation which required that God should have a mother. In this plan He becomes like us in all things except sin, even to a point of having a mother of His own to cherish and love; and on our part, we can more naturally approach Him since we know Him as a baby in His Mother’s arms. He can and does love us with a kind of natural love for His human brothers. (53) He can give us an example of obedience to His Mother, of humility in subjection to parental authority, of divine life in a human family. What greater proof could He give that He had a real human body like our own? And what greater inspiration could be given men to respect all womankind than to see one of them elevated to the greatest dignity that God’s omnipotent wisdom can confer upon a human person?


II. The Essence of the Divine Motherhood


Thus far we have only made a beginning in our study of the divine motherhood. We have seen that both Scripture (at least implicitly) and Tradition teach that Mary is truly the Mother of God, and that this doctrine has been the object of the infallible teaching authority of the Church for over 1500 years. But if we are to understand more fully why the divine motherhood is the greatest dignity that can be conferred on a created person, why it is Mary’s greatest privilege, and the reason for all her other privileges, (54) then it is necessary to probe more deeply into the nature of the divine motherhood in order to determine its very essence.


Here we are at the very heart of Mariology. For… the divine motherhood is the basic principle of Mariology. If a principle is to be used with the precision demanded by science, its essential content must be clearly determined. But, surprising as it may seem, not all theologians agree on what constitutes the essence of the divine motherhood.


According to the common opinion, the divine motherhood consists essentially in the relationship which Mary has to the Word of God Incarnate, because she has conceived Him as her Son. This relationship is a real relation having the person of Mary as its real subject, the divine Person of Jesus as its real term, and Mary’s action of generating Him as its real foundation; as is evident, the subject (Mary) and the term (the Son of God Incarnate) are really distinct. No other element is necessary for the constitution of a real relation. This relation, moreover, is intrinsically supernatural; for to have a divine Person as the term of human generation is altogether beyond the natural capacities of human nature.


The point to make note of in the common opinion is that the real foundation of Mary’s relationship to her Son is located in her action of generating the Son of God. (55) For while all theologians agree that the divine motherhood consists essentially in a real supernatural relation of Mary to her Son, not all agree that the proper foundation of this relationship is her generative action.


The mother-child relationship in which motherhood consists, the state of being a mother, we may call 1. actual motherhood. It is to be distinguished from 2. potential motherhood, which includes all those elements belonging to motherhood by way of remote or proximate preparation for motherhood; 3. motherhood in fieri (sometimes called the physical aspect of motherhood): the act of conception in virtue of which a woman becomes an actual mother; 4. the operations or junctions belonging to actual motherhood, such as bringing forth the child, caring for him until he has reached manhood, and loving him always as a son.


In purely human motherhood there can be no question of a real relation or bond between mother and child before the child is constituted in existence at the term of conception; for no real relation can exist before the child exists as its term. But in divine motherhood which involves the conception of a pre-existent Person, the question arises whether the relation of motherhood cannot precede conception. For if actual motherhood is a bond between the person of the mother and the child, such a relation might exist between Mary and her Son in the very action of conception which is prior by nature to the constitution of the Child as Man. Such a relation might even exist from the first instant of Mary’s life since Mary was united to her Son even from that moment in virtue of her predestination as physical Mother of God.


It is surprising to discover how many theologians have taught that Mary was somehow constituted Mother of God by a perfection infused in her which preceded in nature or even in time His constitution as Man. To mention just a few of the more prominent, we find a doctrine of this sort taught by Fathers Sylvester de Saavedra, O. de M., (56) and M. J. Scheeben, (57) and in recent years even more emphatically by Fathers J. M. Alonso, C.M.F., (58) and J. M. Delgado Varela, O. de M. (59) Their teaching reflects the thought of St. Peter Chrysologus: “… And was she not a mother before His conception, who was a virgin mother after His birth? Or when was she not a mother who conceived the Author of the World?” (60)


1. Saavedra. The problem of determining more accurately the essence of the divine motherhood has come into prominence in recent discussions about the divine motherhood as a formal principle of Mary’s holiness. In this regard many Spanish theologians have turned back to study the work of Sylvester de Saavedra, O. de M., whose work had gathered dust on their shelves for two centuries.


According to Saavedra, the most basic element, the fundamental grace of divine motherhood, is a corporeal form infused into the generative potency of the Virgin Mary, putting her in first act for the generation of the God-man. With fuller actuation of this same grace Mary conceives her Son, thus giving rise to her Mother-Son relationship. (61)


It would seem, therefore, that according to Saavedra the relationship of motherhood in Mary is founded not precisely on her generative action, but on the enduring corporeal form infused into her generative potency. However, what has especially interested present-day theologians in Saavedra is his doctrine that the divine motherhood is a formal participation in the fecundity of the Eternal Father. The development of this point will be taken up later.


2. Scheeben. Whereas Saavedra looked upon the divine motherhood especially from its aspect of assimilating the Virgin Mother to the Eternal Father through a formal participation in His fecundity, M. J. Scheeben, the greatest theologian of the nineteenth century, considered the divine motherhood as a relationship of union with the Word of God, a union which is the primary analogue of the hypostatic union. (62)

Scheeben describes the divine motherhood as the supernatural distinguishing mark of Mary’s person. It is more than a mere privilege or office entrusted to her by God. It involves the highest service a mere creature can offer to God. For in her motherhood Mary co-operates in the birth of the most perfect Son that can be born, and touches the very confines of the divinity. In union with the Eternal Father she conceives His Son in her womb. The Son makes the perfect gift of Himself to Mary, giving Himself to be her Son, clothing Himself with her flesh in her womb.


The mutual giving of the persons of the Word and Mary to each other in mutual consent can be described only as a divine marriage. Mary possesses the Word who gives Himself to her as her Son, and “forms with her an organic oneness” in which Mary is His closest associate and helper in the most intimate and permanent community of life. (63)


Mary is Bride and Mother of the Word: Bride because she is Mother, and Mother because she is Bride. These two aspects are indissolubly associated in Mary; one element cannot be adequately conceived without the other. These two elements taken together constitute what Scheeben calls the supernatural distinguishing mark of Mary’s person. (64)


Mary’s state as Bride, specifically designed to achieve and complete her Motherhood, is a spiritual and personal union with the Word. This bridal union is described in terms of a “sacramental” marriage (matrimonium ratum) between Mary and the Word, a real objective consecration and anointing, by which the Word is already made her own Son by right. These divine nuptials do not merely prepare or place in prospect the actual divine motherhood, but already give it virtually and radically. In this form the divine motherhood is possessed by Mary from the first moment of her existence. (65)


Mary’s divine brideship reaches its perfect completion, however, only with the infusion of the Word into her body to make her actually His Mother. This perfected union with the Word, described as a “completed” marriage (matrimonium consummatum), is the most perfect image of the hypostatic union. (66) However, the spiritual union, which is intensified by the Word actually taking flesh in her body, is formal with respect to the bodily union; for in its purely physiological aspects the divine motherhood does not reveal the most proper foundation of the dignity of Mary’s motherhood. (67)


The formal perfection by which Mary’s Bridal Motherhood is constituted is not merely an accident or a moral relation; it is in a sense an “hypostatic, substantial or essential distinguishing mark” of Mary’s person, due to her spiritual union with the Word dwelling in her with whom she is formed into one organic whole. By reason of this union the whole dignity and perfection of Mary is determined, even her substantial individuality. (68)


Thus the divine motherhood is substantial in content, mode, and time. Fundamentally it is the divine substance of her Son infused into her. His divine Person is joined with her in a substantial manner; He becomes “grown together with her” as a fruit with its root, and dwells bodily in her. Mary is endowed with this substantial grace from the beginning of her existence, making her always the bride of the Person of the Word, so that this relation to His Person conditions and determines her whole being, elevating it to the hypostatic order. (69)


Mary’s motherhood then consists formally in an entirely unique union with uncreated grace, a bridal, spiritual union of Mary with her Son. The proper foundation of Mary’s Mother-Son relationship to the Word is a grace given her in the first instant of her creation.


According to both Saavedra and Scheeben, although the full realization of divine motherhood is a Mother-Son relation of Mary to the Word, the root and perfection of this relationship is found in a grace infused into Mary’s body (Saavedra) or soul (Scheeben) antecedent either in nature (Saavedra) or also in time (Scheeben) to Mary’s action of generating her Son. While Saavedra looks upon this relationship as primarily assimilating Mary to the Eternal Father as generating principle of the only Son of God, Scheeben considers this relationship primarily as an assimilation to the Son in the closest possible union between a created and a divine person.


3. M. J. Nicolas, O.P. In the present century the most illuminating presentation of the notion of the divine motherhood has been given by Father M. J. Nicolas, O.P. (70) He exposes the fallacy of considering Mary’s motherhood as consisting primarily in a relationship of union with the Word Incarnate; it is rather a relation of origin, even of opposition, as we shall see. Moreover, he presents a different explanation of the foundation for the Mother-Son relation in Mary.


According to Father Nicolas, Mary is Mother because she has conceived a man and has thus become the original principle of human flesh in a person distinct from her. She is Mother of God, because she has conceived the Son of God whom she has not called into existence, but who has drawn her to Himself, clothing Himself with her flesh in her womb. Father Nicolas distinguishes between the essential and the integral concept of the divine motherhood. Essentially the divine motherhood consists in “the assumption of her human motherhood” by the Son of God. The “assumptive action” by which the human nature of Christ is made to subsist in the Word, at the same time constitutes Mary formally and physically the Mother of God. The “assumptive action” itself is entirely incommunicable, and in no way elevates Mary’s generative action itself in its intrinsic efficacy, but only in its term. (71)


The supernatural reality which is conferred on Mary by the assumption of her human motherhood is the foundation of a relation whose term is essentially separated from the person of Mary. This relation is not a relation of union, but of origin, even of opposition. (72) For the person terminating a generative action is separated from the person who conceives him at the very instant the new human nature appears with personal being. The proper effect of generative action is precisely separation, for it terminates at the person only in giving him existence apart in a determined nature. Mary therefore is not “substantially” united to the divine Word. The instant the hypostatic union is realized, the flesh substantially sanctified is no longer Mary’s flesh, although it proceeds immediately from her and preserves this elan of origin. Still the two substances are joined in the closest possible way. (73)


Thus the divine motherhood, considered in its essence, is not a union with the Word Incarnate. Rather it is a relation of origin, founded upon a supernatural reality which stands midway between two orders of union with God, namely the hypostatic union and the accidental, intentional union realized through sanctifying grace. In its very essence divine motherhood is faced toward the grace of the hypostatic union.


The divine motherhood itself, however, can be called a union with the Word only so far as it is a kind of possession by way of physical right to union with the Word in knowledge and love. This right is essential to a Mother whose Son is God. The supernatural physical reality, which is the foundation of the Mother-Son relationship, demands the union of Mary with her Son, but it does not formally realize this union. (74)


Thus, according to Father Nicolas, the divine motherhood is essentially a Mother-divine Son relationship of origin, of immediate consanguinity. Its foundation is not Mary’s generative action, but the ineffaceable supernatural modification in Mary following upon the generation of a divine Person. While Mary could not be the Mother of God except through her generative activity, it is only consequent upon this activity as it terminates in a divine Person that Mary possesses the enduring supernatural reality grounding her real relationship to her divine Son. Whereas Saavedra and Scheeben conceive the foundation of the Mother-Son relationship as antecedent at least by nature to the action of generation, Nicolas understands this foundation as subsequent to the generative action.


Here we have considered just a few of the more important attempts on the part of theologians to determine more accurately the essence of the divine motherhood. All agree that the divine motherhood consists somehow in the relationship of Mary to her Son and that it necessarily involved in one way or another her generation of the God-Man. But in their analysis of the idea they arrive at different explanations as to what is the precise perfection or activity within Mary which in the most proper sense is the ground or foundation for the relationship called the divine motherhood. Here we are faced with the deepest problem in Mariology.


Is the proper foundation of Mary’s divine motherhood the action itself of generating the God-Man? Or is it the grace itself which elevates and/or actuates Mary’s generative power in the very conception of the God-Man? Or is it some modification of Mary’s substance in the first instant of her existence, a grace radically determining her character as Mother, uniting her spiritually to the Word in a kind of vital union which achieves its fullness of expression with the infusion of the Word into her body? Or, finally, is it a supernatural reality which Mary has consequent upon her act of generating the God-Man?


First of all, it seems clear that the perfection (whatever it is) upon which the relationship of motherhood is grounded must be actually in Mary. For motherhood is something which endures. Mary is still really Mother of God. A relation is real and actual only if it has a real subject, a real term, and a real foundation; nobody doubts this point. But to be real, at least in this context, means to be actually existing.

Certainly the term “real” means actually existing when applied to subject and term of a real relation. Why should its meaning be changed when in the same definition it is applied to the foundation? It follows, then, that a relation without an existing foundation is not a real relation. (75)


It is not surprising, then, to see a tendency among modern theologians to place some enduring perfection in Mary which permanently grounds her motherhood by reason of which she is and ever will be Mother of God.


To place this perfection in Mary antecedent to her conception of the God-Man, as being the root and source of both her conception and her relationship of motherhood does not seem to be the answer to the problem. For Mary can be called actual Mother of God only at the term of her generative action when the Word of God is constituted as her Son. Before that, He was not her Son, regardless of what other relationship she may have had to the Word.


Even the fact that Mary was predestined from all eternity to be the Mother of God does not put anything in Mary whereby she could be called actual Mother of God before she conceived the God-Man. Predestination, as St. Thomas reminds us, is not something in the one predestined, but in the one who predestines. (76) Nor can her conception precisely as a future action ground any real relation in Mary because what is future has as yet no real being. (77) Mary was prepared, of course, for the dignity of divine motherhood by her Immaculate Conception; but neither does this preparation give her actual motherhood any more than the preparation preceding the reception of sanctifying grace gives us actual divine adoption.


If, then, the relationship of motherhood is one of mother to child, the Word cannot properly be called Mary’s Son nor can Mary properly be called His Mother, until she has conceived Him. To say that the perfection which grounds Mary’s relationship to her Son is antecedent to her conception of Him is the same as saying that it is not the proper foundation of the divine motherhood itself. Thus Scheeben is led to distinguish the bridal, spiritual union of Mary with the Word from her strictly maternal union, although he says these aspects of divine motherhood are indissolubly connected with each other. Many other difficulties are involved in putting the perfection which grounds the divine motherhood in something antecedent to Mary’s conception of the God-Man. (78) But here we cannot consider them.


Next, is Mary’s activity in generating the God-Man the proper foundation of the relationship of Mary to her Son? Theologians commonly say yes. But the difficulty involved in this opinion is that the generative action in question is transient and passing, therefore no longer existing in Mary as a ground for her motherhood. Of course, it will always be true of Mary that she did generate the God-Man. But can an action in the past be the real foundation of a relation existing in the present? (79)


In general, we can say that if the foundation of the real relation ceases to be, the relation ceases to be real. But the generative action in Mary was a transient action which ceased with the constitution of the Word as man in her womb. Hence Mary’s generative action cannot be the foundation of Mary’s divine motherhood, for then it would follow that Mary’s relation to her Son would no longer be a real relation!


St. Thomas helps us with the difficulty. He explains that “there are some relations which do not arise from actions insofar as they are in act, but rather insofar as they have been in the past; as some one is called a father after the effect of his action (the child) is produced. And such relations are founded upon that which remains in the agent by reason of the action, be it a disposition or a habit or some right or power or some such other thing.” (80)


Accordingly, the perfection which actually and properly grounds the enduring relationship of the divine motherhood in Mary is something which is left in Mary as a result of her act of generating the God-Man.


Among modern theologians only Father Nicolas, so far as I can ascertain, has adequately stressed this point: namely, that the actual and proper foundation of the relationship called the divine motherhood is a perfection (supernatural, of course) which is in Mary consequent upon her conception of the God-Man. (81) This supernatural perfection is the reason why Mary actually is and forever will be Mother of God. This point is of a special importance to all the followers of both Scotus and St. Tho