The Virgin Mary and the Culture of Life

When The Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae) was released in 1995, John Paul’s repeated references to the emergence of a “Culture of Death” received a great deal of attention. The Media, in particular, given its propensity for regarding “bad news” as “good news,” assigned the “Culture of Death” a prominence that all but overshadowed the Holy Father’s deeper and more important references to developing a “Culture of Life.” It is not enough, said the Pope, to refrain from abortion, euthanasia, and other “crimes against life.” We must work together in various spheres—including the political sphere (1)—as witnesses to the sanctity of life. “To be actively pro-life is to contribute to the renewal of society through the promotion of the common good.” (2)

The Media, as is well known, is fond of presenting the Church as always being against something, and therefore casting her in a negative light. Yet, the main theme of The Gospel of Life, as is sufficiently evident in its title, is not “The Culture of Death,” but “The Gospel of Life.” Accordingly, John Paul reminds us, on the encyclical’s very first page, of the redemptive implications contained in Jesus’ words: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn. 10:10).

The essential message of The Gospel of Life, because of its broad, humanitarian basis, is presented to all citizens of the world. And the Pope is unsparing of the “tyrant state, which arrogates to itself the right to dispose of the life of the weakest and most defenseless members, from the unborn child to the elderly.” (3) The State, however, does not take kindly to such stinging criticism. Nor do certain critics of the left who believe the Pope to be more tyrannical than any State that consigns its children in the womb and its elderly to premature death. Hans Küng, for example, stated at a press conference that The Gospel of Life demonstrated the Holy Father’s “dogmatic coldness and unrelenting rigorism,” and that “the voice in the document is not that of a good shepherd but of a spiritual dictator.” (4) Nonetheless, as political philosopher Robert P. George of Princeton University states: “People of good will—of whatever religious faith—who are prepared to consider seriously the Pope’s teaching in Evangelium Vitae cannot now avoid asking themselves, soberly and unblinkingly, whether our regime is becoming the democratic ‘tyrant state’ about which he warns.” (5)

Newsweek’s religion editor, Kenneth Woodward, was in greater agreement with Professor George in his evaluation of the document than he was with Father Küng. He praised The Gospel of Life as “the clearest, most impassioned and most commanding encyclical” of John Paul II’s pontificate, one that would be the Pontiff’s “signature statement” in history. (6)

The Theology of the Body

Delivering the Church’s “Culture of Life” message so that it is received in an undiluted and undistorted manner to a skeptical and cynical society is problematic. One way, which has always been close to the Church’s heart as well as to the hearts of her people, is by means of an appeal to the dignity and value of motherhood, especially through the woman who embodies its perfection, Mary. For Mary, as Coventry Patmore reminds, in his simple but eloquent phrase, is “Our only Saviour from an abstract Christ.” (7) Christ is bodily because He was conceived, carried to term, and given birth through a woman’s body. And even after birth, she continued to be a mother in all its bodily significance, for, as St. Augustine has pointed out, “she gave milk to our Bread.” (8) Motherhood has a moral immediacy and palpable reality that people of good will are not likely to turn aside. Motherhood is a compelling moral witness to the primacy of loving unselfishness.

The great American novelist, Nathaniel Hawthorne, though not formally a Catholic, reflected this bodily significance of Mary’s motherhood when he wrote: “I have always envied the Catholics that sweet, sacred Virgin Mother who stands between them and the Deity, intercepting somewhat His awful splendor, but permitting His love to stream on the worshipper more intelligibly to human comprehension through the medium of a woman’s tenderness.” (9)

Mary’s fiat, her consent to be the Mother of God, embraces her bodily as well as spiritual realities. Indeed, bodily and spiritual realities that converge and are unified in her virgin motherhood. Moreover, “this mother’s body,” as Hans Urs von Balthasar writes, “which was already (in the overshadowing of the spirit) a bride’s body, is proleptically the church body which and for which everything will be formed unto Christ, which will later be called church.” (10) Mary’s bodily motherhood prefigures the body of the Church. At the same time, she exercises a “spiritual motherhood with regard to all people.” (11)

Throughout the 130 presentations that constitute John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, we find an unremitting emphasis on the existential fact that men and women have different bodies and that the body, with its masculine/feminine polarity, is not a mere “attribute” of the person, but an integral feature of his whole being. The body is something that a human being is. (12)

Denigration of the Body

This bodily notion of the human person needs to be reiterated again and again in the contemporary world since its trivialization and even denial is an important ingredient in the formation of the Culture of Death. A woman’s body, according to leading secular feminists, is either a mere “instrument” or something of little or no ontological significance. Thus, Regula Giuliani, following the thought of Simone de Beauvoir, views men’s and women’s bodies as transitional: “The body has become … an inert object imprisoned by material, a mere instrument and tool that serves to realize mental desires more (with a male body) or less (with a female body) adequately.” (13) Shulamith Firestone goes further, arguing that we must eradicate the natural basis for the male-female distinction. In her work, The Dialectic of Sex, which she dedicated to Simone de Beauvoir, Firestone writes: “Humanity has begun to outgrow nature: we can no longer justify the maintenance of a discriminatory sex class system on grounds of its origins in Nature. Indeed, for pragmatic reasons alone it is beginning to look as if we must get rid of it.” (14)

According to feminist author Julia Kristeva, there is no such thing as a real woman, even though the term “woman” does have political utility: “Woman is a valid concept politically, but not philosophically. There are still many goals which women can achieve: freedom of abortion and contraception, daycare for children, equality on the job, etc. Therefore we must use ‘we are women’ as an advertisement or slogan for our demands. On a deeper level, however, a woman cannot ‘be’.” (15) For Kristeva, a woman has no nature (physis), only a name (nomos) and that for purely political (and obviously deceptive) purposes. (16)

Finally, Andrea Stumpf, writing for the Yale Law Review, proposes that motherhood be reduced to an abstraction. In the case of “surrogate motherhood” where one woman carries a child for an infertile woman, a number of legal disputes have arisen about whether the mere act of gestating a child provides a sufficient basis for a claim of motherhood. Stumpf argues that we need a new legal definition of motherhood that recognizes “mental conception” as having a superior claim to motherhood than mere “biological conception.” Accordingly, she writes: “The psychological dimension of procreation precedes and transcends the biology of procreation.” (17) Therefore, according to Stumpf, motherhood is fundamentally in the mind: “Prior to physical conception of a child, the beginnings of a normal parent-child relationship can come from a mental conception, the desire to create a child.” (18) Ironically, in her proposal for a new legal definition of motherhood, Stumpf makes no distinction between motherhood and fatherhood (since the male parent can have the “mental conception” first). By de-biologizing motherhood, even a child, presumably, could fulfill Stumpf’s proposed definition of motherhood.

In contrast to Stumpf’s abstract notion of motherhood, is Gerard Manley Hopkins’ decisively natural and incarnate view of Mary’s Motherhood, taken from two of his poems:

All things rising, all things sizing

Mary sees, sympathizing

With that world of good,

Nature’s motherhood. (19)

If I have understood

She holds high motherhood

Towards all our ghostly good

And plays in grace her part

About man’s beating heart. (20)

The Culture of Life

There is a direct connection between disparaging the body and the Culture of Death. If biology is “tyranny” (or something we must be rid of) as so many secular feminists claim, then contraception, sterilization, abortion, and the eradication of corporeal pain through euthanasia are nothing more than forms of liberation from the body. Christ came to liberate us from sin. But secular feminists seek to liberate women from the tyranny of their biology so that they can live as they desire without being impeded by their body. Simone de Beauvoir, generally regarded as the intellectual matriarch of contemporary feminism, has challenged all women to rise above the “animal” act of giving life so they can involve themselves in the superior masculine act of risking life.

In this way, for de Beauvoir, women will transcend the sphere of nature and enter into the more elevated human sphere:

The worst curse that was laid upon woman was that she should be excluded from those warlike forays. For it is not in giving life but in risking life that man is raised above the animal; that is why superiority has been accorded in humanity not to the sex that brings forth but to that which kills. (21)

The Culture of Death begins with a negation of some essential element of human life—God, spirituality, reason, nature, the body—and thereby fractionalizes the human being. Thus fractionalized, he wars against the very elements he has negated. In this way, secular feminism wars against the woman’s body and everything it directly implies. But it leaves them amputated, so to speak, and not well disposed to recognize the inherent appeal of a Culture of Life.

By contrast, Mary is whole and blessed in uniting herself with God both bodily and spiritually. The Culture of Life, therefore, begins with an affirmation, a fiat: “Be it done unto me according to thy word.” There are three great flats: “Let there be light” at the commencement of creation; “Let there be love,” preceding the Passion in the Garden of