Theology of the Body and Marian Dogmas, Part II

Mariology is the study of the Blessed Virgin Mary. As a field of study it seeks to understand her role in salvation history through examining her privileges and titles. Yet, that is not all it is. From the very beginning of reflections on the Virgin Mary, especially in the Fathers of the Church, there has been an understanding, a theological tool, called the Mary-Church analogy. What this theological tool seeks to emphasize is the notion that whatever statements we make concerning the Virgin Mary have some bearing and significance for the Church, the Church understood as both a collective whole and the individual Christian. In short, as Adrienne von Speyr noted: “Whatever the Lord did to his Mother he did with his Church in mind.” (28) Thus, the study of Mariology has always taught something about man and his relationship with God through faith, as Lumen Gentium states: “Having entered deeply into the history of salvation, Mary, in a way, unites in her person and re-echoes the most important doctrines of the faith.” (29)

In a rather lengthy quote, Fr. Donald Keefe gets to the core of why Mariology needs to be an essential dimension in all theological fields of study:

The Marian doctrines are . . . not only not negotiable, not dispensable to the Christian faith: their exploration is an essential task of theology, and any systematic theology which would ignore these doctrines, or fail to integrate them . . . is doomed to lapse into that kind of “identity system” which von Balthasar properly condemned in Barth’s dogmatics, which is latent in Tillich’s systematic theology, and which is all too easy to extrapolate from any theology which would prefer, for its principle of exploration, some immanent dynamism, human or cosmic, whose relation to the grace of the New Creation is at best and finally uninteresting. The Marian doctrines enter theology at the level of method, for the conversion process which the Christian faith demands of any prior anthropology, cosmology, sociology, politics or other human discipline in order that it become a theology is that by which such a discipline loses its immanent necessity, to become Christocentric. (30)

What this profound statement basically posits is that in order to fully understand the world from God’s perspective, the masterpiece of God, the Virgin Mary, must be incorporated into the study. Even more specifically, since we are here dealing with the field of theological anthropology (especially human embodiedness), the late Orthodox theologian, Alexander Schmemann was absolutely correct when he laconically noted: “Mariology is . . . the “locus theologicus” par excellence of Christian anthropology.” (31) In other words, the study of man must not have abnormality as its starting point—a common error among many of the modern methods used in the social and psychological sciences—but, rather, start with normality, the blueprint for what it means to be an embodied human person. This is why in order to move beyond what modern ideological thinkers state about the human body, John Paul II began his study of man from a protological perspective, that is, “in the beginning.” The implications for what this means for a relationship between Mariology and the study of anthropology is that we have to look to what divine revelation (God’s knowledge) tells us about Mary, the model and prototype of all human embodiedness. (32)

To further illustrate the necessary place of Marian studies in Christianity, one of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century, Hans Urs von Balthasar, noted:

“Without Mariology Christianity threatens imperceptibly to become inhuman.” (33)

Without Mariology the age-old tendency to construct a dualistic cosmology and anthropology is never far away. However, as the late John Cardinal Wright aptly noted: “By the teachings of the faith on the Madonna, the flesh is made the twin of the spirit—no longer its rival.” (34) In Mary all the glories of Christ’s saving work are made clear and perfectly evident, they are made real and concrete. Even Karl Barth, though somewhat erroneous in his classification of terminology, noted the importance of Marian dogmas for allCatholic theology when he stated: “Marian dogma is neither more nor less than the critical, central dogma of the Roman Catholic Church, the dogma from the standpoint of which all their important positions are to be regarded and by which they stand or fall.” (35) Regardless of the fact that he is mistaken in stating that Marian dogma(s) are the central dogma of Catholicism, he is absolutely right to note that the Church’s teaching on Mary makes all Catholic teaching stand or fall!

The Virgin Mary is the greatest among creatures because she responded to God with her pure fiat, a total cooperation that intimately involved all of her being. Everything that Mary did she did with her body. For this reason, Sr. Mary Timothy Prokes is correct to point out that “the privileges celebrated in Mary are grounded in her body.” (36) Without Mary the teaching of the Church on the human body remains abstract and theoretical. Interestingly, during the 13th International Marian Congress at Zagreb on August 13, 1971, Cardinal Suenens asked Karl Rahner what he thought was the reason for the decline in Marian devotion. The answer Rahner gave is a theological affirmation that the Virgin Mary, especially her divine maternity, makes Christianity real and concrete: “Too many Christians, whatever their religious obedience may be, tend to make Christianity an ideology, an abstraction. And abstractions do not need a mother.” (37) Without Mary, Christianity is easily reduced to the realm of philosophical theory. For this reason, the statement made by Cardinal Christopher Schönborn could not be more accurate: “Mary is the guarantor of Christian realism.” (38)

In light of all the above quotes on the essential part that Mariology needs to play in theology as a whole, it is surprising that so few (hardly any) theologians have explored the interconnectedness between what John Paul II taught in his theology of the body and what the Church teaches about the Virgin Mary. (39) Without a doubt, this is an area of theology that stands in need of serious investigation. (40) Therefore, while in no way positing that the following section of the article offers a comprehensive treatment of the subject, it will seek to highlight the intimate connection that can be made between the four selected key points of John Paul II’s theology of the body and the four Marian dogmas of the Catholic Church. (41)

I. The Immaculate Conception: The Body Is a Gift

The dogma of Mary’s Immaculate Conception was proclaimed in 1854 by Bl. Pius IX in the Bull Ineffabilis Deus.The mystery of the Immaculate Conception, that is, Mary’s having been created free from the stain of original sin in all the dimensions of her being, is a free gift of God’s superabundant mercy; Mary did not earn or merit the unique privilege of being immaculately conceived. What is often overlooked regarding the teaching of the Church on the Immaculate Conception, however, is the fact that Mary was preserved from original sin in both soul and body. The gift of the Immaculate Conception is an embodied gift. Thus, Mary’s femininity, her God-given gift of being a woman, is also part of the goodness of God’s creation in the Immaculate Conception.

This fundamental act of mercy, The Immaculate Conception, serves as sign and hope indicating the superabundant goodness of God’s love for creation. For as John Paul II stated: “The Immaculate Conception is . . . the promising dawn of the radiant day of Christ.” (42)

Mary’s body, due to the theological truth that it serves as the “promising dawn” of the new creation in which all things are made new, represents the prototypical model of each individual human being in their creaturely embodiedness. What Mary has at the beginning, namely, sinlessness, all will have at the end of life if they cooperate with the gift of their embodiedness. Mary shows us how to accept the gift of our embodiedness, and this includes the God-given sex of the body. In this it is important to note that Mary’s exemplarity of what it means to accept the gift of one’s body means that the body is not an obstacle to be overcome but, rather, a gift to be lived.

Mary delights in her body, especially in its God-given sex: femininity. It is precisely in her gift of being a woman, that Mary was fashioned and called by God to be the Theotókos. The gift of her body is exactly what helps her to become the Theotókos. Just think of what would have happened if Mary rebelled against the gift of her feminine body! We would be in a very different situation today.

Mary’s gift of the Immaculate Conception, in contrast to much of the feminist thought of today, does not separate her from us. On the contrary, the gift of the Immaculate Conception serves as our model of how to accept the free, gratuitous gift of our embodiedness and cooperate with God in our salvation and the salvation of others. Salvation, the new creation, is an embodied reality. In a certain sense, the Immaculate Conception serves as a blueprint for how humanity is to respond to God’s love. For this reason, Benedict Ashley states that “the Catholic understanding of the role of Mary in the plan of salvation is, as it were, a summary of the theology of the body and its historic development in the Church shows how the guidance of the Holy Spirit has overcome the dualistic influences of Platonism on Christian thought.” (43)

In short, what the Immaculate Conception teaches us concerning a theology of the body is that if a person accepts and cooperates with their God-given body and sex, they will bear fruit for eternal life. On the other hand, if they choose to rebel and reject the gift of their body, they are on the road to self-destruction and anthropological frustration, that is, hell.

II. Perpetual Virginity: The Body Is Nuptial

The Church’s teaching on Mary’s perpetual virginity was defined in 649 at the Lateran Synod by Pope St. Martin I. While this dogma declares that Mary was a virgin before the birth of Christ (virginitas ante partu), during the birth of Christ (virginitas in partu), and after the birth of Christ (virginitas post partum), it also teaches us something essential for understanding what it means to be a virgin, namely, virginity is essentially nuptial because it is the servant of love. “The perpetual virginity of Mary,” notes Jutta Burggraf, “signifies her bridal state as well as the overshadowing by the Holy Spirit.” (44)

As was stated earlier, an essential dimension of John Paul II’s theology of the body is that the human body is nuptial, that is, meant to be a sacrament of the person and an expression of the communion of persons existing between individuals. In essence, the body is meant to be given away to an other in spousal love, either through sacramental marriage or through the choice to respond to God’s call of consecrating one’s body to the Lord through the vow of chastity. (45) Yet, in order to be able to fully give oneself away, one must have, as Cardinal Angelo Scola calls it, “possession in detachment,” (46) that is, the mature self-possession needed to make a mutual exchange based upon the mystery of otherness as gift. For Mary, this self-possession is her acceptance and cooperation with the gift of both her Immaculate Conception and her call to be a perpetual virgin in her body as a response to God’s gift of himself to her. Having self-possession gives one the freedom to give oneself away; one cannot give what one does not possess (nemo dat quod non habet). This is why Mary’s embodied virginity serves as the model of freedom for the Church. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith summed this point up well:

Mary is totally dependent upon God and completely directed towards him, and, at the side of her Son, she is the most perfect image of freedom and of the liberation of humanity and of the universe. It is to her as Mother and Model that the Church must look in order to understand in its completeness the meaning of her own mission. (47)

John Paul II so emphasized the fact that the virginal body is nuptial that he dedicated seven audiences to this theme. (48) Contrary to what modern society believes about virginity, namely, that it is a sign of isolation and seclusion, John Paul II presented virginity within a context of deep nuptial love. This is why he affirmed that the virgin Mary is the bride/spouse of God. (49)

John Paul II also noted that part of what it means to be in the image of God is being able to be a gift to an other: “To say that man is created in the image and likeness of God means that man is called to exist ‘for’ others, to beco