The Marian Tradition: A Rereading

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Kathleen Coyle, S.S.C.


The primary reason for the growth of the cult of Mary which has communicated a symbolic truth through the centuries lies precisely in her symbolic power. She has captured the Christian imagination through the centuries both in popular devotion and theological reflection.  The present upsurge of interest in marian devotions, and sites of pilgrimage is evidence that the marian tradition still communicates a deep symbolic truth.  Within Anglicanism, as well as within churches more fully identified with the Reformation, we have seen remarkable signs of a new openness to marian  theology and spirituality over the last few decades. Official doctrine may have made a distinction between the adoration of God and the veneration of Mary on the intellectual level, but the majority of Catholics continue to experience the loving concern of God in the figure of a woman.  As we have seen in our first lecture there are so few historical facts in the disconnected data of evidence about her in the New Testament and in the early tradition of the church.  Therefore, while Jesus remains an historical figure Mary has endured as a symbolic character, open to diverse interpretations.  She has become, as Elizabeth Johnson has suggested, “that corporate personality who embodies symbolically the past, present, and future of Christian life”2

This paper will examine the theological developments that have led to the spectacular growth of the cult of Mary through the centuries.  We will limit ourselves to three developments: the decline of the feminine in Christianity, the images of God that have dominated Christianity and the marian metaphors.  Each of these aspects invites us to a rereading of marian theology.  In the words of Mary Gordon we must the road of metaphor, of icon, to come back to that figure who, throughout a corrupt history, has moved the hearts of men and women, has triumphed over the hatred of woman and the fear of her, and abides shining, worthy of our love, compelling it.3


Contemporary studies in marian theology are examining the correlation between the decline in the influence of the feminine in Christianity and the corresponding growth of the cult of Mary.  In Greco-Roman Christianity, probably because of the dangers of Gnosticism, the biblical images of God as female were soon suppressed within the doctrine of God.  God as Wisdom, Hokmah in Hebrew, or Sophia in Greek, a feminine form, was translated by Christianity into the Logos concept of Philo, which is masculine and was defined as the Son of God.  The Shekinah, the theology of God’s mediating presence as female, was de-emphasized; and God’s Spirit Ruah, a feminine noun in Hebrew, took on a  neuter form when translated into Greek as Pneuma. The Vulgate translated Ruah into Latin as masculine, Spiritus.  God’s Spirit, Ruah, which at the beginning of creation brings forth abundant life in the waters, makes the womb of Mary fruitful.  In spite of the reality of the caring, consoling, healing aspects of divine activity, the dominant patriarchal tradition has prevailed, resulting in seeing the female as the passive recipient of God’s creation; and the female is expressed in nature, church, soul, and finally Mary as the prototype of redeemed humanity.  Because God as father has become an over literalized metaphor, the symbol of God as mother is eclipsed.  The problem lies not in the fact that male metaphors are used for God, but that they are used exclusively and literally.  Because images of God as female have been suppressed in official formulations and teaching, they came to be embodied in the figure of Mary who functioned to reveal the unfailing love of God .

Secondly, in the second century there was a shift in the exercise of the early church community’s charismatic and communal authority which was based on spiritual giftedness and economic resources, to patriarchal leadership restricted to the male heads of households.4  Gradually this led to the relegation of women’s leadership to marginal positions, and while leading women were still permitted to teach, their teaching was now restricted to the sphere of women.5  The pastoral epistles (1 Tim, 2 Tim, Titus) stress obedience and submission to those in authority.  Just as wives (Tit 2:5), children (1 Tim 3:4), and slaves (Tit 2: 9) must be submissive within the patriarchal household, so they must observe their subordinate role within the community. In such a short time the understanding of female inferiority became so ingrained that the negative Pauline and deutero-Pauline attitudes towards women prevailed over the more liberating attitude of Gal 3:27-28: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ.”

This cultural pattern of subordination was reinforced by the Pauline metaphors of head and body as well as of bridegroom and bride (2 Cor 11:3).  This affected the relationship between Christ and the church for the church as bride became totally dependent on and submissive to her head, the bridegroom.  Through the centuries, the resultant image of woman, usually as mother, complementing man as father, became one of submissiveness and dependence.  Her image in church and society  reinforced one another.  At work here is the influence of Gnostic dualism that defines femaleness in relation to maleness: “Maleness is the subject, the divine, the absolute; femaleness is the opposite or the complementary other.”6  Dorothee Soelle calls this separation “apartheid theology.”7

In the early church the Eucharistic meal was apparently strongly communal with women along with men as presiders.8  However, by the middle of the third century the emphasis had shifted from a communal celebration to a sacrificial one.  Cyprian of Carthage (d. 258) highlighted the single line of descent attached to the office of the episcopate as against the universal priesthood of the people.9  The early middle ages formally identified priesthood as exclusive to male clerics. When the doctrine of transubstantiation was accepted at the Fourth Lateran Council in 121510, it reinforced the idea that the power to mediate between God and the community was invested in a select group. Women became silent spectators. As the status of women and the influence of the feminine declined, the cult of Mary grew. Rosemary Haughton explains:

. . . the feminine element in the body of Christ had to find a way to be effective and ‘present’, and did so in the powerful symbol of Mary, whose liturgy, acquired some of the Wisdom passages to celebrate her nature and activity.11

The challenge to theology today is to recover the richness of the early church tradition, by retrieving the biblical images of God as female as well as by availing of the spiritual giftedness of women in the community so that theological reflection can focus on Mary, the disciple of Jesus who was also his mother. Her commitment to God’s plan for her at the annunciation and identifying herself with Jesus’ mission establishes her as the central figure representing the kingdom of God. Mary cannot be a liberating symbol of radical discipleship as long as she continues to represent the complementary underside of this “masculine” domination.  She becomes emancipating only when she is seen as a radical symbol of a new humanity, freed from hierarchical power relations, either with God or with humanity.



Images of God are important for they evoke an experience of the divine and help to mold the corporate identity of the community, highlighting its values and directing its praxis. The mystery of God, an incomprehensible, three-fold koinonia transcends all finite images, for no one image can  exhaustively express this holy mystery of the triune God.  However, the Trinity as it is understood has little connection with people’s life experience; and, its doctrine, as it is historically presented, is too complicated to understand.  Elizabeth Johnson remarks, that “for the last thousand years in the West, the Trinity has been neglected, literalized, treated like a curiosity or analyzed. . . so that the doctrine has become unintelligible and religiously irrelevant, having little practical value or connection with the essence of faith.”12  So unknown is the reality to which the Trinity refers that Anselm of Canterbury spoke of a “three something-or-other” or “three I know not what.”13  Karl Rahner observed that so inconsequential is the Trinity in the piety of the faithful that if the church were to announce a fourth person it would make little difference to Christians. Johnson also makes the sad comment that the Trinity is virtually understood as an appendage to the core doctrine of God.14

The God Christian history has been familiar with is God as monarch and ruler who has been spoken of as King of Kings and Lord of Lords and to whom people owed unquestioning obedience. This image conveyed the idea that God is both similar to and represented by patriarchal leadership. God has been seen as existing apart from the world and ruling it externally, either directly through divine intervention, or indirectly through controlling the will of human beings. This God had become ever more remote and judgmental. It was believed that it was impossible for God to forgive sin without demanding satisfaction, so an experience of divine mercy found its expression in the figure of Mary who interceded for and obtained grace for sinners. It was she who assumed the life-giving, motherly qualities, so characteristic of the God about whom Jesus preached which thereby helped to balance an inadequate, diminished understanding of God as a benevolent, yet powerful patriarch. Medieval writers divided the kingdom of God into two zones: justice and mercy; Jesus was the King of Justice, while Mary was always the Queen of Mercy. Consequently during the medieval period, devotion to Mary at first paralleled and then outshone that of the Godhead.  Psalms were rewritten in her honor, substituting Mary for God: “Sing to Our Lady a new song, for she hath done wonderful things.”15  She was also prayed to as “Our Mother who art in heaven,” who could be depended upon to give us our daily bread.  Elizabeth Johnson, commenting on this medieval period, adds that so great was the role of Mary’s mercy that theologians ascribed to her what New Testament writers had ascribed to Christ:

For in her the fullness of the Godhead dwelt corporeally (Col 2: 9); of her fullness we have all received (Jn 1:16); because she had emptied herself, God had highly exalted her, so that at her name, every knee would bend.16

Because the Christian tradition has placed an exaggerated emphasis on God’s transcendence to the virtual exclusion of God’s immanence or indwelling, devotion to Mary has intensified proportionately. In the long marian tradition, the figure of Mary has gradually assumed divine prerogatives which properly belong to God.  Devotion to the Mother of God had been and still is often devotion to God the Mother,17 for what is often being mediated in devotion to the compassionate Mother, is a gracious experience of God. Mary represents ultimate graciousness, unfailing mercy, and is always ready to respond to human need. No wonder her feasts have multiplied, and devotion to her is expressed in works of art, in cathedrals built in her honor, and miracles performed in her name. We need new ways of imaging God as triune, images that will symbolize God’s radical self-giving in incarnation and grace. 

Once we can envision God’s mystery as caring and immanent, as well as just and transcendent, the figure of Mary will not have to function to bring a distant patriarchal God close to us, for God is always present in, and to creation.  Nor will Mary’s role consist of bearing the imagery of the divine in the Christian tradition. The fact that quasi-divine qualities have been attributed to Mary through the centuries, points to a deep intuition that symbolizing God in exclusively dominating images, as father, ruler, lawgiver and manager of history, is inadequate. The fact that in the past four years the present pope has received nearly four and a half million  signatures from over one hundred and fifty countries (including that of forty two cardinals and nearly five hundred bishops) requesting the proclamation a new dogma of Mary as “Co-Redeemer, Mediatrix of All Graces and Advocate of the People of God” demonstrates that for many Catholics Mary is still a quasi-divine being.  The final agreed decision of the commission set up by the Holy See to study this request was unanimous in warning against such a step. The commission stated that it would be inherently difficult to define such ambiguous titles when the scriptural references to “Redeemer” and “Mediator” all point to Christ, and those referring to “Advocate” all point to the Holy Spirit.18


Devotion to Mary has also occupied spaces left vacant by an underdeveloped pneumatology or a theology of the Holy Spirit. The facetious title of a recent article on the Trinity offers us two masculine images and a nebulous third person: “two men and a bird.”  As Elizabeth Johnson has observed,  theology of the Spirit has remained in an embryonic state.19  She also added that even Thomas Aquinas had difficulty finding an appropriate name for the Holy Spirit:

While there are two processions in God, one of these, the procession of love, has no proper name of its own . . . .Hence the relations also which follow from this procession are without a name: for which reason the person proceeding in that manner has not a proper name.20

Catholics frequently give the impression of substituting Mary for the Holy Spirit intimating that she is spiritually present to guide and inspire; and that it is through her that believers go to Jesus.  Mary has been called “mediatrix,” “intercessor,” “advocate,” “helper,” “consoler,” - titles that historically belong to the Holy Spirit, the Counselor: “And I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you for ever” (Jn 14:15).  Since Vatican II, Catholic theologians have paid great attention to the criticism coming especially from Protestant scholars that they have substituted devotion to Mary for an experience of the Holy Spirit.  In a much-quoted article “Mary and the Protestant Mind,” Else Gibbon observes:

When I began to study Catholic theology, every place I expected to find an exposition of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, I found Mary.  What Protestants universally attribute to the action of the Holy Spirit was attributed to Mary.21

In the Scriptures it is the Holy Spirit, the enabling power of salvation who has always been associated with divine intimacy and presence to people’s lives.  In a contemporary theology of the Trinity the qualities of sanctifying, interceding and consoling, borne by the figure of Mary are being retrieved again for the Holy Spirit, whose reality and activity have virtually been lost from much of Christian theological consciousness. Once retrieved, God can be imaged as mystery, closer to us than we are to ourselves, and the reality of the divine presence can once more be experienced as intimate and energizing. God, a mystery beyond all imagining, is overflowing love, unfathomably merciful and outreaching desire for union with all that God has made. This communion of divine life is with us in Christ and as Spirit and who is breathed forth upon us, empowering us to be born and reborn in the midst of the oppressive structures of our world.  It is the Holy Spirit, not Mary who is the source of life through whom God’s love has been poured into our hearts (Rom 5:5)  It is the Holy Spirit, not Mary who is the indwelling of the divine mystery and who continues to renew the face of the earth.  Mary’s place in salvation history is to bear witness to the presence of this divine mystery in the church.

Reflection on the mystery of God as Trinity, our participation in the life of God through Jesus, and the return of pneumatology to theological discussion, bring new opportunities for thinking about God, not as a remote and transcendent being who miraculously intervenes in our lives, but as an all-encompassing source of divine love and life, the God in whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28).  In the past the symbol of Mary modified or at least balanced the exaggerated controlling tendencies in Christian theology, that spoke of God in patriarchal as well as imperialistic and triumphalistic metaphors.  When Mary is free of the burden of keeping alive the female imagery of the divine, she can then be retrieved as a genuine woman and disciple, concerned for and offering hope to the marginalized and oppressed of our world (Lk 1:52-53).  We can see her in her proper context as a creature of God, totally sanctified and overshadowed by the Holy Spirit. In an insightful comment Karl Rahner reminds us that it was the image of the woman Mary that enabled the church in past centuries to prevent society, with which it was often too uncritically identified, from setting up a purely male domination.  He adds that the church had to learn slowly and painfully amid the changes in secular society:

to give woman what is due to her by nature and by right: an historical process which is still far from complete.  But in its understanding of faith the Church has a starting point of its own and a dynamism of its own for this process.  And what is its own is in fact present as an archetype in its image of Mary.22

Hans Urs von Balthasar (who himself was opposed to the ordination of women) complained about the imbalance of the male principle in the church so that:

. . . it has to a large extent put off its mystical characteristics; it has become a church of permanent conversations, organizations, advisory  commissions, congresses, synods . . . structures and restructurings, sociological experiments, statistics, that is to say, more than ever a male church, if perhaps one should not say a sexless entity.23

And again in his fear that Christianity threatens imperceptibly to become inhuman he adds:

. . . in this masculine world, all that we have is one ideology replacing another, everything becomes polemical, critical, bitter, humourless, and ultimately boring, and people in their masses run away from the church.24


Like all religious images, images of Mary are born and die in a culture because of complex reasons.25  Christian culture is highly patriarchal, and a close look at its structures of domination, can show how they have shaped our religious thinking and biased the whole range of theological images.  Without critical interpretation, the Mary metaphors will not regain the effective and directive power that many of them had for us.  Mary must be continuously freed from the ideological captivity of a given symbolism in a given culture.  Nietzsche has reminded us that “what we call truth are worn-out metaphors, which have become powerless to affect the senses.”26  Some of our traditional marian metaphors are well worn out.  Two such weary examples are the Eve-Mary polarity, the most ancient  marian  image and  the  New  Adam - New  Eve  polarity.  We will now examine them both and discuss their historical influence on the long tradition of marian spirituality.

The Eve-Mary Parallelism

The contrasting of Mary to Eve had appeared as early as the first half of the second century and was never lost sight of again.  Eve and Mary are contrasted in terms of disobedience and obedience, unbelief and faith, death and life.  Walter Burghardt, the noted mariologist writes that “the Eve-Mary analogy is the first genuine insight of the patristic age with respect to Our Lady.”27  It became a favorite subject of patristic preaching.  A sharp opposition is built between Mary the obedient and faithful woman and Eve the temptress and sinner.  While Justin Martyr, Irenaeus and Tertullian develop this symbolism with great embellishment, it is Irenaeus who stamps the idea on the mind of Christendom.28  Justin concludes that Mary’s cooperation with God contrasted sharply with the effects of Eve’s seduction by Satan:

[The Son of God] became man through the Virgin, that the disobedience caused by the serpent might be destroyed in the same way in which it had originated.  For Eve, while a virgin incorrupt, conceived the word which proceeded from the serpent, and brought forth disobedience and death. But the Virgin Mary was filled with faith and joy when the Angel Gabriel told her the glad tidings that the Spirit of the Lord would come upon her... and she answered: “Be it done unto me according to thy word.”29

Irenaeus, perhaps the first theologian of the Virgin Mary, explained that the complicated knot fashioned of Eve’s disobedience is untied by Mary’s obedience:

Just as Eve, wife of Adam yes, yet still a virgin. . . became by her disobedience the cause of death for herself and the whole human race, so Mary too, espoused yet a virgin, became by her obedience the cause of salvation for herself and the whole human race. . . . And so it was that the knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by Mary’s obedience.  For what the virgin Eve bound fast by her refusal to believe, this the Virgin Mary unbound by her belief.30

The same essential ideas - virginity, disobedience and death balanced by virginity, obedience and life - are emphasized by Tertullian.  Like Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, he believed that “what had been lost through one sex might by the same sex be restored and saved.”31  In addressing women he asks them: “Do you realize that you are each an Eve?  The curse of God on this sex of yours lives on even in our times.  Guilty you must bear its hardships.”32  Jerome considered it an honor for a woman to be thought of as a man.  Speaking to Lucinus about Theodora he says: “she has become your sister, has changed from woman to man, from subject to equal.”33  Again he adds that “as long as a woman is for birth and children, she is different from man as body is from soul.  But when she wishes to serve Christ more than the world, then she will cease to be a woman, and will be called man.”34  It would be difficult to understand the contrast between the veneration of Mary and the disgust of the female body, in these writings, if we did not recall that it was commonplace in ancient thought to identify women with the flesh and men with the spirit, and to depict women as inevitably lower than men. St. Ambrose gives the source of the word vir (male) as animi virtus (strength of soul) and of the wordmulier (woman) as mollitia mentis (softness of mind)!

The New Adam, New Eve Polarity

Related to the symbol that describes Mary as the New Eve, is the symbol of the New Adam-New Eve. Christ, the redeemer, is the New Adam; the church, the new Eve is his helpmate in the work of salvation.  Christ is cast in the pre-eminent role of divine partner; the human partner, Mary or the church, is cast in a childbearing role. Mary gives birth to Christ, the head, whose members, the church, are born in the Spirit.  This androcentric system from the order of creation is transposed into the order of redemption.  Kari Borresen shows that “the use of the New Adam - New Eve theme for nuptial symbolism rests on the patriarchal assumption that marriage is a union between two unequal partners.”35  But in today’s world androcentricism is slowly breaking down so that this symbolism is gradually becoming an anachronism.

The insights of the Fathers of the Church, especially Justin, Irenaeus and Tertullian, continued after the Council of Nicea in both East and West so that such witnesses to the Eve-Mary parallelism as Jerome’s well known phrase “death through Eve, life through Mary” follow one another “in an endless wave, across the whole of the Latin Middle Ages down to our own time.”36  The scholastics continue this warped view of female sexuality.  Thomas Aquinas, adds: “Woman is an occasional and incomplete being, a misbegotten male.  It is unchangeable that woman is destined to live under man’s influence and has no authority from her Lord.”37  The work of the inquisitors and witch-hunters in the middle ages could be legitimated by such beliefs. In the Malleus Maleficarum, the handbook of the persecution of witches written by two Dominicans in 1486, witchcraft is explicitly linked to an inferior perception of women’s nature:

Since women are feebler both in mind and body, it is not surprising that they should come under the spell of witchcraft.  For as regards intellect, or the understanding of spiritual things, they seem to be of a different nature from men . . . But the natural reason is that she is more carnal than a man, as is clear from her many carnal abominations.  And it should be noted that there was a defect in the formation of the first woman, since she was formed from a bent rib, that is, a rib of the breast which is bent as it were in a contrary direction to a man.  And since through this defect she is an imperfect animal, she always deceives.38

In more recent times, when the immaculate conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary was proclaimed a dogma of faith on December 8,1854, by the ConstitutionIneffabilis Deus, Pius IX compared Mary with Eve before she had “fallen.”  He then went on to describe her as a “lily among thorns” and “incorruptible wood.”  To acclaim Mary as a “lily among thorns” as the pope did is not very affirming for the thorns, for thorns by their very nature can never become lilies.  And in describing her as “incorruptible wood” he seemed to insinuate that the rest of the wood is corruptible.

Vatican II, quoting Irenaeus and Jerome, again uses the Eve-Mary metaphor in describing Mary as “the mother of the living.”39  She is “the New Eve who put her trust not in the ancient serpent but in the messenger of God.”40  And most recently, in the apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem, Pope John Paul II’s long reflection on the Eve-Mary analogy concludes that “in Mary Eve discovers the nature of the true dignity of woman, of feminine humanity.”41

A Critique of the Eve-Mary Parallelism

In critiquing the long tradition of marian metaphors, we must also examine the dominant culture out of which they have emerged, as well as the governing ideologies out of which the culture is living.  Unfortunately these interpretations tended to separate Mary further from ordinary woman, most of whom did not choose a lifelong commitment to virginity and hence were seen as Eves. To exalt Mary at Eve’s expense is to do so at the expense of all women. To place her on a pedestal as the holy virgin and mother, and contrast her with the sinful Eve, the symbol of all ordinary women, makes it difficult to bridge the gap between the ordinary woman and Mary.42  Mary becomes the great exception.  Donal Flanagan spells out the consequences of singling out Mary as the New Eve or New Woman:

A price had to be paid for this singling out and the price was the identifying of all other women with the first Eve as fickle, unreliable, morally inferior beings in their natural condition.  This dichotomization ... the process by which the male divides woman by projecting two separate and contradictory symbols of her, did not begin with Christianity.  Rather the Christian marian tradition in due time produced its own dichotomization in Eve/Mary terms.  This allowed the Christian male to project all his respect, honor, love onto one ideal, other-worldly woman, Mary, and thereby to salve his conscience for the actual subjection and low estate he allowed to real women in his patriarchal male-dominated world.43

Projecting the negative “eductive” Eve attributes to other women does not help us to focus clearly on the solidarity of the whole human race, both women and men, in sin and grace.  Carroll Meyers concludes from his archaeological research that a new concept of Eve associated with sin, death and suffering is superimposed so indelibly on the assertive and productive figure of the Eden narrative that we can hardly see the original woman of Genesis 2-3.44  Elizabeth Johnson notes that “the denigration of women became the shadow side of the glorification of Mary in the early centuries of the church.”45  The tendency to blame Eve and all women for the introduction of evil into the world helps us to understand the later development of an unreal Mary. A well-established example of this problem is the “Madonna - whore syndrome” which allows men “to love and respect their ideal woman in Mary, but to ignore or dominate women with impunity and immunity even from the searchings of their own conscience”46  Traditional marian metaphors such as Mary, the New Eve, and the New Adam-New Eve polarity have functioned, however unconsciously, to keep women oppressed.  For women who are concerned about sexual identity, personal growth and intellectual and social achievement, it is necessary to reject such demeaning images. While today few would use the blatant language ofMalleus Maleficarum these polarities, still very much alive in official church thought, as the recent Catechism of the Catholic Church attests, may have more to do with the prohibition against women in ordained ministry than the church can even realize to admit.  However, people are slow to let go of the familiar to which they are emotionally attached.  They are even more reluctant to depart from religious symbols that have accumulated layer upon layer of meaning for them and that have gripped their allegiance over a long period of time.

A Distorted Picture of Eve

It may come as a surprise to many to discover that apart from the early chapters of Genesis, there is no further mention of Eve in the Hebrew Bible until she reappeared in the Book of Ecclesiasticus, written in the second century B.C.E.47  The author Ben Sira says: “From a woman was the beginning of sin, and because of her we all died” (Eccl 25: 24).  He states bluntly that sin and death came into the world through woman, although in the Genesis account, the woman is given the name “Eve,”  which means the mother of the living.  Ben Sira, by contrast, makes her the mother of death. and identifies her with sin.  He is the first known author to blame woman for sin and death, and has provided one of the most persistent interpretations of the Genesis narrative.  Anne Primavesi remarks:

The connection made by Ben Sira between sin, death and woman has been so accepted into Christian consciousness that it has been assumed that as God did not want her to eat (sin), neither did God want her to die.  It was her own fault that she did both.48

The concept of a “fall” does not appear in the Genesis 3 narrative,49  nor do we find it anywhere in the Hebrew Scriptures.  The idea of the “fall” comes from Greek literature, where Plato talks about heavenly perfections shedding their wings, andfalling to earth to be implanted and born as humans.  Literal interpretations which treated this myth as history, and confused it with an Augustinian interpretation of original sin, have done enormous harm to generations of Christians.  Eve has been made to bear the sins of the world.  As we begin to expose the bias against women in these canonized interpretations, and the inferiorization of women presumed in the exegesis, we will begin the rehabilitation of Eve.  As Eve, and by extension, all other women, are given their rightful place, the Eve-Mary parallelism will hopefully lose its significance.

Searching for an Alternative Tradition

Without critical interpretation, the Mary metaphors will not regain the effective and directive power which many of them had for us. Theology must examine the ancient myths that identify woman with chaos, darkness, matter and sin and the echo of these in Christian interpretations of concupiscence (well-entrenched in the classical interpretation of original sin) in seeing sexuality as contaminating and therefore of woman as temptress, as danger and a symbol of sin. It is in this context that marian theology tries to understand the symbolic power of the changing image of Mary from the early centuries of Christianity to our own times, and its influence on the lives of women in particular. The distorted symbol systems need to be studied so that a new community, characterized by mutuality and freedom becomes possible in church and society. In setting Mary apart from the rest of women, the early writers seemed to suggest that she was acceptable because she did not share the corruption that was inevitably attached to the female condition. While theology rereads the marian tradition, searches for an alternative one, and avails of contemporary exegesis of the creation narratives, it must find new meaning in other symbols and metaphors that are deeply rooted in Christian consciousness.  There is a certain urgency to this search, for the worldwide awakening of the dignity of women in human history is calling for a meaningful presentation of the Mary metaphors for contemporary times.

Mary, a Finite Human Being with a Unique Role in History

Statements about Mary ought to focus on her as a historical and finite human being who has a definite though unique place in history.  The church will always see her as the one who had an exceptional function in salvation history.  Rahner, however, cautions that her exceptional function in history does not allow us “to ascribe to her alone the whole fullness of human reality, which can be realized only in humankind as a whole and in the whole of history.”50  She must be envisioned as a poor woman, who lived in the context of the socio-historical and religious situation of her time.  Rahner adds that we must focus on Mary:

. . . not as a heavenly being, but as a human person, as active and suffering for herself and others, as learning in the midst of many uncertainties, as accepting her function in salvation history in faith, hope, and love, and by this very fact, as model and mother of believers.51

Contemporary theological reflection on Mary is focusing on the disciple of Jesus who was also his mother.  Her personal involvement in the birth of the Messiah as well as her own lifelong faith in God, have intimately linked her with the mystery of the world’s salvation.  Any liturgical or devotional presentation of Mary must clearly call the church to the inclusive, liberating and prophetic discipleship that Mary embodies.  As Gustavo Gutierrez reminds us, “Her contemplation of God’s holiness is not an evasion of history; her joy at the gratuitous love of the Lord does not make her forget the demands of justice.”52  The liberating song of Mary (Lk 1:46-55), in the liberating tradition of Miriam, Deborah, Hannah and Judith points to the new order of creation that is good news to the poor and the marginalized of society.

As theology retrieves for the mystery of God those elements in the marian symbolic tradition which properly belong to the Godhead, mariology is being purified from pious exaggerations. In a world where models of domination, global warfare and militarism, starvation and poverty, seem to dominate, Christian feminists are claiming Mary as a critical symbol of compassionate love amid the struggles of history. Retrieving the historical figure of Mary must be done in the context of the complexity of the contemporary world. This is also a world that is beginning to resist dualism, polarization and the politics of domination-submission; yet it is a world that is characterized by militarization, domination and the coercion of the weak by the strong.

In the liberation theologies of oppressed peoples the person of Mary is once again becoming important. These theologies are concerned with the redefinition of power and ultimately the redefinition of society.  They have arisen from the experience of oppressed groups, who find in Mary a symbol of hope in their struggle towards liberation.  They contemplate her as a prophet of God for the poor of her day, singing in anticipation her song of liberation, and realizing God’s plan of liberation in history.  Leonardo Boff53 stresses that Mary in particular is a herald of liberation, singing the song of justice of the coming kingdom of God (Lk 1:46-55).  She has captured the imagination of the poor who can identify with a poor village woman, a member of a people oppressed by foreign rulers. They understand what it means to be a refugee fleeing with her new born child, or bereaving the untimely death of her son, a victim of unjust execution.  It is the task of liberation theologians, he says, to develop a prophetic image of Mary who stands in solidarity with them:

. . . as the strong, determined woman, the woman committed to the messianic liberation of the poor from the historical social injustices under which they suffer.  And today we see this image taking shape, deep in the heart of an oppressed people, who long for a voice in society and liberation from its evils.54

Leonardo and Clodovis Boff describe her as:

. . . Mary from Nazareth, a woman of the people, who observed popular religious customs of the time . . . who worried about her son . . . and who followed him to the foot of the cross. . . Because of this ordinariness, and not in spite of it, Mary is everything that faith proclaims her to be . . .55

The identification of the poor with Mary, the mother of Jesus, who shared their human story can lend dignity to the lives of those devalued by society.  She stands in solidarity with the insignificant, the anonymous, the poorest of the poor, the ‘non-persons’ of history.  This identification locates Mary firmly among us, as our model Christian disciple. She calls us to give voice to the pain of those who cannot articulate, either the protest or the hope of her own Magnificat.  Theology must retrieve her therefore as a woman, strong and resourceful, our sister in faith who did not hesitate to proclaim God’s concern for the oppressed.

A feminist rereading of Mary is taking on a completely new form and is offering a very different image of her from the traditional, culturally conditioned images that do little to uplift women in search of a full humanity.  The historic figure of Mary now enters into dialogue with contemporary times, cultures and problems, and with the people who work to make the values of the kingdom of God an actuality in our world.  Ecological awareness and an appreciation of an inclusive, non-hierarchical vision of reality are two current themes that have emerged in world consciousness and that will have profound implications for the world and the church into the next century.  The Latin American bishops believe that female symbolism can be rescued in a way that can promote the full humanity of women.  As the Third General Conference of the Latin American Bishops states:

. . . in Mary, the Gospel has penetrated femininity, redeeming it and exalting it . . . Mary guarantees the greatness of the feminine, indicating the specific way of being woman with her vocation to be the soul, the gift, capable of spiritualizing the flesh and embodying the Spirit.56

Precisely as a woman her story will undoubtedly resonate with those of other women through bonds of sisterhood. The self-possessed poor woman of the annunciation narrative (Lk 1:28-33) who finds favor with God and is willing to cooperate with God’s plan of  salvation is a model of courage for the marginalized women of today’s world.  Elizabeth Johnson adds that “this solidarity carries political significance, for it is to this kind of woman that God has done great things.”57  Theologians are therefore critiquing the silent and submissive images that have presented her as sweet and uncomplaining and that do little to uplift marginalized and oppressed women - “the battered, the tortured, the hungry, the silenced and the unfree.”58  There is no room for timidity here for like Mary we too are called to hear the word of God and keep it.

We conclude with a quote from Sally Cuneen:

Mary wears whatever face can be recognized by particular people at particular moments.  When that face is true to the woman of the New Testament, it demands a whole response, both inner humility and outer justice, similar to the one Mary expressed in her Magnificat: “He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones, but lifted up the lowly.”59



  1. The third of three talks given at the Marian Conference, Mary for the Third Millennium, St. Joseph’s College, Hunter’s Hill, Sydney, September, 1998.
  2. See Elizabeth Johnson, “The Symbolic Character of Theological Statements about Mary,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 22:2 (Spring 1985): 312-335.
  3. Cited in Sally Cuneen, In Search of Mary: The Woman and the Symbol (New York: Ballantines Books, 1996), 21.
  4. Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins (London: SCM Press, 1993), 287.
  5. ibid., 290.
  6. ibid., 274-275.
  7. Marie-Louise Gubler, “Luke’s Portrait of Mary,” Theology Digest 36:1 (Spring 1989): 21.
  8. Fiorenza, 176-180.
  9. Johannes Quasten, Patrology, Vol. 2 (Westminster, Maryland: The Newman Press, 1964), 379-380.
  10. John Strynkowski, “Transubstantiation,” Encyclopedia of Catholicism, gen.ed., Richard McBrien (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1995), 1264.
  11. Rosemary Haughton, “There is Hope for a Tree,” unpublished paper, 14.
  12. Elizabeth Johnson, “Trinity: To Let the Symbol Sing Again,” Theology Today (October, 1997), 300-301.
  13. ibid., 301.
  14. ibid., 301
  15. For this and the following examples see Johnson, “Mary and the Female Face of God,” Theological Studies 50 (1989): 508.
  16. ibid., 509.
  17. Johnson, “Mary and the Image of God,” Mary Woman of Nazareth: Biblical & Theological Perspectives, ed. Doris Donely (New York: Paulist Press, 1989), 36.
  18. Roger Greenacre, “Mother of all Christians,” The Tablet, (24 Jan. 1990), 21
  19. Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (New York: Crossroad, 1992), 128.
  20. ST I, q. 36, a.1, cited in She Who Is, 128.
  21. Elsie Gibson, “Mary and the Protestant Mind,” Review for Religious 24 (1965), 397.
  22. Karl Rahmer, “Mary and the Christian Image of Woman,” Theological Investigations XIX (New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 1983), 211.
  23. Hans Urs von Baltazar, Elucidations (London: SPCK, 1975), 72-74.
  24. ibid.
  25. Sally McFague, Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), 20.
  26. Cited in ibid., 6.
  27. Walter Burghardt, “Mary In Western Patristic Thought,” Mariology, Vol. I, ed. Juniper B. Carol (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1954), 109.
  28. Michael O’Carroll, Theotokos: A Theological Encyclopedia of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Dublin: Dominican Publications, 1982), 140.
  29. Cited in Juniper Carol, Mariology, Vol. I, (Milwaukee: Bruce Co., 1955), 111.
  30. ibid., 112.
  31. ibid.
  32. Cited in ibid., 122.
  33. Cited in Kari Vogt, “‘Becoming Male,’: One Aspect of an Early Christian Anthropology.” Concilium 182 (1985): 78.
  34. Cited in Mary Gordon, “Becoming to Terms with Mary,” Commonwealth (25 January 1982): 11.
  35. Kari Borresen, “Mary in Catholic Theology,” Concilium 168, (1983): 51.
  36. Carol, Vol. I, 117.
  37. ST I, 92, 1, ad 1.
  38. J. Sprenger and H. Kramer, Malleus Maleficarum, Trans. Montague Summers, (London: Pushkin Press, 1948), pt 1, q.6.
  39. Lumen Gentium, 56.
  40. ibid., 63.
  41. John Paul II, Mulieris Dignitatem, 9.
  42. Donal Flanagan, The Theology of Mary (Hales Corners, WI: Clergy Book Service, 1976), 97.
  43. ibid.
  44. Carol I. Meyers, Discovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Woman in Context (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 296.
  45. Johnson, “Marian Tradition and the Reality of Women,” Horizons 12/1 (1985): 123.
  46. ibid., 124.
  47. See Anne Primavesi, From Apocalypse to Genesis (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), 222-226.
  48. ibid., 226.
  49. Kathleen Coyle, “A Theological Reflection on Genesis 3,” The Month, (July 1990), 287-293.
  50. Rahner, 213.
  51. ibid., 215.
  52. Gutierez, The God of Life trans. Matthew J. O’Connell (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1991), 179.
  53. See Leonardo Boff, “Mary, Prophetic Woman of Liberation,” The Maternal Face of God, Trans., R. Barr and J. Dierksmeier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1987), 188-203.
  54. ibid., 189.
  55. Leonardo Boff and Clodovis Boff, Introducing Liberation Theology (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1987), 57.
  56. Third General Conference of Latin American Bishops (Washington: National Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1979), 229.
  57. Johnson, “Saints and Mary,” Systematic Theology: Roman Catholic Perspective, Francis S. Fiorenza & John P. Galvin, eds. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), 487.
  58. Virginia Fabella and Mercy Oduyoye, With Passion and Compassion (New York: Orbis, 1988), 121.
  59. Cuneen, 24.
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