Female Embodiment and the Incarnation

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Christianity has faced many challenges in the course of its two thousand-year history. It has not fared equally well with all of them. The issue of the female body and attitudes toward it shaped by Christian faith and practice continues to be a vexing one. For this reason, I concentrate on Female Embodiment, considering it of utmost importance in the next century. I agree with those who think that the question of sexual difference isthe question of our epoch.1 I put the question in the context of the incarnation because the belief that God became one of us is at the heart of Christian faith. As Karl Rahner says, "Only here is the mystery of our participation in the divine nature accorded us" (Rahner 1966:105). Yet the doctrine of the incarnation does not make it entirely clear what that means for women or for the female body.

I will first indicate how I see the problem or challenge implied in this topic. Then I will review representative approaches that differ from my own, in an effort to show how the question is affecting the shape of our tradition. I will follow with an interpretation of some classic texts based on the "symbolics of the female body" as hermeneutical clue.2 Then I will show how this reading supports and is supported by dogmatic formulations. I will then indicate the development of dogma that I consider necessary to preserve the Christian faith for future centuries. Let me say from the outset that I am offering you something that has been developed in a community of women. It reflects our current struggle with the faith we have inherited and our effort to reinterpret in order to preserve. The implications for the rest of theology have not been worked out. It is my hope that this presentation will interest others in taking up that great task.

The Problem/the Issue

The Christian faith has defended across centuries the proposition that the word was made flesh, God became man, the divine united with the human in the figure known as Jesus Christ. Against every attempt to maintain that Jesus’ humanity was unreal by comparison with other human beings or unworthy to be consubstantial with the divine, the Church in its councils forged a doctrine that insisted on the reality and the dignity of Jesus’ manhood, his body, his humanity. Moreover, in liturgy and in teaching, Christians were instructed that the Son of God who came as one of us invites us to divine adoption. Until very recently, of course, the Church could speak the language of "man" and "manhood" without having to avert to the truth that humanity exists only as embodied in male or female. There is no "manhood" that embraces the possibilities of both. Christian thinkers were equally ignorant of the contradiction between what was taught about the dignity of the human body and the tradition of misogyny that pervades Christian life.

Let me illustrate some consequences of such inattention by quoting two theologians who have influenced me enormously and whom I admire to this day. First, the great William Lynch, S.J. Writing in his brilliant work,Images of Faith, on what he calls "a new irony," that is, the Christian irony, Lynch says this:




To work out a new irony is a difficult and never-ending task. In the centuries since Christ, it had to and did lead to a complete democratization of the image of man and to the impossibility of any theology built upon class or race or nation; all these categories were destroyed by this overwhelming idea of men as sons of God (Lynch 1973:100).

"The idea of men as sons of God" has rendered impossible any theology built upon "class or race or nation." Amazing. For it shows perfectly that this idea leaves room for a theology based on sex—and that Lynch does not realize that it does. His "complete democratization of the image of man" clearly leaves out all females.

The second illustration is closer to home. When I was a young teacher starting my college teaching career, I had the immense good fortune to work under Felix Malmberg, S.J., of happy memory. A Dutch Jesuit who had been influential in producing their famous Catechism,3 Felix was chair of the department of theology. I don’t think it too strong to say that Felix was a mystic. Once, while giving instructions to his faculty about teaching theology, he got swept up in telling us that the miracle of the Christian vocation is to be "sons in the Son." He spoke extemporaneously on that theme for quite some time. I waited until he had finished and said, "But, Felix, what if you are a daughter?" His only answer was to sigh and say, "I know, I know." But I knew that, much as I admired him, he did not know. For that language of faith fit him like a glove and he would never feel the exclusion of women experience when confronted by such a description of the Christian vocation.

The current insistence, in official Catholic circles, on retaining such exclusive language in church documents, lectionaries and liturgical texts—even when the best scholarship indicates that such exclusion does not obtain in the original language—connects directly to my concern about female embodiment and the incarnation. The refusal to admit our embodied being into the language of prayer undermines every effort to recognize and safeguard the uniqueness of women theoretically. Despite what I take to be good intentions reflected in pastoral letters and other official church documents, the language of liturgy reinforces what Luce Irigaray calls "the tyranny of the same."4 In order for a woman to see herself in this realm, she must think of herself as male. If she thinks of herself as a woman, she does so at the cost of being excluded.

Let me drive home this point another way and highlight another concern about female embodiment. When the first encyclical of Pope John Paul II, Redemptor Hominis, came out, I loved it and used it in class for several years. One semester, after discussing it at length with the students, I constructed a quiz in which I simply took section #10 of the encyclical and changed "man" to "woman," and every "he" to "she." I broke the paragraphs into sentences and asked the students to mark the statements true or false. They marked every one false. The section (as rewritten) reads as follows:




Woman cannot live without love. She remains a being that is incomprehensible for herself, her life is senseless, if love is not revealed to her, if she does not encounter love, if she does not experience it and make it her own, if she does not participate intimately in it. This … is why Christ the Redeemer "fully reveals woman to herself." If we may use the expression, this is the human dimension of the mystery of the Redemption. In this dimension, woman finds again the greatness, dignity and value that belong to her humanity. In the mystery of the Redemption woman becomes newly "expressed" and, in a way, is newly created. She is newly created!. …The woman who wishes to understand herself thoroughly—and not just in accordance with immediate, partial, often superficial, and even illusory standards and measures of being—she must with her unrest, uncertainty and even her weakness and sinfulness, with her life and death, draw near to Christ. She must, so to speak, enter into him with all her own self, she must "appropriate" and assimilate the whole of the reality of the incarnation and Redemption in order to find herself. If this profound process takes place within her, she then bears fruit not only of adoration of God but also of deep wonder at herself. How precious woman must be in the eyes of the Creator, if she "gained so great a Redeemer," and if God "gave his only Son" in order that woman "should not perish but have eternal life."

In reality, the name for that deep amazement at woman’s worth and dignity is the gospel, that is to say: the Good News. It is also called Christianity. This amazement determines the Church’s mission in the world, perhaps even more so, "in the modern world." This amazement, which is also a conviction and a certitude, at its deepest root is the certainty of faith, but in a hidden and mysterious way connected with Christ. It also fixes Christ’s place—so to speak, his particular right of citizenship—in the history of woman and womankind. Unceasingly contemplating the whole of Christ’s mystery, the Church knows with all the certainty of faith that the Redemption that took place on the Cross has definitely restored her dignity to woman and given back meaning to her life in the world, a meaning that was lost to a considerable extent because of sin. And for that reason, the Redemption was accomplished in the paschal mystery, leading to the Cross and Resurrection.

The Church’s fundamental function in every age and particularly in ours is to direct woman’s gaze, to point the awareness and experience of the whole of humanity towards the mystery of God, to help all women to be familiar with the profundity of the Redemption taking place in Christ Jesus. At the same time woman’s deepest sphere is involved—we mean the sphere of human hearts, consciences and events.5

One might think that the students were simply indicating that the text as it appeared on the quiz was not literally correct, for it was not in the form they had read it. But in the discussion that followed, no one made that argument. Rather, these students said that (1) they did not think that what was said about "man" applied to woman; and (2) they did not see in their experience any truth to the claims being made when they were referred to woman instead of man.

My point is that the incarnation of God as a human being in the person of Jesus has not served to liberate women in the same way that it has liberated men. Whatever happened in the beginning,6 it was not long before belief in the incarnation came to coincide with a conviction that the bodies of women were inferior matter, defiled and defiling, unfit for the service of holy things or for entrance into holy places (Scmidt 1989, Ruether 1974). Nor has any progress made in the past few decades been advanced primarily by arguments based on belief in the incarnation. Ecclesial documents have had recourse rather to the creation stories of Genesis and to the examples of interplay between Jesus and women that occur in the gospels.7

In a way, it is no wonder. For the symmetry that can now be established for the creation of man and woman and for the sanctification of man and woman cannot be established, as theology has developed up till now, for the incarnation of God nor for the act of redemption. By that I mean that it is widely accepted today that the creation stories of Genesis teach that man and woman were each created in God’s image and each was held responsible for partaking of the fruit of a tree forbidden by that same God. Moreover, the fruits of redemption, won from another tree, equally apply to women and to men, as witnessed to by the lives of the saints. This symmetry finds no place, however, in the mystery of the incarnation or of the redemption as currently conceived. God is incarnate in one alone and he is Jesus. Jesus alone redeems and he is male.

In this paper, I am concerned above all with the incarnation, which presents a problem for those of us who want to advance a theological argument that respects both the created equality of women and men and their sexually differentiated bodies. If one emphasizes that God was incarnate as male, the particularities of Jesus’ embodied existence are respected, but it is difficult to argue that the bodies of women are included in that incarnation. In other words, this approach to the incarnation shows the compatibility of divinity with the male way of being in the world, but not with the female. If one argues that what God assumed in the incarnation was human nature, a nature whose maleness is inconsequential to his mission, one risks a return to the docetism and gnosticism of earlier centuries through an attenuation of Jesus’ very embodiment. Respecting the reality of Jesus’ body excludes women from the incarnation. Including women in the incarnation leads to unreal claims about Jesus’ body.

It seems, in the light of this dilemma, that the only way to argue for equality is to diminish the importance of the sexually differentiated body and to emphasize the common humanity that links women and men. Conversely, the only way to safeguard the reality of Jesus’ male body is to recognize that, in becoming incarnate, God has marked the male way of embodiment as superior.

It has long been possible, of course, to argue for the equality of souls while admitting the inequality of bodies. Eleanor Commo McLaughlin has demonstrated that just such a position on women developed in Medieval Theology (McLaughlin 1974). There are two serious drawbacks to this way of solving the problem, however. First, equality of souls always means that women are considered like men and, second, we are considered men’s match only if we forego the experiences that differentiate us, namely the experiences related to sex and procreation. What results is a denial of the body in preference for a soul that will be shaped by masculine ideals and values. A secular version of this ideal can be found in some postmodern feminists who want to redesign the female body so that women can be as free as men to have it all (Beauvoir 1953, Firestone 1971). In each case, the created nature of the sexually differentiated body is seen as inessential to the reality of the person, a reality identified with soul, intellect or spirit.

Another approach that has gained some credence also echoes older attempts to respond to the dilemma. Modern women writing on Jesus envision in him the embodiment of Sophia, one capable of being seen as "like me, a woman" (Fiorenza 1995, Johnson 1997). The Christa captured this movement in an artistic rendering by presenting a woman on the cross. One writer recasts the divinity/humanity of the Chalcedonian definition into the male/female dualism, arguing that the solution lies in a paradoxical apprehension of Jesus as one who can be experienced as either man or woman.8 So, like the mystics of earlier centuries, feminist theologians relate to Jesus through imagery drawn from the realm of female embodiment, calling him mother, sister, friend. Thus far, however, there has been no indication that this theology empowers the Catholic community to extend this insight to women and call us "father." In the end, interesting as it might be, this approach rather reiterates an old pattern whereby men (being like Jesus) can embrace maleness and femaleness, but women can only do and be what has been relegated to the female side of the equation.9

Mary and Female Embodiment

It would be natural to ask at this point, "What about Mary?" She is, in many ways, the woman of the Christian tradition. Doesn’t her presence bring women into the mystery of the incarnation? There are two major stumbling blocks to overcome if one proposes to have recourse to Mary for solving the dilemma I have been describing. First, the Mariological tradition, as it stands, has successfully separated Mary from all other women, making her—as Marina Warner has put it—alone of all her sex (Warner 1976). By and large, women with a modern consciousness, in quest of a way to argue for the created goodness and equality of female embodiment, reject Mary as a model of real humanity. And this, primarily because of the way that her perpetual virginity has been interpreted. Elizabeth Johnson has written that, if Mary’s virginity is the highest peak of the history of female sexuality—as one writer had averred—then "the highest peak of the history of female sexuality is its non-use" (Johnson 1985:127). Second, any time Christians have associated Mary with divinity, orthodox Christianity has moved in to correct the tendency.10 This reaction has been exacerbated since the Protestant Reformation. While exalting and venerating Mary above all women, church documents continue to insist on her secondary, inferior and subservient role in the Christian story.11 The current trend in this regard is to speak about Mary as a disciple of her son.12

Poor Mary. While her son is believed to be both human and divine, she is considered by many to be neither. I believe that it is time we assessed how much of this tradition is due to misogyny, discrimination and/or blinders working on the male interpreters and their female disciples who have shaped the Mariological tradition. In particular, I think it time to read the evidence from the point of view of women.

While I am convinced that recourse to the figure of Mary is indeed the best way to include women in the mystery of the incarnation, I am acutely aware of the minefield that must be crossed on the way to reconstruction. Let me lay down a path by stating some presuppositions.

I am not interested here in a quest for the historical Mary. It bears mentioning, however, that there is great interest in this at the moment. Jane Schaberg’s thesis that Mary was a woman raped by a Roman soldier has found a hearing where deaf ears have been turned to the notion of Mary as perpetual virgin.13 Rather I seek to retrieve, from the belief of the church, elements for a new way of understanding what the church professes in its doctrines regarding Mary.

I am guided in this effort by Paul Ricoeur’s magisterial work, The Symbolism of Evil (1967). There, Ricoeur gives a sympathetic reenactment in the imagination of the process that led from symbols and myths of evil to what he calls the rational symbol of original sin. In doing so, he discovered that, in order to forge an understanding of original sin compatible with the modern mind, thinkers must overcome the tendency to confuse the metaphysical with the biological. I believe a similar confusion has plagued Christian understanding of the central symbolism regarding Mary, her virginity, and thus the corresponding rational symbol, her Immaculate Conception.

I still remember the moment in graduate school when a Presbyterian classmate said to me, "You Catholics are so comfortable talking about the myth of Adam and Eve. But that doesn’t cost much. When are you going to start talking about the myth of the virgin birth?" That challenge has been with me for thirty some years and is the inspiration for what follows.14

The Symbol of the Virgin

Few contemporary scripture scholars will defend the historicity of the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke (Brown 1977: 32-7). Yet Catholics who can accept as mythical elements the appearance of angels, the visit of the magi, the trek to Bethlehem or even the birth in a stable, continue to insist upon the literal, historical truth of Mary’s physical virginity—before, during and after the birth of Jesus. It is this very insistence that makes so many feminist theologians suspicious of the figure of Mary. Patricia Beattie Jung speaks for them when she writes "whatever might be said about the Christological purposes of the doctrine of the virgin birth, the Catholic emphasis on the perpetual virginity of Mary symbolizes the Church’s ongoing inability to come to terms with the goodness of female sexual pleasure" (Jung, Hunt and Balakrishnan 2001:189).

There is no question that the symbol of the virgin is, in literary terms, a gendered symbol (Wiseman 1998:241-9). That is, it can be read differently by men and by women. Until very recently, only men were the interpreters of the meaning of the infancy narratives. Understandably, they read the meaning of the virgin from the outside, in relation to themselves. In their works, virginity was defined by the absence of sexual intercourse and the virgin as a woman whose body has not been opened to a man for that purpose. For this reason the sign of virginity, the physical barrier that signifies an intact interior, became so important.

Once the virgin is interpreted as the intact one, sexual experience is logically understood as a loss—a loss of integrity, of purity, of mystery. Combine that with a conviction that sexual intercourse is the means by which sin is passed on in the world and the virgin becomes a symbol of the one in whom sin is stopped because she has not known sexual experience. Of course, if her own life came into being through sexual intercourse, it can be assumed that she herself, though virginal, has been touched by original sin. Thus, the development of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception as a way of asserting that Mary was preserved from original sin and that, in and through her, no sin was communicated to the one believed to be Son of God.

It all makes sense if one believes that sexual experience is essentially defiled and defiling, especially for women. But that is precisely the dimension of the tradition that is so repugnant to contemporary women, for it means that any woman who is not a virgin is contaminated and is passing on that contamination to her children. It also creates a hierarchy between the married state and religious life or any life led in virginity, such that the latter is superior to the former.

What we need now is an understanding of the founding documents that respects the dogmatic tradition, the realities of female embodiment and the goodness of human sexuality.

The Infancy Narratives

I propose to read the conception and birth narratives of Matthew and Luke as myths of origin. And I read them in light of the dogmatic definition of the Immaculate Conception. The narratives contain the "mythos," the story within which the primary symbols function to reveal. The dogmatic definition contains what Ricoeur calls a "rational symbol," the meaning of the primary symbols worked out into an intelligible concept. In this way, the retrieve I am attempting works two ways: it is an attempt to think forward from the primary symbols, which are closest to experience, and backward from the rational symbol, which is closest to thought. The effort, in the words of Ricoeur, is to rescue the "logos" in the "mythos" by bracketing its etiological or explanatory function (Ricoeur, 4-5). It is also an effort to provide life to the rational symbol of the Immaculate Conception—that is to root it once again in the primary symbols from which, through a long process of prayer, worship and meditation on the mystery, the definition comes.

It is my contention that we have not yet grasped the connection between the conception and birth narratives and the development of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception because the readings given to the former have not been given from the point of view of the woman’s body. It is critically important that the symbol of the virgin, which is capable of so many registers of meaning, be interpreted according to the New Testament narrative and not according to meanings imported from other texts and traditions.

The Symbol of Virginity in the Conception and Birth Narratives

Matthew and Luke give us different but overlapping accounts of the conception and birth of Jesus. Matthew structures the story through an extensive genealogy and a story about Mary, an engaged young woman who is pregnant, but not by the man to whom she is betrothed. This young woman is saved from disgrace by her betrothed, "a just man," who is willing to believe the message of an angel that the child she is carrying has been conceived from the Holy Spirit. Luke, on the other hand, skillfully constructs two parallel stories, one of the conception and birth of John the Baptist, the other of the conception and birth of Jesus. Joseph plays no role in Luke’s account. Rather, Luke tells the story of a childless couple and a lone girl, of a barren woman and a young virgin.


The genealogy has generated great interest among exegetes, in part because of the five women who are named in it. The story of the mysterious pregnancy has been traditionally interpreted—because of the dream, the angel and the quote from Isaiah 7.14—as revealing a virginal conception for Jesus. In all of this, I concur. But I maintain that the stories of the four women in the genealogy provide an important key to the meaning of this virginal conception and to the theological reading that should be given it.

The four women are Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba. Their stories, in turn, are important. According to Genesis 31, Judah chose Tamar to be wife for his son, Er. But Er was wicked in the sight of God and so God killed him. When Er’s brother refused to fulfill his duty by a leverite marriage and so produce a male descendant for his brother by Tamar, and when Judah refused her his third son, Tamar took matters into her own hands. She disguised herself and seduced Judah into having intercourse with her. Tamar became pregnant. When the pregnancy was discovered, Tamar was accused of being "with child by harlotry." She saved herself by presenting the token she had taken from Judah, a token that Judah recognized and admitted. In this manner, Tamar became the mother of sons.

If the Rahab of Matthew’s genealogy is the Rahab of Joshua 2,6, the story of her conception of Boaz by Salmon is lost to us. What is known is that Rahab was a harlot to whom came two of Joshua’s scouts, running from the enemy. Rahab hid them and sent their pursuers off on a false trail. In return, she made the scouts promise that she and her father’s house would be spared when the city was eventually conquered. The house was marked with a scarlet cord and Joshua honored the promise. In this way, Rahab lived to bear a son and join the line of David, according to the Matthean tradition.

Ruth’s husband died leaving her a childless widow. In this beloved story, Ruth’s fidelity to her mother-in-law brings her into the orbit of Boaz, a leader of the community. Under Naomi’s tutelage, Ruth invites Boaz to "spread his wing over her." Boaz agrees and marries her. The text tells us that God gave her conception and Ruth bore a son.

Bathsheba, on the other hand, was wife to Uriah, one of David’s generals. Consumed by desire when he sees her bathing, David takes Bathsheba to himself and impregnates her. Though he calls Uriah home in order to cover this sin, David’s ploy does not succeed because Uriah declines to sleep with his wife, preferring to share the hardships of his soldiers. Desperate, David has him sent to the front of the lines where he will surely be killed. In the wake of this terrible event, David weds Bathsheba; but the child dies. David consoles her and Bathsheba conceives and bears a son.

The final woman mentioned in the genealogy is Mary, whose story Matthew tells as I have indicated above. It is the story of a woman whose betrothed suspects her of adultery. An angel comes to her betrothed in a dream and attests to Mary’s innocence, so the just man can, with good conscience, take her as his wife.

Raymond Brown comes very close to unraveling the mystery when he writes in his magnificent commentary on the infancy narratives,




These women were held up as examples of how God uses the unexpected to triumph over human obstacles and intervenes on behalf of His planned Messiah. It is the combination of the scandalous or irregular union and of divine intervention through the woman that explains best Matthew's choice in the genealogy. There was divine intervention in several other births he lists (e.g., in overcoming the sterility of Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel), but Matthew does not mention the women involved because there was nothing scandalous about their union. The latter element is important because Matthew has chosen women to foreshadow the role of Mary, the wife of Joseph. In the eyes of men her pregnancy was a scandal since she had not lived with her husband (1.18); yet the child was actually begotten through God’s Holy Spirit, so that God had intervened to bring to fulfillment the messianic heritage. And this intervention through a woman was even more dramatic than the OT instances; there God had overcome the moral or biological irregularity of the human parents, while here He overcomes the total absence of the father’s begetting (Brown, 73-4).

Actually, in the four instances of women included in Matthew’s genealogy prior to Mary, it was the women who had obstacles to overcome. The three who were married were clearly not barren, yet had not been allowed to fulfill their duty under the law—one might say their mission as women: to provide a son for the people. Two were childless widows and one was married to a man who was clearly more devoted to his soldiers than to her. Death robbed two of children by their husbands, Tamar and Ruth; Bathsheba was taken by the king, David, and impregnated. Only after she had suffered the death of her husband and her first child, because of David’s sin, did she successfully bear a son. And Rahab, as far as we know, was sustaining herself by prostitution, which more than likely meant she had no husband. There is no mention in the story of Rahab in the book of Joshua that, at the point at which the scouts sought refuge, Rahab had a child.

In the end, all these women found men to protect them and to give them a child. Their stories are full of the disasters of death, deceit and what Brown calls "irregular unions." The men in the stories are less than admirable. Judah and David have to be forced to take responsibility; Boaz has to be nudged by Ruth under Naomi’s tutelage and at risk to her reputation; and Rahab has to extract from Joshua’s scouts a promise for her safety.

Jane Shaberg and John Shelby Spong (1992) see Mary’s story in continuity with this history. Each reads behind the narrative to find the story of a betrothed virgin raped or seduced before her marriage. Shaberg, in particular, goes into fascinating detail about the legal situation this would have created at the time. This effort at historical criticism of the text, however, does not do justice to the integrity of the literary text as it has come down to us. It is with that integrity that I am concerned.

The structure of Matthew’s narrative puts Mary’s experience in sharp contrast to what has gone before. Mary is not a childless wife or widow; she is betrothed. She has not been robbed of children by death or deceit; she is in the stage of anticipation. She does not have to force or beg Joseph to give her protection. God reveals to Joseph what he needs to know. Joseph is a just man; once he sees a way to give Mary protection without sinning against God, he takes her to himself.

What, then, is the significance of the Isaiah citation in Matthew’s narrative? "Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel" (Mt 1:23).15 And what are we to make of the fact that Matthew translates the word "almah," or young woman, of the Septuagint by "parthenos," the more technical term for virgin? In the symbolics of the female body, especially in the context I have developed, "virgin" here needs to be read in context. It means, if we apply it to the Mary of the story, that she has no reproductive record. She brings no history of failure, death, deceit, hurt, disappointment or any other negative to this situation. This pregnancy is from God. And in this case, there is no obstacle for God to overcome. The woman has conceived, as willed by God, and there is no stain upon it. This birth can indeed be considered a new creation, for it comes forth in direct response to God’s intervention, God’s messianic plan.16

Recall that Raymond Brown included in his commentary on Matthew’s genealogy the note that some of the births listed had been from previously barren women. This is not Matthew’s thematic, but it will be Luke’s. Let me turn to that.


Luke’s approach to the birth narrative is to set up a literary "diptych." In two panels, he announces the births of John and Jesus, shows the reactions of the prospective parents, and chronicles the birth of the two special children. Scholars generally agree that the narrative is designed to show the superiority of Jesus over John. Many exegetes have concentrated on the fact that Zachariah does not believe the word of the angel, whereas Mary does. But there is another and very important contrast in this story, one that relies on the gendered symbols of barren woman and virgin. The contrast is between the familiarity of the barren woman made fruitful and the radical newness of a virgin who conceives.

The Old Testament tradition abounds with women who were considered barren. Sarah, Hannah, Rebekah and Rachel are prominent examples (See Gen 11:30; 25:21; 29:31; I Sam 1:5-6). In each case, the failure of the woman to bear a child is overcome by the grace of a God who listens to their prayers and sends the progeny—a progeny marked from the beginning as belonging to God and destined for some great action.

In the symbolic system of the woman’s body, barrenness does mark a failure. As Luise Shottroff has pointed out, "a barren woman was someone who had failed in what creation destined her to be" (1995:85). In the cases of Sarah and Rachel, this was well known because their husbands had children by other women. Miraculous, then, as the pregnancy of Elizabeth was, cause for rejoicing that it became, symbolically it still represents an occasion in which God’s power overcomes a failure of human nature to function as it ought.

On the other hand, virginity in the symbol system of the woman’s body in no way represents failure. It is pure expectation, readiness, possibility. There is no negativity attached to virginity in the symbolic order, no failure to function, no cause for lament.17 Moreover, there is no indication that Mary has asked God for a child, as do the barren mothers of the Old Testament. In Luke’s narrative, God takes the initiative. God sends the angel "to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David." God came to her.

The language traditionally used to describe this event, the language of Annunciation, can blind the reader to the reality that this apparition and the responses of Mary fit exactly the pattern of the prophetic call of literature of the Old Testament. The pattern is as follows: (1) a confrontation with God (through the angel Gabriel); (2) a formula of self-presentation on the part of God or the one representing God (Elizabeth’s pregnancy); (3) a commission ("You are to conceive and bear a child…"); and (4) an objection on the part of the one addressed ("How can this be?").18

This makes of Mary, in the words of Paul Ricoeur, a "summoned subject," a "commissioned self." Such a person receives both a call and a commission. Ricoeur notes that the call isolates while the commission binds. That is, the summoned subject is one who will experience isolation from the community because of the summons of God, while at the same time being bound to the community by the service she is called to render.

Androcentric interpretations of this narrative, concentrating as they do on the question of how the commission was to be accomplished without the agency of a man, have for centuries missed an amazing truth. For the first time in the tradition, the challenge given to the summoned subject is something that only a woman can carry out: "You will conceive in your womb and bear a son" (Luke 1:31). Due to the possibilities and limitations of the sexually differentiated human bodies, only a summoned subject with a female body can fulfill this commission. The import of virginity in this narrative is that, once the woman has consented to the mission, it is a conception "de novo," a new world.

Luke’s gospel draws a line across salvation history, separating what belongs to the old and what to the new. Mary is not only within the new; she initiates the new age with her act of faith, her "let it be done to me." With this a new day dawns for humankind.

My argument, then, is that first and foremost, the symbol of virginity in the conception and birth narratives of Matthew and Luke is to be interpreted according to the clues given in the text, not according to ideas about virginity imported from without. The contrast set up by Matthew and Luke in their conception and birth narratives is not the contrast between women who have had sex, and are therefore impure, and a woman who, though conceiving and giving birth, remains a virgin and is therefore pure. The importation of that defilement theme into the world of these narratives is, I think, completely unjustified, even if understandable.19The contrast here is not between the pure and the impure, but between a virgin mother in whom there is no privation and mothers whose lives have been marked by natural, moral or historical failures.20 In her virginity, Mary is portrayed as one in whom there is no obstacle to God’s invitation, God’s action, God’s grace. God has no need to overcome anything in the story of Mary. The story of this mother is a story of invitation and response, readiness and empowerment, freedom cooperating with freedom.

Does this mean, then, that the subsequent development of belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary is simply wrong? I do not think so, though the grounds on which it is advanced must shift. It is no longer acceptable that Mary be exalted by insulting all other women, that Mary’s motherhood be praised by considering all other parenthood defiling, that Mary’s purity be defended at the cost of considering all sexual pleasure sinful. I say this because, in time, the Mariological tradition came to assert of Mary that she not only conceived without human intercourse, gestated and gave birth without losing her physical integrity, but—however all this was effected—she escaped as well from that sexual pleasure associated with original sin.21

Christian faith must become mature enough to understand that belief in Mary’s virginity is belief in a theological, not a biological truth. Once one is willing to make this adjustment, and concentrate on the "logos" or meaning of the conception and birth narratives, it is quite possible to profess belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary. Then, it no longer carries implications that contradict other realizations of modern theology about the goodness of human sexuality, the holiness of parenthood, and the created equality of women and men. The perpetual virginity of Mary can mean, rather, that through all the experiences of human reproduction and beyond, she was "ever virgin," that is, there was no obstacle in her to the grace and action of God.22

The Subterranean Connection

My intuition is, then, that there is a subterranean connection between the stories of the virginal conception and birth and the development of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. Perhaps, in fact, it is this connection that accounts for the persistent tendency of Catholics young and old to confuse the two.23 Be that as it may, I am ready to argue that the symbol of the virgin—interpreted according to the symbolics of the woman’s body and according to the structure of the foundational texts—is directly related to the belief in Mary’s sinlessness. Belief in her sinlessness culminated in the proclamation of the Immaculate Conception.24

The actual definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception is relatively short and to the point:




We declare, pronounce and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instant of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.25

It is of great import, I think, that Pope Pius IX insists that his predecessors, the Roman Pontiffs, definitely and clearly taught that the feast of the Immaculate Conception, which provides a liturgical expression of the belief of the faithful, was held in honor of the conception of the Virgin. Of equal importance is their refusal to divide the moments of conception. He writes,




They denounced as false and absolutely foreign to the mind of the Church the opinion of those that held and affirmed that it was not the conception of the Virgin but her sanctification that was honored by the Church. They never thought that greater leniency should be extended toward those who, attempting to disprove the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin, devised a distinction between the first and second instance of conception and inferred that the conception which the Church celebrates was not that of the first instance of conception but the second. In fact, they held it was their duty not only to uphold and defend with all their power the Feast of the Conception of the Blessed Virgin, but also to assert that the true object of this veneration was her conception considered in its first instant. Hence the words of one of our predecessors, Alexander VII, who authoritatively and decisively declared the mind of the Church: "Concerning the most Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, ancient indeed is that devotion of the faithful based on the belief that her soul, in the first instant of its creation and in the first instant of the soul’s infusion into the body, was, by a special grace and privilege of God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, her Son and the Redeemer of the human race, preserved free from all stain of original sin. And in this sense have the faithful ever solemnized and celebrated the Feast of the Conception."26

What is of great interest to me is the attempt on the part of some to separate moments of conception and the resistance of the teaching Church to that separation. Because the Church refused to separate the moments of conception, it is possible to assert the following: there is a woman who, from the first moment of her existence, is neither defiled nor defiling. On the grounds of that belief, it is possible to assert that one can be a woman and not be a sinner; one can be a woman and not be a source of evil. To put it positively, it is possible to be a woman and to be holy. Female embodiment is compatible with divinity and can be a symbol of God. Given the history of misogyny in Christianity, given the terrible things that have been written about and enacted regarding the bodies of women, this is truly marvelous and, to my mind, a sure work of the Holy Spirit. I do not think theologians, especially feminist theologians, have begun to work out the implications of this marvel.

The Meaning of Mary’s Motherhood

The doctrine regarding Mary’s motherhood was worked out in the context of Christological controversy. Against those who would have Mary be the Mother of Christ, but not Mother of God, the Council of Ephesus protected the unity of Christ’s person by declaring Mary, "Godbearer."27 Sally Cuneen, in her fine book on Mary, maintains that the term Theotokos emphasizes the reality of Jesus’ birth and, hence, Mary’s bearing. She writes, "The term stressed Mary’s biological role, since tokos was used in medicine and conjured up the experience of giving birth" (Cunneen 1996:130). I have suggested that the theological meaning of the image of the virgin in the conception and birth narratives derives, not from a biological or historical assertion, but from its theological purpose: the contrast it sets up between Jesus and all those who have come before. In conveying the miraculous nature of Jesus’ coming, the text necessarily conveys as well the quality of the one who was summoned to conceive and bear him. This quality, I have suggested, is above all sinlessness—conveyed metaphorically by the image of the virgin in whom there is no natural, moral or historical trace of evil.

With the declaration of Mary as Theotokos at the Council of Ephesus, the situation seems to be very different. It appears that the theological assertions regarding the unity of Jesus’ person rest on a biological and historical claim: that Mary is truly the mother of Jesus Christ, the God Man, and that Jesus Christ is "born of woman." On that basis, it is legitimate, I believe, to learn about her motherhood from the motherhood of all women and to expand our understanding of what we believe about Mary by considering what we now know about mothering.

We know that the mother’s being—her health, attitudes, psychological states, spirituality, holiness—have direct bearing on the development of her child. The connection between mother and child is immediate, mysterious and lasting. But we may not realize how lasting. Biologist Natalie Angiers writes,




Years and years after a woman has delivered a child, she continues to carry vestiges of that child in her body. I’m talking about tangible vestiges now, not memories. Stray cells from a growing fetus circulate through a woman’s body during pregnancy, possibly as a way for the fetus to communicate with the mother’s immune system and forestall its ejection from the body as the foreign object it is. The fetal-maternal cell dialogue was thought to be a short-lived one, lasting only as long as the pregnancy. Recently, though, scientists have found fetal cells surviving in the maternal bloodstream decades after the women have given birth to their children. The cells didn’t die; they didn’t get washed away. They persisted, and may have divided a few times in the interim. They’re fetal cells, which means they’ve got a lot of life built into them. A mother, then, is forever a cellular chimera, a blend of the body she was born with and of all the bodies she has borne (Angier 1999:319).

Such scientific information about the very physiology of pregnancy, combined with what we know from psychology about bonding, character formation, the critical role of the mother in the development of the self, makes it now less possible to separate the "growth in wisdom, age and grace" of the child from the being of the mother.28 I quite agree with Mary T. Malone, who has written, "what we need, and are just barely beginning to find, is a mystagogy of motherhood—the naming, claiming and celebrating of the extraordinary richness of this experience" (1994:99).

There is another arena that women are now writing about: the physical pleasures connected with motherhood. Mothers have spoken to me about the pleasures of nursing and even, for some, of giving birth. China Galland captures much of this and relates it to Mary when she writes,




…suddenly I imagine Mary smiling as I remember the magnificent Greek icon, the Virgin Kardiotissa: the infant Jesus has thrown his arms up around his mother’s neck, his head thrown back in joyful, loving abandon, his sandal dangling from his left foot, as though he had just run into her arms from play; and Mary, smiling at this child, who looks as though he’s about to pull her veil off her head.

When I see this image I recognize her expression and I am flooded again with sweet joy of bearing innocence, the sheer, inexplicable, gratuitous joy that pierces mothering, the remarkable sound of a newborn baby nursing at your breast, the feeling of the uterus contracting as you nurse—the growing, visceral understanding that the body, like the earth, has an intelligence so much more vast and complicated than our own—and then that moment of giving birth to a child, beyond the pains of labor, the whole body taken over, and the moment of being launched into an electrifying orgasmic joy that nullifies all separation between body as sexual and body as giving new life, dissolving, for that moment, all being into bliss. A new life has come into the world. New life! (Galland 1990:343).

Prescinding entirely from the question of conception,29 it is reasonable to assume from the evidence of ordinary motherhood that Mary experienced the physical pleasures of birthing and nursing. If she did so and remained sinless, there are grounds to argue that such pleasures, and others like them, are not inherently sinful. And, I might add, this is not an argument one can advance on the record of Jesus’ life.30 In my view, only a reinterpretation of the meaning of Mary’s virginity and an appreciation of the reality of Mary’s motherhood will make it possible for Catholic Christianity to come to terms with the essential goodness of female embodiment and of female sexual pleasure.31

It is the fashion today to downplay Mary’s motherhood and concentrate instead on her discipleship, the ways in which she followed her son. I do not deny that she learned from him, as any mother learns from her children. But, unless we want to deny Jesus the experiences of ordinary childhood, we must admit that first he learned from her.

But there is more. The evidence of the Infancy Narratives is that Mary was a servant of God. Motherhood was the context of her summons and her sacrifice. Her motherhood can no more be dismissed as "merely" biological than Jesus’ death on the cross can be considered "merely" physical. And if we can draw on ordinary motherhood at its best for an understanding of hers, then Jesus was her disciple before she was his.

As I argued above, this mother was not a victim of fate, nor was she obedient to a command. Like the prophets before her, she received a divine summons. In her, there was no natural, historical or moral obstacle to be overcome. There was only the question of her consent, her willingness to give her body for the salvation of her people.

No less than her son, she "lay down her life of her own accord." We have been blinded to the sacrifice, perhaps because of its ordinariness. Giving birth does not seem such a big deal, if one knows it only as an idea. Reality is another matter. Sally Cunneen refers in her book to a first-time father who wrote to her to say he could not understand why childbirth was not regarded as the ultimate model of heroism. She muses that it is now possible to understand anew why "Hannah and Mary could speak of God’s victory in childbearing in the heroic terms usually reserved for warfare" (Cunneen, 50).

Even if Mary’s sacrifice is acknowledged, it is often cast in terms of the potential loss of Joseph or the possibility of being stoned or the shame that attached in that culture to an unwed mother. These are not negligible. But they pale before the prospect of having one’s entire life bound up with God and the one to be called Son of God.32

Recent liturgical changes and theological currents encourage the disassociation of Mary’s sacrifice from the sacrifice of her son on the cross. We have long been taught to consider hers a lesser sacrifice. In our own time the last vestiges of the liturgical connections forged by centuries between them has been lost. We should know that the ordinary faithful in their piety, and some of the mystics and artists, have long connected them. In medieval times, the belief was extant that Good Friday fell on March 25, the feast of the Annunciation (Pockner 1962:65). This connection was reinforced by the celebration of the feast of the Sorrowful Mother in Passion Week. Catherine of Siena captured the connection in her little known prayer for the feast of the Annunciation:

Temple of the Trinity!

O Mary, bearer of the fire!

Mary, minister of mercy!

Mary, redemptress of the human race—

for the world was redeemed

when in the Word your own flesh suffered: Christ

by his passion redeemed us; you

by your grief of body and spirit (Noffke 1983:156).

And, according to Sally Cunneen, the mystic Hildegarde of Bingen considered the Virgin Birth as important as the cross (Cunneen, 163).

The artists, too, have long understood. If you look carefully at artistic renderings of the annunciation, you will often see included somewhere a cross or a shadow of a cross. Examples from the artists, mystics and liturgical practices show a Christian imagination that has intuited far more than Catholic theology has yet comprehended. To grasp it, however, we must be willing to remove the blinders that sexism and misogyny have put on our theology where Mary is concerned.

The Mystery of the Incarnation and the Development of Dogma

It is time to make clear what all this has to do with the incarnation. I have said that the doctrine, as understood to this point, is not liberating for women to the same extent that it is for men. The realities of the male body place limits on what human experiences Jesus can have had and, thus, on what dimensions of human existence he can be said to sanctify. In particular, I have pointed out that it has been quite possible for Christians to assert a strong belief in the incarnation and continue to consider women essentially defiled and defiling, especially with regard to sexual activities. The Church failed to challenge the purity codes regarding menstruation, and, until very recently, considered birth itself defiling, rendering women in need of "purification" and "churching." Current rap recordings that degrade and insult the bodies of women have met with nothing like the outrage shown by Church representatives toward women who seek or have abortions. And the most recent revelations about the abuse of nuns in Africa, known to male officials for five years or more—seemingly without action—indicates that respect for the female body is not a necessary outcome of belief in the incarnation as we currently envision it.

Furthermore, a Christology that teaches that Jesus can indeed represent both sexes and encompass all of human experience is bad for Church and society. It reinforces the prevalent tendency to believe that men can have it all and do it all, while women are limited and confined. I contend that we need a doctrine of the incarnation that respects the limitations and the possibilities of the sexually differentiated bodies; a Soteriology that admits the contributions of Mary and Jesus to the salvation of the world; a Christology that can recognize in Mary the daughter of God; and an Ecclesiology that respects the equal holiness of the respective ways Jesus and Mary were called to be suffering servant and symbol of God.

Obviously, it will not be possible in an essay to develop all of those points. Let me try to sketch out the first and the last, because I think there is an essential connection between an understanding of the incarnation and an understanding of the Church. As long as theology exalts the being and work of Jesus over those of Mary, ecclesial life and structures will elevate men above women, the ordained above the lay, and the ministry of symbol and ritual over ministries that care for embodied human beings in history.

One of the major difficulties lies in the use of the word "complementarity, " a term favored in ecclesial documents for the relationship between men and women and between the lay and the ordained.33Etymologically, the term seems innocent enough. It means, in its verb form, to fill up or complete. On the surface, then, complementarity simply means the state of being in a position to fill up or complete that to which one is complementary. Feminist theologians have expended a great deal of energy demonstrating that, however innocuous the term might seem, it is—as used in official documents—intrinsically injurious to women. Thus, Elizabeth Johnson:




Within this pattern the question of how men and women are related to each other is usually answered by the concept of complementarity. According to this concept each of the sexes is identified with a distinct role supposedly supplementary to one another, but roles which in actuality give the lion’s share of influence to the male and reserve for women the stance of passive receptivity to and support of the primary male role.

Suffice it to say that from a feminist perspective, complementarity conceived of in this way is far from beautiful. It is a mask for an ideology which places woman in a stereotyped role because of her gender, a role where she is praised for living at less than full capacity. … The marian tradition has been used to legitimate this conception of the relationship between the sexes, for Mary the woman is exalted precisely for accepting the secondary role assigned to her in view of the priority of Christ the man (1985:124-5).

One of the first things needed, then, is to purify the term "complementarity" of its hierarchical overtones or find another way to think about the relationships that are so important to the life and mission of the Church, namely those between women and men and between ordained and lay. I maintain that thinking correctly about Mary and Jesus will take us a long way toward solving the problem.

Paul Ricoeur gives an invaluable clue when he speculates on the figures of Adam and Eve in his analysis of the Adamic myth. While he concedes that this myth is written from the point of view of a kind of masculine resentment, in which Eve symbolizes the weak point, the fragility of freedom, he warns that one must be careful what one makes of this. It is necessary to understand correctly how the myth functions. He writes,




Eve, then, does not stand for woman in the sense of "second sex." Every woman and every man are Adam; every man and every woman are Eve; every woman sins "in" Adam, every man is seduced "in" Eve (1967:255).

So, I believe, with Jesus and Mary, the new Adam and the new Eve. It is not the case that Mary represents women and Jesus men. Men and women can see themselves in Mary; women and men can see themselves in Jesus.34 If we are to see our humanity permeated with the divine, we must look at them both. To have an image of what it looks like to be "human to the utmost," as Felix Malmberg used to say, we must imagine them both.35 This way of thinking takes into account the fullness of the Christian tradition where the figures of Mary and Jesus are concerned. It empowers theology to hold together what so easily splits apart and comes to be assigned according to the sexes in rational thought: initiative and receptivity, teaching and learning, the active and the passive in human existence. To be human is to act and to suffer, to undergo and to initiate. Ricoeur has shown that, in the experience of evil, there are both. To sin is to yield and to act. I would argue that the converse is true. In holiness, there are both.36 To be holy is to resist sin and to be preserved from sin. Given the patterns of human thinking, it is understandable that Jesus would be portrayed as resisting the temptations of the evil one and Mary would be defined as having been preserved from original sin. It is understandable that Jesus would be imagined as the lone savior and the one who taught him as the one in need of salvation. As William Lynch says, "Just as there is no such thing as pure fact or experience, there is no such thing as a pure image. The whole of us gets into the images" (Lynch,18). That is the way we think of it, though the foundational documents are much more nuanced where this is concerned. I say that both are true of each or them and the full truth about our human salvation lies in that both/and.

Here again, the liturgy with all its artistry and imagination has been wiser than theology. In the course of time, the faithful came to celebrate the Dormition of Mary as well as the Resurrection of Jesus; the Assumption of the mother as well as the Ascension of the son; the Coronation of Mary and the Feast of Christ the King. In this way, the faithful are reminded of deep truths and learn to imagine rightly the life to which we are called.38

It seems to me that, whenever the figure of Jesus is identified only with the divine, the Christian faithful appeal to the humanity of Mary. Perhaps in our own times the rediscovery and emphasis on Jesus’ humanity is contributing to the popularity, among the people, of Marian apparitions with all their overtones of the miraculous, if not of theophany. There is no question, in the case of the apparition of Guadalupe, that many if not most of her devotes believe that she reveals to them what God is like (Castillo 1996).




As I have written elsewhere, …no human life, not even that of Jesus, can embrace both sides of the human experience at the same time. One cannot be both male and female, nurturer and nurtured, actor and audience, the one to undergo suffering and the one to feel the suffering of the other all at the same time.

The androcentric bias in theology has repeatedly cast the spotlight on the one who acts but has left in the shadows the one who taught him so to act.

…Only when we have a theology that appreciates the one as much as the other—as index of the salvific action of the divine in human life—will men as well as women be truly free to give whatever gift lies in their capacity for each other and the world (O’Neill 1993:156).

Far from considering Mary and Jesus as complementary to each other in the ways I have suggested above, official Church documents perpetuate a hierarchical understanding of their relationship. This hierarchy is reflected in the relationship between men and women in the Church, between lay and ordained, between the secular and the sacred. Despite the efforts expended at Vatican II to develop an ecclesiology that respects the universal call to holiness and the distinct contributions of the laity to the life of the Church, only the ordained have the power to define what contributions they will be and how they will be evaluated.

This is why, for me, the question of Mary—her authority, her capacity to show forth God, her relationship with Jesus, her relationship to the Church—is so important. Once her virginity comes to be seen as symbolic of her sinlessness and her motherhood to be seen as her way of serving God, Mary can be recognized as the icon of the laity. She can stand for all those whose vocation is to create with their bodies and to transform by the children they raise and the works of mercy they perform. As long as theology is content to say that Mary’s contribution to the salvation of the world was inferior, we will be caught in a conflict of ecclesiologies. One speaks the language of communion, participation and the equality of complementarity; the other insists on hierarchical ordering and hieratic separation. As long as the "domestic church" of the home is considered subordinate to the parish and diocesan church—as canon law clearly shows it to be (Euart and Jarrell 1996:49-68); as long as daily life is considered secular while the sacraments are considered sacred, Catholic law and practice will keep women and the laity in a subordinate position.

Church leaders are concerned about the blows being dealt to family in our day. Yet they seem blind to the possibility that they are making their own contribution to it by insisting that whatever women do (and preservation of family has been foremost here) is secondary and subordinate. I am not saying that family belongs to women and the Church belongs to men. Far from it. Once Mary is reclaimed as patroness of the laity, once her contributions are assessed as complementary to her son’s, there can be a new day for men as well as for women in the Church.

The symbol that is Mary speaks directly to this. She represents the holiness, the godliness, the sacredness of the home, the hearth, the family circle, the neighborhood. She represents the unseen, unsung sacrifices that create family, establish community and nurture the next generation. But she represents more. There are wonderful legends about the exercise of Mary’s power at the service of mercy and compassion. They have been repeated through generations and celebrated in stained glass windows.38 She stands for an understanding of humanity that derives from family, not law—canonical or otherwise.39 It is critical for the future of the world that there be men and women willing to serve God in this way—and that they know by doing so they are like God. Until Mary is reclaimed for the laity and recognized as symbol of God, Catholic Christians will not really be convinced that the vocation to form a family of the flesh is as capable of divine inspiration as a call to celibacy nor to "foster an integral relationship between authority and nurture" in the Catholic Church.40 Until Mary’s story is rightly told and her place in the history of salvation fairly assessed, there can be no equality between ordained and lay or between men and women.


Karl Rahner once expressed the opinion that if marian theology wants to present an image of Mary that is meaningful for our times, that image "can perhaps be produced authentically today only by women, by women theologians" (Rahner 1983:217). I have indicated that, on the issue of female embodiment and the incarnation, women theologians are not in agreement about the way to proceed. Many are struggling to find in classical Christology a toe-hold for women and for the goodness of the female body. They are trying to do so within the confines laid down by a tradition shaped and developed by men and by the male perspective. In that tradition, Mary must be kept far from divinity. Whatever Mary accomplished must be interpreted as secondary, derivative and inferior to the work of her son.

In constructing my argument, I have tried to bracket that tradition and bring to the traditional sources a reading informed by the questions, objections, aspirations and insights of women. I have also sought to respect the dogmatic definitions concerning Mary while showing that they can be interpreted in new ways, ways that free the teaching about Mary from some of the misogyny with which it has been tainted. The women I serve and those for whom I write want to stay connected with Mary, but not at the expense of the goodness of our own bodies and our own access to a fully human life.

I maintain that the tradition that denies to Mary any sexual experience ignores the evidence that the sexuality of women is different from that of men and does not depend entirely upon the act of intercourse. Mary’s motherhood alone involved her in physical experiences that women report can be full of pleasure. What makes it very difficult for many women to identify with Mary the mother is the teaching that Mary’s motherhood is virginal. Kathleen Coyle reflects the gamut of concerns when she writes,




The patriarchal interpretation of the virginal motherhood of Mary has been inadequate, even disastrous, for the understanding of women’s sexuality. First, it has encouraged the understanding that sexuality is principally procreative. Second, it has glorified the vocation of woman as that of mother in both biological and spiritual senses. Third, describing Mary’s motherhood, as one hymn does, as "the one spotless womb wherein Jesus was laid," a mere receptacle of God’s redeeming grace, is medieval and depersonalizing. Asking women to emulate the purity of the Virgin Mary and to serve unseen, as supposedly Mary did in the hidden Nazareth years, is a stumbling block to the achievement of self-affirmation for women. The principal difficulty for many lies in seeing Mary as virgin-mother, and in presenting this ideal as the model for women. As traditionally understood, this is an impossible ideal to follow (1996:33).

This is why it is important to demonstrate that the scriptural texts admit of another reading. By the reading offered here, I hope to persuade believers that the truth revealed by those scriptural texts is a theological truth. In employing gendered symbols in their conception and birth narratives, Matthew and Luke conveyed a truth about Jesus and about Mary. Jesus is greater than anyone who has come before in the line of David (Matthew) and he, not John the Baptist, is the promised one (Luke). But, I have argued, it is not possible to separate the mother from the son. In portraying Mary as a virgin, and contrasting her with the mothers in David’s line (Matthew) and with Elizabeth, mother of John (Luke), the two evangelists construct a narrative that displays the originality of Mary: she is untouched by evil of any kind. Thus, I suggest, the subterranean connection between the virginal conception of Jesus and the immaculate conception of Mary.

Finally, I have expressed my hope for a development of dogma that will see the incarnation as expressed in both Jesus and Mary. And this, not in a manner that makes Jesus the model only for men and Mary the model only for women. I seek a development that appreciates what each reveals by the way their historical lives were led and by the ways that Christian believers have continued to imagine them; a development that understands that Mary the Christ, no less than Jesus the Christ, is a model for all of humanity.

Such a development will appreciate the male and the female embodiment of God and will serve to right the imbalance in the Catholic Church, whereby ordained men, who believe themselves to be representatives of Jesus the Christ, feel commissioned to define for all women and for laymen their powers and their place. Instructed by the history of belief in the Church where Mary is concerned, however, I will not count on reason to lead the way. Whatever develops regarding Mary will come from ritual and art and the devotion of the people. My plea is that theologians not block what is stirring in the people by declaring it impossible before they listen deeply to what is going on, especially in the struggles of women. For that, we can all look to Mary, who staked her life on the promise that "nothing is impossible with God."


1. "As Irigaray has asserted, the question of sexual difference is the question of our epoch. It infects the most objective and ‘disinterested’ knowledges, the most benign and well-intended social and political policies, the very infrastructural organization of institutions, group practices, and interpersonal relations." Grosz1994:xi.

2. I derive this notion from my work on Paul Ricoeur. By "symbolics" I mean a study of the layers of meaning in a given symbol and of the interpretations that have shaped the commonly accepted understanding of it.

3. The English edition was published as A New Catechism, Catholic Faith for Adults (New York: Herder and Herder, 1967).

4. For an extended analysis of this theme and others in the writings of Luce Irigaray, see Chanter 1995.

5. Pope John Paul II, Redemptor Hominis; E.T., The Redeemer of Man, Origins (8:40), #10.

6. There are those who maintain that the earliest centuries of Christianity were the best in this regard. See Fiorenza 1987.

7. See, for example, the second draft of the Pastoral Letter on Women attempted by the National Council of Catholic Bishops, where the emphasis is on Genesis and on Jesus’ relationships with women: One in Christ Jesus: A Pastoral Response to the Concerns of Women for Church and Society, Origins 19:44 # 18, and 23; Pope John Paul II, Mulieris Dignitatem; E.T., On the Dignity and Vocation of Women, in Mother of Christ, Mother of the Church, Documents on the Blessed Virgin Mary ed. M. Jean Frisk (Boston: Pauline Media, 2001) #6ff, #12ff. To be fair, Pope John Paul does begin his meditation on the dignity and vocation of women with Mary’s role in the incarnation (see # 3ff). His concern, however, is to develop what this means for humanity and not specifically for the goodness of the female body.

8. See McLaughlin’s article (1993:118-149). She images Christ as a cross-dresser, a "transvestite."

9. See Martin 1994 for an illustration of this theology.

10. As early as the fourth century, a sect of women flourished in Thracia and Upper Scythia. It was their practice to offer bread in Mary’s name and partake of it. Epiphanius, bishop of Salamis, condemned this group. See Cunneen 1996:118.

11. The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Vatican II illustrates this well. "The Church does not hesitate to profess this subordinate role of Mary. It knows it through unfailing experience of it and commends it to the hearts of the faithful, so that encouraged by this maternal help they may the more intimately adhere to the Mediator and Redeemer" (62). In Mother of Christ, Mother of the Church, Documents on the Blessed Virgin Mary, 79.

12. Johnson 1994:25-31 uses the imagery of Mary as disciple to set the future.

13. It has surprised me how often, when I have given talks on Mary, a woman has come up to recommend this text to me. Schaberg 1987.

14. My gratitude to George Stroup, who challenged me in this way.

15. Holy Bible, The New Revised Standard Version with Apocrypha (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989).

16. Note, I am not describing what happened in history. I am interpreting what happens in the story given us by Matthew. I am driving at the logos of the myth, while bracketing questions that derive from another point of view, namely, history or biology. According to that logos, the virgin in Matthew’s text symbolizes the one who is brand new, who brings with her no "baggage," to use the contemporary jargon. In the line-up of women named in Jesus’ genealogy, Mary (and Mary’s story) is unprecedented.

17. This is a case where reading from a male perspective results, at times, in what are (to me) surprising statements. Doris K. Donnelly, following Donald Senior, writes, "Parallel to Elizabeth’s story is Mary’s extraordinary conception of Jesus. In Mary’s case, it is not old age that stands in her way, but rather her virginity. We have been so often programmed to appreciate virginity as a pearl of great price and the gift above all others that it is possible to miss a curious twist in this story. Instead of understanding virginity as a ‘treasured virtue,’ the biblical theologian Donald Senior proposes of Mary’s virginity that ‘there is reason to suggest that Luke considers it an impoverishment, a promise unfulfilled.’ She of low estate, she the handmaid, she the poor one has been filled with good things. Once again, however, Donald Senior points out, contrary to interpretations and extrapolations exalting Mary’s virginity, that ‘the low estate of Mary in Luke’s narrative is her virginity…Into the poverty of her virginity, God brings new and unexpected life’" (emphasis mine). See Donnelly, 125.

18. This schema (though not the application of it to the annunciation) is from Ricoeur 1995:262-75; on Mary as prophet, see also Laffey, 51-59.

19. Ricoeur maintains that "an indissoluble complicity between sexuality and defilement seems to have been formed from time immemorial." He goes on to say that "it is not certain that such beliefs do not continue to prowl in the consciousness of modern man and that they have not played a decisive role in the speculation on original sin" (1967:28–9).

20. I am not saying that any of this involved these women in personal sin. I am saying that, in each case of conception except Mary’s, there are indeed obstacles to overcome.

21. Nowhere does the misogyny of the Christian tradition show itself with more vehemence than in the writings that contrast Mary’s conception with normal conception, Mary’s delivery with normal delivery, Mary’s body with normal female bodies. For a fascinating take on the history of this, see Wood 1982:710-27. See also Palmer 1952.

22. Karl Rahner concludes, from detailed study of the evidence, that the meaning of the perpetual virginity of Mary has not been defined de fide definitum. See Rahner 1966a:134-64. If he is correct, it would be possible to offer an interpretation of meaning such as I am offering without contradicting a dogma of the faith.

23. It is interesting to note that popular accounts of this dogma often include an explanation that Immaculate Conception does not refer to the conception and birth of Jesus, but to that of Mary. See Elizabeth A. Johnson, "Immaculate Conception" in Encyclopedia of Catholicism, ed. Richard P. McBrien (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco), 655.

24. Kathleen Coyle asserts that "the doctrine of Mary’s immaculate conception, unlike that of her motherhood and virginity, is not stated in the New Testament, nor can it be deduced from it." Mary in the Christian Tradition, 35. This is certainly the standard position, and one I am arguing against. I think it can be deduced.

25. Ineffabilis Deus; E.T. Defining the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception in Mother of Christ, Mother of the Church, 24.

26. Ibid., 12-13.

27. Kathleen Coyle notes that "the word Theotokos consists of two elements: Theos (God) and tokos (a creature who gives birth)." Mary in the Christian Tradition, 22.

28. This is something recognized some time ago by Edward Schillebeeckx. He writes, "his human qualities and character were formed and influenced by his mother’s virtues….Mary’s function in the incarnation was not completed when Jesus was born. It was a continuous task, involving the human formation of the young man, as he grew up from infancy to childhood and from childhood to adulthood." Schillebeeckx 1964:35.

29. I bracket this question for many reasons. Chief among them is my own desire, as a Catholic theologian, to respect the teachings of the Church. It is not clear to me to what extent the whole arch of Christology rests upon belief in the historicity of the virginal conception of Jesus. For this reason I bracket, but do not deny it. See Brown 1973:22ff for a statement of the problem.

30. Reaction to a movie such as Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ demonstrates the widespread rejection of any association of sexuality with the God-Man among certain kinds of Christians. The defilement theme in sexuality runs deep and is difficult to counter.

31. This is one of the places where the anthropological assumption of the male as normative for humanity has come under attack by women: the area of sexuality.

32. For a very important article on reproduction and its (different) effects on women, see Kaminski 1992:240-62.

33. Refer here to documents on women and on laity.

34. Though it is important to note that the seeing will differ according to whether one is seeing oneself in one whose embodied existence is "like," or one who is "other."

35. One of the truths about human existence is that we can only imagine that which is embodied (See Lynch, 13). If, then, one wants to image God as mother, as woman, as sister, as (female) friend, there has to be a real human female body that is considered compatible with the divine. Failing that, it will never be possible to image God as female, because there is no female body that is considered worthy to be an image of God. The body of Jesus is not sufficient for imaging God as female nor for imagining a God/woman.

36. Because the male-shaped tradition has depicted God as pure act, keeping all suffering or passivity from God, the more the divinity of Jesus is stressed, the more active become the images of his life and mystery. Thus, "he was raised" changes to "he rose," "he was exalted" to "he ascends." This leaves the whole dimension of what God has done in him to fall on Mary, the woman. As long as this dichotomy is ontologized, women will be understood to have the receptive or passive roles in Church and society.

37. While Catholic theology continues to emphasize that the Word was made flesh, there is a reluctance to use the active verb of Mary and say that she made the Word flesh. It was not always so.

38. For the legend of Theophilus, which has been retold in a window at Chartres, in two at Notre Dame in Paris and in windows at Beauvais, Troyes, and Le Mans, see Cunneen, 147.

39. For an important analysis of family and the ethics of care, see Ross 1998:182-6.

40. The phrase is from a brilliant essay by Tina Beattie (1997:318), in which she reviews and critiques Tissa Balasuriya’s book, Mary and Human Liberation.


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