Mother of God or Domesticated Goddess? Mary In Feminist Theology

Author: Manfred Hauke


Manfred Hauke

Mary, the virginal mother of God, is a kind of central point at which the main lines of the Catholic Faith come together. Since it is impossible to conceive of sacred history without her, she points in a unique way toward the mystery of Christ and the Church. By virtue of that position, she also becomes a criterion against which new theological conceptions must be measured. Mary's criteriological significance is of supreme value when assessing feminist theology, which puts forward demands for fundamental changes in religious life.

Mary Daly's And Other Feminist Critiques Of Mariology

The decisive impulse to theological feminism's critique of Mariology came in 1973, from Mary Daly's <Beyond God the Father.> Already in 1968, Daly published a book on the theme of women, its title and basic content closely tied to Simone de Beauvoir: <The Church and the Second Sex> For Daly, too, one does not arrive in the world as a woman, but one becomes a woman. In view of the theory of evolution, we can no longer speak of an "essence" of man or of woman or, likewise, of an immutable God who grounds immutable orders of things. Hence, there are no longer any creation imposed presuppositions to serve as standards for the transformation of society and the Church, but only the ideal of "equality."

In her 1973 critique, Daly has been inspired once again by Simone de Beauvoir, who had pointed out the contrast between the ancient goddesses and Mary as early as 1949; whereas the goddesses commanded autonomous power and utilized men for their own purposes, Mary is wholly the servant of God: "'I am the handmaid of the Lord.' For the first time in the history of mankind," writes Beauvoir, "a mother kneels before her son and acknowledges, of her own free will, her inferiority. The supreme victory of masculinity is consummated in Mariolatry: it signifies the rehabilitation of woman through the completeness of her defeat."

Daly now sharpens this critique and puts it in a wider systematic context: Mary is "a remnant of the ancient image of the Mother Goddess, enchained and subordinated in Christianity, as the 'Mother of God'." To this attempt to "domesticate" the mother goddess, Daly opposes a striving to bring together the divine and the feminine.

In the later work <Gyn/Ecology> (1978), Daly abandons the ideal of "androgyny" that she had previously still advocated and becomes the most important representative of the gynocentric "goddess feminism." Mary is a "pale derivative symbol disguising the conquered Goddess," a "flaunting of the tamed Goddess." Her role as servant in the Incarnation of God amounts to nothing other than a "rape." For Daly, the subordination of man to God is something negative, especially when this state of affairs is expressed in a feminine symbol such as Mary.

Mary as a "domesticated goddess"-this basic notion of Daly's is not something original to feminism. The same objection can be found, from another perspective and primarily since the nineteenth century, in liberal polemics against the Catholic teaching on Mary. Particularly, the title "Mother of God" is often explained in terms of the common people's need to worship a goddess. It seems unnecessary to discuss this "unsellable" item from anti-Catholic polemics further here. Whereas, however, the anti-Catholic literature of earlier generations found it important to stress that Mary is no goddess, the feminists emphasize Mary's place-holding function: Mary discloses the female attributes of God that have heretofore been suppressed. The title of a book by the Protestant theologian Christa Mulack provides a characteristic example here, Mary: <The Secret Goddess in Christianity.> From this perspective, Mary is not an independent personality but something more like a projection screen for archetypal urges that-the author stresses-really need to be directed toward the image of God.

Mary Daly has not only given currency to the thesis that Mary is a "domesticated goddess" but also offered a feminist interpretation of dogmas about Mary that must be briefly reviewed here.

The basic principle behind Daly's interpretation is that of establishing independent status for the figure of Mary, who needs to be freed from her relation to Christ. Mary's <virginity> then becomes a paraphrase for female autonomy: woman is independent of man and not defined solely through her relationship to man. This interpretation of Mary's virginity has gained almost universal acceptance in feminist circles. A literal understanding of the virginal birth is not, however, part of this. Christa Mulack refers to the assumption of biological virginity as "materialistic," and Catharina Halkes, probably the best known Catholic feminist in Europe, holds that virginity is an attitude, not an abstinence.

On Mary's being the Mother of God-which is, after all, central to the whole of Mariology-Daly simply refrains from making any definite commentary, even about its function as an isolated symbolic image. The reason for this is understandable: "being a mother" always implies an inherent relation to a child. That, however, is obviously not compatible with Daly's feminist ideal of autonomy.

The title "Mother of God" is also largely blurred over, or at least not raised for discussion by feminists after Daly. An exception here is Mulack, who reinterprets the title Mother of God so as to imply an incarnation of the divine in the body of every individual woman. Just as matriarchy precedes patriarchy, the collective unconscious precedes individual consciousness, so the new male element originates from the woman. Regarding representations of Mary with the child Jesus, Mulack applauds the fact "that the male is always depicted as smaller than the female," for love can only find expression "where the female powers are preponderant." What is essential is not the procreator but the birth-giver.

As distinct from the Mother of God aspect, Daly finds Mary's Immaculate Conception to be something, once again, worth reinterpreting: divested of dogma, what is involved here is a negation of female evil and a rejection of patriarchy. Woman has no need of being redeemed by a male. "Immaculate Conception" is a "metaphor" that represents the "process of a woman creating herself," free of fathers and chains.

Otherwise, the Immaculata dogma is a source of irritation to feminists, including Daly: Mary is placed on a unreachably high pedestal and cannot serve as a genuine model for all real women. The image of woman is split into two halves: the evil Eve, with whom all real women are equated, and the impossible ideal of a virginal Mother of God, who is free of all sin.

In opposition to Mary, the serpent-trampler, Daly posits the ideal of a serpent-goddess. Following C. G. Jung-for whom evil, too, has to be positively "integrated" and the devil included in the image of God- and some female theologians, she calls for an overturning of the merely good and holy in Mary. Christa Mulack regards the archetypal Mary as a reincarnation of the serpent, in which all oppositions are canceled out, including that between good and evil. Thus, even the behavior of Eve is to be viewed as positive, since she had obeyed herself, that is, the serpent, and stood up to the jealous Yahweh. Mulack is quite aware that she is adopting Gnostic positions here.

Along with the Immaculata dogma, the Assumption is also given a new interpretation by Daly. That Christ actively ascended into heaven, whereas Mary was taken up, she considers a reinforcement of patriarchalism. As a symbol in itself, however, the assumption signifies the ascendance of woman into the divine sphere.

Basic Currents In Feminist Mariology Since Daly

Mary Daly's position represents a beginning that decisively set the course of later feminist Mariology. From it, some female

theologians have inferred the need to abandon the figure of Mary altogether. According to Kari Borrensen, a Catholic theologian from Norway, veneration of Mary is a reaction to the masculine image of God and, therefore, is superfluous. Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel makes a similarly skeptical judgment: the three female witnesses to Jesus's Resurrection, and especially Mary Magdalen, are much "closer to life" for modern women than is Mary of Nazareth, even if, as our "sister," she is not to be completely rejected. By contrast with the Mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalen, as Jesus's friend, is not tied to any notions of order. Hence, for women who are becoming more independent, the model is not Mary but Mary Magdalen.

Either a rejection of Mary or a cautious skepticism about her would probably predominate in the attitudes of feminists as a whole. Along with this, however, there are attempt to redefine Mariology and, thus, to overthrow Mary's traditional image, usually in connection with liberation theology. The main representatives in that direction are the American Rosemary Radford Ruether and Catharina Halkes from Holland. Mariology, according to Ruether, "becomes a liberating symbol for women only when it is seen as a radical symbol of a new humanity freed from hierarchical power relations, including that of God and humanity." In conformity with the democratic world view, it is not only subordination between human beings that is rejected, but also the subordination of mankind to God. Catharina Halkes adopts a somewhat more cautious position. She concedes that Mary's affirmative response in the Magnificat has a positive quality as an expression of creaturely receptivity. But Halkes, too, vigorously rejects any attempt to establish a link between (1) Mary's privilege of being allowed to give free, active consent to the Incarnation and (2) being a woman. To put any emphasis on Jesus's maleness and Mary's femaleness is a threat to women. Receptivity is not a trait for which women have more aptitude than men. That Mary's being a woman has no exemplary function specifically related to women is also the view of Elisabeth Gossmann, probably the most "moderate" of those feminists who have written on the subject of Mariology in German. In her Mariology, skepticism about the existence of predetermined essences of man and woman leads to a denial that Mary has any special exemplary significance for women.

Positive Elements Of Truth In Feminist Mariology

1) <The determinative significance of the symbolism of the sexes.> Sexually stamped religious symbolism is no mere peripheral factor but a reality that enters most intimately into the shaping of our life and actions as Christians. The fact that Scripture and tradition characterize God largely in terms of masculine images and man's position before God largely in terms of feminine ones must be taken seriously and studied theologically. Insofar as feminist theology calls attention to the significance of symbolism with a masculine or feminine stamp, it is fundamentally correct even if evaluation of this factor must lead to other kinds of conclusions.

2) <The importance of Jesus's maleness and Mary's femaleness.> If the "sexual" coloring in religious symbolism is significant, then that applies especially to those two persons who hold the greatest significance within Christianity: Jesus Christ, the Son of God become man; and Mary, the prototype of the Church and of redeemed man. Precisely the irate rejection of this differentiation makes one sensitive to its positive significance.

3) <Mary as revelatory of the "feminine" attributes of God.> Mary is not merely emblematic of the human being who opens himself to God and collaborates in the redemptive process but also revelatory of the "feminine" or "maternal" attributes of God. This observation is not something new, despite being heavily stressed by feminists. It must be noted, however, that Mary does not represent the "maternity" of <God> but is the mother of God and thus embodies <creaturely worth> at its supreme level.

4) <Mary as receptive of human longings>. Even though Mary is no "secret goddess," she still serves to attract the positive psychological forces in man that were directed, in paganism, toward goddesses. From that view-point, there is a certain justification in the approach taken to the figure of Mary by comparative religion. At the same time, however, the case of Mary suggests the need for a refinement and fundamental correction here: Mary is not simultaneously sinful and holy, not simultaneously whore and virgin, but the totally holy woman, who does not provide mankind with a kind of self-confirmation but, rather, craws men "higher upward." In so doing, Mary is not an exchangeable projection screen for human needs but the historical Virgin and Mother of God, who gives a firm historical anchoring to mankind's strivings.

5) <The "emancipatory" significance of Mary.> To equate virginity with "autonomy" is to overlook that aspect of the virginal life that refers beyond itself, that is not sufficient to itself, but, in its own individually appropriate way, enters into the larger order of Christ and the Church. Nevertheless, Mary's active collaboration also has, so to speak, an "emancipatory" significance, which Pope Paul VI identified in <Marialis cultus>: "The modern woman, anxious to participate with decision-making power in the affairs of the community, will contemplate with intimate joy Mary who, taken into dialogue with God, gives her active and responsible consent." Here, one might also recall an important thought of Gertrud von le Fort: The virgin who is consecrated to God "does not have her place within generation, but she marks an end to generation . . . From that position, she is an invocation to belief in an ultimate worth of the person as such . . .; the virgin naturally symbolizes the religious emphasis on, and affirmation of, the worth of the person in his or her ultimate, immediate relation to God alone."

Opposing Negative Factors

1) Failure of feminism as a total conception. Reflecting on the elements of truth in feminism can create a feeling for the important concerns of women today. Feminist Mariology, however, has nothing new to offer that would not already be accessible to Catholic teaching through its own existing sources. Above all, it must not be forgotten when evaluating feminist theology that its basic anthropological starting point, which influences its stand on all more specific issues, is irreconcilable with Christian faith. God did not create humans as androgynous, or the male as an imperfect satellite-being to the female, but as man and woman, equal in value but not in kind. Here, Barbara Albrecht deserves approval when she clearly stresses that "feminist theology as a whole should . . . be rejected." The task of Catholic Mariology is not to "fertilize" feminist theology but to lead its representatives {female and male) to change their ways.

2) <The basic ecclesiological significance of the feminine symbolism>. Serious regard for the difference between the sexes leads either to decisive affirmation of the biblical symbolism of the sexes, and thus to a rejection of feminism, or to an indignant abandonment of Christianity. Feminists are particularly offended by the fact that, in the biblical symbolism of the sexes, the female role is subordinate to the male, most notably in the parallel drawn between the relations of Christ to the Church and the Bridegroom and Bride. References to Mary as the "self-effacing handmaid" make them positively livid. At the same time, they repress the fact that the female symbolism here is also authoritative for males. Man's position God requires certain attitudes whose symbolic structures are more strongly "feminine" than "masculine": receptivity, but also cooperation. Regarding the relationship to God, even males must take the female, "Marian" attitude as their standard.

3. <Jesus's maleness as a bridge to the emancipatory concern>. The fact that Jesus was not a woman but a man can, moreover, be quite reasonably account for precisely from a "feminist," or emancipatory perspective. Susanne Heine stresses: Men are much more strongly tempted to misuse their power. But in Jesus Christ a man has exemplified the attitude of service.

4. <Mary as a prototype of the Church and of redeemed man>. The decisive significance of Mary consists, not in revealing the "feminine" attributes of God, but in embodying the way that man collaborates in the redemptive process. That such religious symbolism is treated by feminists as bearing exclusively on the image of God, but on the collaborative role of man and the Church, seems connected with Protestant assumptions that give stress, in the redemptive process, to the <solus Deus>. This probably also explains the fact that feminist theology has been much more successful in the Protestant sphere than in the Catholic; among Protestants, feminine religious symbolism, has been attenuated for centuries.

5. <The exemplary character of Mary.> Mary does not set an "impossible example." In her, of course, virginity and motherhood are combined in a unique, inimitable way. This serves to demonstrate precisely the unexchangeable self-containedness of Mary, which cannot be resolved into either Christology or ecclesiology. But precisely this aspect of relative "self-containedness" is overlooked by feminists, who otherwise like to object that Mary is regarded merely as a being "in relationship." Yet Mary's privileges are transferable, in an analogical way, to every Christian, in which connection the prototypical function of the Mother of God has a specially pronounced relevance for women. Reference may be made here to what is said in John Paul II's <On the Dignity and Vocation of Women> about the exemplary character of virginity and motherhood. There, the Pope speaks of the "two particular dimensions of the fulfillment of the female personality." By preserving virginity for the sake of the heavenly Kingdom, a woman confirms herself in her being as a person, having been created for her own sake, and realizes her calling to love through devotion to Christ. This fundamental "bridal" attitude of Christian love is also reflected in marriage and extends outward, through spiritual motherhood, to all people, who are embraced by the love of Christ.

Our Lady Of Guadalupe And Mary's Humanity

Mary Mother of God or domesticated goddess? These alternatives can, in conclusion, be illumined quite well through an example from Latin America. This image of the Mother of God in Guadalupe shows Mary with facial features similar to those of Mexicans. The place where she appeared is not far from the destroyed temple of the mother goddess Tonantzin. The appearance of the Mother of God in Guadalupe led to the greatest mass conversion in the history of the Church. In the wake of liberation theology, even feminist theologians, regardless of confession, praise the image of the Mother of God at Guadalupe as a benefactor of the oppressed. Yet a certain old misunderstanding not infrequently arises in this context, as, for instance, in Christa Mulack's claim that Mary is a "reincarnation of the ancient Mexican earth mother." Again, for Eugen Drewermann, the Church has here simply "renamed" a goddess.

And in fact, the picture of Mary that arose miraculously on the visionary's cloak does contain motifs pertaining to the world of the Aztec gods: sun, moon, stars, and serpent. However, through the way that those symbols are arranged, paganism is turned completely upside down. Mary stands before the sun and is thus more powerful than the feared sun god. She has one foot placed on the half-moon, a symbol of the feared serpent god, to whom thousands upon thousands of humans were sacrificed and whose machinations she has overcome. She is more powerful than all goddesses and gods, than the stars. And yet Mary is no goddess, for she folds her hands together in prayer and bows her head before one who is greater than she. She wears no mask in order to conceal her godly nature—as do the Aztec gods—but quite openly displays her human status.

What we see here is a process of simultaneous inter-linkage and contradiction: the heritage and longings of humanity (in this case, of the Central American Indians) are acknowledged yet simultaneously transformed and directed toward God. Should the same thing be impossible in relation to modern feminism?

Veneration of Mary signifies the end of the idolization of creaturely values and certainly the day of judgment for any sort of the pantheistic self-idolization. Mary points human beings toward Christ. Could the experience of Guadalupe also serve to inspire feminists? At any rate, a Spanish Jesuit observed several centuries ago: "From this image, as from a refracting prism, stream forth many intimations of glory . . ., of light, and splendor. May all women learn from it." To which might be added, also all men.

Manfred Hauke is a German priest who teaches theology at the University of Augsburg. He is the author of <Women in the Priesthood> and numerous articles on feminist issues in theology. This essay comes from his latest book, also from Ignatius Press, entitled: <God or Goddess? Feminist Theology: What Is It? Where Does It Lead?>

This article was taken from the May-June 1996 issue of "Catholic Dossier". Catholic Dossier is published bi-monthly for $24.95 a year by Ignatius Press. For subscriptions: P.O. Box 1639, Snohomish, WA 98291-1639, 1-800-651-1531.