Woman of Many Names: Mary in Orthodox and Catholic Theology

Article excerpt

WHEN I WAS A DOCTORAL STUDENT in England, each year I used to go with a group of students on a Holy Week pilgrimage to the medieval Marian shrine at Walsingham. Our group was composed of about 30 young people, half of them Catholic and half Anglican, with an Anglican priest and myself as chaplains. As we walked on our way, we were put up each night by a local parish; the night before we arrived at Walsingham we were usually guests of an Anglican community in a remote village in rural Norfolk, with a majestic 15th-century church standing alone in the fields. One year, as our straggling, footsore band of pilgrims neared the church, the vicar--a rather eccentric but enthusiastic high-churchman, radiating tousled white hair and expansive gestures--came out in surplice and cope with a delegation of his parishioners led by cross and candles to meet us. When he found out I was the Catholic chaplain, he greeted me with a warm embrace. "I'm so glad you're here," he assured me--expressing the hope (which unfortunately I could not fulfill) that I would, as he said, "confabulate" the Eucharist with him the following day. "Our Churches have grown so close over the past 20 years," he gushed. "We really believe the same things, use the same lectionary, pray the same prayers. Why, the only difference, really, is that we don't say the 'Hail, Mary'!"

Having been involved in ecumenical conversations for many years since then as a Catholic theologian, I know that things are not quite so simple. I know, for instance, that the Anglican communion has a long tradition of Marian art and devotion--even of "saying the 'Hail, Mary'"--that sets it somewhat apart from most other Churches of the Reformation. Still, the vicar had a point: for Protestants of many different traditions, and even for some Anglicans, the theory and practice of Catholic devotion to Mary raises serious questions about the Christian legitimacy of the Catholic Church itself. What account can we give of it? How is it grounded in the biblical witness to God's work in the world, to God's salvation of sinners in Christ and his call to follow Christ alone? Does not the focus on Mary in Catholic art, Catholic liturgy, and the prayer life of ordinary Catholics suggest that for them she shares a place parallel to that of Jesus in God's plan to redeem the world? Does she not represent what is often seen as the Catholic Church's historic tendency to forget that it is only the sheer grace of God, engaging the faith of individuals in and through Christ, and the Bible's witness to him, that saves us from sin and destruction?

In a trenchant passage from his Church Dogmatics, volume 1, part 2, Karl Barth raises these questions powerfully. Agreeing--as Luther and Zwingli had done--that it is legitimate to apply to Mary the ancient church's title Theotokos, "Mother of God," as a striking, even provocative way of expressing the divine personal identity of her son, Jesus, Barth insists that the "privileges" ascribed to Mary by Catholics beyond this, since patristic times, all represent "an excrescence, i.e., a diseased construct of theological thought" that must simply be "excised" like a tumor. Barth explains:

We reject Mariology, (1) because it is an arbitrary innovation in the face of Scripture and the early church, and (2) because this innovation consists essentially in a falsification of Christian truth.... In the doctrine and worship of Mary there is disclosed the one heresy of the Roman Catholic Church which explains all the rest. The "mother of God" of Roman Catholic Marian dogma is quite simply the principle, type and essence of the human creature co-operating servantlike (ministerialiter) in its own redemption on the basis of prevenient grace, and to that extent the principle, type and essence of the Church. (1) What Marian doctrine and devotion reveals about Catholic Christianity, in Barth's view, is its fundamentally heretical notion that human receptivity and freedom play a decisive, if always simply a receptive, role in the saving activity of God in the world. …