National Catholic Reporter
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Issue Date:  April 30, 2004

Q&A: Making more of Mary

Author fosters 'quiet rebellion' in her quest to restore Mary's significance

Editor’s note: NCR’s Antonia Ryan recently interviewed Charlene Spretnak about her book Missing Mary. In it, Spretnak, a liberal Catholic, argues that the diminution in Mary’s stature since Vatican II has resulted in an unfortunate loss of meaning, mystery and beauty.

NCR: Could you say a little about your background and the experiences you brought to writing about this subject?

Spretnak: I grew up in the 1950s and early ’60s when Mary and the other mysteries of the Catholic faith were almost palpable. My mother and grandmother had a beautiful Marian spirituality. Politically, I’m a Green. Professionally, I’m a professor of philosophy and religion and the author of several books that examine the interface between modernity and religion, community, nature and our sense of self.

What made you feel it was necessary to write this book now?

A lot of grassroots Catholics are puzzled about the radical shrinkage of Mary (except in ethnic parishes) over the past 40 years. It resulted from a very close vote at Vatican II, the great modernizing conference of the church. There was a Marian debate of almost mythic proportions: The “modernizers” represented the new preference for the rationalized, historical, semiotic text-based approach to religion while the “Marianists” represented the traditional Catholic sense that the mysteries of the Incarnation, the Redemption, and the dynamic Creation extend far beyond the boundaries of any text, no matter how historical. I call this traditional Catholic perception the “biblical plus” type of Christianity. By the way, I take issue with only one one-eighth of one of the 16 major documents created at Vatican II.

I wrote Missing Mary both to interpret and to advance the case for what I call the “quiet rebellion” of liberal Catholics today who feel that the church went too far in lopping off the full, cosmological sense of Mary. I argue for an inclusive position that honors both the biblical and the “biblical plus” -- that is, the sacramental, the mystical, the aesthetic dimension. Traditionally, Catholicism always situated the Gospel texts within the mysteries -- not set off alone and reified. The text is not the Incarnation.

What, exactly, is the Vatican II teaching that minimized Mary?

In the major Marian vote, on Oct. 29, 1963, the “modernizers,” who sought to “purify” Marian doctrine of all nonbiblical aspects, won by a majority of less than 2 percent. From that slight majority vote came a huge reduction of Mary’s officially recognized spiritual presence. The subsequent chapter on Mary in the new constitution deftly notes that although such nonbiblical titles as Mediator and Advocate have been applied to Mary by the church in the past, Christ is the one and only Mediator. The Marian chapter also warns against “a certain vain credulity.” After Vatican II, a silence about Mary descended, as many of her statues were removed, her devotions phased out and her name barely mentioned in theological instruction of nuns and priests. The sacramental/mystical dimension was strongly de-emphasized in favor of the biblical focus, but I believe that a rebalancing is now beginning.

When did “modernity” and this “disappearing” of the mystical -- including Mary -- actually start? The Renaissance? The Reformation?

All four of the foundational movements from which the ideology of modernity gradually emerged -- Renaissance humanism, the Reformation, the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment -- were unfavorably disposed toward Mary in her larger, glorified, cosmological form. They were right about many things, but they missed -- as in failed to grasp the full meaning of -- Mary.

You say that, in general, progressives within the church think Mary’s identity should be circumscribed within the limits of the little that the Gospels say about her. What are their reasons for feeling this is so important?

The “progressives” at Vatican II achieved numerous constructive outcomes, but when it came to the traditional perception of Mary, they saw her only as an embarrassing medieval vestige that was blocking ecumenical rapprochement with the Protestants. They threw out the entire sense of her full cosmological spiritual presence, allowing only the historical, “rationalized,” text-based perception of Mary as a Nazarene woman mentioned a few times in the Gospels. There are various reasons that most “progressives” strongly support this diminution of Mary today. For one, except in ethnic parishes and the developing world, most young Catholics under 45 have known no other Mary at all. Also, feminism emerged in the post-Vatican-II years, so as women entered theological degree programs feminist thought often became conflated with the new, historicized, “rationalized” view of Mary.

In general, those “progressives,” who are delighted that Catholicism has become nearly as uncluttered, post-mystical and text-based after Vatican II as Protestantism, are comfortable with strict historicism as the only worthwhile approach in religion. I have found, however, that many people who share liberal/progressive views on numerous issues facing the church today are beginning to agree that perhaps too much of the aesthetic beauty, the mystical symbolism, and the richly sacramental dimension was lopped off when Catholicism modernized. They, like myself, wonder why we cannot have both the liberal/progressive accomplishments on social issues as well as the spiritual richness of our tradition.

Why has Mary as Queen become identified with the Catholic right?

Because the Catholic right claims that the full, traditional version of Mary is emblematic of their conservative social and political positions … and most Catholic progressives acquiesce to that appropriation. This holds mainly in modernized cultures, however. In much of the Catholic world, Our Lady of Everything is the patron and protector of social-change movements.

Do you think that the generation of Catholics growing up today are more open to the mystical dimension of Mary?

That’s a lovely thought. I hope, for their sake, that you’re right.

National Catholic Reporter, April 30, 2004

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