January 1st, 2019
This is going to be a more personal Vatican File, based on some observations gathered in the last twelve months. After writing a book on Mary, I knew that I was going to present it on several occasions before different audiences and discuss its contents with numerous Roman Catholic theologians around Italy. Books are important tools for dialogue, and so I was prepared to engage in serious conversations in a variety of public settings. So did it happen. Over the last year I have had the privilege of talking about Mariology many times and in many places, meeting hundreds of people eager to listen, to ask questions, and to challenge my book.
The last public presentation for this year took place in the city of Imola (not far from Bologna, in the north of Italy) only a few weeks ago. This experience gives me the opportunity to reflect on some unique opportunities that I have had and on some common threads that I have encountered so far.
Debating Mariology Under the Marble Bust of Pius IX
At Imola, the presentation took place in the impressive hall of the historic Episcopal Palace in the presence of the Roman Catholic bishop and more than seventy people, most of whom were committed Catholics of that city. Imola is the town where Giovanni Maria Mastai Ferretti (1792-1878) had been bishop since 1828 before becoming Pope Pius IX in 1846. Pius IX was the pope who promulgated the dogma of the immaculate conception of Mary (1854), the binding belief for Catholics according to which Mary was preserved from original sin, thus making her person unique beyond the service that God chose to give her in giving birth to Jesus. Pius IX was also the pope who convened the First Vatican Council (1870), which promulgated the dogma of papal infallibility. This same pope issued the harsh encyclical “Nostis et Nobiscum” (1849), against the spread of Protestantism in Italy, and the “Syllabus of Errors” (1864), with which he condemned Protestantism an illegitimate form of Christianity (Error N. 18). So, talking about Mary on December 5 (three days before the feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary) in the hall that the then-bishop Mastai Ferretti had decorated and embellished, with a marble bust of an austere and inquisitive Pius IX staring down at me, in the presence of the current Roman Catholic bishop of Imola, was a spiritually strong experience. Under Pius IX the evangelization of Italy by the evangelical Protestants began; these believers were opposed, harassed, and persecuted in many ways. There I was, able to give reasons for the evangelical faith in a place from which its elimination had been desired.
Between Theology and Affections
My dialogue partner was a learned and respected Roman Catholic theologian who teaches at various universities in Italy and across Europe. He had written twelve pages of notes on my book, showing that he had certainly read it very carefully. After my talk presenting Mary’s biblical portrait and the reasons for the evangelical criticism of Roman Catholic Mariology, ending with an invitation to go back to Scripture to have the Bible define our Mariology, the Catholic theologian explained with great wit the Catholic logic of Marianism: apparently motivated by the exaltation of the concreteness of the incarnation of the Son in the person of Jesus Christ, but really developed by incorporating affective and emotional codes linked to motherhood, the need for human proximity, the search for eminent life models, the idealization of female spirituality, etc. It became even more evident to me that Roman Catholic Mariology has its main raison d’être not in seeking a biblical foundation (even though the Bible is rhetorically evoked). Rather, its foundation is affective, emotional, and maternal. At the conclusion of the evening, a nun, visibly shaken and displeased, publicly asked me: “In short, how can you not pray to Mary? She is our mother after all!” Here, again, in this question and in this statement lies the whole of Roman Catholic Mariology. Mariology is not so much interested in biblical teaching but is enveloped in deep aspirations of the heart that are apparently not met by the living person of Christ, who has restored fellowship with the Father in the Holy Spirit.
The Pre-Theoretical Ground of Mariology
Here is another lesson that I learned at the end of this tour of presentations on the book on Mary. While it is vitally important for us evangelical theologians to work on biblical exegesis and theology to develop a biblical Mariology and to correct deviations and false teachings about her, we have to be aware of the fact that, historically and theologically speaking, Roman Catholic Mariology did not primarily originate from a reading of Scripture. Rather, it grew out of deep symbolic and “maternal” concerns. Exegetical arguments came after to retroactively support the Mariological devotions and the affection for her. This is to say that for Roman Catholic Mariology to be challenged and eventually undermined, we have to grapple with deeper issues than exegesis. In Mariology there are pre-theoretical commitments that exegesis does not intersect or intersects in a secondary way. It could even be argued that even if we win the exegetical argument, Catholic Mariology will still stand because its foundation lies elsewhere.
As I came back from this presentation, another clear example of the pre-theoretical, deep, and emotional grounding of Mariology was evident in the official liturgy of the Act of Veneration that Pope Francis paid to Mary on the feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8th in Rome.
This is the prayer that he and the crowd gave:
Holy Mother of God, pray for us
Holy Virgin of the virgins, pray for us
Mother of Christ, pray for us
Mother of the Church, pray for us
Mother of divine grace, pray for us
Most Pure Mother, pray for us
Most Chaste Mother, pray for us
Always virgin mother, pray for us
Immaculate Mother, pray for us
Mother worthy of love, pray for us
Admirable mother, pray for us
Mother of good counsel, pray for us
Mother of the Creator, pray for us
Mother of the Savior, pray for us
Virgin most prudent, pray for us
Virgin worthy of honor, pray for us
Virgin worthy of praise, pray for us
Virgin most powerful, pray for us
Virgin most merciful, pray for us
Virgin most faithful, pray for us
Mirror of perfection, pray for us
Seat of Wisdom, pray for us
Cause of our joy, pray for us
Temple of the Holy Spirit, pray for us
Tabernacle of eternal glory, pray for us
Consecrated residence of God, pray for us
Mystical rose, pray for us
Tower of the holy city of David, pray for us
Impregnable fortress, pray for us
Sanctuary of the divine presence, pray for us
Ark of the Covenant, pray for us
Gate of heaven, pray for us
Morning Star, pray for us
Health of the sick, pray for us
Refuge of sinners, pray for us
Comforter of the afflicted, pray for us
Help of Christians, pray for us
Queen of angels, pray for us
Queen of the patriarchs, pray for us
Queen of the Prophets, pray for us
Queen of the Apostles, pray for us
Queen of martyrs, pray for us
Queen of confessors, pray for us
Queen of virgins, pray for us
Queen of all the saints, pray for us
Queen conceived without sin, pray for us
Queen assumed into heaven, pray for us
Queen of the Rosary, pray for us
Queen of the family, pray for us
Queen of Peace, pray for us.
There is much pre-theoretical commitment in this prayer that locates Mariology at the deepest level of psychological affections, far beyond exegetical and theological arguments. The latter are secondary at best.
Thankfully, we no longer live in the time of Pius IX, and we are grateful for it. While all opportunities for respectful dialogue and friendly interaction with Roman Catholic friends need to be sought, it should be clear nonetheless that present-day Roman Catholic Mariology is still very much framed and encapsulated in an emotional setting that makes it hardly reformable according to the Word of God.