An inelegant Catholic priest over on Patheos’ Catholic channel has listed Twelve Reasons Why You Can’t Call God “Mother.” You know I can’t let that rest, especially because his reasons are dodgy on a variety of levels.
I refuse to break down his argument piece by piece (who has time? not this non-Christian), but instead let me offer some thoughts from an unpublished doctoral paper of mine, which was to be the crux of my dissertation. This paper analyzed the works of Mark Miravalle and his efforts to establish Mary as the Co-Redemptrix as a Fifth Marian Dogma, and the ideas of Tina Beattie, particularly in her book, God’s Mother, Eve’s Advocate. The footnotes haven’t transferred in the cut and paste, so if you would like sources or additional reading, please contact me.
This essay was situated from within the Christian tradition and from a monotheistic framework. While my personal spirituality has since deviated, I stand by my ideas presented here.
In order to experience full participation in the life of the Catholic Church, as well as in the larger world beyond the confines of the Church and Christianity, not only in its liturgical and administrative life, but in its symbolic and spiritual life, women need to see their experiences and bodily presence valued and given weight beyond empty words and gestures. The first step in fully embracing women’s experiences, according to Beattie, is to stop polarizing Mary and Eve. Beattie says ‘…women need Eve as well as Mary in the Christian narrative, not as symbols of the opposition between good and evil but as symbols of the complex realities of being a woman sometimes a mother.’ Miravalle chooses to play Mary and Eve against each other. The result leaves Mary as the only woman exalted in a hierarchy of male thinkers, Church Fathers, popes and male deities.
Mary cannot represent women’s redemption alone, as if she exists in a vacuum. ‘As long as Mary is understood only in relation to Christ, she belongs within the community of “men-amongst-themselves” in a way which leads to the symbolic exclusion of women.’ Mary cannot be defined only in terms of other men – handmaiden of, servant to, mother of, wife of. Mary and women’s redemption must exist in communion with other women; otherwise women have no place and no part in the salvation narrative unless they attach themselves to masculine figures. This denies the mutual interdependency that exists among relational beings and makes certain people and classes of people (here we are writing about women) subordinate to and dependent upon male authority. The patriarchy, ‘men-amongst-themselves,’ is strengthened when women are in isolation from one another.
Jesus and Mary are each both paradox and mystery, both containers of the Uncontainable. Jesus in his flesh miraculously contains the fullness of Divinity, yet Mary by carrying Jesus in her womb contains the fullness of the Divine within her, too. Mary as Co-redemptrix, along with Jesus, would represent fullness of body and spirit, male and female, active and passive, both as icons of the Divine – not as polarity but as embracing all of humanity and creation. Seeing Mary as Co-redemptrix asks the Christian to shift one’s understanding of salvation from economic exchanges, rendered judgments, or substitutionary atonement, and see salvation as restoration: restoration of our inherent divinity, our relationship with God/dess, the created world, and one another.
Both Jesus and Mary are necessary as redeemers for three reasons. The first is that our culture and the Christian Church place a level of normativity, preference and privilege on the male person. In order to restore the dignity of women and establish symbols of power and divinity that reflect more of humanity, Mary as co-redeemer is a step in the right direction. Secondly, by embracing what has been considered the Other for so long, the female form, the physical body and other expressions of Otherness can be embraced as part of the life of the divine. In this paper I am thinking primarily of non-normative expressions of gender and sexuality, as well the general lived experiences of women, but other expressions of Otherness are included. Thirdly, if God is neither male nor female then there is nothing wrong or erroneous with using divine feminine language or imagery in our discussions of God/dess, nor is there any reason to keep women from holding spiritual and liturgical leadership in the Church. Tradition can be a barrier erected by patriarchal figures of authority, excluding women from fully participating in the life of the Church, restricting women’s expression of self, and hindering a fuller understanding of God/dess. The insistence on an all-male trinity, an all-male priesthood, and only using masculine God-language makes an idol out of God/dess and idolizes masculinity. If all sexes and genders are free to see themselves in God/dess and to see God/dess in themselves then eventually we can and must move beyond patriarchy and gender essentialism.
Miravalle says that ‘[c]lear awareness of the plan of salvation is only possible when we understand our need for a redeemer, and for a co-redemptrix by recognizing our own sin.’ But a complete theology of Mary as the Co-redemptrix would lead one to see that, as Beattie states, ‘…the disordering of the relationship between the sexes, the self-divinization of the male in his identification with God and the exclusion of woman from godlikeness and therefore from personhood, is the first consequence of the fall and thus marks the beginning of patriarchy.’ If salvation is about the restoration of relationship this challenges much of the Church’s authority and self-narrative. If women are restored to full relationship with one another and with God/dess, must we continue put up with a story that continues to tell us women are guilty? That we are less than full icons of God/dess and therefore not appropriate as priests? If we are restored, must we capitulate to an authority that would deny us the fullness of our restoration? If we are redeemed and restored relationally then we can participate fully – no role is beyond us merely for the reason that we are women.
God/dess ‘descends’ into created matter in the form of Jesus, Mary ‘ascends’ to divinity by embracing the Divine. Both are God/dess. The incarnation of God/dess and the divinization of humanity create a relationship that is far more cooperative and active than passive and submissive. Both Mary and Jesus are divine; both reveal what humanity can look like when divinized, that is, aligned with God/dess. This does not distance Mary from creation any more than the incarnation distances Jesus from God/dess. A Mary, ‘subordinate and dependent,’ ‘unnecessary,’ like the one Miravalle advocates for, and out of communion with her sisters (Eve and other women) can have no actual redemptive agency; she is merely a witness, one of many, perhaps worthy of more honor and respect for having birthed Jesus. The title of Co-redemptrix is therefore empty and the proposed dogma is pointless. By placing Mary in relationship with Eve and other women, highlighting the restored relationship women have with God/dess as seen through the Annunciation and Nativity, and by restoring Eve’s reputation as Woman Redeemed, Mary becomes a symbol of embodied redemption for women and, I propose, for others marginalized by the institutional Church.