The Choice Is Mary’s

The Choice Is Mary’s December 29, 2022

Years ago, at Advent, I wrote an essay for Catholic Answers on St. Matthew’s account of St. Joseph’s choice: what to do about finding his betrothed pregnant with a child he knew couldn’t be his own. For the most part, the essay was well-received and remains a favorite of mine. I’d share a link with you, but it’s *cough* no longer available online. *cough* In any event, most people who commented on the essay had either compliments or constructive criticism to offer, something I deeply appreciated. There was one response though that puzzled me.

A male reader was deeply offended that I’d described the Virgin Mary as “pregnant.” Didn’t I know that was sacrilegious? Catholics should say she was “with child,” I was informed.

I don’t remember how I responded at the time. Probably with an observation that he was making a distinction without a difference. But the comment stuck with me as an example of just how uncomfortable many Catholics—most of them male, it seems—can be with the Virgin Mary’s pregnancy.

This discomfort with Mary’s pregnancy comes out in various ways and isn’t new. From very early on, Christian men have been appalled at the idea that Mary could have experienced labor pains in exactly the same way every woman who has given birth has experienced pain. Women have been informed that Mary couldn’t possibly be like them in experiencing suffering in childbirth. After all, she was immaculately conceived! The rest of you are daughters of Eve and pain is punishment for your sins!

Never mind that Jesus suffered pain on the cross and was God Incarnate. Never mind that Mary’s labor pains could have been her own share in the suffering of her Son, and that the Church has never ruled out the possibility. Male theologians just can’t bear the idea of the Virgin Mary screaming in agony as she pushed her baby out of her body. Christ must have been “raptured” out of her body like light through glass.

Nobody seems to ask why Jesus can be like men in all things but sin, but Mary can’t be like any other woman.

In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade this year, Choice has become a rallying cry for millions of women around the world, particularly in the religious sphere where abortion is a controversial topic. Difficult as it may be to believe for some conservative Christians (not to mention conservative Catholics), many Christians (and Catholics) are pro-choice. Some support abortion, others support reproductive freedom—acknowledging that this is a distinction with considerable difference. When Roe was overturned, these Christians began promoting the compatibility between Christian orthodoxy and choice.

That’s the background behind recent campaigns to promote the Virgin Mary’s reproductive freedom. Faith Choice Ohio, for example, posted a tweet last month on the subject:

Mary had a baby—by choice, not by force. In her story is the pro-choice root of all Christianity: the freedom to decide, the power to freely say “No,” the agency to fully say “Yes!”

Screenshot from Faith Choice Ohio’s Twitter account (12/28/22).

Naturally, such a bold statement of Mary’s freedom to choose could not go unremarked upon by pro-lifers—or “uncorrected” by Catholic apologists. Joe Heschmeyer, a former seminarian turned staff apologist for Catholic Answers leapt into the fray lest Catholics start to wonder about whether reproductive freedom could be compatible with an orthodox Catholic faith.

Heschmeyer started out with all the inflammatory tropes his conservative readers could be expected to demand from him, throwing around charges of murder and blasphemy:

It’s easy to simply get mad about this kind of thing. Understandably: taking the Virgin Mary and Jesus, and turning them into poster children for an action [abortion] Pope St. John Paul II rightly denounced as “a crime which cannot be morally justified by any circumstance, purpose or law,” is quite literally blasphemy. As the Catechism points out, it is “blasphemous to make use of God’s name to cover up criminal practices, to reduce peoples to servitude, to torture persons or put them to death,” and Faith Choice Ohio and Catholics for Choice are defending the killing of babies in the name of the child Jesus.

Unsurprisingly, Heschmeyer neglected to inform his readers that John Paul II was talking about direct, elective abortion, used either as an end or means, and not abortion as medical science defines it (“the spontaneous or induced termination of pregnancy,” Taber’s Medical Dictionary), doing his part to contribute to the general confusion pro-lifers have on this topic. And, of course, he had to paint images in the minds of his readers of bloodthirsty abortion activists murdering babies for fun and profit—”in the name of the child Jesus.”

Then Heschmeyer grudgingly chose to backtrack a bit. Oh, hey, the Church really does teach Mary had a choice in the matter of whether or not to accede to the angel’s message that she was chosen by God to become his Mother. Heschmeyer, to his credit couldn’t deny that. So, he chose to spin it.

I’ve heard certain Protestants say bizarre things like “Mary was just a vessel, chosen to house the Lord our God.” From a religious perspective, this is ridiculous, like saying that the Ark of the Covenant was “just a box,” or that the Holy of Holies was “just a room.” But it’s absurd even from a merely human perspective: try telling your mom next Mother’s Day that she was “just a vessel” to house you until you were born.

Motherhood is so much more than that, whether we mean Mary’s or any mother’s.

After that concession though, he picked apart the word reproduction. No space to spare pulling apart the nuances of what constitutes abortion, of course, but plenty of space to massage reproduction until he could claim that, once pregnant, Mary had no choice but to stay pregnant.

This distinction—between potential motherhood before conception, and motherhood after—is clear from Scripture as well as from science. The angel Gabriel had foretold that John the Baptist would “be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb” (Luke 1:15), and this prophecy is fulfilled in the Visitation. When “Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb” (v. 41), and she cries out, “And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For, behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leaped for joy” (vv. 43–44).

In other words, Heschmeyer would like us to believe that the Virgin Mary—and by extension, in this instance anyway, the rest of we sinful daughters of Eve—had no more choices to make once pregnancy occurred. Thus, denials by male Catholic apologists to the contrary, pregnant women, starting with the Virgin herself, are no more than vessels carrying a baby to term. Pregnant women’s choices end once the second pink line shows up on the stick.

This is precisely the point at which the SCOTUS decision became a danger to public health. If pregnant women have no choice but to stay pregnant, then there is very little that can be done if a pregnancy goes wrong. In the wake of Dobbs, pregnant women are finding it tough to find medical treatment—even for life-threatening conditions, such as ectopic pregnancy, that Catholic moral theologians have long said constitute just reason to terminate a pregnancy. (When doctors intervene in an ectopic pregnancy, they are terminating the pregnancy. It’s an abortion, but one that is morally permissible under the principle of double effect.)

Cole Arthur Riley, an African American writer and poet, tweeted “I take so much delight in the silence of the men in the Christmas story. Zechariah can’t speak. Joseph doesn’t speak. While the words and emotions of Mary and Elizabeth are unapologetically centered. The sound of Advent is the voice of women.”

Tweet by Cole Arthur Riley (@blackliturgist). Found on Facebook (12/28/22).

In the infancy narratives, the story of Christ’s birth centers on Mary’s experiences and Mary’s choices. Salvation was made possible by a woman freely choosing to carry God’s Son within her body, to be willing to sacrifice her life for his. (Pregnancy has always been dangerous for women.) Many Christians, especially the men among them, are deeply uncomfortable with the free will of pregnant women. God challenged that view by making himself dependent on a woman’s free choice.

All I want for Christmas is for Catholic apologists and pro-lifers alike to sit in silence for a while and meditate on how God so loved the world that he made our salvation dependent on a woman’s free choice.

(Images: Virgin Mary, pregnant; iStock / Used with license. Screenshots of tweets from Twitter and Facebook.)

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