The Virgin Mary has been a woman of many names throughout history, but differing perceptions of her role in Christian theology share some important underlying currents, according to a historical theologian who spoke Dec. 8 at Fordham College at Rose Hill.
The Catholic and Orthodox churches’ differing views of Mary were the subject of the Loyola Lecture delivered by Brian Daley, S.J., (FCRH ’61), the visiting St. Ignatius Loyola Chair in Theology.
Father Daley began with the critique by some Anglicans and Protestants that “the theory and practice of Catholic devotion to Mary raises serious questions about the Christian legitimacy of the Catholic Church itself.”
The Catholic focus on Mary in art, liturgy and prayer has led some to say that, for Catholics, “she shares a place parallel to that of Jesus in God’s plan to redeem the world,” he said.
The Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches have real differences on these issues, but both faiths have evolved a strong sense of Mary’s importance, he said.
Mary, in addition to her son Jesus Christ, was an object of devotion in the Christian community in the Eastern Mediterranean in the second century, Father Daley said.
She had a deeper significance than her biological and historical connection to Christ, as shown by the popularity of the Book of James, or Protevangelium, which told her life story, he said.
“Although it was never accepted in the Christian biblical canon and was regarded as suspicious, and even as apocryphal, by church authorities through most of its history, the Protevangelium remained a bestseller, being translated into most of the languages of early Christian communities by the year 1000, and leaving a clear mark on Christian preaching and liturgy in both East and West, as well as on the Christian imagination,” Father Daley said.
Perceptions of Mary also were influenced by early debates among Greek-speaking bishops in the fifth century. While the debates centered on whether Jesus was a human individual in whom God dwelled, or whether he was the son of God in human form, they also shaped perceptions of Mary as playing a divine role.
“The effect of the debate was also to raise considerably the interest of Christians in the person and the role of his mother, and to suggest, if only by implication, that she, too, as Mother of God, played a central role in advancing God’s work on Earth,” Father Daley said.
The difference between Catholic and Orthodox views of Mary also suggests some commonalities, Father Daley said.
It suggests, he said, that “the thought of our two communities on her role in the whole constellation of faith and worship is much closer in detail, and in its sense of her deeper significance to the church, than our other, very real theological and ecclesiastical differences may lead us to believe.”
There was a wide view in the early church that Mary, like God, “cannot be characterized in any single, simple way.”
She has long attracted passionate interest, he said, and warned of “a new ecstatic rhetoric of praise” that he said can distract people from true Christianity.
“In the Catholic Church especially, the danger of strong Marian devotion, focused as it often is on modern apparitions and messages reported by young, simple, enthusiastic believers, rather than on the scriptures and on the teachings of Jesus, is that this devotion can become a new religion, with a new Marian gospel, new moral appeals and warnings, and new charismatic sources of authority,” he said.