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  • Writer's pictureDom Dalmasso

Mary Created Free in Grace

The first line of the Apostle’s creed reads: “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.” Belief in Creation is one of the central doctrines of the Christian faith. In this paper, relying predominantly on the theology of Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), I will argue that understanding the various facets of this fundamental teaching, particularly in light of God’s definitive revelation in Jesus Christ, sheds light on the role and place of Mary within creation. I will be exploring three main ideas within the body of this paper: (1) That Christ’s incarnation is inseparable from a proper understanding of creation, (2) that creation is given a particular independence through the gift of freedom, and (3) that the primacy of the particular over the universal follows from a Christian ontology of creation. In the final section I will attempt to bring these themes together to shed light on the role and place of Mary in creation.

In the opening of the Gospel of John we read: “In the beginning was the word” (John 1:1, NRSV).[1] Understanding this phrase “in the beginning” merely as meaning “from the eternity of God,” i.e., the internal procession of the Son in the Trinity, cannot be the exclusive reading of the phrase because of the simple fact that—precisely in order to make a theological point—it is explicitly drawing from Genesis 1: “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” In fact, several other pericopes within the New testament reinforce this point: We read in Colossians that “[Christ Jesus is] the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, […] all things have been created through him and for him” (Col. 1:15-16, NRSV). What John is telling us, in the opening words of his Gospel, is that the person of Christ stands at the beginning, the center, and the end, precisely because he is the “beginning of beginnings,” the “alpha and omega” (Rev. 22:13), the “firstborn of all creation” (Col. 1:15), through which and in which are contained “all things visible and invisible” (Col. 1:16).

This inevitably leads us to take a closer look at the meaning of “beginning.” When looking at the language in John (En arche en ho logos) and in Genesis (Bereshit Bara Elohim), the word used for “beginning” is the word used to refer to primogeniture (firstborn sonship), to the priestly and royal status of Christ—which, notably, is a theme which permeates the entirety of Genesis 1. Joseph Ratzinger summarizes these insights by saying that the opening of John constitutes the “conclusive and normative scriptural creation account.”[2] This “beginning, middle, and end” structure of the first principle of creation is, again, beautifully summarized by the letter to the Colossians: “He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17).

The Christian belief in creation, and, therefore, in a Creator God, is at the foundation of our modern scientific worldview, even though this worldview has become radically untethered from this foundation. As it happened, the demythologizing process of the Hebrew Scriptures are what set the stage for the synthesis between the God of the philosophers and the God of Israel—a synthesis made possible in the newly acquired universality of Biblical revelation in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. In fact, in his work Introduction to Christianity, Joseph Ratzinger writes that “[Biblical] Faith means in a specific sense deciding for the truth, since, to faith, being itself is truth, comprehensibility, meaning, and all this [has a…] structural, authoritative meaning for reality as a whole.”[3] The very fact of intelligibility raises questions about the world around us, questions related to structure, meaning, and mind.

When considering the ontological status of creation, modern philosophy, roughly from Descartes to Nietzsche,[4] offered us two alternatives: (1) materialism, and (2) idealism. Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud[5] are famous for holding to the former; Berkeley, Kant, and Hegel[6] are known for holding to the latter. Ratzinger summarizes these two outlooks as follows:

The question to which everything finally leads could be formulated like this: In all the variety of individual things, what is, so to speak, the common stuff of being—what is the one being behind the many “things”, which nevertheless all “exist”? The many answers […] can finally be reduced to two basic possibilities. [… 1.] Everything we encounter is in the last analysis stuff, matter. [… 2.] Whoever looks thoroughly at matter will discover that it is being-thought, objectivized thought. So it cannot be the ultimate. On the contrary, before it comes thinking, the idea; all being is ultimately being-thought and can be traced back to mind as the original reality.[7]

In light of this, Ratzinger goes on to address both of these “solutions.” He begins by succinctly showing the incompatibility between materialism and the Christian belief in a Creator God:

Christian faith in God means first the decision in favor of the primacy of the logos as against mere matter. Saying “I believe that God exists” also implies opting for the view that the logos—that is, the idea, freedom, love—stands not merely at the end but also at the beginning, that it is the originating and encompassing power of all being. In other words, faith means deciding for the view that thought and meaning do not just form a chance by-product of being; that, on the contrary, all being is a product of thought and, indeed, in its innermost structure is itself thought.[8]

In light of the above, idealism seems to offer some compatibility with the Christian understanding of creation. Berkley in particular (who in fact was an Anglican bishop) developed an elaborate philosophy which saw everything as the thinking of God, which meant that creation was the thought of God. And yet, despite Berkeley’s attempts at rescuing the lost harmony between faith and reason, he failed to account for the richness of the medieval understanding of creation in its ontological status.[9]

Ratzinger explains that “in opposition to idealism, […] the Christian belief in God will say: Being is being-thought—yet not in such a way that it remains only thought and that the appearance of independence proves to be mere appearance to anyone who looks more closely.”[10] Rather, “Christian belief in God means that things are the being-thought of a creative consciousness, of a creative freedom, and that the creative consciousness that bears up all things has released what has been thought into the freedom of its own, independent existence.”[11] In other words, Ratzinger is proposing here that the Christian understanding of creation is a third option of which the two reductive solutions of materialism and idealism fall short.

Thus the Christian ontology of creation, which had been lost in the post-medieval era, offers a richer alternative to these inadequate options available in much of modern philosophy. “For Christianity,” Ratzinger tells us, “the explanation of reality as a whole is not an all-embracing consciousness or one single materiality. At the summit stands a freedom that thinks and, by thinking, creates freedoms, thus making freedom the structural form of all being.”[12] He concludes with a remark that can be read with irony in light of modern political philosophies: “To this extent one could very well describe Christianity as a philosophy of freedom.”[13]

But these observations lead to further implications pertaining to the relationship between the particular and the universal. The medieval synthesis (and the Patristic era that preceded it) understood that creation was the effect of God’s word and of his love, that the vastness of the intelligible world revolved around the particular subject of God’s election. Ratzinger explains:

“If Christian belief in God is first of all an option in favor of the primacy of the logos, […] it is at the same time, as belief in the personal nature of that meaning, the belief that the original thought, […] is not an anonymous, neutral consciousness but rather freedom, creative love, a person. Accordingly, if the Christian option for the logos means an option for a personal, creative meaning, then it is at the same time an option for the primacy of the particular as against the universal. The highest is not the most universal but, precisely, the particular, and the Christian faith is thus above all also the option for man as the irreducible, infinity-oriented being.”[14]

Likewise he writes, later in the chapter:

The categories of minimum and maximum, smallest and greatest, change in a perspective of this sort. In a world that in the last analysis is not mathematics but love, the minimum is a maximum; the smallest thing that can love is one of the biggest things; the particular is more than the universal; the person, the unique and unrepeatable, is at the same time the ultimate and highest thing.[15]

In what Razinger writes we see that for him the foundation of reality is not the bland vastness of a cold force of physics, but the freedom of a mind which is “one” and which strives toward the particular because it loves—a love which elects and seeks to know and unite itself to the unique. On the one hand love discriminates, on the other hand it also expands beyond itself, gathering the many into one. Ratzinger is speaking of a cosmic particularism which sees the universal as smaller than the person—who himself is an instance of particularity open to the whole.

In light of this Ratzinger explains the following:

in such a view of the world, the person is not just an individual, a reproduction arising by the diffusion of the idea into matter, but, precisely, a “person”. […] This definite being is not at all something secondary, giving us a fragmentary glimpse of the universal, which is the real. As the minimum it is the maximum; as the unique and unrepeatable, it is something supreme and real.[16]

Thus, for Ratzinger, multiplicity in creation is secondary in the order of ontology; the unique person has primacy in the exitus from God. The multiplicity of persons is not the dividing of the universal idea, but the presence of the whole in the particular, and of all persons and all space and time within one person. The reditus emerges as the gathering of the many into the communio personarum: a return to the one which does not abolish dialogical reciprocity.

But is this multiplicity a result of a fall from grace? Of the effects of moving away from the good and being trapped in matter, which would be the sinful condition of humanity? Here we see that although the Christian ontology of creation is neither materialist nor idealist, neither is it strictly Platonist. In The Spirit of the Liturgy, Ratzinger writes:

Exitus is not […] the rupture of being and thus the cause of all the sorrow in the world. No, exitus […] is the Creator’s free act of creation. It is his positive will that the created order should exist as something good in relation to himself, from which a response of freedom and love can be given back to him.”[17]


And so we see in this case that multiplicity and oneness—in other words the trinity—constitute the “one” at the foundation of a Christian ontology. A oneness that is more one than the oneness of a nature because it is the oneness of love. Thus, creation requires—because of its structure of freedom—both a oneness and a multiplicity which makes love possible. In Ratzinger’s words: “The creature, existing in its own right, comes home to itself, and this act is an answer in freedom to God’s love. It accepts creation from God as his offer of love, and thus ensues a dialogue of love, that wholly new kind of unity that love alone can create.”[18]

At this juncture we have established that the reality around us is not mere matter nor mere mind, but the thought of God as released into an independence of its own. This independence is the freedom which makes creation distinct from God, a freedom which structures creation in such a way that primacy is given to the particular over the universal. The “person” emerges as the key to reality. As particular, the person is open to the universal, and the universal derives from the particularity of thought and love, of a reason that is love.

Thus we see how the Christian ontology of creation presupposes freedom and the person at its foundation. In other words, in light of the primacy of the particular, in the beginning creation is “person” and “free,” but not “one” in the sense of being a “part” of the more ultimate “one” which is the “universal” (pantheism), nor “many” in the sense of “many parts” of the “universal” (Platonism), but one in the many and therefore many in the one in the sense that the one contains the many (Christianity). With the “person” comes the “other,” and then the “we” which is the gathering of the many into the oneness of love. How does Mary fit into this metaphysical elaboration?

To understand where Mary fits we must remember that the primacy of the particular in the ontology of creation is on display in such pericopes as John 1, Colossians 1, and Hebrews 1, where the “beginning” is the person Jesus Christ. Precisely because of this structure of freedom and of unity of love within the communio personarum, we must ask ourselves whether we do not end up returning to a Greek or idealist monism which would just be a “Christomonism”? Would this monism not be an absorption of creation into the divine in such a way where creation would not be distinct from God and communion not possible? After all, Ratzinger himself says that “the idea of freedom is the characteristic mark of the Christian belief in God as opposed to any kind of monism.”[19] It seems to me that this is the place and role of Mary in creation.

The incarnation is “Christ in Mary,” the “new Adam in the new Eden,” which means Mary is the template of creation, the temple of God, in which the ministering high priest is the personal unity of humanity and divinity. And yet, as the “other,” as “created,” we can say: “Mary from Christ.” Is this not what “Eve from Adam” foreshadows? In Ratzinger’s words:

Because [this thinking] can love as well as think, it has given its thought the freedom of its own existence, objectivized it, released it into distinct being. So the whole thing means that this thinking knows its thought in its distinct being, loves it and, loving, upholds it. Which brings us back to the saying to which our reflections keep leading: Not to be encompassed by the greatest, but to let oneself be encompassed by the smallest—that is divine.[20]

Does Saint Augustine not say “Him whom the heavens cannot contain, the womb of one woman bore,”[21] and does Dante not say: “Thou Virgin Mother, daughter of thy Son”?[22]

In the same passage of the letter to the Colossians Paul specifies that “[Christ] is the head of the body, the church” (Col. 1:18). The Church is that into which fallen Adam and Eve are returning: the body of the New Adam. And this body is related to its head in the way in which Eve is related to Adam. Christ is the pattern of creation, but creation is essentially dialogical precisely because it is marked by freedom: it is a created response of love to the lover. Thus, there must be a person which secures ontologically the principles of (1) freedom, and (2) particularity. This is Mary, the archetype of creatureliness, of otherness. Ratzinger, therefore, affirms that “Mariology guarantees the ontological independence [Eigenständigkeit] of creation.”[23]

With this freedom of creation in mind, the concept of “created wisdom,” the independence of Sophia, again emerges here: Creation includes a relation to the divine Logos which is not an abolition of the necessary interpersonal distinction needed for communion between Creator and creature. This is what distinguishes Christianity from Buddhism, or other eastern forms of mysticism—which often times also see matter as evil and seek a monism of their own.

But for Christianity, what God created is good because it is free. And yet, the dangers which accompany this freedom end up destroying said freedom. This is the consequence of freedom: Adam and Even enter within the ontology of the fall: a scattering of many (Babel) which is the opposite of a gathering into one. This is the pattern of our history. And yet, the divine Logos is indeed the pattern of all creation, which means Mary is the pattern of redeemed creation: she is the oneness of the Church’s communion. It’s holiness from the beginning.

The primacy of the particular mentioned above takes on more depth when the principle of perichoresis is applied to the relationship between the one Mary and the many persons being incorporated into the immaculate Church, into her pristine receptivity: the purity of her faith. In Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, Ratzinger writes:

The individual's salvation is whole and entire only when the salvation of the cosmos and all the elect has come to full fruition. For the redeemed are not simply adjacent to each other in heaven. Rather, in their being together as the one Christ, they are heaven. In that moment, the whole creation will become song. It will be a single act in which, forgetful of self, the individual will break through the limits of being into the whole, and the whole take up its dwelling in the individual. It will be joy in which all questioning is resolved and satisfied.[24]

Here Ratzinger is speaking of the eschaton; but we see that the person and his/her primacy is what grounds this perichoresis of the communion of the saints, of the particular and the universal.

To draw this out: Creation—in its independence—requires a person as an original ontological principle. A person which secures the essence of creation’s goodness, responsiveness, and reception of God. The new in the order of time (Nazareth) is the first in the order of being. The new is the pattern of the old, and the old is on the way to being fully realized as and into the new. Here converge the protological and eschatological dimensions of creation. In the “person” we find the synthesis of beginning, middle, and end. The Marian dogmas begin to enter into focus.

In his book Pilgrim fellowship of faith: The Church as Communion, Ratzinger writes: “[the Church … is personified in Mary], the person is not being understood as closed and individualistic, nor the community as collective and non-personal; the two merge inseparably together.”[25] What emerges here is the normative principle of the primacy of the particular. Because of this primacy, the perichoresis of the one and the many finds its structural foundation precisely in the person. And so, likewise, creation is understood first and foremost in terms of the one and the many as grounded in the principle of the particular person.

The second Vatican Council sought to restore the depth of this relationship between Mary and the Church in its dogmatic constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium. Ratzinger remarks that “Hugo Rahner took the lead in showing […] how the whole of Mariology had first been thought out and given shape by the Fathers as ecclesiology.”[26] He then summarizes the entirety of this ecclesiocentric understanding of Mariology in a single line: “The Church is virgin and mother; she has been immaculately conceived and carries the burden of history; she suffers and yet has already been received into heaven.”[27]

As the Church, Mary carries the burden of history, and yet, paradoxically, as the source and fulfillment of the Church she is also the source and perfection of our Christian faith. Saint Thomas explains that “charity is the form of faith.”[28] Communion with God takes place within the structure of revealed word and receiving faith. In Mary we behold the perfection of charity, the communion between God and creature which is the source of salvation history and of its fulfilment in glory.


[1] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version (San Francisco: American Bible Society, 1865), 1093.

[2] Joseph Ratzinger, In the beginning (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995), 15.

[3] Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1968), 152.

[4] René Descartes (1596-1650) and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900).

[5] Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), Karl Marx (1818-1883), Sigmund Freud (1856-1939).

[6] George Berkeley (1685-1753), Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831).

[7] Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, 156.

[8] Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, 151-152.

[9] Much of the issues related to materialism and idealism are rooted in the philosophical setting Descartes had created. Cf. Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, 69-74.

[10] Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, 157.

[11] Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, 157.

[12] Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, 158.

[13] Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, 158.

[14] Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, 158.

[15] Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, 160.

[16] Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, 160-161.

[17] Joseph Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), 32. He is referring to the “Exitus-Reditus” schema of Neoplatonic thought.

[18] Joseph Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, 32-33.

[19] Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, 157.

[20] Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, 159.

[21] Saint Augustine, Sermons for Christmas and Epiphany (Westminster MD: The Newman Press, 1952), 75. Seventy-fifth sermon for Christmas.

[22] Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy (New York, NY: Barnes & Noble, 2016), 688. In the Opening of the thirty third canto of the Paradiso.

[23] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Joseph Ratzinger, Mary: The Church at the Source (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005), 31.

[24] Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1988), 238.

[25] Joseph Ratzinger, Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith: The Church as Communion (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005), 151.

[26] Joseph Ratzinger, Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith, 151.

[27] Joseph Ratzinger, Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith, 151.

[28] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II-II, q. 4, a. 4, respondeo, in Summa Theologiae, Secunda Secundae, 1-91, Latin/English Edition of the Works of St. Thomas Aquinas, Volume 17 (Green Bay WI: The Aquinas Institute, Inc., 2012), 51.

Dom Dalmasso is a 2023 graduate from Holy Apostles College and Seminary with a Bachelor of Arts in Theology and philosophy. He was a Benedictine monk from early 2011 to late 2012 at Our Lady of Clear Creek Abbey in Oklahoma and was an active-duty United States Marine from August 2014 to August 2018. He runs the YouTube Show / Podcast The Logos Project, and is the editor-in-chief of The Ecclesia Blog. He is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Dogmatic Theology at Holy Apostles.

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