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The Mariology of Lumen Gentium

Lumen Gentium paragraph 66 of chapter VIII opens as follows: “Placed by the grace of God, as God's Mother, next to her Son, and exalted above all angels and men, Mary intervened in the mysteries of Christ and is justly honored by a special cult in the Church.”[1] But in the next paragraph, the document adds: “[The sacred synod] strongly urges theologians and preachers of the word of God to be careful to refrain as much from all false exaggeration as from too summary an attitude in considering the special dignity of the mother of God.”[2] What does the council mean by “false exaggeration” and “too summary an attitude”? Did these statements not in fact decimate Marian devotion after the council? Does a recovery of Marian devotion not entail a forgetting of aspects of the teaching of this dogmatic constitution? When reading chapter VIII of Lumen Gentium, a pattern emerges which seems to be repeated elsewhere in the conciliar texts and in the history around the council. A threefold pattern:

(1) Disjunction,

(2) Correction,

(3) Disintegration.

These three steps correspond to:

(1) Prior to the council,

(2) During the council,

(3) After the council.

Among the many domains in which this pattern appears to a lesser or greater degree there are found the following couplets: (1) ministerial and baptismal priesthood, (2) nature and grace, (3) law and sacrament, (4) Church and Mary, (5) primacy and collegiality, (6) history and ontology, and several others. Now, it is more accurate to say that the disjunction prior to the council, in most cases and to varying degrees, was in the realm of “emphasis” and “tendency.” But the disintegration after the council can be seen as what happens when we pass from disjunctive emphasis to rupture. What stands as the correct approach is the text of the council. [It would take too long to explain here the relationship between the council and its aftermath, although by the end of this article aspects of it should become apparent].

To explain this further, an example might help make the point. If we consider Descartes’s disjunction of body and soul (or, rather, of matter and mind) into extension and non-extension, and then add the neo-Darwinian proposition that matter gives rise to mind, then mind ceases to be non-extension in contrast to extension. Once the substantial unity — from which proper distinctions can be made — is lost, the inevitable outcome is a loss of the latter and a veneration of the former (hence the predominance of materialism in our society). What is under consideration here are two different theological methodologies: the Rahnerian and the Lubacian. Karl Rahner often seeks to bring together disparate subjects in order to show their compatibility. Henri de Lubac, on the contrary, begins with the a priori of their unity in order to properly distinguish what needs to be distinguished. If we begin with Rahner’s method, then we concede — a priori — the disparity of concepts.

Joseph Ratzinger goes through a short but deeply insightful history of Mariology prior to, during, and after the council in the book Mary: The Church at the Source. Although there is not enough room to reproduce it here, some important quotes can shed light on the topic. Ratzinger writes: “The patristic period foreshadowed the whole of Mariology in the guise of ecclesiology. […] The virgo ecclesia [virgin Church], the mater ecclesia [mother Church], the ecclesia immaculata [immaculate Church], the ecclesia assumpta [assumed Church]—the whole content of what would later become Mariology was first conceived as ecclesiology.”[3] Here Ratzinger gives a theological and historical explanation for the ecclesiocentric vision of Mariology while not divorcing it from the unfolding of the Church’s tradition in an archeologistic fashion (he speaks more about this in the book). Here we have the a priori Lubacian unity (cf. de Lubac’s The Splendor of the Church), and the text of the council, which reads: “As St. Ambrose taught, the Mother of God is a type of the Church in the order of faith, charity, and perfect union with Christ. For in the mystery of the Church, which is itself rightly called mother and virgin, the Blessed Virgin stands out in eminent and singular fashion as exemplar both of virgin and mother.”[4] Subsequently, Ratzinger goes on to explain the disjunction and the disintegration: “Ecclesiocentric Mariology was foreign, and to a large extent remained foreign, precisely to those Council Fathers who had been the principle upholders of Marian piety. Nor could the vacuum thus produced be filled in by Paul VI’s introduction of the title ‘Mother of the Church’ at the end of the Council, which was a conscious attempt to answer the crisis that was already looming on the horizon. In fact the immediate outcome of the victory of ecclesiocentric Mariology was the collapse of Mariology altogether.”[5] [The pattern of “disjunction, correction, disintegration” is particularly clear in this case].

The Rahnerian methodology creates the possibility for competition between disparate elements, while the Lubacian methodology approaches faith through the participation of its parts in the whole (which is not only greater than the sum of its parts, but ontologically prior to them). In other words, the implicit assumption that there is (1) the Church and ecclesiology, (2) Mary and Mariology, and (3) Christ and Christology, can lead to a confusion that the Church is “the subject which pays homage” and Christ and Mary are “the objects of the Church's homage.” Now of course this is true in a sense (a very real one); and yet, the disintegration of theology here opens up a space for competition which then needs to be resolved by reconciling disparate elements through apologetics. But when the assumption is that there is the a priori unity of the Whole Christ (head and body), then Mary (and Mariology) become the appropriate means by which to properly distinguish between Christ and the Church, between Christology and ecclesiology. Ratzinger puts it best: “The concept of the Body of Christ needs clarification in order not to be misunderstood […] in the sense of a Christomonism, of an absorption of the Church, and thus of the believing creature, into the uniqueness of Christology. [...] The Church is the body, the flesh of Christ in the spiritual tension of love wherein the spousal mystery of Adam and Eve is consummated, hence, in the dynamism of a unity that does not abolish dialogical reciprocity [Gegenübersein].”[6]

This is what the council sought to say, that Mariology must be ecclesiocentric. If it is not, a framework of competition, which comes hand in hand with an overly individualistic piety, will first exalt her in a misunderstood manner, and then discard her completely. Then we will find ourselves obsessed with a sociological, desacramentalized, and depersonalized Church. True devotion to Mary in an ecclesiocentric framework is, in fact, what will teach us to seek unity with other Christians and to enter more profoundly into the mystery of the marriage between God and humanity, at the center of which is Mary. Lumen Gentium chapter VIII is thus a propaedeutic for the fullness of Mary’s motherhood. To conclude with Ratzinger: “Mariology can never be purely mariological. Rather, it stands within the totality of the basic Christ-Church structure and is the most concrete expression of its inner coherence.”[7]

__________________________________________________________________________________ [1] Lumen Gentium §65, Vatican Council II, The Conciliar and Postconciliar Documents, New revised Edition, Ed. Austin Flannery, OP (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2014), 420. [2] Lumen Gentium §65, Vatican Council II, The Conciliar and Postconciliar Documents, 421. [3] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Joseph Ratzinger, Mary: The Church at the Source (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005), 422. [4] Lumen Gentium §65, Vatican Council II, The Conciliar and Postconciliar Documents, 419-420. [5] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Joseph Ratzinger, Mary: The Church at the Source, 24. [6] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Joseph Ratzinger, Mary: The Church at the Source, 26. [7] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Joseph Ratzinger, Mary: The Church at the Source, 30.

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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