Liberating Mary

 — Mar. 8, 19978 mars 1997

“As Mary goes,” it has been said, “so goes the Church.” So Tissa Balasuriya’s book, Mary and Human Liberation, goes to the heart of the matter. A research student at Bristol University, author of Rediscovering Mary, considers the project which led to the Sri Lankan theologian’s excommunication.

In the furore surrounding the ex-communication of Fr Tissa Balasuriya, very little has been said about the overall project of his book, Mary and Human Liberation. Beyond specific theological questions, Fr Balasuriya’s treatment of Mary touches on issues which go to the heart of the conflict between traditionalists and reformists which is dividing the Catholic Church today.

As in so many of Christianity’s decisive theological moments, the role of Mary is pivotal. The saying, “As Mary goes, so goes the Church,” is as true today as it was of the fifth century when the Council of Ephesus affirmed Christ’s divinity by declaring Mary Theotokos, or Godbearer.

For those familiar with the work of feminist and liberation theologians, Fr Balasuriya is not saying anything fundamentally new in Mary and Human Liberation. Rather, he applies some of the principles of these theologies to the Asian context, in order to ask how Mary might become socially relevant there today. Despite her widespread appeal, Fr Balasuriya argues that the Mary of Sri Lankan Catholicism is a product of the descending Mariology of the patriarchal Western Church, a transcendent figure remote from the political struggles of the poor who serves to support the status quo. In contrast, he has frequent recourse to the Magnificat and the biblical record to provide the resources for a liberative doctrine of Mary which challenges the injustices of the present world order.

Despite the importance of the questions it raises, Mary and Human Liberation is an unsatisfactory book, not least because it is too ambitious. In little more than 200 pages, Fr Balasuriya seeks to deconstruct and reconstruct the Marian tradition, and inevitably this results in sweeping generalisations and a lack of theological clarity. His argument occasionally lapses into polemical reductionism which ignores the historical complexity of doctrinal developments relating to Mary and the polymorphous nature of Marian devotion. While one hopes that these will be enriched by the encounter with non-Western cultures, they have never been solely the product of a monolithic power structure as Fr Balasuriya seems to imply.

Nevertheless, the question remains, to what extent is Mary a kind of religious opiate, a pacifier who reconciles the poor to their suffering and therefore serves the interests of the powerful both in the Church and in the world? To explore such issues requires an awareness of how profoundly the maternal dimension, represented by the symbolic intimacy of Mary and the Church, is an integral part of the psychology and culture of Catholic Christianity.

In the years following Vatican II, both the maternal Church and the role of Mary lost much of their significance. With the resurgence of a more authoritarian style of leadership in recent years, however, Mary has also made a comeback from her post-conciliar obscurity. In the neo-orthodox theology of those such as Hans Urs von Balthasar and Pope John Paul II, the Marian Church represents the maternal, feminine dimension of the faith (and includes men as honorary members), while the Petrine Church represents the institutional structures of hierarchy and authority (and does not include women).

Towards the other end of the spectrum, Mary has been recruited by liberation and feminist theologians such as Fr Balasuriya and the Latin American writers, Ivone Gebara and Maria Clara Bingemer, who seek to reclaim her as a powerful voice for the poor and the marginalised. (Two of these three — Fr Balasuriya and Gebara — have been disciplined by the Vatican.) The present climate creates a sense of polarity between these competing approaches to Marian doctrine, but in a more conciliatory environment they might find common ground that would make the Catholic faith relevant to some of the deepest questions that haunt our age.

One way to uncover the nature of some of these questions might be to consider the claims of psychoanalysis, which according to Freud and some post-Freudians reveals the fundamental structuring not only of consciousness but also of our culture.

Psychoanalysis suggests that during the early stages of mental formation, the child must repress its primal desire for the maternal body and model itself instead on the values, laws and morals represented by the father. This process of separation creates the unconscious, which is the repository of repressed desire for the mother. The unconscious finds an outlet in the often inadvertent expressions of speech, gesture and imagination which signify our desire to escape from the structured, masculine order of language and society, and some psychoanalysts also see the unconscious at work in creative activities such as art and poetry, and in religious experience. The socialised subject, or in Freudian terms the super-ego, is under constant threat from the disruptive effects of the unconscious, and the maternal body therefore represents a source of fear as well as desire.

A number of feminists argue that psychoanalysis reveals the way in which Western patriarchal values are perpetuated. In their view, the fear and denigration attributed to the maternal body are symptomatic of a culture of alienation and exploitation, structured around a violent separation of mind and body, nature and culture, and man and woman.

Catholicism, however, has never effectively repressed the maternal dimension of infant desire. What it risks instead is a psychological process in which the Church takes the place of the maternal body, encouraging in the faithful an attitude of passivity and ethical indifference with regard to social issues, and an over-reliance on powerful figures of authority. This kind of faith easily becomes an escape route to a pre-Oedipal world in which the motherhood of the Church is located outside the structures of ethics and authority, which remain a purely masculine domain.

That is why the reinterpretation of Mary by theologians such as Fr Balasuriya is important, but the task is more complex than he allows for. In portraying Mary as a good woman with a strong sense of social justice, Fr Balasuriya undermines her power to symbolise the maternal, since even as mother Mary becomes primarily a champion of social justice. (I am reminded of the suffragette mother in the film Mary Poppins, whose ability to offer maternal love to her children was swamped by her political activism.) On the other hand, Fr Balasuriya rightly points out that traditionalists who portray Mary as the idealised maternal feminine, strip her of any political significance.

How then might Mary be reconfigured in a way that satisfies the profound psychological longing for the maternal body and inspires a faith that is ethically responsible and offers a creative approach to problems of difference?

Some feminist theorists advocate the creation of a maternal ethics, as a way of subverting the patriarchal values of Western society. This would mean moving the Church’s social teaching towards a maternal model of relationality, and away from its present masculine structures of moral absolutes.

This idea is implicit in Fr Balasuriya’s argument, but by adopting a style that is at times polemical and confrontational, perhaps he is more implicated than he acknowledges in what von Balthasar calls the male-masculine world of the non-Marian church. In this respect, it is interesting to compare Mary and Human Liberation with Gebara and Bingemer’s book, Mary, Mother of God, Mother of the Poor.

Their arguments are substantially the same — that traditional Mariology needs to undergo a transformation in order to align Mary with the struggles of the poor and the marginalised — but Gebara and Bingemer’s style is more subtle and gentle, and they write with a nuanced appreciation of the tradition’s rich diversity and liberating potential.

A maternal ethics would require that, instead of Mary functioning mainly as the mother to whom we entrust ourselves once the main business of discussing doctrine has been dealt with (as in encyclicals such as Veritatis Splendor and Evangelium Vitae), her spirit of prayerful humility, compassion and loving openness to God would infuse the language of doctrine as well as devotion. To say this is to advocate not moral relativism but moral connectedness.

The National Board of Catholic Women recently gave an excellent example of such connectedness. Refusing to align itself with the single issue of abortion in the run-up to the general election, the board said that everything which undermines the culture of life should be opposed, which would not just include abortion and euthanasia, but would take into account the treatment of single mothers and refugees, employment laws, the arms trade, Northern Ireland and the environment.

To make such moral connections consistently would require a move away from the sentimentality and authoritarianism which prevail in so much of the Church today so as to foster an integral relationship between authority and nurture. It is the failure to achieve such integration that leads to the neglect of what Fr Balasuriya calls the active virtues of co-creativity on earth and in human relations. Mother Church must encourage the people of God to become mothers themselves in a suffering world, committed to the creation of what Pope John Paul II has called the civilization of love.

Yet the flourishing of a maternal ethics would entail a more fluid relationship between the Marian and Petrine dimensions of the Church, based on a theology of sexual difference that is less biologically and doctrinally determined and more open to the poetic creativity of an embodied faith. Just as men participate in the affective and devotional dimension of the Marian Church, women must participate in the hierarchical and doctrinal dimension of the Petrine Church.

Fr Balasuriya has written a book that is doctrinally problematic and is at times poorly argued, but he has also raised issues that are of the utmost significance for the Church today. The treatment he has received manifests the worst kind of masculine authoritarianism in action, and represents a lost opportunity for the maternal Church to show her ability to nurture diversity and resolve conflicts with love, patience and sensitivity. A loving mother does not banish her child from family meals because he dares to ask provocative questions.

Posted: Mar. 8, 1997 • Permanent link:
Categories: Opinion, TabletIn this article: Catholic, feminist, liberation, Mary, theology
Transmis : 8 mars 1997 • Lien permanente :
Catégorie : Opinion, TabletDans cet article : Catholic, feminist, liberation, Mary, theology

  Previous post: Ancien article : Brand Leaves Legacy of Lutheran Ecumenism
  Newer post: Article récent : It won’t wash with women