Philosophical Reflections on the Immaculate Conception
This past week, I had lunch with one of my Philosophy professors, Karsten Harries, who does not self-identify as a Christian, but given his specialization in nineteenth and twentieth century German thought, is quite familiar with the tradition. Our conversation veered onto the topic of the Immaculate Conception, and he suggested that this Marian doctrine represented a curious celebration of the divinity of nature, more generally, and an elevation of the feminine, in particular, that challenged the patriarchal theology of the Church. By insisting on Mary’s sinless state, he suggested, the Church recognized a Trinitarian divinization of Mary as the Mother, Daughter, and Bride of the Godhead, thereby placing Mary, a human, above one of the divine persons and on an equal footing with the other two. Indeed, he pointed out, there were icons of the Virgin that portrayed her as housing all three members of the Trinity in her womb in churches throughout Bavaria, an area whose church architecture Harries has written on extensively. (This is an image that is also repeated in the writings of female mystics like Frauenlob). I added that it is also interesting that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is one of the few infallible articles of Church teaching.
Far from critiquing such a high Mariology, as many Protestants are wont to do, Harries was presenting it as one of the Catholic Church’s more admirable doctrines, as it presented an openness toward a kind of “material transcendence” (his word) or sacramentality (mine) that sought to prevent the petrifaction of dogma in its historical forms by recognizing the potential for all of creation to continually conceive and give birth to the presence of the divine. At this point, I found myself playing an unlikely devil’s advocate, by countering Harries’ praise with the critical suggestion that the elevation of Mary might actually be a backhanded complement, in light of the Catholic Church’s continued prohibition of the ordination of women. In fact, I said, this elevation may very well be a relegation. As so often happens in patriarchal ideologies, the sanctification of the feminine results in her containment (e.g. the “holy housewife” unsullied in her domestic cloister by the corruptive influence of the “real world”). Indeed, preaching this Monday on Luke 1:26-38 will likely focus on Mary’s obedient submission to the will of the Father rather than on her reception of a most blessed matriarchal status.
Harries wondered why, if the reinforcement of such patriarchy was the intention, the Catholic Church would not simply adopt the “more elegant” Lutheran view that Mary was born with sin but, like all baptized Christians, was forgiven that sin by the power of the Holy Spirit in preparation for the vocation to which she was called. At this point, I could give no good answer, but it seems to me that the Catholic Church always wants to affirm strong understandings of sacramentality (e.g. the transubstantiation of the host during the celebration of the Eucharist) but, simultaneously, feels the need to deny the radical ecclesial implications of those sacraments by building into their theology rigid rules governing their efficacy (e.g. restricting access to the Eucharist to practicing Catholics). Of course, the notion of sacrament is predicated on the idea that there are boundaries designating the sacred over against the profane, but when those boundaries lose their living character as continually negotiated dwelling places of the Spirit, they become ossified walls imprisoning rather than manifesting the presence of God.
This is what has happened to the theological discussion surrounding the ordination of women in the Catholic Church. The theological dissonance between the doctrine we affirm this December 8 and the ecclesial practice currently barring women who may be called, like Mary, to (re)conceive and give new birth to the Word of God made flesh among us should be both felt and mourned as we remember and give thanks for that first woman who said, “Yes.”