What is Said About Mary is Said About the Church

 In Saints

Mary has been so closely associated with the church throughout the history of Christianity that many scriptural sayings and traditional teachings about her can also be understood as sayings and teachings about the church. Many regard Mary as “the first Christian.” She gave birth to Jesus and raised him. She was with him during his public ministry, and she was there at the foot of the cross. Mary was with the apostles on Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descended. Mary played an important role in each moment of the church’s birth.

The Catholic Marian scholar and feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson has investigated the symbolic nature of speech about Mary.1 She begins with the premise that Marian statements refer to both Mary and the church. Throughout the Christian tradition, Mary has served as a vehicle for the church to express its ideal self-realization. This is appropriate because of who Mary is as the mother of Jesus and because of how Mary is remembered for her role in the earliest of Christian communities. Thus, in the Christian tradition, memories of Mary and beliefs about the ideal Christian community are mixed; this is not a bad thing, however, because what can be said about one can also be said about the other.

Many Scripture passages about Mary are interpreted as being about the church as well. For example, I have heard Luke 2:51, “his mother treasured all these things in her heart,” interpreted as foreshadowing the way the church has developed and enlarged its body of teachings throughout the centuries. The church is pondering what it already knows in its heart. Mary’s order to the servants at Cana in John 2:5, “Do whatever he tells you,” has been interpreted also as the advice of the church to each individual Christian. Jesus’ words from the cross to Mary and John in John 19:26-27–“‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ ”–have been interpreted as referring to the relationship between the church and each Christian disciple. Mary’s Immaculate Conception, that she herself was conceived without sin, has been interpreted as referring not only to Mary but also in an ideal sense to the graced life that is offered to every person. Mary’s Assumption, her being taken bodily into heaven at the completion of her life, has likewise been interpreted as signaling in some way the fate that awaits all redeemed persons.

In the Catholic tradition, the belief in Mary’s Immaculate Conception and Assumption refers to her “privileges” that recognize her unique role in the plan of salvation as the Mother of God. At the same time, however, Mary’s privileges are not intended to isolate her by cutting her off from the body of Christians; rather, these privileges signify things for which Christians and people of good will have reason to hope. Elizabeth Johnson has argued that in a church community that acknowledges the fundamental equality in spiritual dignity of all Christians, Mary and the saints ought to be understood as companions in hope, from whom all can learn valuable lessons about Christian discipleship.2

Dennis M. Doyle received his doctorate in religious studies from the Catholic University of America. He has taught at the University of Dayton for thirty-two years. In recent years, he has been a guest professor at the University of Augsburg and the University of Regensburg. 

This article is an excerpt from The Catholic Church in a Changing World: A Vatican II–Inspired Approach, by Dennis M. Doyle (Winona, MN: Anselm Academic, 2019), pages 234–235 Copyright © 2019 by Anselm Academic. All rights reserved. www.anselmacademic.org

  1. Elizabeth A. Johnson, “The Symbolic Character of Theological Statements about Mary,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 22 (1985), 312–335.
  2. Elizabeth A. Johnson, Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints (New York: Continuum, 2003).
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