Mary and Feminism

My relationship with Mary has developed over time and she has become a great friend and a model for me. I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about her in connection with one of my writing projects this summer. I’m working on a piece tentatively entitled, The Challenges of Articulating a Catholic Feminist Legal Theory. The piece explores some of the issues that I think make it difficult for secular feminists to believe that Catholicism and feminism are reconcilable or that a Catholic feminist theory can add something meaningful to our thinking about the law.

For many feminists Mary is a symbol of Church’s treatment of women as subordinate and inferior. Mary is seen critically as a model of female self-effacement, timidity and subservience to men.

I think views like this miss the fact that Mary is not a model for women, but rather a model for all humans. Mary is a model for how all persons of faith should respond to God’s invitation, by listening, discerning and trusting in God. She hears God’s call and chooses to act in accordance with it. She is thus a model of faith in, and obedience to, God – a model of how all Christians, male and female, participate in the life and death of Christ.

Mary’s submissiveness to God is not timidity before men. The Scriptures portray Mary as a woman of tremendous strength and insight. Mary, who commanded the servants to do Jesus’ bidding at the wedding feast of Cana, even after Jesus (seemingly annoyed at her request that he do something about the lack of wine) had told her it was not yet his time, is not a woman easily dismissed. In Marialis Cultus, Pope Paul VI suggested that presentations of Mary as timidly submissive reflect outmoded notions and “[t]he modern woman will note with pleasant surprise that Mary of Nazareth, while completely devoted to the will of God, was far from being a timidly submissive woman or one whose piety was repellent to others.”

The Church has perhaps complicated matters by at times overemphasizing Mary as a model wife and mother. But Jesus himself made clear that it is not in Mary’s qualities as mother and wife that her greatness lays. Jesus’ response to the woman who called out “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you,” was “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.” And when a crowd to whom he was teaching told him that his mother and brothers had arrived, Jesus responded, “Who are my mother and my brothers?…Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” The reaction of Jesus in both cases emphasizes that Mary’s spiritual identity is not tied to her role as mother; what makes Mary worthy of praise is not the fact of her biological relationship with Christ, but her doing the will of God.

Properly understood, Mary is a powerful refutation of the claim that Catholicism embodies a notion of subjugation of women to men. And so a more empowered story about Mary needs to continue to be spread. As I already said, I’ve come to regard Mary as a wonderful friend and model and think many could benefit from deepening their relationship with her.

P.S. If you missed it, earlier this week I posted a podcast entitled Mary’s Yes.