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A Tirade Against Our Lady

Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints

By Elizabeth A. Johnson

Publisher: Edwin Mellen Press. Continuum

Pages: 379

Price: $26.95

Review Author: Anne Barbeau Gardiner

Anne Barbeau Gardiner is Professor Emerita of English at John Jay College of the City University of New York. She is author, most recently, of Ancient Faith and Modern Freedom in John Dryden's The Hind and the Panther (Catholic University of America Press).

In Truly Our Sister, Elizabeth Johnson reveals that feminists have a grudge against Mary for standing above them as the Virgin Mother of Christ. Johnson, a Sister of St. Joseph who teaches theology at Fordham University, claims that a torrent of hatred for women has resulted from the honor given to Mary. But change is coming, she hopes, because devotion to Mary has died out among “hosts” of women and our culture scorns “medieval” faith symbols. Yes, medieval, even though there is evidence that our Lady was evoked in the third century. Johnson thinks it is time now to remove such titles as “Mother of mercy” from Mary and give them back to God — “She Who Is,” according to Johnson — and to “reclaim” Mary with “new liberating interpretations.” From now on, God will have “her own maternal face,” and Mary will be demoted to the level of other women. Accordingly, Johnson depicts Mary as a Galilean drudge and outcast lacking all supernatural privileges, but who is now “truly our sister” because she is no longer honored above other women. What is this but a tirade against our Lady!

For Johnson, humility is Mary’s first rock of offense. According to Johnson, patriarchal men invented the “official portrait” of the Virgin Mary as a strategy to disparage and control other women. They made Mary unique in her privileges so she could serve as a model of subservience for them. But today women find it “intolerable” to be offered such an example of self-sacrifice and obedience to the will of God — a problem only made worse “by the thoroughly masculine character of the deity,” since “God is envisioned as male, and she obeys him” and Jesus “is Messiah and she is oriented to him.” What is this but to turn our religion upside down? It is non serviam, because women can no longer serve humbly a God envisioned as their “Father” and a divine Messiah incarnate as a man. Better a big lie about a goddess, than the simple truth. Yet humility is the foundation of all holiness. Commenting on Christ’s words, “follow me, for I am meek and humble of heart” (Mt.11:29), St. Augustine warns: “You are thinking of constructing some mighty fabric in height; first think of the foundation of humility; for the mightier building any seeks to raise, the deeper let him dig for his foundation.” Where does feminist scorn of humility lead except to the first of the seven deadly sins?

Johnson dismisses the Church’s “rarified reflections” on our Lady during the second millennium as “a severe case of fixation.” She fails to see that these reflections were developments of the title Theotokos given to Mary at the Council of Ephesus in the fifth century. Johnson welcomes the “seismic upheaval” of Vatican II as having taken the Mother of God off her pedestal. But this is not true; not one jot of our Lady’s glory was lost when Vatican II also made her the model of the Church in faith, charity, and close union with Christ. Indeed, no council has the power to remove dogmas about Mary defined by former popes and councils. Yet, Johnson herself complains that Vatican II did not go far enough to suit the feminists, for it failed to make Mary “the model of the church in its official role of governing, preaching, and administering the sacraments,” failed to make her “the model of the Church’s ordained priesthood.” Rather, it left Peter as that “model of the Church.” Johnson is willing to accept Mary as a model of exterior power in the Church, but not of humility and holiness, not of interior power. Johnson also faults Pope John Paul II for speaking of a woman’s virtues as those of a “helper,” not those of a “self-actualizing, creative leader.” Again we see that she has no use for humility: women must be leaders in the Church, or non serviam.

For Johnson, virginity is Mary’s second rock of offense. To glorify Mary for her perpetual virginity, she says, is to give her an “unearthly asexual exaltation” and to insult other women in the “holy exercise of their own sexuality,” for women today see “the sexually active female body as blessed” and are reclaiming their “sexuality as part of their blessed human and spiritual wholeness.” Reading these lines, one is amazed that a Catholic nun and theologian would call sexual activity holy and blessed in our age of rampant promiscuity, without the qualification of within holy Matrimony. Johnson even celebrates “women of different sexual orientations who seek respect for their embodied life.”

Her strange idea of holiness is based on an even stranger idea of grace, for she claims that grace cannot be lost by sin: “Rather than something that can be rather easily lost by sin and regained by repentance, grace remains as God’s permanent offer of love and thereby of salvation to the creature, an offer that cannot be extinguished by the grossest sin.” Not by even the grossest sin? Then why repent, why go to Confession? And why did our Lord warn us to avoid the broad way that leads to damnation (Mt. 7:13)? Here we see the consequence of renouncing humility; it is to invent a false religion of automatic and universal salvation.

To pretend that our Lady’s perpetual virginity was the invention of third-century men, Johnson declares that Jovinian, who denied this truth, was “arguably more in accord with church tradition up to that point” than were St. Ambrose and St. Jerome, who “won the day.” She hides the fact that Jovinian was condemned as a heretic in A.D. 390 (see Catholic Encyclopedia, 1910, under “Jovinianus”). The holy Fathers knew that Mary’s perpetual virginity was part of Apostolic Tradition, as did the Lateran Council, in A.D. 649, when it condemned any who would deny that our Lady remained a virgin before, during, and after the birth of our Lord.

According to Johnson (and this would surely be news to the Pope), the Church no longer “applies binding principles derived from eternal truths,” but is now open to never-ending interpretations of Scripture. And so, feminist theologians such as Johnson can now reinterpret sacred truths “with the flourishing of women as a goal.” And since they despise Mary’s traditional image — because she humbly accepts a “secondary role assigned her in view of the priority of Christ the man” — they want to give her image a new “subversive power.” Their business is to do “theology in a way that seeks liberation” from the whole “calcified pattern of structured sinfulness.” Sinfulness here has nothing to do with arrogant pride, sexual indulgence, and abortion, but rather it is found in impersonal “structures” such as “male domination” as well as “racism, classism, and heterosexism.” Yes, heterosexism!

Some feminists have already discovered how to be “subversive” and “liberating” about Mary’s perpetual virginity. They point out that many virgin-goddesses in paganism engaged in sex and were still called virgins because they were autonomous. Johnson assures us that “This symbolic interpretation of virginity is not as implausible as it might sound at first,” because it allows Mary’s perpetual virginity to take on “a strangely liberating power” and carry some “raw, subversive implications.” This passage is an example of her style of persuasion: First she cites an outrageous opinion; then she uses a term such as not implausible to make the reader consider it; and finally she explains how this opinion is useful to feminist liberation.

The value of an interpretation, for her, lies in whether it advances the cause. For instance, she argues that Mary, in the Magnificat, refers to the fall of social and political tyrants, not to the fall of Satan and his powers of darkness. Thus, Johnson turns the Magnificat into an argument for women priests and bishops: “If this is applied to women’s struggle for full participation in governance and ministry in the church, the reversals of the Magnificat become rife with significance for ecclesial life.” Our Lady’s hymn is an overflow of her humility, but Johnson turns it into a song of pride, a call for revolution against male authority.

For Johnson, God as Father is the third rock of offense. Johnson wants to unsettle us in our humble worship of God the Father. She charges that the image of God as “Mother” has been “suppressed in a patriarchal system,” and that we who pray to God the Father create “an idol” whenever we understand Him “to be masculine in a literal sense, however subliminally.” Yes, an idol! But how can it be that our Savior commanded us to pray the “Our Father” and never once warned us of the danger of idolatry if we should unawares happen to take the name Father literally? Moreover, Christ urged us to receive His words like “little children.” Clearly there is no such danger of idolatry. Surely it is malice to impute it.

But Johnson gives no parallel warning that we might create “an idol” by understanding God as the “Mother of mercy who has compassionate womb-love for all her children” and by making the feminine into the “icon of the divine in all fullness.” Yet the danger is much greater on that side. First, our Lord never commanded us to pray to God as our Mother. Second, Johnson tells of several divine “Mothers” in paganism that stood for the powers of Nature, and she has to know that there is a revival of paganism today. Does Johnson not glance at an idol when she says that her divine Mother has a communion of saints residing “in the matrix of the natural world, itself the original sacred community of life”? There seems to be nothing supernatural about this Mother, who is very like Spinoza’s pantheist deus sive natura.

In the last part of her book, Johnson retells the biblical story of Mary “subversively” to advance her cause: “If we are to seek out the liberating power of her memory in alliance with women’s struggle for true human dignity, we need to connect her with other women then and now and tell her story subversively.” She presents Mary as a woman who lived without “supernatural gifts” or “extra advantages,” a woman chosen by God not because she was holy and humble, but because she was socially “marginal” and “insignificant.” Mary’s memory creates “liberating energies” only if she is seen as just another woman exposed to “patriarchal” violence who had to make “her own difficult choices with courage.” Note the word choices. Johnson reinterprets Mary’s fiat at the Annunciation as “autonomy” and “choice”: “In a self-determining act of personal autonomy, she decides to go for it. This is her choice and it changes her life.” No room for humility here. And again, Mary “made her own choice” and “this poor, unconventional peasant woman’s free and autonomous answer opens a new chapter in the history of God with the world.” And so today, “inspired by Spirit-Sophia, women who make their own decisions before God claim her into their circle.”

Throughout this book, Johnson consistently excludes the supernatural, even in the retelling of Gospel stories. She justifies this exclusion by claiming that there are two kinds of knowledge, faith and history, and that the two are strictly divided: “faith has to do with a different kind of knowledge” than “history.” This wall she raises between faith and history contradicts the declaration of Vatican II (Dei Verbum #19), quoted in the Catechism (#126), that the Church unhesitatingly affirms the historicity of the four Gospels.

Nor does Johnson rest with the “unprovability” of a mystery such as the “virginal conception” of Christ. She goes further and cites the blasphemous imputation of Jane Schaberg that Mary was seduced or raped and that our Lord was an illegitimate child, drawing the reader into serious consideration of this silly opinion. Johnson observes that there is, after all, a “valuable insight in Schaberg’s exegesis” because it shows how “God sides with the outcast,” how “disgrace” can turn out to be “grace,” how the mother of Jesus was just another woman “trapped” in the “terror of her situation,” and how “Jesus would be God’s beloved child no matter how he was conceived.” She admits that “devout persons” will find the notion that Jesus was “conceived by seduction or rape utterly shocking,” yet she is relentless in insisting that the Gospel accounts of the virginal conception are not “accurate renderings of history.”

Without mentioning that God Himself speaks through St. Luke, Johnson uses nine phrases to imply that Luke’s account of the Virgin Birth is purely man-made: he “deftly combines two conventions” and has a “literary structure,” a “story pattern,” a “pattern,” a “fixed literary pattern,” a “five-point pattern,” a “pattern,” “elements of literary convention,” and a “formula.” Later she says that St. Luke tries to “impress” his readers by depicting men in “public leadership roles” and keeping women “in supportive positions,” so as to give the new religion a look of “trustworthiness.” This makes him seem untrustworthy, rather than inspired.

Now, what advantage can feminists possibly gain by retelling the story of Mary “subversively”? Johnson explains that “the story of illicit pregnancy places Mary in solidarity with women who suffer violence or the threat of violence from patriarchal authority,” and “The shadow cast by her scandalous situation connects in hope with oppressed women” who struggle to “survive patriarchal violence.” By turning our Lady into just another unwed mother, she hopes to begin remaking the Church as a discipleship of equals. She offers women this utopian vision of an egalitarian Church. But in revolutions, as Orwell notes, egalitarianism is the bait, but afterwards it turns out there are “some more equal than others.” For all her talk of equality, does not this female professor of theology take her stand above the Galilean drudge?

So much does she want to advance the feminist cause that Johnson tries to show Christianity was founded by women: “the legitimacy of the whole Christian message hinges on their [the women’s] observation and interpretation,” and without their “initiative and witness” there would have been “no continuity in the story surrounding the end of Jesus’ life, no paschal narrative.” So much for our Lord Jesus Christ having been the divine founder of Christianity! After it was launched, Christianity “evolved” by happenstance: The conversion of Gentiles was a “windfall,” and the belief in the divinity of Jesus was read “progressively back into the Messiah’s life” when Paul “first played this tune” and Mark “sounded the tune” after him. Who could take this Church history seriously?

Johnson has borrowed her title Truly Our Sister from Pope Paul VI. But surely this Pope would be astonished to see his innocent phrase used to demean our Lady. Our own Pope John Paul II would be astonished to see what Johnson is teaching as Catholic theology in a Catholic university. In Ex Corde Ecclesiae, our Holy Father asked the bishops to take steps to ensure that true Catholicism is taught in the theology departments of Catholic institutions of higher learning. This book is a reminder to the American bishops that their urgent task has yet to be accomplished. It is time, even past time, that they undertook that challenge.

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