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Blessed Virgin in Modern Catechetics

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

There are, in general, two kinds of religion programs in use in Catholic schools and Confraternity classes in the United States at the present time. They may conveniently be classified as experiential and doctrinal. In the experiential type, the stress is on each person's own experiences. "Our task," wrote Gabriel Moran, a spokesman for this approach, "is neither doctrinal instruction nor moral formation; both of them are less than Christian, less than human." On these grounds it is almost useless to ask what the role of the Blessed Virgin might be in catechetics. Her role would at most be that of an ideal or symbol that a Christian might admire and perhaps strive to imitate, much as one might read about Florence Nightingale and be inspired by her selfless generosity. But no more.

In the doctrinal approach to catechetics, we are in a different theology of religious education. In fact, the first kind of catechetics is not really catechetics at all if we understand catechetics to mean that form of the ministry of the word "which is intended to make men's faith become living, conscious and active, through the light of instruction." (General Catechetical Directory, II, 17). The moment you say "instruction" you imply teaching doctrine and training in moral formation, neither of which is acceptable to the experiential, doctrine-less method of teaching religion.

The doctrinal method of catechetics assumes that in the message of salvation there is a certain hierarchy of truths, which means that some truths are based on others, and are illumined by them. This method further assumes that these truths may be grouped under four basic heads, as follows: 1) the mystery of the Trinity, Creator of all things; 2) the mystery of Christ the Incarnate Word, who was born of the Virgin Mary, and who suffered, died and rose for our salvation; 3) the mystery of the Holy Spirit, who is present in the Church, sanctifying her and guiding her until the glorious coming of Christ, our Savior and Judge; and 4) the mystery of the Church, which is Christ's Mystical Body, in which the Virgin Mary holds the prominent place.

It is seen immediately that the Blessed Virgin is part of the doctrinal possession of Catholic Christianity. So that to teach Catholic doctrine means to teach Mary as belonging to the mystery of the Incarnation and the Mystical Body of Christ.

My intention here is to look at both the contemporary approaches in Catholic religious education, and try to show how the Blessed Virgin figures in each approach. My conclusion will be to point up some practical implications for the future.

Experiential Catechetics

There are some problems in identifying really standard sources for the experiential method of religious education. I have therefore felt it best to concentrate on those writers, sometimes anonymous, who have published in the past decade and a half or so, either as editors of by now widely circulated religion series, or as directors of religious education programs in dioceses, or as the acknowledged leaders in what is disarmingly called "the new catechetics," or with special emphasis as producers of a number of standard catechisms for adults.

Running as theses through these sources are a number of underlying principles that touch directly on our subject. I would select two as fundamental to the rest. They are the claim that revelation is not so much communication from God to man as an encounter, going on here and now, between God and mankind; and that in the new approach to the Christian religion the Bible is superior to tradition, so that a great deal of what had passed for Catholic doctrine is merely devotion, which in our ecumenical age should be discarded.

On-Going Personal Encounter

Catholics take some things for granted. In catechetics, we presume that Mary is part of a real historical revelation. Any tampering with this truth is to undercut the very idea of teaching about Mary as part of divine faith. Yet, as we read the founders of the experiential method, we find they are tampering with an objective, once-and-for-all revelation given to men by God. They are calling into question every single dogma of the Catholic faith. Their argument is that for too long have Catholics believed that dogmas are unchangeable, revealed truths. No, it is claimed, dogmas are constantly changing. They are evolving through each person's daily encounter with God.

Needless to say, this is revolutionary thinking. And one of the most salutary bits of advice anyone can give those who are concerned about even including Mary in religious education is to tell them frankly to face up to facts. One of the facts of the contemporary catechetical scene is that a considerable number of leaders in American religious instruction, all nominally Catholic and some highly influential, simply do not believe in Mariology in any traditional sense of the term. Indeed they do not accept Christology, I do not say as it was understood before the Second Vatican Council, but as understood by the Council itself. The word "post-conciliar" is more than an adjective to describe a period of time; it has become a symbol of a new type of Christianity.

Where would a religious educator begin to talk about Mary if the great Marian dogmas professed by the Church are no longer part of revelation; if Mary's divine maternity or perpetual virginity are merely expressions of piety and not objectively true; if therefore what Catholics thought was true, say the Immaculate Conception, is really changeable and could now mean something quite opposite to what Pope Pius IX meant when he defined this dogma; or if a Catholic could pick and choose among the dogmatic teachings about the Blessed Virgin, and select what he wanted and reject what he did not want to believe?

Priority Of The Bible

The second feature of the experiential approach to catechetics is to give the Bible priority over Tradition. Different spokesmen for the approach give different weight to this priority, and with some the Bible is all that God revealed. Having given the Bible priority over Tradition, they have paved the way for interpreting the Bible independent of Tradition; whether Tradition is considered a distinct source of revelation or is identified with the Church's authority to pass judgment on the content and meaning of the Bible.

The implications of this position are far-reaching. Once you subordinate Tradition to the Bible, this leaves the Bible open to the private interpretation of every exegete. And that is precisely what has happened regarding the narratives about the Blessed Virgin in the Gospels.

To illustrate what this means in practice, take the familiar title given to our Lady at the Annunciation, that in the Hail Mary is "full of grace." Commentators of the Bible-priority persuasion cite this phrase as a classic example of what should not be done. Says Raymond Brown, "we should not "eke every drop of theological and even mariological significance from Luke 1, 28." If the phrase has theological significance, as it does, the meaning is not that usually associated with the text. It really means that Mary received the grace of conceiving the Messiah.

That settles it. A pious theologian may be excused for reading more into the biblical text than is there, but no intelligent Catholic is expected to say the Hail Mary and really mean that Mary was literally "full of grace."

The trouble with this is that it goes counter to the Church's universal and unbroken teaching. Mary's fullness of grace is no mere theological reasoning. It is part of divine revelation; but only for those who still believe that above the Bible stands the Church's authority, which is divinely qualified to tell the faithful what they are to believe.

Doctrinal Catechetics

Immediately as we enter on a review of doctrinal catechetics we should point out what by now must be obvious. Whatever may have been the place of the Blessed Virgin in the teaching of religion two decades ago, it cannot now be done without full awareness of the issues we have just seen.

The presence of Modernism in contemporary religious education in some sectors of Catholic religious education cannot be doubted by anyone who is familiar with the present situation. Consequently, it is not enough to describe how Marian doctrine and devotion are being taught.

It is also important to indicate how they should be taught, at the risk of teaching without reference to the real world in which the students live.


Every level of catechetics that respects Catholic doctrine reflects the teaching of the Second Vatican Council about the Blessed Virgin.

The first evidence of this responsiveness to the Council is the way Mary is associated with her divine Son. This does not mean that prior to the Council the standard catechisms ignored the relationship. But an explanation of the current texts and years of experience as theological advisor to a widely used elementary religion series verifies the fact that a new dimension has entered Marian catechetics. Our Lady is identified with her Son and associated with his redemptive work more closely than ever before.

In an eighth grade religion book, this relationship is clearly explained.

Because of the Incarnation, the Blessed Virgin is truly the Mother of God. In a miraculous way, by the power of the Holy Spirit, God the Son took a human body from Mary and was born of her.

Even though your own mother gave you only your body, not your soul (which came directly from God), she is the mother of the person you are. She is your mother. In the same way, Mary is the Mother of the Person he is. That Person is the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. He is God. Therefore, Mary truly is the Mother of God. (Live the Truth, Give the Truth, Daughters of St. Paul, Boston 1976, 30-31)

Along with a sharpening of theological language in relating Mary to the Incarnation, the new textbooks reflect the warnings of the Second Vatican Council about giving Mary due credit, of course, but also making sure that a clear distinction is kept between piety and faith. In the teacher's manual for a second grade class this caution is expressed in the most forthright terms.

There has been talk that did not seem to be based on the revealed doctrines of the Church so much as on other sources, private revelations of canonized saints, the views, opinions, and experiences of those who are not canonized.

It is important that we do not give the impression that Mary is a special way to God, almost distinct from the ordinary way of the Church, a way given to certain "chosen souls." Mary is part, and a very important part, of God's plan of salvation for every human being from Adam. (Catholic Catechism, Book II, Teacher's Book, Australia and Hong Kong, Huntington, IN, 1972, 125).

Mary And The Church

If there is one aspect of Mariology brought out by the late Council it was Mary's relationship to the Church. The decision to speak of her in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church marks a turning point in Catholic theology that we are only beginning to appreciate. What do I mean? I mean that we can speak of two eras in the theological history of Roman Catholicism, one following the other as a true development of doctrine, which may be called a "growth in social consciousness." Every facet of faith and worship has been affected, as the phenomenal changes in the Liturgy amply illustrate. Even the excesses to which this has given rise really testify to the fact.

Not unnaturally. Catholic doctrine on the Blessed Virgin has also been affected. Mary is and will always remain the Mother of Christ, and since he is God, she is the Mother of God. But Christ has a twofold existence, at once physical and social, personal and ecclesial. Correspondingly, Mary has a twofold relationship to Christ, as his Mother in the flesh and as the Mother of his Mystical Body, which is the Church.

As the modern world becomes increasingly aware of man's social existence and corporate responsibility it needs to draw more and more on the resources of Christian revelation to cope with the implications of this new communitarian consciousness. Among these resources is the mystery of the Blessed Virgin Mary in her association with the community of faithful and, through them, with the community of mankind.

That is why the Second Vatican Council made so much of the Blessed Virgin's relationship to the Church. It is also the reason why Pope Paul VI, in the apostolic letter closing the Council, declared her to be the Mother of the Church. She is, in other words, not only the Mother of God made man; she is also the Mother of redeemed mankind.

With greater or less emphasis the authors and editors of doctrinal catechetics reflect this conciliar teaching. Two features of this emphasis are the role of Mary as witness by her sanctity, and her trust in Providence that through her Christ would reach all mankind.

Mary teaches us that by our own holiness we bring Christ to others. In fact, the most effective witness is a holy life.

Mary cooperated with every grave that prepared her to bring Christ to the world. As students we are in years of preparation for that special work that God will ask of us in the future. Sometimes it is hard to see how God is using these years of study to make us better persons. But like Mary, we know in faith that God is using these days and years to transform us into himself so that we may bring him to the world. (The Church: Filled with the Spirit, Loyola University Press, Chicago, 1976, 260-261)

But once more there is need for caution; not that too much could ever be said about Mary's virtues, but that some single aspect of her moral life will be stressed to the detriment of the whole Marian portrait.

When you speak of Mary's virtues, speak of her faith, her hope, her charity, and show by examples in her life. Do not say her favorite virtue is chastity. What right have we to say that she had any scale of virtues other than that of her Son? And we know that for him charity is the greatest virtue. (Catholic Catechism, Bk. II, Teacher's Book, Australia and Hong Kong, IN, 1972, 125)

There is a refreshing realism in the devout attention given to Mary, while always keeping before the students' minds the fact that, while she was Christ's Mother, yet unlike him she was not divine.

Moreover, teachers are reminded to keep the image of Mary in its proper perspective, that without detracting one iota from her dignity, she is not to be made out as a queen regent to the apostles, and much less as a kind of priestess.

Remember that Mary had no part in the active life of the Church. Hers was not the function of preaching, of offering Mass, or of giving the sacraments. Do not picture to your class the apostles going to Mary for advice on how they would teach the truth Christ left with them. Such stories betray a complete lack of understanding of the mission Christ gave to the apostles and of the guiding power of the Holy Spirit. (Catholic Catechism, Bk. II, Teacher's Book, Australia and Hong Kong, Huntington, IN 125)

Given the preoccupation in countries like the United States with the women's liberation movement, this is not an idle bit of counsel to teachers. No less that Christ should not be presented as a first century revolutionist, Mary should not be presented as a model feminist.

Into The Future

There is no practical way of telling how deeply the experiential kind of catechetics that minimizes doctrine where it does not ignore it has penetrated the teaching of religion in our country. The excellent study published by the United States Catholic Conference recently on Where Are the 6.6 Million? is revealing to the extreme. It shows that in the past ten years there has been the most phenomenal drop in formal religious instruction in the history of the Catholic Church in America. Over six million Catholic children and youth who should be getting instruction in their faith under Church auspices are not getting it.

I submit that one of the main causes has been a massive secularization of what was once professedly Catholic education. And among the most telling symptoms of this secularization is the downgrading of devotion to the Blessed Virgin.

It is in this context that I would like to quote from the much-neglected Pastoral Letter on the Blessed Virgin Mary by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. The letter says some profound and beautiful things about our Lady. But it also says some strong things about the neglect of our Lady in American Catholic life.

In writing this Pastoral Letter, our concern about our Lady is most keenly felt in the area of devotion. No survey is needed to show that all over the country many forms of Marian devotion have fallen into disuse, and others are taking an uncertain course. In an age avid for symbols (the peace medals and other signs of the young are evidence of this), the use of Catholic Marian symbols, such as the scapular and the Miraculous Medal, has noticeably diminished. Only a few years ago use of the rosary was a common mark of a Catholic, and it was customarily taught to children, both at home and in courses in religious instruction. Adults in every walk of life found strength in this familiar prayer, which is biblically based and is filled with the thought of Jesus and his Mother in the "mysteries." The praying of the rosary has declined. Some Catholics feel that there has even been a campaign to strip the churches of statues of our Lady and the saints. Admittedly, many of our churches were in need of artistic reform; but one wonders at the severity of the judgment that would find no place for a fitting image of the Mother of the Lord.

We view with great sympathy the distress our people feel over the loss of devotion to our Lady and we share their concern that the young be taught a deep and true love for the Mother of God. (Behold Your Mother, United States Catholic Conference, Washington, 1973, nn. 92-93, pp. 34-35)

To anyone familiar with the scene of American Catholic religious instruction, this concern borders on anguish. Those who know what is going on have no illusions. No mask of theological rhetoric can hide the fact that millions of our Catholic young are not being taught a deep and true love for the Mother of God. When a stout volume is published under the guise of scholarship, casting doubts on the historicity of the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels; when priest-writers are telling the faithful that doctrines like the Assumption are not required to be a professed Catholic, when authors writing with an Imprimatur are claiming that Christ never identified himself with the Father, is it any wonder that the youth are not being taught a deep and true love for the Mother of God? Love for the Blessed Virgin must be based on sound doctrine about the Blessed Virgin. In the absence of true doctrine there cannot be true love; and without love there can be no devotion.

Only God can read the future, but of this at least we can be certain. The strength of the Catholic faith in the United States in the next generation will be in direct proportion to the youth of today receiving a sound instruction in what they are to believe and how they are to put their belief into practice. Part of this instruction must be in the mysteries of our Lady, who first gave Christ to the world and who still gives her Son to those who believe in him and tells them, as she told the servants at the wedding feast in Cana, "Do whatever he tells you" (John 2, 6).

One closing sentence: Unless catechetics pays due respect to Mary it will not give due honor to Christ, and without Christ there is no Christianity.

Rev. John A. Hardon, S.J., is one of the most distinguished authors in the Church today. He has written several books, and is the widely acclaimed author of The Catholic Catechism and the recently published, Modern Catholic Dictionary.

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