I remember when the Pennsylvania report first became public. I had been ordained a priest less than three months and now, on the cusp of the happiest day of my life, the Church in the United States suffered one the most humiliating and scandalous events in her history. In the days and months that followed, I would be surrounded by a flurry of parishioner grievances, clerical criticisms, and media hearsays.
What disturbed me the most, however, was the lack of a cohesive theological response to the crisis. There are countless enraged and bitter disparagements hurled against the Church and her hierarchy. Blogs, news sites, and various other social media outlets are not shy about their opinions. Laity and clergy alike continue to rally discussing legal and canonical reform. Many attempt to explain the crisis by alluding to the Church’s difficult past or pinning the scandal on the so-called “human factor.” Despite the importance of these different responses, they each lack an essential element: hope.
Is the Church still pure and beautiful? How can the Church possibly preach the Gospel in her current condition? Has not all credibility been lost? Are we not hopeless in the face of the sins of our clergy and laity? These are the prerogatives stinging the hearts of the faithful.
Many of the replies to these questions both within and without the Church are representative of an overarching issue in contemporary theology—namely, an inadequate appreciation of the relationship between Mary and the Church (i.e. Mariology and Ecclesiology). As we reflect and respond to ecclesial crises, the Blessed Virgin Mary’s living faith must be our continued point of reference and inspiration to renew confidence in the Church. However, for this to take place, we must first ask, “What is the relationship between Mary and the Church?”
We have the unfortunate habit nowadays of reducing the role of the Blessed Virgin Mary to simply being the “Mother of Jesus” or, as it has been called in some uncouth circles, the “banana peel” theology. Like a banana peel, Mary is important to hold Jesus. Once Jesus is born, her significance is tossed to the side.
This way of thinking about Mary is both unchristian and unrealistic. The role of the Blessed Mother goes far beyond the purely biological; her significance is not limited to her giving birth to Jesus. In fact, her role is indispensable not only to salvation but also to the preservation of the Church in history, right now. Her fiat, her “yes” to the Angel Gabriel, was not just a passing word relevant only to the temporal conception of Jesus. It is an eternal affirmation of creation’s longing for its Creator; an undying pledge between God’s assent and the assent of his creature, the fruit of which is the Redeemer of the world (Adrienne von Speyr, Handmaid of the Lord). St. Bernard of Clairvaux reminds us of this fact in one of his beautiful homilies to the Blessed Virgin:
“In your [Mary’s] brief response we are to be remade in order to be recalled to life…This is what the whole earth waits for prostrate at your feet. It is right in doing so, for on your word depends comfort for the wretched, ransom for the captive, freedom for the condemned, indeed, salvation for all the sons of Adam, the whole of your race.” (St. Bernard of Clairvaux, “In Praise of the Virgin Mother,” as read in The Liturgy of the Hours, Volume I, Office of Readings for December 20)
Mary’s “yes” to Christ goes in and beyond Nazareth. As a matter of fact, the Annunciation and Nativity of Christ is just the beginning of Mary’s mission. In truth, the fullness of Mary’s role in salvation history is revealed at the foot of the cross when her dying Son makes a stunning declaration: “Woman behold your son!…[Son] Behold your Mother” (Jn. 19:26-27). These are not simply the words of a temporary adoption or some sort of ancient social security program. They are a pronouncement, an official decree from God himself as to the role of Mary in the life of the Church. Hans Urs von Balthasar summarizes it lucidly when he writes that Christ’s placing of Mary into the care of John permanently inserts her into the life of the Apostolic Church. “In so doing, He gives the Church her center or apex: an inimitable, yet ever-to-be-striven-for embodiment of the new community’s faith, a spotless, unrestricted Yes to the whole of God’s plan for the salvation of the world” (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger and Hans Urs von Balthasar, Mary, the Church at the Source). Thus, it is Mary’s stalwart devotion to Christ which constitutes the heart of the Church’s trustworthiness and purity. We can always find pride in our Catholic Church because at its center is an innocent and indefectible personality who was, is, and always will be faithful to Christ even when we are not.
With this in mind, we can also better understand the necessity of the dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and Assumption. Mary is immaculate not just for the sake of bearing Christ in her womb, but also for the sake of becoming the Church in person and as a person holding the Body of Christ fast to its Head by merit of an unadulterated and constant consent to his will. Furthermore, she is doing such body and soul in heaven, thus realizing the current reality of the Church as a pilgrim people living in the “already, but not yet” of salvation. She is an eschatological sign—meaning, a focal point upon which we can constantly gaze as a reminder of what we all are called to experience in Christ’s salvation.
The Church, therefore, is incorruptible, indefectible, and immaculate. She is and always will be the spotless bride of which St. Paul spoke, “without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish…holy and blameless” (Eph. 5:27).
This is not pious mumbo jumbo or a convenient theological escape from the reality of the Church’s sins. It is the complete opposite; it is seeing the Church’s sin in perspective. In the end, what atrocity or failure, what scandal or evil could blotch the humble obedience of the Maiden of Nazareth? What could I as a member of the Church possibly do to corrupt the heart of the Church? Point to an evil of one of the Church’s members greater than the purity of the Church’s Mother. Show me what impropriety corrupts the Virgin’s fidelity. Let me see it and then I will leave her…I will leave the Church. I will flee from her with all haste and blame someone else’s failure as an excuse for my abandonment. What is more, I will take up arms against her, utilizing every skill of mind and will for the sole purpose of her destruction. But, until I should find such a vice…until such a powerful sin should present itself…I am bound in love to her. I am a man entranced and utterly consumed in the largesse of her beauty. I am a proud vir ecclesiasticus, “man of the Church.”
Yes, in this most recent of events, many of the Church’s leaders, servants, and children have fallen. Grave sins and shameful neglect have been committed. But, like a light fixed in the dark, the humble faithfulness of our Blessed Mother pierces through the sins of every clergyman and lay person. The promise made by Christ to preserve the Church from corruption remains valid and no one, from the Pope to the parish parochial vicar, could invalidate it. For there is one who is faithful even when I am not, and her name is Mary, our hope in scandal.