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Understanding
the Marian dimension

· Women in society and the Church ·

The great Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar once wrote: “The Catholic Church is perhaps humanity’s last bulwark of genuine appreciation of the difference between the sexes. In the dogma of the Trinity, the Persons must be equal in dignity in order to safeguard the distinction that makes the triune God subsistent love; in a similar way the Church stresses the equal dignity of man and woman, so that the extreme oppositeness of their functions may guarantee the spiritual and physical fruitfulness of human nature. Every encroachment of one sex into the role of the other narrows the range and dynamics of humanly possible love, even when this range transcends the sphere of sexuality, birth and death and achieves the level of the virginal relationship between Christ and his Church” (New Elucidations).

Pope Francis writes: “the feminine genius is needed in all expressions in the life of society,” emphasizing their contribution “both in the Church and in social structures” (Evangelii Gaudium, n. 103). This assertion by our Holy Father coupled with his call that women actively become a “more incisive presence” and “carry their profile forward” has provoked many questions regarding what this might look like, concretely speaking.

The first step in understanding the relationship between women and society must be to value and privilege the work specific to a woman — the work tied to her conceiving, bearing, nursing, and raising children. Having and raising a family affect women differently than men and require, on the part of the woman, time — and not just “quality time,” but quantity time. It was for this reason Cardinal Ratzinger, then head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, wrote in his letter to the bishops, On the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World (2004): “It cannot be forgotten that the interrelationship between... family and work... has for women characteristics different from those in the case of men. The harmonization of the organization of work and laws governing work with the demands stemming from the mission of women within the family is a challenge. The question is not only legal, economic, and organizational; it is above all a question of mentality, culture, and respect. Indeed, a just valuing of the work of women within the family is required. In this way, women who freely desire will be able to devote the totality of their time to the work of the household without being stigmatized by society or penalized financially, while those who wish also to engage in other work may be able to do with an appropriate work schedule and not have to choose between relinquishing their family life or enduring continual stress, with negative consequences for one’s own equilibrium and the harmony of the family” (On The Collaboration of Men and Women, 13).

Next, it is vital to recognize that women are already in society through their specific work of giving life a home. Indeed women generate society, since the family, as the social doctrine of the Church insists, is society’s “first and vital cell”. Valuing the feminine genius for society first requires the recovery of the vitality of the home, much of which has been lost due to many modern economic and urban trends. In this light, the truest test of whether we have successfully “brought women into society” should not be how visible or statistically represented she is in the “work place” (i.e., in board rooms, public offices, etc.), but rather how well these places are transformed and domesticated thanks to her specific relation to it.

The role of the woman in society, however, is not reduced to the question of whether or not a woman stays in the home. Ultimately, the relationship that the feminine genius has to society is to “humanize structures” (Letter to Women, 2), to make them more home-like. Edith Stein said that “the participation of women in the most diverse professional disciplines could be a blessing for the entire society, private or public, precisely if the specifically feminine ethos would be preserved” (“Ethos of Women’s Professions” in The Collected Works of Edith Stein vol. 2, [Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 1996], p. 50-51). Indeed, according to Stein, women would provide “a blessed counter-balance precisely here where everyone is in danger of becoming mechanized and losing his humanity” (ibid. p. 50). It is this kind of a presence that is needed in public places. We should repeat that this need is not met by a mere statistical presence of women. It is a sad fact that many of today’s “public women” perpetuate the un-homelike character of the world through their actions directed specifically against the family and its home.

In order to understand what a “more incisive female presence in the Church” might be, we must first recognize and value the Church in its feminine reality, in what has been called the “Marian dimension,” as Hans Urs von Balthasar called it. The “Marian dimension” of the laity or “common priesthood” is that secular dimension which makes the Church grow by making it “present and operative in those places and circumstances where only through them [the laity] can it become the salt of the earth” (Lumen Gentium, 33; Mulieris Dignitatem, 27). It is the Marian dimension that makes the Church, and thus the world, ‘homelike’ in a new way, by helping the world “to be” and to grow according to its deepest calling.

Naturally, the Marian dimension does not exist without the Petrine dimension, which “embodies Christ who comes to the Church to make her fruitful,” and thus “guarantees the constant flow of life from [Christ] to her” (Theo-Drama iii, 354). But this Petrine function emerges from within the Marian dimension and is in service of it. On this point, Balthasar insisted on the priority of the Marian dimension which was not only chronological (beginning as it did with the Annunciation) but also ontological, since Mary was given to the Apostles (at the Cross) as their Mother.

From the perspective of this “spousal” understanding of the Church, we note that being a member of the Marian dimension of the Church one is already in the Church and a full participant thereof. Thus, in speaking about the presence of women or any layperson for that matter in the Church, we have to resist certain tendencies towards clericalism, which gives them ecclesial busy work so as to feel “more involved,” as if they were not already. Clericalist tendencies curtail the openness of the Church to the world and the fruitfulness it can bear in it the very thing the Petrine dimension exists to serve. The presence of women/laity in the Church, then, is first secured by their “staying in their place,” in the Marian dimension at the heart of the world.

That said, there is a place for laity to be called “in different ways to more immediate cooperation in the apostolate of the hierarchy, like those men and women who helped the apostle Paul in the Gospel, laboring much in the Lord” [cf. Phil. 4-3; Rom. 16:3ff] (cf. Lumen Gentium, 33; Mulieris Dignitatem, 27). And insofar as the laity is consulted in an official capacity by the hierarchical church, there is nothing truly novel in consulting women. However, if we consider the participation of lay women as such, we may be able to put our finger on what essential purpose such involvement might have beyond “including everyone”.

Analogous to the role of women in society, a more immediate cooperation of women as women in the apostolate of the hierarchy “where important decisions are made” (Evangelii Gaudium, 103) could be a humanizing force correcting tendencies towards bureaucratic clericalism and careerism. While the Church’s conception of authority has nothing to do with “power,” as commonly understood, there is often a temptation to identify sacramental power with power in general, or power as domination (Evangelii Gaudium, 104). In view of this, a feminine presence would help to remind ‘Peter’ of what can easily be forgotten. In seeing the feminine church, ‘Peter’ is reminded of that to which he owes himself and that which he serves; and he is reminded that his “decisions” are all made within a prior “decision,” the fiat of Mary, as Newman said. “Bringing forward” the profile of women would undoubtedly exclude any suggestion that women are gradually moving toward those offices which are specifically and exclusively male (Evangelii Gaudium, 104) as that would eliminate their presence as women and expand the very clericalism it is meant to correct.

Ultimately, in order to authentically address what it looks like for women to “carry their profile forward,” we must always begin by affirming the “difference between the sexes” as the only “guarantee of the spiritual and physical fruitfulness of human nature.” Any consideration of the question must take seriously both the pressures of the dominant culture as well as the woman as such, as a being apt for motherhood who makes a home for the human being in the deepest sense. Internal to this understanding of the feminine genius, we see that it is already both societal and ecclesial, and that the value of the woman “stepping forward” in a more public way is to make the world and the Church more home-like not less so.

Margaret Harper McCarthy
Assistant Professor at the John Paul ii Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Washington, D.C.


“This article is adapted from the author's chapter in the recently published book, Promise and Challenge: Catholic Women Reflect on Feminism, Complementarity, and the Church ( Our Sunday Visitor, 2015)”

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