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The Marian-Petrine one: let us talk about it, says the biblical theologian

The twofold principle

 Il duplice principio  DCM-011
03 December 2022

In a short video that recently went viral on the internet, we see a collection of the reactions and enthusiasm of  many emotional African-American girls upon seeing on television a version of the Disney film The Little Mermaid in which Ariel has dark skin. This is a well-packaged video that reminds us that a culture’s inclusiveness is also measured by its imagery. In addition, the young African-American girls who are moved when seeing a dark-skinned Ariel tell us something that remains valid for any form of communication, even the magisterial one of the Popes: listening, reading, seeing means receiving certain signals, explicit or implicit, it matters little, that root within us a set of convictions, that contribute to structuring our identities, that favour the construction of a collective imagination in which we are all reflected. Here, then, lies the point; mirrored how?

To thus begin a discourse on something that is instead very serious, perhaps even a little difficult, may seem strange. And yet, in that Disney advertisement lies the key to what I am about to say about what is “coded” as the “Marian-Petrine principle”. This “principal” has been a recurring formula in the Magisterium for the last four Pontiffs when speaking of the life of the Church and, above all, of the participation in it of women and men. From this, it is immediately understood that Mary is the prototype of the feminine and Peter is the prototype of the masculine, and it is clear that when the Popes use the formula of the “Marian-Petrine principle”, they want to affirm that everyone, women and men, must feel at home in the Church because it is a place where the relationship between male and female is one of strict reciprocity. At the beginning of the third millennium, however, a reciprocity that assigns to women the charisma of love and to men the exercise of authority should at least give us pause for thought. However, perhaps, it is best to go in order.

We owe the invention of the “Marian-Petrine principle” to Hans Urs von Balthasar, one of the greatest theologians of the last century. It was his hope to have the primacy of the Church of Rome accepted by all Christian denominations on the basis of the integration of the Petrine ministry into Marian mysticism. It is no coincidence that the text in which the Swiss theologian expounds this dual Marian and Petrine principle is entitled The Anti-Roman Complex. How to integrate the papacy into the universal church. Of course, he himself did not expect that Marian-Petrine bipolarity would be so successful. However, it is nevertheless true that, at least until a few decades ago, recourse to the archetypes of the masculine and feminine was easily spent in any sphere.

However, von Balthasar would never have imagined that from that moment on, every pontiff would refer to it, no longer, however, to integrate the papacy into the life of the universal Church, but to integrate women and men into the Church. Paul VI took it up in Marialis cultus, John Paul II took it up and relaunched it in Mulieris dignitatem, Benedict XVI used it to explain the meaning and value of the cardinal's purple. They have been followed by Francis, who cited it at the very beginning of his pontificate, making it clear that he considers it a useful if not necessary ecclesiological paradigm. It is precisely because it has received so much magisterial credit that it seems to me to be important to propose a reflection and, perhaps, even open a discussion. Paul VI affirms there that God “has placed in his Family - the Church -, as in every household, the figure of a Woman, who secretly and in a spirit of service watches over it and graciously protects its path to the homeland, until the glorious day of the Lord comes”. In other words, he takes to the letter von Balthasar’s statement that “the Marian element governs hidden away in the Church, like a woman at the domestic hearth”.

The Marian principle thus envisages a “maternal” and “domestic” characterization of the role of women.  However, Von Balthasar insists on the inclusive precedence of Marian mysticism over Petrine ministry, for he considers the former as conditioning because it is all-embracing and liberating, while the latter is conditioning because it is ministerial and administering. For his part, John Paul II affirms that in its essence the church is both “Marian” and “apostolic-petrine” because its hierarchical structure is totally ordered to the holiness of Christ’s members, but also because in the hierarchy of holiness it is precisely the “woman”, Mary of Nazareth, who is the “figure” of the Church and for this reason exalts the salutary functionality of the “feminine genius” in relation to the man-male. For Benedict XVI , then, “everything in the Church, every institution and ministry, even that of Peter and his successors, is ‘included’ under the Virgin’s mantle, in the grace-filled space of her ‘yes’ to God’s will”. Finally, Francis too struggles to free himself from the patriarchal vision that constrains the male and female within a schematic that becomes no less dangerous when Peter and Mary are established as symbolic figures of reference and the ministry of authority is reserved to Peter, that is to men, and to Mary, that is to women, the charisma of love.

Bipolarisms are always seductive because they delude. They make one believe that differences can be resolved with a formula and complexity can be smuggled in with a simplification. And yet, the different rhetorical amplifications at the root of which is the identification of woman and fire, i.e. between feminine and domestic, feminine and interior, feminine and welcoming, feminine and spiritual, on the one hand, and on the other between masculine and ministerial, masculine and authoritative, masculine and power, represent a real difficulty, in the technical sense “scandalous”, for women and men who can no longer conceive of sexual difference in hierarchical terms. Not least because it has now become abundantly clear that forms of mystical exaltation of the feminine are directly proportional to the refusal of public recognition of women’s authority.

The question therefore that arises in all its harshness is; does not the Marian-Petrine principle express an ideology and rhetoric of sexual and gender difference that has now been unmasked as one of the covers of patriarchal privilege? Among other things, the system of knowledge within which today’s evaluation of sexual and gender difference is situated has now definitively distanced itself from the psycho-physiology that owed its foundation to Aristotelian biology and in no way allows the distribution of roles and powers to correspond to biological morphologies or, still less so, to psycho-physiological classifications. 

The male-female bipolarism, which occupied the scene even obsessively when theological thought was totally androcentric and patriarchal, has now been undergoing decisive revisions and major reversals for more than a century, i.e. since women first became the “women’s question” and then, having shaken off this offensive expression, decided to consider themselves full protagonists of social, political and ecclesial life. This includes the life of the churches. In addition, the Marian-Petrine principle that guarantees the preservation of doctrinal stereotypes, institutional arrangements, devotional practices, now reveals all its fragility. Not least because today nothing can escape the control of the relationship between symbolic order, anthropological premises and social repercussions. Not even theological thinking. This is why the African-American girls who rejoice because Ariel has the same skin color as them remind us that no word, no thought, no image is “neutral”, for they all convey a vision of life; whether that be inclusive or discriminatory. This is why the invitation is now pressing: let’s talk about it.

Biblical scholar, Saint Anselm Athenaeum