by: Deacon Thomas Baca
In December of 2018, Pope Francis’ made remarks that imply that neither Mary, the mother of Jesus, nor Joseph, were born saints. Immediately, the pope’s comments evoked widespread consternation in the blogosphere. The concern was that perhaps in some cryptic way Pope Francis was denying or diminishing the Blessed Mother’s Immaculate Conception and the Catholic dogma that she was born sinless.
That very consternation inspired me to write in defense of Pope Francis. My article, Mary the Perfected Witness – Achieving Our Saintly Destiny in a World of Choices (HPR March 28, 2019), reasons that His Holiness innocently focused upon the full and complex breadth of the blessed mother’s life experience as fraught with difficult challenges thereby bolstering and somehow increasing her unincreasable holiness over her life time.
Nevertheless, more recently, His Holiness has made a string of comments that have caused me to rethink my original defense of Pope Francis. What catechetical hermeneutic or even exegetical paradigm has Pope Francis used to formulate such a seemingly casual understanding of the profound personal mystery that is Mary, the Mother of God?
Here are some examples of how Pope Francis’ has demonstrated a seemingly casual sensibility concerning Mary. Firstly, as mentioned earlier, Pope Francis’ comments about Mary’s implied evolutionary holiness raised eyebrows. Secondly, while not directly related to the Blessed Mother, Pope Francis was at the epi-center of the more recent well-known Pachamamma incident during the Amazon Synod. Two exact carvings of a pregnant native Amazonian woman representing “mother earth” seemed to mime Mary and Elizabeth during her Visitation. (Luke 1:36) This incident and the Pope’s presence was like a mixed metaphor that drew a deep concern that His Holiness was being carried away by “strange teachings.”(Hebrews 13:9) Thirdly, Pope Francis’ thoughts about Mary’s appearances at Medjugorie caused a stir as well. He stated, “Mary is not a chief of the post office who would send messages every day.” Finally, Pope Francis’ dismissive remarks concerning proposals for a fifth Marian dogma, Mary as Mediatrix and Co Redemptrix, to many demonstrated a level of tone deafness concerning the great mystery that is Mary. To top it off, these comments were said within the context of a celebration regarding Our Lady of Guadalupe. By his comments, His Holiness negated in public any hope for consideration of the proposal much less the approval of this centuries old theological concept. He stated, “When they come to us with the story of declaring her this or making that dogma, let’s not get lost in silliness [in Spanish, tonteras] [harsher translation: foolishness/stupdity].” These comments implied that additional “titles” for Mary amounted to “silliness.” Ironically, more recently, Pope Francis added three titles to the Litany of Loretto “Mater misericordiae,” (Mother of Mercy) “Mater spei,” (Mother of Hope) and “Solacium migrantium” (Solace of Migrants) should be inserted in the Marian litany. It’s interesting that Pope Francis selectively grants titles to Mary that are apparently exempt from the silliness accusation. Note that he tries to hide the silliness of his political flagrancy by hiding the Solace of Migrants title within two titles that already have been known for a thousand years. He tacks them onto the Litany to dilute and misdirect.
So Quick to Slap the Hand — The “tontera” of All Marian Titles?
Pope Francis’ casual use of the colloquial Spanish term “tontera” (silliness) referring to Marian titles and dogmas seemed to make it all worse. While Pope Francis’ imprecision results in general negative implications toward the Co-Redemptrix proposal submitted by well-known theologians, more precisely, his imprecision seems to impugn the theology behind the already determined Marian dogmas and the “titles” that ensued.
The context of the comments also caused supporters of the proposal to guffaw. Pope Francis made his remarks in front of an image of the Lady of Guadalupe. The image miraculously appeared on the tilma, a cactus fiber outer garment used by St. Juan Diego in 1531. The tilma with the image on it is more than a simple cultural image inspiring deep levels of authentic piety. This image with all of its artistic, historic, cultural and even scientific complexities is an enigmatic icon transcending the impossibility of its own physical existence 500 years into the future while seemingly mirroring its biblical basis in St. John’s description of the Woman of the Apocalypse (Rev 12).
Among Hispanic culture, a “tontera” has overtones that are more evocative in Spanish than in English. In Spanish, a tontera is not simply “a foolish thing” or “silliness.” More clearly, the word translates better as “a stupidity.” This is the language of the “plebe” (pronounced in Spanish as “ple-beh) spoken in the alleyways, streets, and uneducated masses of the Hispanic barrios of any town or city. It is also a Spanish word used in condescension toward a child being castigated.
The Pope’s use of “tontera” speaks directly to the simple people of Mexico and the Americas, many who venerate Mary. But it is a blistering condescension to their filial piety. The question is why the Pope would so casually reference Mary’s transfiguration from mere human to her rightful “assumed” place in heaven as Mother of God, Ever-Virgin, and Immaculate Conception as a “stupidity?” Why would Pope Francis use the “tontera” word as if he were talking directly to St. Juan Diego himself who was a model of filial piety toward her “littlest one?”
The undercurrent that is present in Pope Francis’ diminishment or dare I say “demotion” of Mary’s participation in soteriology seems to be a part of his modernistic hermeneutic that slaps the hand of those whom he deems spiritually “rigid” and cannot let go of ancient spiritual, liturgical, and even cultural truths. Unfortunately, but respectfully, the Pope’s mirage of “rigidity” shrouds the diamond of tradition and appears to cloud how he sees the world in the grey shades of geopolitical gestalt.
This is a view in which “dialogue, acceptance and accompaniment” replace teaching, conversion and correction. (2 Timothy 3:16-17) World peace in Pope Francis’ view is a world order in which borders are decimated and social justice of the governmental sort “raises the lowly and sends the rich empty away.” (Luke 4)
In the name of humanism, the Pope Francis, casually slaps away theological research worthy of due diligence in consideration, a long-standing plausible proposal to honor Mary. He does so as quickly as he slapped the hand of a Chinese woman who recently in audience entreated him to protect the underground Catholic Church in China. Like the other honors memorialized in dogma, such proposals are pedestals of a traditional faith with evolutionary understandings. (2 Thessalonians 2:15)
These pedestals are composed of a history of devotions, practices and sacramentals and an understanding of Mary in scripture. They have allowed believers to reach upward to touch and speak with heavenly realms, connecting their common ordinary work places, and living conditions to the heavenly. It may not have been by intention, but the casualness of Pope Francis’ words dismember the cross by separating the vertical beam from the horizontal beam in order to “imminent-ize” prayer, worship, morals, the mysteries and now dogma. What is left is a new humanism of the streets. A purely human but sensitive Jesus wanders the streets looking for the poor “conocido” (recognized one). Pope Francis seems to continue to break apart iconoclastically the mysterious in favor of the imminent, the humanistic and the cultural — as if trying hard with the colloquial weight of his words and actions to pull down the veil of God’s own unsearchability, inscrutability, hiddenness and transcendency. (Romans 11:33; Isaiah 40:28)
Honoring Mary: The Magnificat – Salvation is Personal
Pope Francis’ air of spontaneity, casualness, and esprit décor appear to have backhanded the solemn prophetic considerations present in Mary’s Magnificat. (Luke 1:46-55) Mary is, after all, the subject of God’s “fullness of time” (Kairos) action considering the “humility of His handmaid,” thereby, “exalts the humble,” and “behold from henceforth all generations” would as a result, call her “blessed.” The Magnificat is indeed a prophecy. It prophecies that the term “all generations” into eternity will acknowledge and then memorialize the personification of humility, warranting the appropriate titles, crowns, honors, and venerations to the point of required belief in the way Jesus honored the man who took the lesser seat at the wedding. (Luke 14:8) These honors are the work of God as recognized and acknowledged by man. Contrary to what Pope Francis suggested, this would not be a taking by Mary, but God giving to the Theotokos. (Galatians 4:4-5)
It is one thing to give an ancient proposal its due theological consideration, ideally making a ruling or conclusion based upon a tradition of theological arguments for and against to include past pronouncements. However, the air of casualness with regard to the Mediatrix and Co-Redemptrix fifth dogma proposal brought forward by Dr. Mark Marivalle no less than dismissive.
As was the case during the centuries-long debate with respect to the Immaculate Conception, the Mediatrix and Co-Redemptrix discussions go to the heart of the importance of Mary in the redemption drama. Anything less than a prayerful and casual response to this in the context of a celebration of the Lady of Guadalupe makes me think that Pope Francis has lowered his eyes to a humanistic and cultural agenda, or to a modernistic predisposition regarding Mary’s singular cooperative role with Jesus in the matter of my soul’s redemption. Yes. My soul. Redemption is personal.
The Serpent of Imprecision – The seed of bad precedent
Casual, imprecise, and buckshot language, concerning serious theological proposals regarding any dogmatic proposals brought forward by scores of supporters with deep scholastic and theological portfolios, wounds the already recognized dogmatic mysteries about Mary. The result is a sense of discontinuity that insidiously wraps itself like a serpent around deep conviction and faith. This avant guard imprecision implies that in Mary’s titles Mother of God, Perpetual Virgin, Immaculate Conception and Assumed into Heaven, would have been grabbed away from God, and given away indiscreetly.
This imprecision lodges like a thorn in the Blessed Mother’s immaculate heart. The imprecision allows for a misuse of the truth and reality of Mary’s humility as a way to twist away from a declaration that would in the mind of a humanist be foolish piety, and with it rigidity – the rigidity of the viejitas praying their novenas, praying their rosaries, and lighting their candles. The imprecision is itself a meat cleaver attempting to pry away a crown from Mary’s head placed there by God Himself. What is given by God, is not for man to take but to search for, discern, and finally recognize in due season. (Galatians 6:9)
What about the Grand Procession of Proclaimed Marian Dogmas and Problems For Language
So what about the grand procession of Marian dogmas ranging from as far back as the early church fathers? To the man from Buenos Aires, Pope Francis, the humanist, Mary appears to be no more than just a humble viejita (little old woman) who “would not take anything that belonged to her son”. Could the morenita (little dark one) with seemingly ever-downcast eyes ever raise her eyes to heaven?
All we need to do to see past this misleading modernistic paradigm is to look at the example of St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s reliance on the transcendency of God in the Eucharist. The transcendent Eucharistic presence was the necessary prelude to her venturing off into the imminent presence of God in the streets. The same is true for all the Saints. The truth of holiness is both in the immanency and transcendency of God; the vertical beam and the horizontal beam, the ordinate and abscissa in mathematics; and most importantly the Body of the God-Man who was physically transfixed upon that “cross that bars the way” of the unbeliever; that “sign of contradiction” as Venerable Fulton Sheen effectively would preach. (Luke 2:34)
Consider that Mary has already been pronounced Mother of God, (Council of Ephesus, 431 A.D.), already been pronounced the Immaculate Conception (Ineffabilis Deus, Pope Pius IX, 1954), already been pronounced perpetual virgin, (Tertullian, 3rd Century A.D.), and already been pronounced “Assumed into heaven” (Munificentissimus Deus, Pius XII 1950). Based upon Pope Francis’ apparent reasoning, however, Mary could not reasonably be argued, and considered (much less, recognized) by her own earthly counterpart, (holy mother church), to be the highest of cooperators in redemption with her son Jesus. Pope Francis comments make such a truth to be a “tontera.”
The mysterious women of both Genesis 3:15 and Revelation 12 is “outed” by the casual language used by Pope Francis as only a cualquier (whatever) mujercita (little woman), worthy of a pat on the head, a simple diminutive. She is thusly insignificant, in the course of earthly, anthropological, cultural and of course, modern things, not to mention eternal things.
According to this way of thinking, the Mother of God was too humble for her to allow God to deem her worthy to be crowned — even as immeasurable unrelenting grace flows forth from her immaculate heart. Grace without limits. In the mind of the humanist, that would be “foolishness” since grace comes from God. God forbid that an eternally humble Mary would allow such an internal intrusion of God’s grace. The mystery of this infusion allows this “lowly one” to be “full of grace” (kekeritomine) from the moment of her conception. Why would this not be the root of her Co-redemptive Crown?
Would Mary say, “I’m not worthy, Lord, go away from me,” as Simon Peter did on a boat? (Luke 5:8) It should never be imagined that Mary would never have disallowed God to give her what He chose to give her. With this humanistic understanding and logic, there would be have never been an incarnation. Taken to its extreme, in this way of thinking, the Annuciation would have put Mary in an eternal paradox – her very humility would have been a justification for saying “no” to the Angel Gabriel. Unimaginable!
The co-Redemptrix proposal has been around for years. More recently, the proposal for the proclamation is prompted by requests by the Blessed Mother in approved apparitions in Amsterdam and Japan in the 1950’s (the Lady of All Nations and the Lady of Akita).
That Mary’s “stabat Mater” (Mother stands by) while “earning” her nothing, was her noble voluntary love-act of self-donation alongside the son with whom she shared the intricate redemptive DNA patterns of His body and blood. No one on earth could have shared as much with the Savior-Redeemer. The thought that she could be reduced to, as we say in Spanish, “cualquier persona” (whoever), is itself imprecise theological thinking and an abysmal misinterpretation of the virtue of true humility.
Of course, Mary never stole anything. Mary accepted all from her son – everything — including praise, including grace, including her roles as prophesied in the Old Covenant, (1 Kings 2:22), and as took place in both time and eternity. To equate Mary’s acceptance of honor due her by the Church is never to state that she grasps at or takes anything. That indeed would be a tontera…. a silliness. Like her son, Mary, the unequal partner in the work of Redemption to the point of Calvary would take the form of a slave and never grasp at what has not been given her by God. By such authentic humility, Mary has already been exalted a little below but to the right of her son and crowned. The language of the Church must at some point acquiesce and confirm such an exaltation and the reality of Mary’s co-redemptive role.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, was much more cautious when considering any possible pronouncements of Mary as Co-Redemptrix. Being steeped in the history of the Church and the early Church Fathers, Pope Benedict held to the discipline of simply explaining his difficulty with the co-Redemptrix word-form and mental concept as a “problem of language” in the sense that “it departs too great an extent from the language of Scripture and the Fathers and therefore, gives rise to misunderstandings.”(Emphasis added) (Declaration of the Theological Commission of the Pontifical International Marian Academy, Twelfth Mariological Congress held in Czestochowa, Poland, 1996) My audacious retort however, would be that all the Marian titles based on dogmatic proclamations present a problem “for” language, rather than a problem “of” language.
Language – God’s Own Consciousness
The problem with today’s humanistic hermeneutic is that it is too base; too “utterly gutterly,” and too ignoble. In contrast, the Church has one foot in the mud and the other in heaven. Nevertheless, the singular humanistic approach is to say that human endeavors are simply that, of human origin, “stuck in the mud,” so to say. This approach forgets that human endeavors often times have their inspiration from outside of the “humus” of man… like the “breathe” of God (present tense action verb vis-a-vis the noun, breath) into the lungs of Adam. Not everything pronounced by man is anthropological just because man pronounces it, including dogmatic pronouncements by an institution established by the Son of God Himself.
The very kernel of language, the shape of phrases on the page, the pattern of letters and numbers, the juxtaposition of verbs and their conjugations, with nouns and their declensions, cases and modifiers, all seem to have a divine order and force to it all. And that doesn’t even consider the sound and musicality of language in all the complex intonations and vibrations of it all. Language (which we take for granted), is itself a manifestation of a divine consciousness within which we participate, play, work, pray – a divine milieu of sorts within which we “move, live, breathe and have our being.” (Acts 17:28) (Epimenides, Ode to Zeus).
To minimize the discussion of ancient thought patterns and discussions regarding the reality of Mary’s time-ordered and eternal-ordered difference in the world shows the degree to which the noise of the horizontal age has clouded the complex order of God’s consciousness within man, His prize creation. Silence is always the better alternative. Even atheistic Ludwig Wittgenstein opined, “Whereof man cannot speak, he must pass over in silence.” (Tractatus Logico Philosophicus).
While our ways are not God’s ways, God gave us a sliver of His perspective with the Word (Logos) who became flesh, not in the airy vicissitudes of intellectual or feigned theological thought-words, but the Master Word of Words from which all order is derived — instead of the “theory of everything,” Jesus was the “Word of Everything” seen and unseen. (Isaiah 55:8-9)
Jesus is at once language-made-flesh, thought-made-flesh, and truth-made-flesh, — not in a vacuum, but within the confines of the complex biology of a flesh and blood woman existing in a material universe which she already transcends. Thus, the very rules of existence may be compared to the rules of grammar out of which the organism of words are born as beings, then forming families of sentences, then communities of paragraphs, nations of stories, and a world of histories. —- But the origin remains God’s own consciousness.
True Progress and Growth Requires a Conservation of Purpose
By the preponderance of His own logic, should God wish to declare that a descendent of Adam, Mary of Nazareth (the woman of Genesis 3:15) who, perfected by Him, grew as well in life, progressed while conserving her purpose, and by doing so, accrued the “fitting” exaltations given her by God. Considering her purposeful total self-donation (Psalm 51.16) and the intricacies of her biological, psychological, and spiritual concomitance with her son, it is fitting that the anthropos (ὁ ἄνθρωπος, ecce homo) the man, recognizes (in scripture and tradition) these noble purposes and proclaim them. As it was fitting that Bathsheba would sit at the right hand of Solomon, so “it is fitting” for Mary to have such an exaltation from God that she be recognized by her subjects. (1 Kings 2: 13-22)
Man does not give Mary these titles. Man only recognizes them in the architecture of his language and in the context of her relationship with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Scotian Precision – Heavenly Inspiration – the Sorbonne Dispute
I appeal to the one argument that makes sense for all the Marian recognitions, albeit that it has been applied specifically to the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. Applied in 1305, the simple subtle reasoning of Franciscan subtle doctor (doctor subtilis) Blessed John Duns Scotus states in Latin, “Potuit, decuit, ergo, fecit.” (“God had the power; it was fitting; therefore, He did it.”)
Acclaimed winner in Paris and Berlin at the shout of “Victor Escotus!” Scotus prepared the theological argument that is the basis for the eventual proclamation of the dogma five centuries later in 1854. Until then, religious orders, universities and the people would keep the controversy alive, but always pointing to “pious opinion” rather than seasoned argument. Finally, on December 8, 1854, Blessed Pius IX proclaimed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary as “a divinely revealed truth,” settling a controversy of nearly 19 centuries. (Ineffabilis Deus, Pope Pius IX, 1954) That a Franciscan so close to St. Francis of Assisi’s own time made such an argument is itself an irony in view of Pope Francis’ casual pronouncements concerning Marian titles.
Scotus’ argument is both simple and elegant. Such elegance could only be so at the behest of the heavenly in order for God Himself to enlighten the earthly, that we might recognize (cognocere) the truth – God’s own consciousness. Scotus’ argument was a fiercely simple, non-verbose, logical syllogism, surgically dismantling the intricate counter arguments of the Angelic Doctor himself, St. Thomas Aquinas, and his supporters, the Dominicans at the University of Paris.
Scotus’ inspired argument forms the basis and conserved purpose of all Marian dogmas. Such basis and “conserved purpose” includes the proposed and inspired arguments that Mary has already been crowned by nothing less than the Trinity. She is crowned, not with gold or silver, but rather with the gravitas of her son’s own recognition of Mary’s necessary action for the redemption of all to be put into effect — beginning with her necessary agreement, evolving through her stabat mater, and her understated place in the upper room at Pentecost. (Acts 1:12-14)
That Mary is crowned as described in the Book of Revelation is the Church navigating using the 12 stars of the completion of all prophecy concerning redemption, Mary, the new Ark of the Covenant, receiving a crown with the necessary title of unequal Co Redemptrix and Mediatrix. (Revelation 11, 12) Not mere words, but rather the very vibrations of the music of the spheres in the primum mobile (principal motion) connecting the movement of the heavens with the movement of the earth – God’s dance with humanity. In the end, as Scotus would have it: “It was possible; it was fitting; therefore, the Crown has been given her” — she who grasps nothing of her own power or authority receives the Holy Spirit by the free donation of her will, her everything, her very self. “Potuit” (Matt 19:26); “Decuit” (Hebrews 2:10); “Ergo Fecit” (Hebrews 2:17). Contrary to the criticism of those who agree with Pope Francis, the final dogma would not be a deification of Mary or a statement of her equanimity with God. Leave that to Satan to attempt to grab what is not his – to steal. Mary, the devil’s archrival, never grabbed at anything. (Genesis 3:15) She simply would say, “Let it be done according to your word.” (Luke 1:38)
The ancient principle of navigation by reference to a constant remains sound. We rely on the North Star (vertical) in order to arrive at the destination (horizontal). Though slow in moving, I believe the church will never forget how to use the sextant of unchanging tradition. (2 Thess 2:15) It is likely that it will be up to a future Pope to recognize the truth of Mary’s singular cooperative position in the design and architecture of redemption. Yet, and with all due respect for Pope Francis’ casual Marian sensibilities, this mystery of Co-redemptrix while a problem for language, remains an undeniable truth and someday will be recognized as such by Holy Mother Church. As demonstrated at Cana, Mary humbly always gets her way.
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