Navigating Ambivalence About Mary’s Assumption

Caravaggio (1606), “Death of the Virgin”

Today’s reflection is by Michaelangelo Allocca, whose brief bio can be found by clicking here.

Today’s liturgical readings for the Solemnity of the Assumption can be found by clicking here

I’m ambivalent about the Solemnity of the Assumption. It reminds me of another pet peeve of mine: people using euphemisms to avoid saying that someone died. Death is an inevitable and perfectly natural part of human experience, and refusing to call it by name just seems to reinforce the fear of it. By emphasizing the supernatural act of Mary’s body and soul being raised up to heaven (when she had “completed the course of her earthly life,” rather than “when she had died,” as Pius XII’s proclamation of the dogma phrased it), we can avoid speaking about her death. 

While I do love and honor Mary as mother of the Incarnate Word, and as spiritual mother of us all, I am frankly uncomfortable with some of the ways that the Church chooses to honor her. In a paradoxical way, they downplay her human nature, which results in undercutting her most honorable qualities. Maybe more disturbing, they seem to proceed from the same type of theological thinking that leads to homophobia and transphobia. Don’t worry, I do intend to spell out this connection, since it’s certainly not immediately evident.

The little we learn of Mary from scripture shows us someone who is very easy to identify with: she is utterly human. And in an important way, she is particularly easy for us queer people to identify with, as someone who has had her identity obscured by the projections of other people’s insecurities. As we face the challenge of being reduced to someone’s stereotypes, for two millenia Mary has also been reshaped from the blessed woman that she was into something almost entirely spiritual, and therefore not really human.

We first meet her as a frightened young woman, who puts aside her fear and says “yes” to God’s plan. Each succeeding time we see her she behaves utterly as a mother would: supporting her son, even if sometimes utterly baffled by him. She remains with him as she watches him die, and remains with his followers after his resurrection and ascension.

And yet, almost every title or feast bestowed upon her by the Church denies or undercuts her humanity, ironically making her “yes” less extraordinary. Begin with the Immaculate Conception: the main motive for the Church to arrive at this notion is the thought that in order to be a fitting vessel (the reason for the “Ark of the Covenant” references in today’s scriptures) for the actual presence of God in the world, it was necessary that she have no contact with sin whatever. And yet, if she was spared this common human flaw, doesn’t that diminish the greatness of her courage and faith?

So too, although the dogma doesn’t really say so, today’s solemnity seems to exempt her from the common human experience of death. At the very least, she doesn’t experience decay or decomposition — the theory being either that being free from original sin, she was also free from corruptibility; or, simply that God chose to spare her from this, out of God’s sheer bountiful grace.

Here the problematic theology emerges. Behind the idea that physical decay is bad, and therefore not to be experienced by the Mother of God, is the notion that physicality itself is bad. The idea that matter is evil and only spirit is good is certainly not biblical: our creation story insists that God is the creator of all things in the material world, and that God pronounces all of them good. Anti-material philosophy nevertheless crept into Christian thinking from neo-Platonism and radically dualistic mythologies common in the near and middle East, with deleterious effects still apparent today.

If physicality is inherently corrupt and evil, sexuality is even worse. This theoretical impulse is behind what I think is the worst, and certainly most unscriptural, insecurity projected onto Mary, the dogma of her perpetual virginity. In fact, anti-scriptural is possibly more accurate, and the footnotes in the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Bible underline this in an unintentionally humorous way. Matthew 1:25 says that Joseph had no relations with Mary “until she bore a son” — it seems pretty clear that the evangelist simply wanted to underline that Joseph was not the father of Jesus, and that’s all. Yet the footnote says “The Greek word translated ‘until’ does not imply normal marital conduct after Jesus’ birth, nor does it exclude it. [italics mine]” In other words, read this verse exactly as you normally would, without this utterly unhelpful note. Better still are any of the gospel references to Jesus’s siblings, like Mark 6:3. A long footnote points out the many other relationships that might have been meant by “sister” or “brother,” before winding up with “The question of meaning here would not have arisen but for the faith of the church in Mary’s perpetual virginity.” In other words, if you ask the gospel writers, Jesus had brothers and sisters; but once you’ve ruled out the possibility of Mary ever having sex, and project this conclusion back into the gospels, you have to deny the text says what it says.

The Mary presented to us for veneration is an utterly desexualized, almost dephysicalized ‘human being,’ due to a theology so afraid of sex that it can only allow sex to exist within heterosexual marriage, and then only for the purpose of procreation — and if Mary’s child didn’t require sexual relations, then let’s make certain she never spoiled her holiness by having any, even with her lawful husband. When your theology is so hostile even to married heterosexual sex, it will naturally leave no room at all for any other categories of sexual identity or activity. A Church that shudders at the thought of Mary having a normal physical relationship with her husband is hardly likely to allow for the holiness of queer sexuality and self-understanding.

So as we celebrate this solemnity of Mary, I am sorry for the ways she has long been victimized by the Church, especially because these are ways that I can relate to. I will honor this solemnity by praying to her as one of us in almost every way, including the indignity of being remade into an image that fits somebody else’s wounded imagination.

Michaelangelo Allocca, August 15, 2021

14 replies
  1. H. John McDargh, Ph.D.
    H. John McDargh, Ph.D. says:

    Thank you Michaelangelo for this powerful and spot on reflection.. I just posted it on my facebook page…. Blessed Feast Day…. John McDargh

    Reply
  2. Jack Hurley
    Jack Hurley says:

    I think that the reaction of Carl Jung would find the Assumption declaration much more important and positive especially to Mary and women that this presentation suggests. Surprised that this was not included!

    Reply
    • Scott
      Scott says:

      I agree. I also must say that as a gay man looking into the Catholic Church, I find the Assumption and the Immaculate Conception and the general elevation of Mary to a prominent place in the doctrines of the Church to be an important feminine element that is missing in the Protestantism in which I was raised (Methodist). Even the Anglicans are not inclined to revere Mary in this way. And for all of the disclaimers that Mary is not divine and not a goddess, there is in her a certain sense of the divine feminine. Even reading Thomas Kempis, writing in the late Middle Ages, it is apparent that she was believed to have a special role including in the salvation of the individual believer.

      I agree that her perpetual virginity reflects a view of womanhood and sexuality that is far from liberal. But really, I would point to two things that can be read to circumvent even this: First, her title as the Virgin Mother is an emphasis not as much on her virginity as it is on the miracle of Jesus’ conception. Second, both the immaculate conception and perpetual virginity point to her ability by grace to resist sin, in a way that parallels her Son’s ability to do so. In this way she serves as a model for all believers, and her lack of sexual intercourse after Jesus’ birth is no more an aversion to sexuality in general than is Jesus’.

      We should ask ourselves what kind of man would marry a pregnant virgin and agree to be married, without sex, for the rest of his life. There’s a certain queerness to the Holy Family that is rarely discussed, even in liberal Christian circles.

      Reply
      • Michaelangelo Allocca
        Michaelangelo Allocca says:

        Yes, the idea of Mary as “Virgin Mother” does indeed emphasize Jesus’s miraculous, i.e. divine, origin, more than it says anything about Mary herself. But this emphasis in no way requires that her virginity must remain for the rest of her life — that *does* become a statement about Mary herself.
        When you say that her “perpetual virginity point[s] to her ability by grace to resist sin,” you are still endorsing the notion that sex automatically equals sin, even sex within a lawful marriage.

        Reply
    • Michaelangelo Allocca
      Michaelangelo Allocca says:

      “Surprised”? I appreciate your respect for Jung’s thought, and I share it to a a certain extent — but not to the extent that I think everything needs to be viewed through a Jungian lens.

      Reply
  3. James Gerardi
    James Gerardi says:

    Finally someone is saying this aloud and pointing at least implicitly to the Church’s need for a new and more rational, more grounded, and I might even say more sane theology of sex. You are so right to call out the link between the Church’s terror of physicality and these doctrines concerning Mary. Write a book about it, please!

    Reply
  4. David Joseph Jackson
    David Joseph Jackson says:

    I had read this reflection but am a bit confused by it. I find some good points in his pointing out that we have in a sense “dehumanized” Mary. But I don’t think I get this connection he makes: ” When your theology is so hostile even to married heterosexual sex, it will naturally leave no room at all for any other categories of sexual identity or activity. A Church that shudders at the thought of Mary having a normal physical relationship with her husband is hardly likely to allow for the holiness of queer sexuality and self-understanding.”
    It seems a kind of long bow to go from his understanding evidently that Mary and Joseph had a sexual relationship, to stating “When your theology is so hostile even to married heterosexual sex.” My reading of Catholic theology is not “so hostile even to married heterosexual sex.” I do believe Catholic theology does a disservice in the notion that “all sex must be open to procreation”. But clearly the sense of the faithful and theologians, I am aware of, do not endorse or accept that.
    These two “categories of sexual identity or activity” have clearly been rejected by the Catholic Church and do not “allow for the holiness of queer sexuality and self-understanding.” For me this is clearly wrong. But to get to this from his analysis doesn’t sit right with me.
    David

    Reply
    • Michaelangelo Allocca
      Michaelangelo Allocca says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful response. I don’t know if this will dispel your confusion, but I’ll try:
      Evidently you have difficulty with my use of “When your theology is so hostile even to married heterosexual sex” as a premise for arguments about hostility to all other forms of sexuality, so perhaps I should have been clearer about where I get the premise. It’s simply this: other than hostility to sex, *even* within the confines of heterosexual marriage, what *reason* is there for insisting that Mary remained a virgin her entire life, when the Gospels not only do not support this, but actually seem to contradict it?

      Reply
  5. Erma Durkin
    Erma Durkin says:

    I notice that, at my reading, all of the comments above were made by men. As a woman, I wish to congratulate Michaelangelo for sharing his very thoughtful, honest and courageous thoughts. I, and I wonder how many other faithful Catholic women, have come to these same conclutions? Still honoring and loving Mary without admiring her less.

    Reply

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