Carmel in the World
2012. Volume LI, Number 3

  • Drawing from the Past as we face the Future. The Second Vatican Council: Our Lady in the Constitution on the Church (below)
  • Carmelites at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) Part 1
  • Hastening His Coming: The Eschatological Dimension of Carmel
  • Love for God in Carmelite Spirituality
  • The Enduring Legacy of the Reform of Touraine
  • Carmel Around the World

The Second Vatican Council: Our Lady in the Constitution on the Church

Eamonn Carroll, O.Carm.

The “question of Mary” at the Second Vatican Council has received an extraordinary amount of attention from the world press. Religious journals of our separated brethren as well as Catholic publications have followed closely conciliar debates on the matter of Mary, and the great secular news media also capitalized on the news potential of the highly sensitive theme of Marian doctrine and Marian devotion. With the publication on November 21, 1964, of Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Vatican II promulgated also its position on the meaning of Mary for this age of renewal, in the significantly titled eighth and final chapter, “The Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, in the Mystery of Christ and the Church.”
The Marian chapter consists of 17 dense paragraphs, numbers 52 through 69, totalling approximately 3,500 words in the original Latin. The first advice the present article has to give is: read the chapter over and over in as good a translation as you can obtain, study it in intimate association with the entire document on the Church. There is no substitute for such first-hand investigation; this essay attempts only to offer some guide-lines towards a better reading of Chapter Eight. Our guide-lines are two-fold: a) circumstances, namely the conciliar background to Chapter Eight; b) contents, division of material and samples from the chapter.

Circumstances: The Conciliar Background
Among the materials the conciliar Fathers received at the first session, in Fall of 1962, was a short schema, “Mary, Mother of God and Mother of men”. Some wished to vote on this separate Marian schema in time for the end of the session on December 8. The majority, however, preferred to postpone action, and many showed dissatisfaction both with the Marian document as it stood (much dependent on recent papal documents) and with the retention of a separate schema at all.
In the interim between the first and second sessions the schema was not revised because it was realized that the bishops had many suggestions still to make. Only the title was changed, to “Mary, Mother of the Church”, a switch that proved far from popular when the second session convened September 29, 1963. At once, differences of opinion crystallized and as a way out of an apparent stalemate it was decided to have a special vote. Spokesmen were appointed to represent the two positions – either retain the separate Marian schema, or incorporate it into the document on the Church. Cardinal Santos took the floor on behalf of those who wanted the separate treatment of Our Lady; Cardinal Koenig presented the viewpoint favouring integration into the schema on the Church. On October 29, 1963, the balloting was held, and by the narrowest of margins, 1140 to 1070, the Council chose to incorporate the Marian part into the Church-schema. Technically, the vote concerned procedure alone – where was the better place to consider the meaning of Mary? In fact, the procedural question was symptomatic of great differences of approach within the Council, between those favouring radical rethinking and re-statement, in terms of the Church, of every conciliar matter, Mary included, and those who preferred development about Our Lady along the more familiar lines traced out in recent pontificates. The extreme closeness of the vote, a mere difference of seventy votes, is due at least in part to the sensitivity of the topic. Some seem to have voted against integration out of fear that otherwise they would be held to be belittling Our Lady. Both sides indulged in the intense propagandizing to convince the uncommitted.
Both members and experts of the Council gave press interviews stating their positions. Abbot Butler of England said in an interview at this time: “Since Mary illustrates in her person the meaning of the Church as the supreme example of faithful discipleship, the Mariological draft logically should be part of the ecclesiological one. We feel strongly that we should go back to the biblical foundation and other sources we have in common with the separated brethren, especially the Eastern Church Fathers whence Catholic devotion to Our Lady originated.” He continued “...all Christians could mediate together on what the Bible tells us about the Mother of God, which would help the cause of unity.” The press spread reports under such sensational headlines as (I give actual examples from the Washington, D.C., papers of that time): “Vatican Council Takes First Step Towards Reducing Mary’s Role” and “Vatican Council Votes De-Emphasis of Mary”. Through the month of November, 1963, in spite of efforts on the part of various committees, the Council made little progress towards a solution of the differences dramatized by the close vote. On December 4, the closing day, Pope Paul told the bishops that Our Lady was among the pressing items of unfinished business still before them. He hoped they would find a “solution in keeping with the nature of the Council,” for “the unanimous and loving acknowledgement of the place, privileged above all, which the Mother of God occupies in the holy Church... (for) after Christ, her place in the Church is most exalted, and also the one closest to us, so that we can honour her with the title, Mother of the Church, to her glory and to our benefit.” (I have put into italics the words which were later incorporated into No. 54 of Chapter Eight).
The Church itself gave an advance sign of its outlook on our Lady at the end of the third session in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum concilium. The chapter on the Church year states that we not only recall saving history through the annual liturgical commemoration of the great events of Christ’s life, but are made one with Christ here and now in these salvific mysteries. In this context we read: “In celebrating the annual cycle of Christ’s mysteries, holy Church honours with special love the Blessed Mary, Mother of God, who is joined by an inseparable bond to the saving work of her Son. In her the Church holds up and admires the most excellent fruit of redemption, and joyfully contemplates, as in a faultless image, that which she herself desires and hopes wholly to be (No. 103).”
Between the second and third session, the part on Our Lady was rewritten as the eighth and final chapter of the Constitution on the Church. Five revisions were made and the last two of these were mailed out to all members of the Council during the summer of 1964. The title of the chapter shows the changed emphasis: “The Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, in the Mystery of Christ and the Church”.
The third session opened on September 14, 1964; debate on Chapter Eight began at once, with fourteen members speaking in two days, and still others submitting written opinions. Some thought the chapter did not sufficiently relate Our Lady to the Church. Cardinal Bea, among others, wanted the word “mediatrix” dropped altogether. Others felt too little was said about Mary. In the name of the Polish hierarchy, Cardinal Wyssynski asked that the Council call Mary, Mother of the Church (as both Cardinal Suenens and Cardinal Montini had asked even in the first session). Cardinal Suenens thought not enough was said about the spiritual motherhood of Mary and the modern Church. Finally, as it seemed that the debate was going to extend endlessly, Cardinal Frings, in the name of the seventy members, called for a halt, pointing out that Chapter Eight is a deliberate compromise between various views, and that all must be prepared to sacrifice personal preferences for the overall good. Moreover, he said the chapter is faithful to Catholic doctrine on Our Lady and does not offend ecumenism.
Further suggestions were collected privately; the commission made changes, among them such important ones as inserting the reference to Mary as “daughter of Sion”, and adding the phrase “pilgrimage of faith,” to describe Mary’s life on earth. In a vote on October 29, the chapter passed with 1559 in favour, 521 in favour but with modifications, and only 10 against. Due note was taken of the modifications and finally on November 19, Chapter Eight was voted in by a landslide vote, 2096 to 23, and promulgated as part of the Constitution, Lumen Gentium, on November 21. Pope Paul in his address at the close of session three praised the chapter on Mary as the crown and completion of the document on the Church, just as Our Lady is “the greatest part, the finest part, the principle part, the choicest part” of the Church.

In the following text, references to numbers are all to the numbered sections of Chapter Eight; comments in brackets are by the author.
“In setting forth the teaching on the Church (the context is the Dogmatic Constitution On the Church) – in which the divine Redeemer brings about salvation,” the Council “diligently intends to clarify both the role of the blessed Virgin in the mystery of the Incarnate Word (Christological emphasis) and the mystery of the Mystical Body (ecclesial emphasis), and also the duties of redeemed human beings (the cult of Mary, devotion to Mary, as response to doctrine) towards the Mother of God, who is the Mother of Christ and the Mother of men, especially of the faithful” (No. 54).
There are five main sections:
  1. the Introduction, Numbers 52-54;
  2. Role of the Blessed Virgin in the Economy of Salvation, Numbers 55-59, Mary’s association with Christ, especially in his earthly life, but extending also to the Risen Saviour;
  3. The Blessed Virgin and the Church, Numbers 60-65;
  4. The Cult of the Blessed Virgin in the Church, Numbers 66-67;
  5. Mary, the Sign of Sure Hope and Comfort for the Wayfaring People of God, Numbers 68-69, including the significance for the Church and Christian of the Assumption.

While professing not to offer a complete doctrine on Mary, the Council offers a remarkably rich picture of Mariology. The great defined truths are all here – divine motherhood, virginity, Immaculate Conception, Assumption. Many other truths about her that we regard as Catholic doctrine are also brought out – her Queenship, freedom from personal sin, and, most of all, Mary’s present place in the communion of the saints, that is, her role as spiritual Mother of the brothers and sisters of Christ here and now. Following the usual policy of ecumenical Councils, Vatican II refrains from entering into questions that are currently matters of free dispute among theologians – e.g., the extent of Mary’s knowledge of Christ’s divinity at the Annunciation, the more exact interpretation of biblical texts concerning her, such as John 19:26, and the manner of her heavenly intercession.
In the opening paragraph (No. 52) the Church relates Mary to the divine mystery of salvation, inaugurated in Christ, continued in his Body, the Church, by citing the most ancient and strongest reference to Our Lady that is still used in the Western liturgy, from the first commemoration prayer (Communicantes) of the canon of the Mass – “adhering to Christ the head and being joined in fellowship with all his saints, the faithful must also venerate the memory first of all of the glorious and ever-virgin Mary, Mother of our God and Lord, Jesus Christ” (No. 52).
Mary’s association in the mystery of Christ is developed first in her motherhood of the Word made flesh, then in the spiritual motherhood of the members of the Body of Christ which is his Church. Along with the Pauline image of the Church as Body of Christ, conveying the organic unity of Head and members, the Council emphasized strongly the image of the Church as the People of God. The Church is the family for God in which all people are called to be children of God, brothers and sisters of Christ, the first-born Son, children too of Mary, Mother of the Church.
Section II, “The Role of the Blessed Virgin in the Economy of Salvation,” contains a beautiful section on the Bible and Mary. Even the Old Testament can be regarded as foreshadowing Mary’s role in the economy of salvation, as the scriptures slowly prepared for the coming of Christ. The necessary conditions for thus understanding the Old Testament are that they be “read in the Church and understood in the light of the further, full revelation” of the New Testament (No. 55). The traditional criterion of being “read in the Church” describes also the Church’s appreciation of New Testament theology about Mary’s role in the plan of salvation. So the Council appeals to the Church’s own “unfailing experience” of the subordinate role that the Church commends to the faithful, “so that they, supported by this maternal help, may adhere more closely to the Mediator and Saviour” (No. 62). The “unfailing experience” is guaranteed by God, for “taught by the Holy Spirit, the Catholic Church shows filial devotion to her as a most loving Mother” (No. 53).
Mary is the “new Eve” according to ancient Christian authors – St. Irenaeus is quoted, as are St. Epiphanius and St. Jerome. The union of Mary with her Son is traced from the conception of Christ to the Redeemer’s death. Special stress is put on Our Lady’s “pilgrimage of faith” – the scriptural picture of Mary that Catholics have tended to overlook, but which Protestant biblical scholars rightly insist on. Faith in the biblical sense is not simply intellectual assent; it is total commitment to God’s will. In Chapter Eight, faith is sometimes joined to obedience (No. 56, 61), sometimes to the other theological virtues of hope and charity (No. 61). “The Virgin Mary… received the Word of God into her heart and her body at the angel’s announcement” (No. 53). “She wholeheartedly embraced God’s salvific will, devoted herself completely as the Lord’s handmaid to the person and work of her Son, and through the grace of almighty God, served the mystery of redemption under him and with him. Therefore the Fathers of the Church rightly regard Mary not merely as one passively used by God, but as one who freely co-operated in man’s salvation by her faith and obedience” (No. 56).
Elizabeth praised Mary for her faith in the promise of salvation. When she did not understand, she still pondered in her heart in the simplicity of faith, as at Simeon’s words (Luke 2:34-35), as at the mystery of the finding of her 12-year old Son (Luke 2:41-51; No. 57). The liturgy has never shied away from the “difficult sayings” of the public life of Christ, but rather used them in Mary’s praise. The Council does the same with the incidents of Mark 3:35 and Luke 11:27-28: “In the course of his preaching, she made her own the words in which her Son raised the kingdom beyond the considerations and bonds of flesh and blood by proclaiming blessed those who heard the word of God and kept it, just as she herself was doing so faithfully (cf. Luke 2:19-51). In this way, the Blessed Virgin progressed on her pilgrimage of faith and faithfully maintained her union with her Son even to the cross” (No. 58).
The culmination for the Mother of the Saviour was the glory of her Assumption “exalted by the Lord as Queen of the universe, so that she might be more fully conformed to her Son, the Lord of Lords and the victor over sin and death” (No. 59).
Section III, on the Blessed Virgin and the Church, introduces the question of Mary’s relationship to Christ “our mediator” (1Tim. 2:4). With a fine ecumenical sense the Council shows how the correct understanding of Our Lady’s role fosters our union with Christ. “The Blessed Virgin is invoked in the Church under the titles of Advocate, Auxiliatrix, Adjutrix, and Mediatrix. But this is understood in such a way that it neither takes away from, nor adds to the dignity and efficacy of Christ, the one Mediator” (No. 62).
Chapter Eight, especially Numbers 60 and following, describes Mary’s involvement in the work of man’s salvation in terms of her spiritual motherhood, choosing this way of speaking in place of the language of mediation. Such terms and concepts as co-redemption and co-redemptrix, not uncommon in recent Marian theology, are passed over in silence, and even mediatrix appears once only in carefully controlled fashion. But the spiritual motherhood occurs in practically every paragraph of the chapter, so much so that as Abbot Butler commented after papal proclamation of “Mother of the Church” on November 21, 1964: “the Pope simply put in explicit words what the Council just stopped short of saying.”
Mary’s motherhood in the economy of grace goes on unceasingly, from the consent which she gave in faith at the Annunciation and unwaveringly maintained beneath the cross even to the eternal fulfilment of all the elect. When she was assumed to heaven, she did not lay aside this salvific role; rather, by her constant intercession she continues to obtain for us the gifts of eternal salvation. In her maternal love she looks after her Son’s brethren who are still wayfarers…” (No. 62). Over and over again, with marvellous variety, the paragraphs of Chapter Eight repeat the motif of Number 103 of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy: “Mary is inseparably joined to the saving work of her Son.” We must not separate the Redeemer’s saving work on earth, culminating in His passion and death, from the heavenly intercession of the Risen Victor Christ. In similar, though subordinate, fashion, according to Catholic understanding of Mary’s place in the communion of the saints, we honour the handmaid of the Lord who walked in faith and obedience on earth as our Blessed Mother in heaven, actively and lovingly involved in our being made ever more one with Christ.
The role of Mary as model of the Church is outlined in Section III. Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, called our Lady “the spotless image” of the Church. Now we find this theme illustrated with many citations from the ancient Christian authors. “The Church contemplating her hidden sanctity and imitating her charity, and faithfully fulfilling the Father’s will itself becomes a mother through the faithful reception of God’s word. Through preaching and by baptism it begets children to new and immortal life – children conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of God. And the Church too is a Virgin who keeps faith pledged to her Spouse in all its purity and fullness. By the power of the Holy Spirit he imitates the mother of her Lord, and, like a virgin, maintains undiminished faith, steadfast hope and sincere charity” (No. 64).
In seeking the glory of Christ, the Church becomes ever more like Mary the Mother of the Lord, and constantly progresses in faith, hope and charity, seeking and doing the will of God in all things. The motherly love of the Virgin Mary inspires the faithful to co-operate in the apostolic mission of the Church for the rebirth of men (No. 65). Mary’s role in the apostolate was a last-minute addition to the chapter, at the urging of Cardinal Suenens: “In its apostolic work too, the Church rightly looks to her who bore Christ – conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of a virgin so that through the Church He may be born and may grow in the hearts of the faithful as well” (No. 65).
Section IV is on the cult of Mary in the Church. In two long paragraphs, Numbers 66-67, the Council explains Catholic devotion to Mary, showing its antiquity and legitimate variety, and urging a just balance between the excesses of exaggeration and niggardliness. Let the liturgical cult of the Blessed Virgin be especially fostered, but let the faithful be generous also using other practices of Marian piety approved by the Church. “True devotion does not consist in sterile and superficial sentiment, nor in empty credulity… on the contrary, it proceeds from true faith which leads us to recognize the excellence of God’s Mother…” (No. 67). Under the Church’s teaching authority, theologians and preachers are to be guided by the study of the Bible, the ancient Christian authors, the doctors of the Church, and the liturgies. In talking about the Blessed Virgin, let them show how her privileges and functions look always to Christ, the source of all truth and sanctity” (No. 67).
The last section, Section V, proposes the Assumption of Mary as a sure sign of hope and solace to the pilgrim people of God. “Right now the Mother of Jesus, already glorified body and soul in heaven, is the image and the beginning of the Church as it is to be perfected in the world to come; and here on earth, until the day of the Lord arrives (cf. 2Peter, 3:10), she shines out as a sign of sure hope and comfort for the wayfaring people of God” (No. 68).

It was interesting to see the reaction to the Council’s handling of the role of Mary when the first commentaries on Lumen Gentium by the separated brethren as well as by Catholic authors began to appear . Although heartened by the deliberate avoidance of “co-redemptrix”, and the relatively minor reference to “mediatrix”, non-Catholic authors are in understandable disagreement with many facets of Chapter Eight. They approve the appeal to Scripture and the ancient Christian authors, but cannot agree with Roman insistence on “unfailing experience” as a criterion for interpreting the word of God. (See the essays by Oscar Cullmann and Warren A. Quanbeck in the book: Dialogue on the Way, edited by G. Lindbeck, Augsburg Publishing House, St. Paul, Minnesota, 1965). Even for Max Thurian (Mary, Mother of the Lord, Figure of the Church, Faith Press, London, 1964; the American printing is mistitled, Mary, Mother of ALL Christians, Herder and Herder, New York, 1964). Mary, model of the Church, is “mother in the Church,” but not “mother of the Church,” nor “spiritual mother of men.” Still a stone of stumbling to other Christians of the West, is our Catholic insistence on Mary’s present role in the plan of salvation, so insistently stated in Chapter Eight that the Blessed Virgin is inseparably joined to the saving work of her Son, not simply once in Palestine.
Characteristic of the ecumenical hopes of the entire Lumen Gentium (as its name shows, Christ is the Light of Nations) is the final thought of Chapter Eight, a sentence which returns again to the formulary of the principal act of Catholic worship, to the communicantes of the Mass: “By her prayers the Virgin Mother of God contributed to the first successes of the Church, and now she is exalted over all the saints and angels in heaven. So let all faithful Christians offer urgent prayers to the Mother of God and Mother of men in order that she may intercede with her Son in the communion of all the Saints, until the whole family of nations – whether they bear the honoured name of Christian or still do not know their Saviour – may be joyfully assembled into a single people of God, in peace and harmony, to the glory of the most holy and undivided Trinity” (No. 69).

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