Sr. Mc Bride Section

Mary, Mother of God Section 

Marian Theology up to Vatican II


                                                                                                              Sr. Thomas Mary, O.P.

                                                                                                   Our Lady of Grace Monastery

Before Vatican II

I will begin by painting in broad strokes, within the framework of the past 2000 years, the theological position of the Virgin Mary, Mother of God.  As we study the figure of Mary we discover not a simple straight line of development but rather one that is complex and varied.  However for our purpose here, I offer a very simple approach, remembering all the while that these broad strokes are more a matter of emphases rather than either/or.

I have divided the past 2000 years into two major blocks of time.  The first 1000 years of Church history, from the time of Jesus up to the XI century could be described, according to Jean Leclercq,  noted historian and Benedictine, as a marian period of "extreme sobriety." [1]  During this period the theological study of Mary threw light on the mystery of Christ in the great christological controversies of the early Church.  And secondly, the theme of Mary as image of the Church grew and developed in the writings of the early Fathers, especially in St. Augustine who is the most famous for the identification of Mary with the Church.

The most important marian truth that emerged in this first historical bloc of time was that Mary is the Mother of God, i.e. she is our Theotokus, literally translated as "God bearer."   This truth of Mary as God's mother safeguards the integrity of Christ as truly God and truly human a truth we are inclined to take for granted but the early Church had to struggle with these realities.     

From possibly as early as the III century there has now been discovered a fragment of a prayer to the Mother of God, the Sub Tuum, with which most of us are familiar in one form or another:

We fly to your protection O holy Mother of God, despise not our petitions in our necessities but deliver us from all dangers, ever glorious and blessed Virgin. 

It is good to remember in our ecumenical age that this early mariology originated primarily in the Eastern Church and from there expanded into the West in the course of the IV century.  But in the IX and X centuries, with a lessening of contact between  East and West, there was also a lessening of marian devotion in the West.  And so we come to a close of this first period of sober marian theology with its outstanding contributions:  Mary acknowledged as Mother of God; Mary as bringing clarity to the early christological controversies; Mary as image of the Church.

The second great marian period is termed by Leclercq a period of religious exuberance. [2]   It began in the XI century together with a general awakening and renewal of the Church.  Marian study and devotion assumed a more expressive approach as people began to honor  Mary's privileges: her immaculate conception, her assumption, and the power of her intercession.  Marian homilies, marian hymns and poetry abounded; theological treatises were many; marian pilgrimages and shrines were multiplied; many Churches were dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Mary's Feasts: her conception, her nativity, her purification and assumption appear more regularly in the Liturgy.  The practice of the Saturday votive Mass and Office of the BVM becomes more and more regular.  During this period we have the development of the Immaculate Conception which was subsequently defined by Pius IX in 1854 and crowned by the apparitions at Lourdes in 1858 where Mary herself said: I am the Immaculate Conception a Feast which has been incorporated into the Liturgy of the Church. 

With a reopening of relations between East and West, marian icons and marian statues spread everywhere.  Thus marian art became a means of drawing people closer to Mary as their great intercessor with God.  And in this drawing closer to the Mother of God we have the beginning of the awareness of Mary's presence in our midst. Throughout this second period there was much theological study of Mary's role in the redemptive work of Christ and of Mary's intercession as Mediatrix of All Grace.  In 1950 we have the solemn definition of Mary's Assumption by Pius XII bringing this second period to an all time high.

Twelve years later, the second Vatican Council opened on the then celebrated Feast of Our Lady's Motherhood, October 11, 1962 but after the Council this second great period of marian devotion fell into sharp decline. 


The marian preparatory theological commission which had been set up by John XXIII in 1960 had as its original preference to incorporate the conciliar teaching on Our Lady in a separate document, that is, to give Mary her own document. [3]   However in October of 1960, the commission had a change of mind and the majority voted to integrate the treatise on Mary into the Constitution on the Church. 

Then after much work and the consideration of several drafts, the idea of a separate schema for Mary re-emerged.  By January of 1962, the commission decided once again that the marian schema should be independent and stand on its own.  This independent schema was given to John XXIII who approved it on November 10, 1962.  It was given to the Council Fathers thirteen days later on November 23.

A year intervened between the bishops receiving this schema and its discussion on the floor.  This gave time for thought.   In September of 1963, change was again in the air when seven of the Council Fathers returned to the idea that the marian schema be integrated into the Constitution on the Church. 

In October arguments were presented on the Council floor, both for and against the proposal to make the schema on Our Blessed Mother a part of the Constitution on the Church.  These arguments brought out the fact that there was no real disagreement among the bishops about Mary's role in the Church or about the honor that we owe to her.  No one at Vatican II was lacking in devotion to Mary.  The question under discussion concerned solely, as Cardinal Santos of the Philippines put it, "the place and manner of more suitably treating the doctrine about Mary." [4] 

Cardinal Santos represented the opinion that because of Mary's great dignity and unique role in the Church, the Council should award her a separate schema so that her singular preeminence and dignity might be more apparent but at the same time, this ought to be done in very close connection with the schema on the Church.   However his preference was for a separate schema in order to give the faithful, as he put it, a more complete doctrine on Mary and secondly, because mariology has close bonds both with christology and with soteriology, as well as with ecclesiology.  He foresaw the danger of misleading the faithful by seeming to refuse Mary the dignity of a distinct document.

Cardinal Koenig, representing the other side of the question, thought that a separate document would create the false impression that Vatican II intended to define a new marian dogma.  He saw a distinct advantage in treating of Mary as both preeminent member of the Church as well as archetype of the Church in one document, namely: the overcoming of theological and devotional excesses and deviations which resulted from unduly isolating Mary from the mystery of Christ and the Church.  Finally, he foresaw that having Mary and the Church in one document would have the ecumenical value of making Mary more recognizable and acceptable to other christian churches. [5]  

At the conclusion of the discussion the Fathers were asked to make the final decision by voting.

The vote of the Council Fathers was extremely close:

1114 - in favor of integrating the marian schema into the  Constitution on the Church.

1074 - in favor of a separate schema.

                        only 17 votes gave the needed majority

This was by far the narrowest majority in the history of Vatican II.  This decision did seem to create a false impression that somehow the council wanted to reduce marian devotion, an impression that had been foreseen by Cardinal Santos.  The news media exploited the situation.  The Council was made to seem divided on the subject of Our Lady, when in reality, the question was over the more suitable place of treating of Our Lady.  Thirty years later the Church is still trying to dispel these false impressions. 

On the other side, many Protestants are taking a new look at Mary as predicted by Cardinal Koenig.  A good number of bishops came to the Council expecting the doctrine and title of Mary, Mediatrix of All Grace, to be finally defined by the Church.  Instead, principally for ecumenical reasons, the title of Mediatrix was submerged in a list of other titles and a special emphasis was placed on Christ as the one mediator and Mary's role as being subordinate to Christ.  That Mary's role is subordinate to Christ has always been the teaching of the Church but our Protestant brothers and sisters have received a different impression.  Therefore, the Council bent over backwards, as it were, in their desire to bring a corrective to this situation.

If we look carefully at the document we will see that nothing essential of the past 2000 years has been lost, but rather, that a pruning has taken place.  And pruning has for its purpose that a more abundant and fuller growth might spring up.


The principle pruning of mariology has been a shift away from honoring the privileges and splendors of Mary for their own sake in what has often been called an 'isolated mariology' to an emphasis on Mary as one with us.  We are being called to contemplate the Gospel mysteries of her  life in relation to the mysteries of our own life and to imitate her perfect response of faith.

While the Council strongly urges us to continue to exalt Mary who "far surpasses all other creatures in heaven and on earth" (LG #54)  and to pray to Mary whose intercession and protection the Church "continually experiences" (LG #62), the Council also asks us to  focus explicitly on Mary as a type of the Church.  This is a pruning because it is often easier to honor Mary than to probe her mystery, to exalt Mary than to make our own life like hers: a total faith response to God. 

As a help in this direction Mary is presented in Lumen Gentium in Biblical terms.  This is a new development in Church documents.  The Scriptures are our purest source of the knowledge of Mary.  Mary herself was steeped in the living waters of the Old Testament.  These waters continue to bear life for our contemporary times.  In speaking of the Old Testament, Chapter VIII of Lumen Gentium is very explicit in saying that the Old Testament is to be "understood in the light of further and full revelation" (LG #55).  Commenting on this passage, mariologist James O'Connor explains that

"in the light of the fullness of revelation we are not 'reading back into' the documents something which is not really there, but something which is truly there but only fully understood when read in the perspective of the completed work." [6]

That is, we read the New Testament in the light of the Old Testament and the Old in the light of the New.  Scripture scholars call this the "sensus plenior" that additional deeper meaning intended by God but not clearly intended by the human author.  Scripture interpreters of all times have considered the sensus plenior as a valid inspired meaning of Scripture intended by God. [7]  

Here we can barely touch on Mary in Scripture, so vast is the ocean.  Thomas Merton has written that unless

"we find her [Mary] living in the midst of Scripture, and unless we find  her, also hidden in Scripture wherever and in whatever promises contain her Son, we shall not fully know the life that is in Scripture." [8] 

I will take a brief look at three texts and share some simple thoughts as starting points for further development.  In order to pursue a true picture of Mary it is good to begin with the prophesy in Genesis 3:15 which all of Tradition has applied to Mary, the Mother of our Savior:

I will put enmity between you and the woman,

between your seed and her seed;

He will strike your head

and you will strike his heel.

This passage signifies the battle which continues to take place between good and evil, wherein Mary stands as our hope.

Turning to the history of the Jewish people, we find a long line of women who are considered types of Mary.  We can think of Sara, wife of Abraham, so marvelously fruitful with Isaac in her old age; of Miriam who guarded the infant Moses who would eventually free Israel from Egyptian oppression.

We think of those heroines who saved their people from ruin types of Mary in her spiritual collaboration with Christ's redeeming work.  In the time of the Judges it was Deborah who led her countrymen to victory (Judg 4:6-10).  Jael crushed the head of Sisara and brought defeat to the enemy (Judg 4:21).  The valiant Judith  cut off the head of Holofernes and thus saved her people (Jdt 13).  On marian feasts the Church in her Liturgy honors Mary by praying from the book of Judith:

O daughter, you are blessed by the most high God

above all women on earth;

and blessed is the Lord God (Jdt 13:18).

How similar to what we read in Luke 1:42 and pray over and over again in the Hail Mary:

Blessed are you among women

and blessed is the fruit of your womb.

A parallel which implies a double identification: between Judith and Mary and between the Lord God and Jesus.[9] 

Considering Judith as a type or symbol of Mary we are helped to appreciate the enormous courage and initiative that Mary exercised in her life.  As Paul VI expressed in Marialus Cultus, Mary was invited by God

"not to the solution of a contingent problem, but to that 'event of world importance', as the Incarnation of the Word has been rightly called".

God entered into dialogue with Mary and waited upon her active and responsible consent (MC #37). 

Looking at Mary in this way we can see her as an archetype for contemporary women in their legitimate desires to be more intensely involved in the mission of the Church and in the healing of societal wounds.  Women of today can look to Mary as one who fully and responsibly heard the word of God and acted upon it.

You are the glory of Jerusalem;

you are the joy of Israel;

you are the highest honor of our race (Jdt 15:9-10).

Chapter VIII of Lumen Gentium singles out the Daughter of Sion theme from the Old Testament and sees Mary as the "outstanding Daughter of Sion" (LG #55). [10]   In Micah this expression refers to a section of Jerusalem filled with poor disabled people to whom the prophet addresses words of hope:

O Daughter of Sion...you shall be rescued...

the Lord will redeem you from the hand of your enemies (4:10).

          Arise...O Daughter of Sion (4:13).

These were the remnant, destitute refugees for whom all earthly hope was lost and whose only refuge was in God.  The Daughter of Sion theme is intrinsically linked with the notion of the remnant and the poor.  Mary who sings in the Magnificat that God has regarded the lowliness of his handmaid "stands out among the poor and humble of the Lord" (LG #55), as Vatican II teaches.

Gradually the Old Testament theme took on a deeper religious meaning and began to stand for the whole city of Jerusalem where the presence of Yahweh dwelt.  In the prophet Zephaniah we read:

Sing aloud, O Daughter of Sion,

Shout for joy, O Israel.

Rejoice and exult with all your heart

O Daughter of Jerusalem...

The King of Israel, Yahweh, is in your midst;

you shall fear evil no more (Zeph 3:14-15).

The theme continued to develop and it became linked with the post-exilic theme of Sion as the Mother of a new people (Is 54:1; 66:6-14), and Mother of all nations (Ps 87).  As Mother of Jesus, Mary summarizes in her person the long preparation of the Old Testament which preceded the appearance of the Messiah.  She brings the past to an end and inaugurates the new creation.  

There is a extraordinary parallel between the prophecies to the Daughter of Sion and their fulfillment in the Lucan portrait of Mary in the infancy narratives.  Many Protestant and Catholic scholars are in agreement with this parallel and in regarding Mary as "the outstanding Daughter of Sion" (LG #55).

As Mary summed up and personified Israel, she also personifies and expresses the deepest nature and meaning of the Church a Church which is both contemplative and missionary.  Mary is the model contemplative and the first missionary.  Immediately after the Annunciation, Mary impelled by the Holy Spirit, rose up and carried the Son of God to her cousin Elizabeth.  Elizabeth recognized and welcomed the one sent: who am I that the Mother of my Lord should come to me (Lk 1:43)?             

Mary presented Jesus to the lowly shepherds in Bethlehem (Lk 2:15), and to the Magi who came from the East to adore (Mt 2:11).  She placed the Child in old Simeon's arms who embraced him as the Light of all nations (Lk 2:28). 

At the wedding feast of Cana (Jn 2: 1-11), it was Mary who noticed the plight of the newly married couple.  They were expected to provide wine for the invited guests who came from all parts of the surrounding locale during the week long celebration.  Wine is an indispensable element of Jewish rejoicing so the couple must have been very poor indeed if they were unable to provide in ample measure this very necessary ingredient.  Their failure would put them in an embarrassing situation.  Without being asked Mary quickly reaches out to them in their predicament.  We call Our Lady  Comforter of the afflicted in her Litany. And her example invites us, in our turn, to bring comfort to the afflicted and to those less fortunate than ourselves.

There are many levels of meaning in the Cana story.  We see Mary beginning her intercessory role which she continues to exercise in our behalf today bringing us needed help in our problems and difficulties.  In the Memorare we pray:

Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to your protection, implored your help, or sought your intercession was left unaided.

By her intervention, Mary initiated Jesus' public messianic mission which culminated in the pouring out of the nuptial wine of the New Covenant his precious Blood.  Mary reaches out to all peoples of all times in our innate spiritual poverty  so that we might receive the new wine of the Eucharist.  As she told the waiters at Cana, Do whatever He tells you,  so she says the same to each of us in our heart.

Mary alone carried the faith of the newly born Church as she stood by the cross of Jesus and awaited the promised resurrection.  She implored the gift of the Holy Spirit for the apostles at Pentecost (Acts 1:14), a gift she had already received in the annunciation.  As Chapter VIII teaches, Mary, by the power of the Holy Spirit, brought forth Christ and she continues to bring forth

"the faithful, in whose generation and education she cooperates with maternal love.  The Church, in turn, contemplating her mysterious holiness, imitating her charity, and faithfully fulfilling the Father's will, herself becomes mother by faithfully receiving the word of God: for by preaching and baptism she brings forth to new and immortal life children conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of God (LG #63, 64). 

Mary's whole purpose, as is the Church's, is to manifest Christ, to bring all people to her Son.  We come to Mary only to find our way more surely to him.

Mary is both our Mother and our model.  As our Mother she nurtures and intercedes for us drawing us to the Sacrifice of Christ.  As our model she shows us how to live the Christian mysteries as we contemplate the Scriptures.  She enlightens us to discover the same mysteries in our own life and to respond in total faith.  As John Paul II reminds us in his marian encyclical Redemptoris Mater, which is really a commentary on Chapter VIII of Lumen Gentium, we are called to the same heights of faith and holiness that Mary was.  John Paul II highlights Ephesians:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ

who has blest us in Christ

with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places (Eph 1:3).

This passage, our holy Father tells us, reveals "the eternal design of God the Father....It is a universal plan which concerns all men and women created in the image and likeness of God" (RM #7). 

We have been chosen in Christ,

before the foundation of the world,

that we should be holy and blameless before him. 

He destined us in love to be his sons and daughters

through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will,

to the praise of his glorious grace

which he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved (Eph 1:4-6).

This spiritual blessing of grace, the Pope says, while it

"refers to Mary in a special and exceptional degree...is meant for all people(RM #8)....This election is more powerful than any experience of evil and of sin, than all that 'enmity' (foretold in Genesis) which marks the history of human­kind.  In this history Mary remains a sign of sure hope" (RM #11).


In summary, it is now thirty years since Vatican II and we have all experienced to some degree the radical pruning of mariology.  But as I have attempted to clarify, nothing essential has been lost.  The roots remain vital and vibrant with life.  In the first thousand years of "extreme sobriety," Mary played a major role in the formation of christology.  In the second thousand years, a period of marian exuberance, the preeminence and glory of Mary shone forth with particular brilliance:

Who is this that comes forth as the morning rising,

fair as the moon and bright as the sun,

resplendent as an army set in battle array (Sg 6:10).

But in this second period there can be found a multiplicity of devotions and titles without always, perhaps, a corresponding engagement in the spiritual discipline of connecting these marian  devotions with our existential lives and the real life of the Church. 

Now after all this pruning begun by Vatican II, what kind of more abundant and fuller growth should we look for? 

In a nutshell, I would suggest that the Holy Spirit, working through the decision of Vatican II to include the marian schema within the Constitution on the Church, is guiding us to focus on Mary as model and type of the Church, that is, on her exemplarity and closeness to us.  And already seedlings are popping up I have already mentioned a few:

I - MARY IN SCRIPTURE - Contemporary women can find in Mary, contemplated through the focus of Scripture, inspiration and confirmation as they seek to serve the Church and society with the fullness of their gifts.

II - MARY AND THE CONTEMPLATIVE - Each of us is called to the same faith response as Mary to ponder the Word that the Holy Spirit speaks in our heart.

Blessed is she who has believed (Lk 1:45).

III - MARY AND THE MISSIONER - How totally Mary's life is an icon for the missioner from her first missionary journey to her cousin Elizabeth until her ardent prayer in the Cenacle in the midst of the disciples as they awaited Pentecost, her whole life was devoted to the work of her Son.

IV - MARY AND THE HOLY SPIRIT - This is a fertile field waiting to be cultivated.  Throughout her life Mary responded to the action of the Holy Spirit and became an icon of the living flame of Divine Love.

IV - MARY AND A FEMININE CHURCH - The Swiss theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar, has put it this way:

It should give a woman a feeling of exaltation to know that she particularly in the virgin-mother Mary is the privileged place where God can and wishes to be received in the world.  Between the first Incarnation of the Word of God in Mary and its ever new arrival in the receiving Church, there exists an inner continuity.  This and only this is the decisive Christian event, and insofar as men are in the Church, they must participate whether they have office or not in this comprehensive femininity of the Marian Church . . . . [that is], by learning to express and live better the fiat that Mary addressed to God one and triune. [11] 

Mary's fiat is at the heart of the Church.  In her we find the example of what it means to say "yes" to God and the courage to carry out the mission of Christ that has been entrusted to each  of us in a unique and personal way.

Von Balthasar has said:

From the cross the Son hands his mother over into the Church of the apostles, from now on her place is there.  In a hidden manner her virginal motherhood holds sway throughout the whole sphere of the Church, gives it light, warmth, protection; her cloak makes the Church into a protective cloak.  It requires no special gesture from her to show that we should look at the Son and not at her.  Her very nature as handmaid reveals him. [12]   

It is Mary who can show all of us, called as we are according to our vocation to be servants of her Son, how we can be both wholly effective presence and wholly self-effacing servants of the good and perfect gift of Divine Love which comes down from the Father of lights in whom there is no change or shadow of alteration (Ja 1:17).  


1. Jean Leclercq, "Grandeur et Misere de la Devotion Mariale au Moyen-Age" La Maison - dieu 38(2) 1954: 122. (Typewritten translation) For a discussion of the history of Marian devotion see entire article pp. 122-135 and to which I am indebted for the initial approach taken in this paper.

Ibid., p.122.

3. I am indebted to the following principal sources for the discussion of the factors leading up to and surrounding the insertion of Chapter 8 in Lumen Gentium: Frederick Jelly, "The Theological Context of and Introduction to Chapter 8 of Lumen Gentium," Marian Studies 37(1986): 43-61; Michael O'Carroll, Theotokus: A Theological Encyclopedia of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Wilmington, Del.: Michael Glazier, Inc., Revised Edition with Supplement, 1983), s.v. "Vatican II", pp. 351-356.

4. Jelly, "The Theological Context of and Introduction to Chapter 8 of Lumen Gentium", p. 51.

5. Ibid., p. 59.

6. James O'Connor, "Lumen Gentium", 55 to 59, Marian Studies 37(1986): 80. For a detailed discussion of the application of Scripture texts to the Blessed Virgin Mary by the Council see entire article pp. 74-95.

7. Eric E. May, "The Problems of a Biblical Mariology," Marian Studies 11(1960): 47.

8. Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 2nd ed. (New York: New Directions, 1972), p. 175.

9. Lucien Deiss, Mary, Daughter of Sion, trans. by Barbara T. Blair (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1972), p. 96.

10. For a scriptural study of the theme of Mary, Daughter of Sion, see John Mc Hugh, The Mother of Jesus in the New Testament (New York: Doubleday, 1975), pp. 29-55; for a study of the "Daughter of Sion" in the Old Testament see pp. 438-444.

11. Hans Urs von Balthasar, L'Osservatore Romano, 24 February 1977, p. 7, quoted in Review for Religious (July 1977): 524.

12.Hans Urs von Balthasar,
Elucidations, trans. by John Riches (London: S.P.C.K., 1975), p. 72. Originally published as Klarstellungen: zur Prufung der Geister (Freiburg im Breisgau: Verlag Herder KG, 1971)


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Understanding the Mother of Jesus. Wilmington: Michael Glazier, 1979.

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Schillebeeckx, Edward. Mary.
Mother of the Redemption, 3rd ed. Translated by N. D. Smith. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1964. Originally published as Maria, Moeder van de verlossing (Antwerp: Uitgevery Apostolaat van de Rozenkrans, 1954).

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Copyright ©; Sr. Thomas Mary McBride, O.P. 2003

This Version: 3rd May 2003


Sr. Mc Bride Section

Mary, Mother of God Section