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Inaccurate deception?

Empress and Handmaid: On Nature and Gender in the Cult of the Virgin Mary by Sarah Jane Boss. New York: Cassell, 2000, 253 pp., $57.95 hardcover, $24.95 paper.

Lourdes: Body and Spirit in the Secular Age by Ruth Harris. New York: Viking Penguin, 1999, 474 pp., $34.95 hardcover.

Anyone who thought that the cult of the Virgin Mary was an outdated manifestation of the Christian religion must have been shocked by the media hoopla surrounding two recent Vatican announcements. In May of 2000, as part of the Jubilee celebration in honor of the beginning of the third millennium of Christianity (or the end of the second, as some count it), Pope John Paul II saw fit to travel in person to Fatima, Portugal, and preside at the beatification ceremonies for two Portuguese children who had seen a series of visions of the Virgin Mary in 1917; the third child visionary, Sister Lucia dos Santos, is still alive and was present at the event. The Pope also took this occasion to make public the gist of the long-awaited "Third Secret of Fatima" revealed to Sistei Lucia by the Virgin in 1917 and written down in 1944. Divulgence of "The Third Secret" had been expected in 1960 and the Vatican silence on the subject gave rise to one of the more colorful conspiracy theories in Christian history.

Some weeks later "The Third Secret of Fatima" was officially announced by a Vatican press conference moderated by the formidable Cardinal Josef Ratzinger; the interpretation of the document linked its meaning to the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II in 1981. At the end of the press conference, it was announced that the Vatican web site had posted the entire text of Sister Lucia's letter. The response was immediate: so many people tried to access the Vatican web page that it crashed for the rest of the day. When it was up and running again, the site included a scanned-in copy of the original Portuguese document in Sister Lucia's hand, translations in various languages, and the full text of Ratzinger's interpretation, all of which you can see at

The response to this announcement is in itself an attention-getter; it is perhaps even more fascinating that such unusual Vatican openness has done little to stop speculation about the Virgin's secret message. Indeed, a new generation of theories about the "real" message of Fatima bubbles on the edges of popular Catholic spirituality. This is still a hot topic. It should be, since, in fact, more than any other period of Christian history, the last two centuries have seen the most rapid change and growth in the cult of the Virgin Mary. Only recently, though, have these modern manifestations of Marian piety (rather than more archaic topics, like the glories of stone Virgins on Gothic churches) been studied in any concerted way. These two new books, both by women scholars and informed by feminist perspectives, grapple seriously with the cult of the Virgin Mary in the modern age.

Sarah Jane Boss sets out to "locate the ever-changing place which Marian devotion has occupied in the history of Western civilization, and particularly in the history of technological change and of related ideas about nature and gender." Her study is influenced by the so-called Frankfurt School of Critical Theory and derives many of its ideas from the social theory of domination articulated by such writers as Adorno, Horkheimer and Marcuse. Boss argues that the cult of the Virgin Mary is "intimately bound to social relations of domination," including class and gender; but she is particularly interested in highlighting the relationship between Marian piety and another domination: the domination of nature.

Even allowing for changes over time in the definition of "nature," Boss believes that Western civilization has moved inexorably in the direction of tyranny over the natural world. This includes a decline in the sacrality of motherhood and maternal authority and a glorification of rationality and technological innovation that places men at the center of the universe: "We have already seen that scientific anthropocentrism should more properly be characterized as androcentrism: it is not humanity, but men--or even, male scientists--who effectively hold centre-stage as the 'I' in relation to the female 'other' of Nature." As the male intellect becomes more and more godlike, the female is increasingly understood as profane, and so the Virgin Mary"--who stands for creation in relation to God, and so corresponds to nature in relation to humanity--seems over the centuries to have lost the terrible sacred power which she once held in the Christian imagination."

At the center of Boss's argument is an original interpretation of the social construction of one of the more peculiar theological positions having to do with the Virgin Mary: the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, the conviction that Mary herself was conceived by her parents without original sin, although (unlike Jesus) in the normal way, through sexual intercourse. Mary's Immaculate Conception is a precondition for the virgin birth of Jesus. This idea developed in the first centuries of Christianity, and was originally expressed through story-telling in the apocryphal gospels, and liturgically. By the high middle ages, formal theology had caught up with the concept, and, as Boss shows in some detail, conflicting schools of thought developed. Many of the "Immaculists" in favor of the feast were Franciscans, "men and women who held a strong belief in the goodness of God's creatures," while the "Anti-Immaculist" party was dominated by Dominicans like Thomas Aquinas who argued from an Augustinian understand ing of original sin escaped by no human being, not even the Mother of God.

The Immaculate Conception of Mary was debated for centuries, and proclaimed as "dogma" (that is, a doctrine Catholics are required to believe) only in 1854. The doctrine, Boss argues, has won out in Catholic theology because it portrays Mary as what John Paul II has called the "co-redemptrix"--in Boss's words, "an icon of freedom from domination, who not only inspires in the devotee the hope for a world transformed, but already embodies that transformation in her own life. This sacred integrity may already be suggested by the great Virgin in Majesty figures of twelfth-century Europe, in which Christ arises out of his mother like a sapling out of the soil."

Well, perhaps so. But, what if we look at the cult of the Virgin Mary the other way around, from the perspective of the believers who told the stories and participated in the liturgies, rather than from the point of view of the theologians and social theorists who tried to explain it as a system? Certainly the most powerful modern apparitional cults of the Virgin Mary, Lourdes and Fatima, both developed from the bottom up. In each case, children in poor rural areas saw repeated visions of a beautiful lady; their claims attracted the attention of thousands of followers, and eventually their visions won ecclesiastical approval as legitimate apparitions of the Virgin Mary.

Ruth Harris has made this metanarrative the bedrock of a sophisticated framework for exploring the most famous healing shrine in the Christian world in the context of social, political and medical change in nineteenth-century France. She says:

What I saw at Lourdes touched me but did not convert me. Indeed, the open-mindedness and spiritual generosity of the group I went with only confirmed me in my Jewish secularism. The experience none the less completely changed my approach to the topic, and by writing a book that is neither a Catholic apology nor an anti-clerical tirade, I hope to offer a study that differs from previous accounts. This is no naive objectivity, but a statement of intent, however imperfectly realized: I wish to provide an historical context for believers and give non-believers a sense of where the appeal of Lourdes lies. (p. xv)

Harris divides her study into two parts: "The Lourdes of the Apparitions," in which she considers the background of religiosity in the Pyrenees, the visions and their immediate impact, and the figure of the seer Bernadette Soubirous, and "The Lourdes of Pilgrimage," that is, the gradual clerical taming, of the shrine, the establishment of formal "national" pilgrimage, and the cures in the context of nineteenth-century religion and science.

There is quite a difference between what young Bernadette saw and understood in 1858 and what became a vast religio-commercial enterprise with an international airport, more hotel rooms than any city in France outside of Paris, and a veritable Babylon of shops featuring amazing kitsch. To ignore this disparity, says Harris, is to abandon any pretense of taking seriously what Lourdes really represents in modern Catholic devotion.

Harris also points to the fact that there is quite a theological difference between the experience of Bernadette Soubirous and the official interpretation of this experience. Bernadette saw a young woman, whom she called only Aquero, "that one," perhaps out of fear of naming one of "the dragas, damizelos, hadas, fadas, encantadas--the term varied as the patois changed across the Pyrenean chain--who inhabited the forests, bushes, fountains and, above all, grottoes of the region. By first calling the apparition uo petito damizela, Bernadette chose the term used to describe fairies, the little women of the forest."

Aquero was "sensual and beautiful, but girlishly so, more a fairy-virgin than the Mere immaculee then sanctioned by official Catholicism." In fact, as Harris shows in her description of late medieval and early modern apparitional sites in that region of the Pyrenees, it was quite another world of popular religion that informed Bernadette's first understanding of what she saw, and what attracted the first followers. The priests, who followed Bernadette's story with a mixture of curiosity and disdain, insisted that she ask Aquero her name. Finally, on the sixteenth apparition of a total of eighteen, the lady responded, saying in dialect, "Que soy era Immaculada Councepciou," "I am the Immaculate Conception." This made immediate sense to the clergy, who were amazed to find a dogma proclaimed just four years earlier revealed to a small peasant girl; their response shows "one more piece of evidence indicating the way orthodox Catholics sought to squeeze Bernadette's vision into existing traditions."

What followed was a tripartite war between the Catholic hierarchy who, having made sense of the phenomenon, were determined to control it, the medical establishment, who were appalled at such superstition, and the mass of believers, who came to the grotto for spiritual and physical cures. Harris analyzes the way Lourdes was received and debated in the scientific world of the Third Republic, especially in terms of the developing theories of hysteria championed by the Parisian doctor Jean-Martin Charcot. How the Medical Bureau of Lourdes developed as a compromise between contrasting views of some crucially important terms (what is a cure? what is a miracle?) is one of the most impressive parts of this study.

Last year, over five million pilgrims went to Lourdes. They went for any number of reasons, including, no doubt, devotion to the Immaculate Conception of Mary. One can appreciate the validity and importance of this shared experience without entering into a debate, about the objective truth of the claimed apparitions. As a student of the Marian cults, I feel this is by far the wisest path. For, in fact, Mary's varied roles in Christianity have always had an all-purpose quality: she is mother, yes, but also a daughter, a spouse, and, to many women, a revered older sister. Images of Mary as a mother are not always imperial and triumphant; Piero della Francesca's stunning portrait of a gravely pregnant Mary ("la Madonna del Parto" in Monterchi, near Arezzo) is a strong reminder of the Mary who is a woman like other women.

I would argue that it is this versatility that allows for the projection and identification that is the core of the popularity of the cult of the Virgin in our emotionally turbulent world. And, whatever it eventually became, the same is true of the shrine of the Virgin's apparition at Lourdes. As Harris puts it: "despite the attempts by some to romanticize, by others to politicize and by more still to medicalize, throughout the history of Lourdes there has always remained one fixed point: the essential image of a young, poverty-stricken and sickly girl kneeling in ecstasy in a muddy grotto."

E. ANN MATTER teaches religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research centers on the traditions of Christian women's religiosity.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Matter, E. Ann
Publication:The Women's Review of Books
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 2000
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