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Vol 41 No 1

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James Quillinan

Neil Darragh

Helen McCabe
THE FAMILY IN AUSTRALIAN SOCIETY: Christianity's contribution to understanding the family and its role

Francine and Byron Pirola
MARRIAGE IN THE LIFE OF THE PARISH: He sent them out two by two ... Luke 10:1

Brian Lewis

Marie Farrell RSM

Desmond O'Donnell OMI




Ecumenical consensus on Mary


IN CELEBRATING the fortieth anniversary of the close of Vatican Council II, it has been both rewarding and instructive for Catholics to re-visit Chapter 8 of Lumen Gentium (the Constitution on the Church)—‘The Role of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, in the Mystery of Christ and the Church’. An important insight from this chapter is recognition that the apostolic work of the Church for ‘the regeneration of humanity’ should rightly look to Mary.1

One of the many fruits of the Council was the establishment of bilateral dialogue by means of the Anglican and Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC). Both communions are now rejoicing in what is surely a significant moment in our ecumenical relationship, namely, the joint statement on doctrines concerning the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ.

Launched on the Feast of Christ’s Presentation, February 2nd, 2005, Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ had a long gestation period occasioned by the prior need for ARCIC to address matters of Church authority, and especially that of papal infallibility. According to its first statement on authority (1977), ARCIC realized that difficulties arose for Anglicans because of the Catholic dogmas of Mary’s Immaculate Conception and Assumption—not because of their teaching per se, but because of doubt among Anglicans whether it was appropriate to define these beliefs as essential to the faith of believers since neither dogma was sufficiently supported by Scripture. Nevertheless, Authority in the Church II (1981) acknowledged the unique role of Mary in the Christian dispensation.

Under the general topic of ‘infallibility’ seven points of agreement about Mary were itemized: her role must not obscure the fact that Jesus Christ is the one and only Mediator between God and humanity; Christian understanding of Mary is inseparably linked with the doctrines of Christ and the Church; as Mother of God (Theotókos, literally ‘God-bearer’) she received a unique vocation; she was prepared by divine grace to be Mother of the Saviour by whom she was herself redeemed; she has already entered into to the glory of heaven; she is honoured in the communion of saints by both Churches who celebrate her feasts; she is a ‘model of holiness, obedience and faith for all Christians, and can therefore be regarded as a prophetic figure of the Church’.2 As we shall see, Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ has been judiciously designed to bypass the issue of papal infallibility as these same points are considered..

As an Agreed Statement, and not an authoritative declaration, the document is open for further refinement. It should prove to be a valuable tool for parish discussion groups.
The Statement places a great deal of importance upon context—especially to influences affecting processes involved in the development of doctrine, to those behind previous ARCIC statements, and to liturgical and devotional experiences of the Commission members themselves during the five years of their coming together.3 Appreciation of differing contexts has obviously heightened sensitivity among the Commission members themselves. The Preface to the Statement signed by Archbishop Alexander J. Brunett (Roman Catholic Co-Chair) and Archbishop Peter F. Carnley (Anglican Communion Co-Chair) states clearly that:

[In] framing this agreed statement we have drawn on the Scriptures and the common tradition which predates the Reformation and the Counter Reformation…[W]e have attempted to use language that reflects what we have in common and transcends the controversies of the past. At the same time…we have had to face squarely dogmatic definitions which are integral to the faith of Roman Catholics but largely foreign to the faith of Anglicans. The members of ARCIC over time have sought to embrace one another’s ways of doing theology and have considered together the historical context in which certain doctrines have developed. In so doing, we have learned to receive anew our own traditions, illumined and deepened by the understanding of and appreciation for each other’s tradition.4

Compass readers will be interested to learn that besides Archbishop Peter Carnley (Perth), other Australians on the Commission for Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ were Rev Canon Dr Charles Sherlock (Melbourne) and Rev Fr Dr Peter Cross (Melbourne).5

The Introduction (1–5)6
Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb (Lk 1:42) is chosen well as expressing ‘our common faith about the one who, of all believers, is closest to our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.’7 The Introduction wisely lays out the entire landscape against which the task of the Commission was to be carried out in response to a request from Roman Catholic and Anglican Bishops for a study of Mary in the life and doctrine of the Church. Such a task could only come to fruition when, with entrenched positions put aside, Mary’s person and role are understood within the whole history of salvation that is embraced ‘in the light of a theology of divine grace and hope…deeply rooted in the enduring experience of Christian worship and devotion.’8

Mary in Scripture (6–30)
Appropriately, initial attention is given to the scriptural foundations of marian theology since they furnish the normative witness to God’s plan of salvation. Avoiding the limitations of any one method of interpreting scripture, the Commission drew upon the whole scriptural tradition of the Church. Readers will appreciate how this statement reflects both ecumenical and ecclesial influences operating during the dialogue.

The rubric of ‘covenant’ has been carefully chosen for interpreting the Old Testament typologically. A sense of the universality of the divine economia is established to demonstrate clearly how the ‘line’ reaching from Noah, through Abraham, Moses, the prophets, and the ‘elect Israel’ including Sarah and Hannah has, in the fullness of time, culminated in Christ born of Mary. Placed masterfully just at the threshold where the Old Testament consideration crosses into that of the New Testament, is the text of Romans 8:28-30. Here St Paul expresses astonishment at God’s gracious favour towards those who are called according to divine purpose, and who are predestined, justified and glorified. Already there is anticipation of eschatological emphases to be reinforced throughout the statement.

Reflection on the Matthean and Lukan birth narratives follows naturally from the trajectory of grace and hope emerging from Old Testament. Focus on the ‘newness’ of the Christ-event invites wonder at the mystery of the Incarnation. Emphasis is given to the way human boundaries of the covenant are stretched in Mary’s conception of Jesus by the Spirit. Two important theological observations are made concerning the virginal conception of Jesus. First, that it is a sign of the presence and work of the Holy Spirit and not about the absence of a human father9 and, secondly, for believers it is an eloquent sign of the divine Sonship of Christ and of new life through the Spirit. Seen in this way, the virginal conception becomes a powerful expression of what the Church believes about Christ as Saviour rather than about a miracle in the body of Mary.

A strong sense of the presence of a future already mysteriously fulfilled—that is, of ‘realised eschatology’—is stressed as the role of the Holy Spirit in the mystery of Mary is considered. We are alerted to the Spirit’s ‘overshadowing’ of Mary at the Annunciation, to her presence at the Pentecostal ‘outpouring’ of the Spirit, and how in her hearing and keeping of the word of God she was so graced as to meet the demands incumbent upon members of the ‘true family’ of Jesus (Luke 8:21).

Reflection on the symbolic theology of the fourth Gospel reinforces the synoptic proclamation of divine initiative in the mystery of the Incarnation; for all who are born not of blood nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God (Jn 1:13) can apply to the birth of Jesus. References to the narratives of Cana (Jn 2:1-12) and Calvary (Jn 19: 25-27) underscore Mary’s maternal role in the messianic community in such a way that her reciprocal roles of ‘woman’ and ‘disciple’ are related to the identity of the Church.

This section of the study leaves us with the conclusion that it is impossible to be faithful to Scripture without giving due attention to the person of Mary.10 Moreover, it is evident that:
Following through the trajectory of the grace of God and the hope for a perfect human response…Christians have, in line with the New Testament writers, seen its culmination in the obedience of Christ. Within this Christological context they have discerned a similar pattern in the one who would receive the Word in her heart and in her body.11

Mary in Christian Tradition (31–51)
Focus is now directed to the centrality of Christology for marian theology. We applaud the Commission for the remarkably succinct summary of the Christological controversies of the first five centuries and for illustrating how associated marian traditions originated. Clearly Anglicans and Roman Catholics can testify unequivocally to the faith of the ancient church in the true divinity and true humanity of Jesus Christ. The designation of Mary as Theotókos is re-affirmed; under the banner of this title theological reflection will develop in the remainder of the statement.

In order to balance the Christological approach to Mary just established, paragraphs 35 – 40 of the statement shift concentration to the celebration of Mary in the early Church. Devotional themes affiliated with various titles—‘New Eve’, ‘Ever-Virgin’ and Panhagia (‘All Holy One’)—are proposed as examples of how patristic exegetes ‘delighted in drawing feminine imagery from the Scriptures to contemplate the significance both of the Church and Mary’. One can identify easily how seeds sown in early piety gave rise to a ‘high’ or privileged marian theology dependent upon the fundamental principles of the Divine Motherhood and of Mary as Archetype of the Church.

Review of the effects of popular piety augmented by apocryphal legends is helpful in exemplifying the extent to which marian doctrine of the Middle Ages displaced the centre of gravity from Christ to Mary-in-herself. Thus, instead of representing the faithful Church, Mary became in effect a dispenser of grace to the faithful—a distortion only recently repudiated when a move was rejected to declare dogmatically that Mary is Mediatrix of grace. The statement describes accurately how excessive marian piety from the late Middle Ages threatened faith in Jesus Christ as the one and only Mediator between God and humanity (1 Tim:2:5).

The Commission is also to be applauded for its survey of the history of marian piety from the Reformation to the present. Anglican and Roman Catholic communions can now engage in radical re-reception of our common tradition and of Scripture as the ‘fundamental touchstone of divine revelation’. This section pinpoints significant moments that have enabled our communions to endorse sound marian theology. Anglican re-reception has involved renewal of prayer books, insertion of the name of Mary into Eucharistic prayers, re-establishment of liturgical celebration of the Assumption, and development of resources for use in marian festivals. For Catholics, Lumen Gentium: 8 and Marialis Cultus of Pope Paul VI are identified as having been critical in re-setting devotion to Mary within orthodox bounds of Scripture and Tradition.

This section confirms Mary’s place in the prophetic tradition of Christianity where she is inseparably linked with Christ and the Church.

Mary Within the Pattern of Grace and Hope (52 – 63)
Here is where the eschatological motif of the document is most skillfully concentrated. Paragraph 52 states something that, in recent times had apparently become less than obvious:

We…view the economy of grace from its fulfillment in Christ ‘back’ into history, rather than ‘forward’ from its beginning in fallen creation towards the future in Christ. This perspective offers fresh light in which to consider the place of Mary.

A coherent cluster of New Testament citations denoting the ultimate destiny of the Church, sets the scene for understanding Mary within the context of divine grace.12

Mary is again acknowledged as embodying Israel, the ‘elect’; the pattern of grace seen in her life mirrors the destiny of the Church. The Commission affirms that having been prepared by God’s prevenient grace from within the womb, Mary is both personally and representatively ‘God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works which God prepared beforehand’ (Eph 2:10). From within a ‘template’ of grace afforded by biblical accounts of Elijah, Enoch, the penitent thief and Stephen martyr, Mary can also be seen as a faithful disciple now fully present with God in Christ and as a sign of hope for all humanity. In faith, therefore, Christians can discern how fitting it is that Mary has been wholly ‘gathered’ to the Lord where she takes her place among the entire ‘cloud of witnesses’ (Heb 12:1).

Given the problem of papal infallibility for Anglicans, the subtlety of this part of the document is quite extraordinary in enabling the theological meaning of the dogmas of Mary’s Immaculate Conception and Assumption to be isolated from the formulae of definition. Concerning the present place of Mary in glory, the Commission declares that:

[W]e can affirm together the teaching that God has taken the Blessed Virgin Mary in the fullness of her person into his glory as consonant with Scripture and that it can, indeed, only be understood in the light of Scripture.13

Reference to the Immaculate Conception places positive stress on the ‘glorious grace’ that favoured Mary from her beginning. In anticipation of Mary’s vocation as Theotókos, the Commission states that:
We can affirm together that Christ’s redeeming work reached ‘back’ in Mary to the depths of her being, and to her earliest beginnings. This is not contrary to the teaching of Scripture and can only be understood in the light of Scripture.14

Questions are raised about whether the dogmas of Mary’s holiness and glorification have been divinely revealed, and therefore, whether they would necessarily be ‘of faith’ for Anglicans should there be full ecclesial union in the future. It is noted how both communions understand that these beliefs depend entirely upon Mary’s identity as Theotókos – a belief that is itself totally dependent upon faith in the divinely revealed doctrine of the Incarnation.15

Mary in the Life of the Church (64 – 75)
The significance of Mary within the patterns of grace and hope already established now proceeds to examination of Mary’s role in the life of the Church. The final section of the statement is situated with superb theological delicacy in the context of God’s ‘Yes’ in Christ and our ‘Amen’ through him to the glory of God (2 Cor 1:20; Col 1:27). When Mary’s ‘fiat’ given freely in the Spirit is interpreted as being spoken by a unique member of Jesus’ eschatological family, then her ‘Amen’ becomes a model of the ‘Amen’ of every disciple and for the whole Church.

One outcome of the study has been to identify differing influences concerning the role of Mary’s ministry within the Church. In nutshell, Anglicans are represented as tending to appropriate Mary into their devotional lives as an inspirational model; Catholics as tending to be conscious her ongoing ministry in the life of the Church. Aware of these differences among their members, the Commission has been able to agree that:

… in understanding Mary as the fullest example of the life of grace, we are called to reflect on the lessons of her life recorded in Scripture and to join with her as one indeed not dead, but truly alive in Christ. In doing so we walk together as pilgrims in communion with Mary, Christ’s foremost disciple, and all those whose participation in the new creation encourages us to be faithful to our calling.16

Conscious of the fact that although various ways of honoring Mary in liturgy and prayer are common to both our communions, the Commission saw further need to address the problem of how prayerful intercession to Mary might, even today, threaten the doctrine of Christ’s mediation. Assurance is given that any intercessory prayer seen to blur the Trinitarian economy of grace and hope must be rejected as failing to meet the criteria of Scripture or the ancient tradition. Hence Mary’s distinctive ministry within the Church is presented as assisting others through her active prayer.

Christian experiences of the ministry of Mary are surveyed briefly using the lens of her maternal images drawn especially from the fourth Gospel. Caution is expressed and careful discernment advised lest new exaggerations of marian piety associated with private revelations should recur in our times.

The ministry of Mary as witnessed in her visitation to Elizabeth and in the Magnificat (Lk 1:39-56) is lauded for having inspired communities of men and women in various cultures to work for justice among the poor and oppressed. Brief, but necessary comment regrets that the witness of Mary’s obedience to God’s will ‘has sometimes been used to encourage passivity and impose servitude on women.’17

This section ends with an unambiguous affirmation that the practice of calling upon Mary and the saints to pray for us is not communion-dividing.

Another positive step in Anglican-Roman Catholic relations has been achieved. Reviews have revealed mixed reactions to the theological method of the Agreed Statement.18 It has been branded as too cerebral, and as engaging in ‘theological fudge’ in an attempt to relate the two recent marian dogmas to Scripture. An Orthodox scholar regretted that the statement was not bold enough in speaking of Mary’s active role in salvation. Generally, though, the fine use of biblical and eschatological themes permeating the work has been welcomed.

In keeping so strictly to a ‘privileged’ theology of Mary derived from her vocation as Theotókos, the statement has, I suggest, fallen somewhat short of situating Mary firmly within (vs ‘above’ or ‘greater than’) the Church. Since the ’60s and under the influence of modern biblical scholarship, there has been a groundswell in advancing a marian theology ‘from below’. This ‘anthropological turn’ using a paradigm of discipleship, has in no way diminished belief in the uniqueness of Mary’s divine motherhood, but it has redressed a certain abstract quality whereby Mary of Nazareth had become so idealized as to ‘distance’ her from other disciples. The ‘from below’ theology demonstrates well how the entire mystery of Mary may be derived from her resolute faith. Mary of Nazareth was a daughter of Abraham before she was called to be Theotókos. Contemporary use of a discipleship paradigm has meant that many who were ‘oppressed’ by the predominant pre-Vatican II theology of Mary, have been ‘freed’ to discover her as ‘truly our sister’19 and pilgrim-companion in the journey of faith.

Recent controversies within the Anglican community, that have also affected relations with the Catholic Church, cannot cloud the significance of what is a fitting conclusion to the work of ARCIC II. This five-year project of deeply committed ecumenists is a tangible sign of new horizon of hope opening towards visible communion between our Churches. Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ instills confidence that Mary can be, and is, a symbol of communion rather than a sign of contradiction among Christians.

Sr Marie T Farrell is a Mercy Sister who is a Senior Lecturer with the Sydney College of Divinity and who teaches theology at the Catholic Institute of Sydney.

1. Lumen Gentium:8, 65.
2. See Edward Yarnold SJ (a member of both ARCIC 1 & ARCIC 2), ‘Mary in the ARCIC I Final Report’, One in Christ 21:1, 1985, 70-72.
3. Commission meetings were marked by daily celebration of the prayer of the Church with pre-Reformation marian readings and with Evening Prayer accompanied by the Magnificat. See Sara Butler, ‘The Catholic Contributor’s View’, The Tablet 21/5/05, 8.
4. For full text of MGHC see Origins, June 2, 2005, Vol.35:3, 33-50.
5. We dedicate this paper to the memory of Peter Cross who died on June 17th, 2006.
6. Numbers in parenthesis indicate paragraph nos. of the MGHC text.
7. MGHC, 1.
8. MGHC 6.
9. Notes 2 and 3 address problems of interpretation re the Church’s claim about the virginal conception of Jesus.
10. See par. 77 for conclusion drawn from pars 6-30.
11. MGHC, 11.
12. 2 Cor 3:18; 4:4-6; 5:5; Eph 1:3-5,14; 2:6; 5:27; 1Cor 15:42-49; Rom 5:21-22; 6:1-6; 8:17,30; 11:26; Col 3:1.
13. Emphasis mine.
14. Emphasis mine.
15. Differences re full re-reception among Anglicans await re-reception of matters pertaining to Church authority.
16. MGHC, 65.
17. MGHC, 74.
18. E.g. Ruth Gledhill, ‘Cracks in Anglican Dissent over Mary’, The Times 17/05/2005; John Jillons, ‘Call Her Blessed’, The Tablet 25/3/2006; Alana Harris & Harriet, Ecclesiology 2:3, 339-356.
19. See Pope Paul VI, Marialis cultus, n 56.