“In December 2009 Pope Benedict XVI formally promulgated a Decree recognising the ‘heroic virtue’ demonstrated by Mary Ward, conferring on her the title ‘Venerable’ and setting in motion her cause for canonisation. This judgement reverses that of Pope Urban VIII who condemned her as a ‘heretic, schismatic and rebel to Holy Church’ and her sisters as ‘poisonous growths in the Church of God [which] must be torn up from the roots lest they spread themselves further’.”
(opening paragraph of “Mary Ward: Then and now” by Gemma Simmonds CJ)
I might admit a slight conflict of interest in that one of my sister-in-laws is a member of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary more commonly known as the Loreto Sisters and was a major leader for the North American branch. Through her we have come to know and appreciate the talents and strengths of many powerful women who are members of this Institute, which is sometimes referred to as the feminine “Jesuits”.
However, it is not about this extraordinary group of women that opened a query as I read this passage. I can well understand how Pope Urban VIII came to such an extremist view regarding the early followers of Mary Ward referring to them as “poisonous growth in the Church of God…” and his condemnation of Mary Ward herself as a “heretic, schismatic and rebel..”. This was really not about world visions or matters of theology. As is so often the real issue, it was all about “power”. In this case it was about the power of the “church” (a self appointed cluster of men who wear pointed hats) over women religious who were subjugated to the male authority of the church, usually in the person of the local bishop. Mary Ward was born in 1585 and lived in a reality of persecution and fear for those who remained Catholic and did not adhere to the official new “state” religion of Anglicanism. Mary Ward gathered a community that defied the norm which held that women religious needed to be “enclosed” – which ultimately was a method of control not protection. Even as her religious community grew and served the church faithfully it was not recognized and approved by the Vatican for more than 200 years after her death. As the Loreto Sisters today celebrate the 400th Anniversary of the foundation of their Institute, and the powerful contribution of all these magnificent women not only to the Christian community but to society in general, we must wonder how could Urban VIII get it so wrong?
According to official church teaching, the Pope is infallible. A doctrine revisioned on July 18, 1870 by what is referred to as Vatican I proclaimed that the Pope is guided by the Holy Spirit and teaches without error. Prior to that date Pope Pius IX had proclaimed as dogma in December 1854 the teaching on the “Immaculate Conception” of the B.V.M., in short a pious belief that as the potential mother of the Christ, it was necessary that Mary herself be born without the stain of original sin. This declaration was the strongest possible type of declaration until under the same pope his own powers of infallibility were declared by a Council of bishops that is in itself somewhat suspect because of who was involved in a somewhat chaotic gathering and the turmoil of the circumstances at that time.
After this declaration, the only official excathedra “infallible” declaration of the church was made in 1950 by the wartime Pope, Pius XII, in another statement regarding the B.V.M. As the previous dogma protected her conception, the new dogma on the Assumption protected her exit from this world, claiming that the natural corruption (ashes to ashes) of the body and its return to the earth was unworthy of Mary as the first vessel of the Saviour, and thus her body was assumed (lifted) to heaven. While it is obvious that these dogmas only seek to perpetuate a pious mythology around the person of the mother of Jesus, as was customary in the ancient world, in short these dogmas really had nothing to do with the basic Christian message in the gospels. All the libraries filled with literature in the area of “Mariology” prove nothing other than two basic facts: 1. that Jesus of Nazareth was born in the same way that we are all born, and 2. that his mother was named some Aramaic or Hebrew version of Mary. Personally I think she must have been very exceptional, and many of the values learned by Jesus came from his parents. Everything else, including any references to Mary in the Christian scriptures, are speculation, postulations and editorials which have nothing to do with the actual Mary, mother of Jesus, and everything to do with what these authors were trying to construct in their rendition of Jesus.
So these “ex cathedra” – from the chair of Peter – type statements were somewhat rare and fanciful, obliging the faithful to somewhat esoteric views that really didn’t matter at all. The Immaculate Conception is based on a somewhat formal teaching that we are all born with something called Original Sin, a concept that can be explained in numerous ways or not at all. The Assumption theory solves the problem of why there is no monument or church built by the early Christian community to mark the place where Mary died and was buried. Surely if there was anyone of importance next to Jesus, that would have been the mother of Jesus, yet there is no historical record to mark her passing or burial. The dogma of the Assumption eliminates the need for some historical marker and forms part of a general denigration of the “body” and natural processes throughout Catholic theology.
The decree by the current Pope on the “heroic virtue” of Mary Ward is significant for the additional reason that it is a formal statement that Urban VIII was wrong. His judgment was impaired by his misogyny and his effort to preserve the Churches control over its women engaged in apostolic ministry. This is the same Pope (B16) who as Grand Inquisitor under the papacy of John Paul II, argued that the op-ed article “ordinatio sacerdotalis” in 1994 which claimed that only persons born with testicles could be ordained had the authority of an “infallible statement”. Obviously not all bishops are of the same mind, and the ordination of women as priests and bishops by a group of European bishops has laid the foundation for a reform movement called “Roman Catholic Women Priests”. Just as the Pope might regret the loss of moral authority and power, he cannot deny that he has no authority or influence in the valid ordination of priests and bishops in the Eastern Rites, the Orthodox churches and the churches of the Reformation. This puts Benedict XVI in a bit of a bind, for as he formally unwinds the obviously wrong headed idiocy of one Pope, he seeks to defend another Pope whose anthropological myopia is one and the same.
There are some in power who would even go so far as to claim that the
“infallible power” of the Pope extends to the ever more frequent declarations of sainthood, one of the discretionary functions greatly abused by the previous Pope. John Paul II canonized the spiritual director of Spanish fascism under General Franco, a known anti-Semite who was an apologist of Adolf Hitler. It simply cannot be argued that Jose Maria Escriva was a “man of his times” and that these foibles were negligible in comparison to the power and wealth of his organization “Opus Dei”. If a canonization is defined as an infallible act, then the canonization
of Escriva and many of the “saints” proclaimed by John Paul II should in itself be the death knell for this usurpation of divine power in the claim of infallibility. .
In 1995 Philip Kaufman wrote a book “Why you can disagree and Remain a Faithful Catholic” (NY: Crossroad). Unfortunately I lent out my copy and never got it back but this was a marvellous development that helped to unmask “authentic teachings” that were really ideological positions of different movements or theologies, and at times just pontifical whims. The Toronto based theologian Walter Principe wrote in 1987 an insightful article for “The Ecumenist” titled “When Authentic Teachings Change”. Basically the argument of Fr. Principe, an eminent professor in the department of Mediaeval Studies at the University of Toronto, was that so many “authentic teachings” are limited by the times, phobias and crisis’ of the time they were formulated. As the official Church was very slow to condemn slavery, and even at times condoned the practise, today we recognize that “slavery” in any form is an evil. That it took the church almost 2000 years to formally condemn slavery is one such change in the authentic teachings of the magisterium.
In that sense Pope Urban VIII was somewhat correct. Mary Ward did not conform to what the Church wanted from its nuns. Mary Ward did not accept that women were by definition defective and of less worth than men. She did not accept the limitations of being “enclosed” and controlled. Mary Ward was a woman far ahead of her times and thus rightly feared by power mongers whose power is based on the control of others, rather than the truth. She was a danger to the status quo as are all prophets, and she endured the rejection and threats of those who chose to remain in a mediaeval paradigm of power.
It is regrettable that four hundred years later the determination and vision of this remarkable woman is barely admitted by the official powers of the Church. She should have been proclaimed a saint centuries ago, but today we cannot be sure if she would welcome being associated with the rogues already admitted to the club. Unlike the Order of Canada, it is difficult to revoke the status of sainthood, not because of the character of the individual but because it is simply too difficult for Popes to admit they were wrong.
To read more about Mary Ward you can download the article by Gemma Simmonds at http://www.thinkingfaith.org/articles/20100122_1.htm
To learn more about the movement Roman Catholic Women Priests go to http://www.romancatholicwomenpriests.org/