The privilege-centered Mariology that followed from seeing Mary as mysteriously both virgin and mother culminated in the two great dogmas of the Assumption and the Immaculate Conception, the definitions of which framed one of the periods of most intense Marian devotion in the Church’s history.
The Immaculate Conception had a more checkered history. Thomas Aquinas, for one, had serious reservation about whether belief in the Immaculate Conception challenged belief in the universal need for redemption by Christ. Nevertheless, by 1854 a general consensus of Catholics supported Pius IX’s definition of the Immaculate Conception as a matter of faith, and the same was true when Pius XII defined the Assumption. These definitions seemed to seal the Church’s veneration of Mary as privileged beyond all other human beings.
Understanding Mary as exempt from the tendency to sinfulness, which experience tells us is the common human lot, and as dispensed from the bodily corruption which is our universal fate, created an ambiguous situation. On the one hand, a woman was a central and powerful icon in the Roman Catholic tradition. A female figure occupied a place second only to God doctrinally and her figure played a powerful role in the Catholic devotional imagination. On the other hand, it is ironic that having a woman so central to the tradition has often not translated into respect and equality for women in Roman Catholicism.
Mary led in these traditions to a religious tradition one-sidedly masculine in its images and symbols. This was the situation until Vatican II set the Church on a new direction.
The Immaculate Conception implies that, in virtue of the redeeming action of her son, Mary was graced from the first moment of her conception. Much contemporary Catholic theology would affirm this of us all. God offers God’s own life to each and every human being from the very beginning of life.
The Assumption affirms that body and soul, Mary’s whole person is with God, her life accepted and validated by God. She accepted God’s love and responded totally in full human freedom. It is our hope that our lives too will be freely responsive to God’s initiative and find God’s ultimate gracious acceptance as Mary did. This interpretation sees Mary not as uniquely privileged, apart from other human beings, but as one of us who has gone before us and shows us the way.
– Sr Mary Martin Joseph, OP for Archdiocesan Catechetical Office