Jack Mulder Jr. is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Hope College.
In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis writes the following about controversies surrounding the Blessed Virgin Mary:
…there is no controversy between Christians which needs to be so delicately touched as this. The Roman Catholic beliefs on that subject are held not only with the ordinary fervor that attaches to all sincere religious belief, but (very naturally) with the peculiar and, as it were, chivalrous sensibility that a man feels when the honour of his mother or his beloved is at stake. It is very difficult so to dissent from them that you will not appear to them a cad as well as a heretic.1
Now it is surely right to insist that we be delicate about this matter and it is always important to think with due sensitivity about issues concerning sexual assault. But in this response to E. Jerome Van Kuiken,2 instead of being distracted by playing the political “sensitivity” game, I wish merely to explain why paying attention to issues of consent and the lack thereof in various ways of thinking about the Annunciation is relevant theologically and already belongs deeply to the fabric of Catholic theology. Moreover, in Van Kuiken’s response to me, I believe his reaction to what he calls “the rhetoric of divine rape” forces him to look to examples that are irrelevant precisely because he dismisses the unique worries I have about consent in the relationship between God and Mary.
Before beginning my response, however, it may be worthwhile to clarify some personal factors that drove me to write the piece initially. Van Kuiken asserts, about the line of my argument for the Immaculate Conception, that “it seems insensitive for a male college professor to use a rape analogy to score a theological point”3 and even goes so far as to attack the use of this method in a professional article. The genesis of my piece is quite different than Van Kuiken suspects.4 It is through conversations with feminist friends and colleagues that my thinking on Mary has changed. Years before I became Catholic and thought that Mary’s encounter with the angel was roughly the same as that of any other biblical character with an angel, I was discussing the Annunciation with a feminist colleague who insisted that Mary’s consent needed to be fully voluntary because, if it was not, then she was “raped.”5
This seemingly unremarkable conversation has been transformative for me spiritually and professionally. In other words, I wrote the original article on the Immaculate Conception because I was convinced by a feminist colleague that I needed to rethink my views on Mary on this very point. I’m not sure why it would be inappropriate for a male college professor to argue that the theological tradition in which he was raised (and others like it) gave insufficient attention to Mary’s consent and God’s desire to avoid actual or perceived coercion (and therefore, rape). Isn’t this the kind of thing men ought to be doing, namely, speaking up about how to restore women, especially Mary, to their proper dignity by avoiding theological approaches that, I hold, do not do her justice? I understand that Van Kuiken may not like the implication that he, by rejecting the Immaculate Conception, in my view fails to do justice to the Blessed Virgin. But I’m afraid that is precisely what is, and has been for many centuries, at stake in ecumenical discussions of this sort.
Concerns of Discourse
One cannot actually understand Catholic doctrine about Mary unless one is ready to reckon with the crucial importance of consent and Mary’s “Yes” at the Annunciation. As then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) writes, “There is one other point in Luke’s story of the Annunciation that seems to me important for the question we are considering. God asks man6 to consent. … Without the freely given assent of Mary, God cannot become man.”7 Here we have a leading theologian, later pope, insisting that consent is at the center of what the Annunciation (and, in context, the Immaculate Conception) is all about. As Hans Urs von Balthasar puts it in what formed the epigraph for my original article, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception “says nothing but what is indispensable for the boundlessness of her Yes.”8
Now if Van Kuiken has a gripe with Balthasar he’ll have to get in line, but it will be hard going to suggest that Balthasar’s statement is beyond some kind of pale for academic discourse. It’s pretty ordinary Catholic theology. I think Balthasar’s statement is right, which means that I hold that if the Immaculate Conception is false, it follows that there are bounds to Mary’s Yes. If there are bounds to her Yes, is there not some mitigation to it? If so, how is it not, in some way “mixed” with coercion and freedom, with Yes and No?9 Finally, if God can remove this impediment to unalloyed consent by grace, then why would God not desire to do this? In other words, if we grant (for the sake of argument) that the Immaculate Conception is false, then someone had better explain why a) there are not bounds to Mary’s Yes, or b) if there are, they do not amount to coercion, and yes, rape, by God. I just do not see why this line of inquiry would be deemed irrelevant to “academic writing’s proper aim of promoting rational discourse” on issues of consent and sexual assault when God entreats Mary to bear his child.10 I actually believe the argument, and I believe it because I love a God who loves and honors women.
It is one thing to argue theologically that Catholics overemphasize the language of “spouse,” but that debate should be had in an academic environment. Catholics call Mary the spouse of the Spirit, and I maintain that they do so for good reason.11 Moreover, every Christian (and indeed every ancient Christian) needs (and needed) to be crucially aware of the difference between the God of Scripture and the gods of the Greek and Roman pantheons. Ancient mythologies are replete with stories of sexual assault as a casual look at the opening pages of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, for example, will reveal.12 It is, for that reason, highly relevant that we are very clear how and to what extent God’s impregnating Mary differs, and hopefully at the furthest possible remove, from rape.
Van Kuiken’s Other Arguments
Because he objects both to the “rhetoric of divine rape” as well as the understanding of Mary as spouse of the Spirit (two concepts that are linked, in my view), Van Kuiken claims that my argument entails that every time God is extraordinarily involved in the biblical birth of a child (consider the cycles of Abraham, Samson, Zechariah, and so on), the parents would need to be immaculately conceived. He even claims that every time a pregnancy occurs at all my argument requires immaculate conception of the parents.13 My answer is simple: none of these are cases in which God is directly and uniquely the spouse of a woman. There is a long tradition of Christian reflection on Mary’s consent, and hers is consent to be impregnated. As with any nonconsensual impregnation, consent’s absence in this case would entail an assault that would be sexual in nature. Consent’s presence along with the consented-to impregnation signals an unparalleled relationship with God which is fittingly called spousal. This type of relationship resulting in pregnancy should be spousal;14 after all, God does more, not less, than what is required of human beings. None of Van Kuiken’s other biblical cases have the right similitude to Mary’s case. Nor, indeed, do my reflections on McFall v. Shimp have the right similitude (and I don’t claim they do), since I am not reflecting on legally sufficient freedom for Mary.15 I must be brief with Van Kuiken’s argument that my argument collapses on Mary’s “first-century Palestinian milieu.”16 I can only respond that an eternal God does not always conform to the cultural expectations of his listeners, but the Christian God will be a surpassingly good spouse on the assumption that he chooses to be one.
One of Van Kuiken’s other strategies is to propose five alternatives to Immaculate Conception in Mary’s case. Let me offer a brief discussion of each, with the first three being very brief.
1: “Grace enables consent that is sufficiently free but not perfectly free.”17 So perhaps Mary is redeemed just prior to the Annunciation. Response: I hold, as I argued in succeeding portions of the original article, that the disordered inclinations that would remain in Mary would still mitigate consent in a problematic way.
2: “Our imperfect consent is united to [Christ’s] perfect consent and so satisfies God’s desire.” Thus, Mary’s consent is made pure in God’s sight because of Christ’s pure yes.18 Response: The problem is that this is not about God’s desire but about Mary’s dignity. The question is whether, in the unparalleled decision to enter into human affairs by becoming the spouse of a woman, God would choose
to respect her and how.19
3: Perhaps God approves of Mary’s imperfect consent at the Annunciation with her glorified future state in view due to his foreknowledge.20 Response: Here again is the problem: this is not about God’s fiat but Mary’s. That God might know in advance that Mary would be among his saints does not mean that God would lay aside his concern that Mary’s consent be as fully free as possible.
When it comes to the fourth and fifth strategies, Van Kuiken is getting to the heart of what this debate should be about. His fourth suggestion is that perhaps God’s grace enables moments of fully free consent and this temporarily undoes the disordered inclinations one has as a result of sin.21 His fifth suggestion is that the state of Christian perfection (accepted within the Catholic tradition and discussed by Wesley as well) may allow Mary to reach a state where she could be habitually unimpeded by disordered inclinations and so could give a fully free yes without the need for Immaculate Conception. My response to these is twofold: first, I am unsure whether all varieties of the fourth suggestion would work well with more up-to-date psychological views,22 and at least some views of Christian perfection may not prevent the kind of struggle in Mary God would like to avoid.23 But second, the title of my original article is “Why More Christians Should Believe in Mary’s Immaculate Conception.” Perhaps Van Kuiken is one of the people who both accepts Christian perfection and accepts an account of it that would not impede Mary’s consent.24 If so, he isn’t caught by my argument, but then I allowed for this in the very title of the piece. Nevertheless, this may be a more fruitful path for the conversation to take.
Van Kuiken also argues, however, that the Immaculate Conception is justified using an aesthetic argument, and this, he thinks, has something to do with the fanciful biblical interpretation that has gotten folks into trouble. In response, first, he misunderstands Catholic theology if he thinks that a dogma once formulated with an aesthetic argument must only be defended using the same argument in the future. The Catechism of the Catholic Church claims that the Immaculate Conception was necessary for Mary’s “free assent” and this, I think, is a moral or ethical argument, like mine.25 Secondly, it remains a good question how we are biblically to square with the title for Mary, announced by the angel, often translated as “full of grace” (κεχαριτωμένη; Luke 1:28), given that it is a perfect participle and has ramifications for the past. Indeed, one traditional belief, held by many in the historic Catholic tradition, holds that John the Baptist was cleansed from original sin at some point while in his mother’s womb, since the unmitigated infection of original sin is inconsistent with being “filled with the holy Spirit” (see Luke 1:15).26 But notice that now this is an argument from Scripture, not an argument about the character of John the Baptist’s relationship with God, where I hold that Mary’s spousal relationship with God is incomparably unique.
In this response, I have argued that Van Kuiken has not succeeded in debunking my argument for the Immaculate Conception. First, his concern about the discourse of “rape” fails to notice the real relevance of the category as one God would like to avoid in the surpassingly unique event of the Annunciation, especially when one considers the prevalence of sexual assault in competing religious traditions at Christianity’s inception. Perhaps because he reacts too strongly to this mode of inquiry, he loses sight of the key reasons his parodic examples are not good analogies for Mary’s case. In the best and most pointed part of his response, Van Kuiken gives five ways to reckon with Mary’s free response apart from the use of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. However, for reasons I have already given in this debate, I am not convinced that these undo the fact that at least substantially more Christians (hence my original title) have reasons to embrace the Immaculate Conception than actually do so. Finally, Van Kuiken argues that the Protestant theological method as it relates to sola scriptura renders the Immaculate Conception problematic. I think the idea that Protestantism itself holds a single vision of sola scriptura is surprising at best, and in any case the Immaculate Conception is one way of drawing out the implications of what Scripture actually says. Van Kuiken’s last line cannot go unremarked: “In my judgment, this cost is too high to purchase Mary’s fully free consent.”27 I am genuinely dumbfounded by the thought that the Christian God would consider any price too high to pay to enable his spouse to render her fully free consent.28
Cite this article
- C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 7. I thank Cory Lakatos for reminding me of this passage.
- See Jack Mulder Jr., “Why More Christians Should Believe in Mary’s Immaculate Conception,” Christian Scholar’s Review 41.2 (2012): 117–34.
- See E. Jerome Van Kuiken, “Why Protestant Christians Should Not Believe in Mary’s Immaculate Conception: A Response to Mulder,” Christian Scholar’s Review 46.3 (2017): 233-47 at 234.
- I discuss the relevant conversation in my book. See my What Does It Mean to Be Catholic? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 111.
- The colleague was Ada Jaarsma, who kindly agreed to be mentioned in this context, though this should not be taken to indicate she shares my views.
- I think the gender-exclusive “man” is an unfortunate choice here, but the point is the same.
- See Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, God is Near Us: The Eucharist, The Heart of Life (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2003), 19-20.
- See Hans Urs von Balthasar, “Mary in the Church’s Doctrine and Devotion,” in Balthasar and (then) Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Mary: The Church at the Source, trans. Adrian Walker (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005), 105.
- This is how Aristotle discusses actions that are in some way voluntary but forced by difficult circumstances: they are “mixed.” See Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 3.1, 1110a6-13 in Nicomachean Ethics, 2nd edition, trans. Terence Irwin (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1999), 30.
- Van Kuiken’s resort to dictionaries to establish the definition of rape is unnecessary. No one would dispute that a woman who had been inseminated against her will had been sexually assaulted even without physical coitus. Indeed, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops implicitly recognizes the fertilization of an ovum by a rapist’s sperm to be another assault against which a woman should be able to “defend herself” through the use of emergency contraception. See directive 35 of the USCCB’s Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, 5th edition, at http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/health-care/upload/Ethical-Religious-Directives-Catholic-Health- Care-Services-fifth-edition-2009.pdf.
- See Pope St. John Paul II, Redemptoris Mater, 26 at http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_25031987_redemptoris-mater.html.
- Consider especially the episode of Daphne’s assault by Apollo in the first book of the Metamorphoses. See also Amy Richlin, “Reading Ovid’s Rapes,” in Pornography and Representation in Greece and Rome, ed. Richlin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 158-79. My thanks to Steve Maiullo for help on this matter.
- See Van Kuiken, “Why Protestant Christians,” 236-37.
- I suppose one could rest content with God being effectively an embryo donor, but I think this is pretty unsatisfactory.
- See Van Kuiken, “Why Protestant Christians,” 240. While I am concerned with the loss of consent in this case, I am primarily concerned with what someone with the character of a perfect spouse would do to ensure consent, which is more than attaining a merely legally acceptable threshold. On this point, see my original article, “Why More Christians Should Believe in Mary’s Immaculate Conception,” Christian Scholar’s Review 41.2 (2012): 117-34 at 126.
- See Van Kuiken, “Why Protestant Christians,” 243.
- See the conclusion of my original paper, “Why More Christians…,” 134.
- For instance, St. Thomas Aquinas’s view of the “fomes” of sin being bound (but not eliminated) in Mary (Aquinas wrote before the Immaculate Conception was developed as a serious doctrine). See Summa Theologica, 5 vols., trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (1948, repr. Allen, TX: Christian Classics, 1981). Part III, Question 27, article 3.
- See my “Why More Christians…,” 129n45.
- Then again, I don’t know. Van Kuiken does write of Wesley’s view that “all Christians remain subject to Fall-consequent weaknesses of mind and body, which lead to faults in thought, word, and deed” (“Why Protestant Christians,” 244).
- See Catechism of the Catholic Church, 490 at http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__ P1K.HTM.
- See Newman, Certain Difficulties Felt by Anglicans in Catholic Teaching Considered, vol. 2 (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1898), 47.
- Van Kuiken, “Why Protestant Christians,” 247.
- I thank Melissa Mulder, Jared Ortiz, and Mark Bowald for helping me make this paper stronger than it otherwise would have been.