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Religion, Theology and Self-Improvement Sundays: Women, Religion, Theology and Society Part 7

At the core of the disrespect and mistreatment that women all over the world endure is the concept of what a woman should be. And at the center of that concept is the purpose, structure and function of the "ideal" woman.

This week we take a look at Bishop Shelby Spong's writing on the relationship between the Biblical Mary and this "ideal" woman. From pg. 218-219 of Born Of A Woman:

When the dogma of the Immaculate Conception was promulgated in 1854 by Pius IX, Mary was said to have been "preserved immaculate from all stain of original sin by the singular grace and privilege granted her by Almighty God." In 1950, almost a century later, when the dogma of Mary's bodily assumption was proclaimed by Pius XII, the humanity of the central feminine figure in the Christian mythology was completely removed. The argument in that document was unique: Since the relics from the bodies of lesser saints created miracles and since no miracles have ever been reported from the body of Mary, therefore her body must have been assumed. Carl Jung rejoiced that the feminine had finally been placed into God in Western religion. He called it one of the most important decisions in human history. But Jung was talking about symbols, not historical truth. That became obvious when he further stated that all that was now needed was for evil, or the shadow side of life, to be incorporated into God. A view of history, however, reveals that the price of Mary's bodily assumption was the sacrifice of her sexual identity. She entered the realm of the gods as one deprived of her humanity. She was a virgin bride, a virgin mother, a perpetual virgin, and a postpartum virgin. She was immaculately conceived at birth and bodily assumed at the moment at the death. Clearly she was not a real woman.

Yet this Mary was proclaimed by the all-male hierarchy as the ideal woman. Who can be such an ideal? Who can be a virgin mother? A virgin mother is a contradiction in terms. If that was to be the feminine ideal, accepted and saluted by church and world alike, then in one stroke every other woman was and is rendered inadequate, incomplete, incompetent. Celibate males who constituted the decision-making body of the church had succeeded in defining the ideal woman in such a way as to universalize guilt among women.

Women are guilty if they feel desire; guilty if they marry; guilty if they are not obedient to father, husband, or priest, for in this world a male always held the authority. Even a convent that was under a mother superior had to answer to a male bishop and a male warden, who guaranteed male control. Furthermore, the sisters were dependent on a male priest if they were to have the sacraments that they were taught were necessary to salvation. Since no one save Mary could achieve the ideal state of virgin mother, all other women were taught that they might approach virtue by being either virgins or mothers.

They could join the nunnery and live out the role of virgin purity, or they must be perpetual mothers producing as many off-spring as God would grant, regardless of the impact of a large family on the health and well-being of the mother. Sex had no saving purpose except reproduction. Jerome once proclaimed that the only saving grace of marriage was found in the possibility that such a union would produce more virgins. Strange logic indeed.

In many ways, such logic puts women in an impossible situation...almost.

Cedric Muhammad

Sunday, December 3, 2000

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