As year six begins, Pope Francis’s devotion to Mary shows a traditionalist streak

Liberal Catholics have often rejoiced, and Catholic conservatives have sometimes grumbled, over Pope Francis, who was elected on March 13, five years ago.

A Pew Research survey (.pdf here) released in time for the anniversary shows 84 percent of U.S. Catholics over-all have a favorable opinion of Francis -- but 55 percent of Catholic Republicans find him “too liberal” (up from 23 percent in 2015). Yes, it would have been nice to see some survey questions framed in doctrinal terms, rather than this political reference point.

 A new decree on the Virgin Mary reminds reporters going forward that the pontiff does have a traditionalist streak worth remembering, as surely as there’s a perennially interesting feature theme in how Catholicism honors the mother of Jesus Christ and the resulting ecumenical conflict.

Upon endorsement from Francis, the new decree was issued March 3 by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. (Why such convoluted titles at the Vatican?). It states that all church calendars and liturgies will now honor Mary as the “Mother of the Church” the day after Pentecost Sunday, also citing her “divine motherhood” and “intimate union in the work of the Redeemer.”

This is an annual “memorial,” the lowest level of recognition in worship. But higher “solemnities” with obligatory Mass attendance are already on the universal calendar, hailing Mary under the dogmas of her bodily Assumption into heaven (August 15) and her Immaculate Conception free from original sin (December 8). Those provide yearly feature pegs.

Writers who want to develop this aspect of the pope’s personal piety should read a 2015 rundown in the doctrinally conservative National Catholic Register. For instance, twelve hours after the cardinals elected Francis, he quietly visited the Basilica of St. Mary Major to venerate the icon of Mary as the Protectress of the Romans.

By the Register account, two incidents greatly intensified (the then) Father Jorge Bergoglio’s devotion to Mary after he had led Argentina’s Jesuits through the anguishing terror of the military’s “Dirty War.” He was impressed by St. Pope John Paul II’s devotion to multiple daily recitations of the Rosary during a 1985 Latin America visit. The following year, Bergoglio visited Germany and was deeply moved by meditating upon a 17th Century painting that shows a queenly Our Lady untying a large knot.

Here's some ecumenical background for newcomers to the religion beat.

The Eastern Orthodox are vexed by Rome’s unilateral and mandatory dogmas about Mary, even as they venerate her, ask her prayerful intercession during worship and agree with Catholicism (and a guy named Martin Luther) that she was a lifelong virgin. Modern Protestants reject all that, believing Mariology lacks biblical warrant and, like the papacy itself, presents a major obstacle to Christian reunion. (Recent times brought added differences with many Protestants over female clergy and moral issues.)   

A far bigger ecumenical problem would erupt if a pope ever declares Mary to be the “Mediatrix of all graces” and the “Co-Redemptrix” with the Son of God. During preparations for Catholicism’s Second Vatican Council (1962-65), 313 bishops petitioned for a new definition of Mary in these terms, widely popular among global parishioners.

Instead of issuing a decree on Mary, Pope Paul VI and the world’s bishops relegated the topic to the concluding chapter 8 of their “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church.” The council emphasized “the unique mediation of Christ,” citing biblical 1 Timothy 2:5-6, and spoke only of Mary’s “cooperation” in the Savior’s work of redemption.

Intriguingly, though, the council said chapter 8 is no “complete doctrine on Mary” and left leeway so issues not yet “fully illuminated” can be “freely propounded” by theologians. John Paul II assigned a commission to consider ongoing appeals for the new definitions but in 1996 it recommended no changes.

The question persists. Five cardinals from the developing world jointly beseeched Pope Benedict XVI to proclaim Mary as Co-redemptrix and Mediatrix in a 2008 petition that was dated January 1, the “solemnity” of Mary as the Mother of God.

Standard caution for newswriters: By official teaching, Mary is held in honor and “venerated” but Catholics are to stop short of “worship,” which is due to God alone. God is in the details, again.

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