Mary in Catholicism and Heavenly Mother in Mormonism: An addendum to the Givens podcast interview

07.16.2013 | Blair Hodges

During a recent Maxwell Institute Podcast interview, Fiona Givens observed that Mormons “have no theology of Heavenly Mother”—a problem which is receiving increased attention in Mormon blogs and other publications. She redirected the conversation by observing that Mormons are still trying to articulate theologies about God the Father, which she believes helps account for increased interest in Heavenly Mother. Some views of God are more foreboding, making him inaccessible in a devotional sense, thus increasing a desire for a divine feminine. During this discussion, she made a brief comparison between Mormonism and Catholicism:
And again, we go to the Catholic faith tradition. I was raised Catholic—I understand what’s going on here—and you have Christ, and he appears to be vulnerable and compassionate and benevolent, but he also says some pretty scary things, so what do you do? How much of the Father is in the Son, how much of the Mother is in the Son, and one isn’t seeing a huge influence there….But I can understand in the Catholic tradition why people, the Catholics go to Mary; she has become the intercessor. She’s completely taken over, for most Catholics, the role of Christ. And I think it’s because it’s difficult—there’s that wonderful scripture, “To whom shall we go?” I mean, the things that you’re saying, Lord, are really difficult and we really don’t know what to do. And we have this Heavenly Father figure who has been terribly misconstrued. And it’s also our own personal experiences with our own fathers; it’s much easier to go to the mother figure. She tends to be more merciful, kind, [long-]suffering, and empathic. But the injunction in the New Testament is to pray to our Heavenly Father. That is difficult, it’s a hard thing to do, so once we understand who he really is, I think that will make a huge difference” (21:52–23:13).
A thoughtful Catholic listener sent me an email after hearing the episode, taking exception to the claim that Mary has taken over Christ’s role for Catholics. Fiona’s observation, taken at face value, does not fairly represent the place of Mary or Christ within the Catholic tradition. Indeed, the Catholic Encyclopedia is emphatic in distinguishing between Christ’s role and Mary’s role. The impetus behind Mary’s role as intercessor likely involves a number of factors which may have little to do with perceptions of God as a stern father figure. This is complicated further when considering Catholic views of the Trinity. Of course, Fiona speaks as a former Catholic (with all that entails), and certainly doesn’t represent the entire tradition. Taking a closer look, we might consider the intercessory role of Mary within Catholicism, not as a replacement for Christ in the larger sense of atonement and mediation, but in terms of devotional worship, particularly prayer. It seems to me Fiona was discussing an apparently widespread religious impulse directed toward the divine feminine, which she believes helps mitigate dour depictions of an Old Testament-style God. She seems to say that within Catholicism this impulse has been manifest in the tradition’s affection for Mary as an intercessor. Within Mormonism she believes this impulse is directed to Heavenly Mother. This could be the beginning of an interesting comparison—albeit limited—between manifestations of the divine feminine in Mormonism and Catholicism. The main problem is that Fiona’s observation can all-too-easily be understood through the lens of long-standing anti-Catholic accusations of “Mary worship,” a caricature I’ve occasionally and unfortunately heard about in LDS settings. (See here for a short discussion from a Catholic writer regarding prayer versus worship.) Taking a more charitable view, it might be said that Catholics who pray through Mary as intercessor, or in other words who seek devotional experience through the Mother of God, are perhaps fulfilling a desire which many religious people feel to reach for a divine feminine. Fiona compares this with Mormons who feel drawn to know more about Heavenly Mother. There are a number of crucial caveats that must be made in any such comparison, of course. For instance, this isn’t to say that Mary is a replacement for Jesus, better than Jesus, or that Jesus’s saving acts are not efficacious in Catholic belief—after all, the Eucharist (or as Mormons call it, the sacrament) directly places the body and blood of Christ at the center of Catholic liturgical experience. But perhaps, at least for some Catholics, Mary has played an intercessory role similar to that which Christ plays in other traditions chiefly in the realm of petition and prayer. But even in this, Mary does not replace Christ, but rather her status flows from being the vessel through which Christ was born, in addition to her eventually being glorified and assumed into Heaven. Moreover, as the emailer noted, such prayerful intercession is not limited to Mary, but includes many women and men in a wide Communion of Saints. She lists examples like St. Catherine of Siena, St. Therese of Lisieux, or St. Joan of Arc. (It would be awesome if similar historical Mormon women could feature so prominently in average Mormon thought. At the present, Eliza R. Snow, Emma Smith, and a few others fill Mormon imaginative space, albeit without the intercessory dimension. This is perhaps somewhat odd, given Mormonism’s focus on Elijah’s promise to turn the hearts of children to parents and parents to children. …Well, “fathers” in particular!) The emailer concludes: “There is no shortage of the feminine intercessor in Catholicism and since we are all priests and priestesses we are all called to intercede for others, after all that’s what we do when we pray for others.” A more rigorous comparison would be fascinating. In the meantime, I believe Fiona Givens intended to convey the idea that Mormons do have a shortage of such feminine intercessors for a variety of social, historical, and theological reasons. She implies that this shortage has been one factor in the recent mini-surge of online discussion within Mormonism about a Heavenly Mother*—a substantially different figure compared to Mary’s theological place in Catholicism, but potentially devotionally similar in filling a need for connection with the divine feminine. In other words, this is an aspect of Catholic devotional life that some Mormons may understand as desirable–something positive about Catholicism which the LDS Church currently lacks in articulation, if not in practice. To the limited extent that Mormons understand the comparison they may feel a certain “holy envy” for one means by which some Catholics have incorporated the divine feminine into their worship of God.   *Recently, the most conspicuous contribution about Heavenly Mother in Mormonism is David Paulsen and Martin Pulido, “A Mother There”: A Survey of Historical Teachings about Mother in Heaven,” BYU Studies 50/1 (2001). This article sparked various blog posts, several positive, others highlighting some problems. The image is from the Video, Audio, Images section of lds.org.