The Veneration of Mary and Its Implications for Women in the Church

By Mika Deshotel

The veneration of Mary, the mother of Jesus, has been around for as long as the early Apostles. It emerged in conjunction with the understanding of the dual roles of Jesus Christ, as both fully human and fully divine. As the “Mother of God,” naturally Mary’s position was elevated. In order to be a sanctified vessel for the Son of God to be born, Mary needed to be recognized as having exceptional qualities, similar to Jesus.

The qualities of perpetual virginity, being immaculately conceived herself, and her bodily assumption into heaven were implemented within Roman Catholic Church doctrine from the 16th century. Mariology is the theological study of Mary through written accounts and the subsequent doctrines associated with her throughout the history of Christianity. It is distinct from, albeit related to, the practice of veneration and devotion to Mary.

Here, I explore the underlying circumstances for the prominence of devotion to Mary, especially in the Roman Catholic Church, how it became official dogma, and how official statements about Mary have been somewhat problematic for women of the Church in particular. I also explore how the Unification Movement addresses such issues attributed to Marian devotion, through the current leadership of co-founder, Dr. Hak Ja Han Moon, and how she is trailblazing a new view on feminine value which may ultimately help reform and encourage women leadership in the Church.

Historical background of the veneration of Mary

Given that so little is said about Mary in the Bible, it is amazing how the church as a whole, and Roman Catholic Church in particular, adores Mary. The rise of Mary came naturally as a consequence of the church developing its Christology, and the idea of Jesus being both fully human and fully divine. The term Theotokos, meaning “God-bearer,” was ascribed to Mary by the Third Ecumenical Council at Ephesus in 431 CE.

This was in contrast to the idea of Mary as Christotokos, or “Christ-bearer,” meaning Mary was the mother of Christ only in the sense of his body, but not his divine nature. Theotokos was not to make the assumption that from Mary’s body came the Word of God, but rather, as theologian Raymond Potgieter notes, Mary “was the vessel through which the eternal Word was incarnated in [the holy body of] Jesus Christ.” At the Council at Ephesus, Mary’s special role, not only as divine mother, but divine virgin mother, became clear.

Eventually the church credited her with titles like Mistress of the World, Queen of Heaven, and Mother of God. The early church historian and apologist, Irenaeus, called her the “New Eve,” as her son, Jesus, was the “New Adam.” Mary “obeyed” God, “whereas ‘the virgin’ Eve, did not.” Additional theological statements pertaining to Mary began from the 4th century, with church fathers such as Jerome and Origen promoting the idea of Mary’s perpetual virginity. The Council of Chalcedon, which reaffirmed Mary’s status as Theotokos, did not address the issue of her perpetual virginity, but by that time it was accepted within the larger ecclesial tradition. It was only a matter of time for the idea of the virgin Mary to be sinless.

Mary’s devotion and reverence took on differing degrees of significance as the church continued to develop, fracture and reform itself. (The Eastern Orthodox Church does not worship the Virgin Mary, but rather holds her in high esteem and gives her the honor and reverence as a role model for all Christians.) Following the Protestant Reformation, and rejection of the Catholic Church’s traditions and rules of faith in favor of looking to the authority of scripture over the authority of the Pope and bishops, devotion to Mary by Protestants became restricted to her historical significance as the mother of Jesus.

While Protestants do not dispute the importance of honoring Mary, they have not felt that she should be given exceptional status. Rather, the predominant idea among Protestants is that Mary’s contribution was part of a plan predestined by God. In other words, Mary was chosen to fulfill the responsibility to be the Mother of God; it was her destiny and she followed her due course.

With the reformation of the Catholic Church and the Council of Trent beginning in 1546, Pope Pius IX’s declaration of Mary’s sinlessness in 1854 reflected popular sentiments towards Mary by the masses. In 1950, Pope Pius XII, after consulting the bishops, declared the assumption of Mary as dogma. The purpose of this declaration may have been to assure believers of their own resurrection through Jesus Christ, since the Mother of God shared fully in the resurrection of her son.

Mary’s status continued to be elevated to that of co-redeemer, and was incorporated into the Second Vatican Council in 1964. In an effort to uphold and maintain Jesus’ position, however, which can be seen as a frequent issue in dealing with Mary, Pope Francis refused to add “co-redemptrix” to Mary’s titles in December 2019.

Mariology and its impact on women of the Church

The Catholic Church has continued to show its reverence for Mary. However, one of the challenges of honoring Mary is that in an effort to maintain her “place” as Jesus’ mother, her value is effectively capped by her role, which reinforces a common notion of women in the Bible as simply being valued either for their womb or their righteousness under extreme conditions, and never truly for their womanhood.

Women of the church have continually faced the difficulty of not having a female figure with whom they could emulate. The trinitarian view of God is a perfect example, which holds that all aspects of God are masculine, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. “In the end,” according to Ye Jin Moon, eldest daughter of Unification Church founder Rev. Sun Myung Moon, “Christianity may have elevated Mary, [but] her fundamental purpose was to serve Jesus. She was in no way understood in equal terms as the daughter of God, as Jesus was the Son.”

Another aspect of Mary’s veneration that is contradictory for women is that Mary is both mother and virgin, which effectively negates the reality and beauty of sexuality, along with the essence of Mary’s own contribution to the creation of Jesus. Instead, the church became hyper-focused on Mary’s womb and the need to keep it purified and holy. Again, according to Ye Jin Moon, “Greek and Latin Christianity in particular had strong desire to pursue such idealized vision of Mary, as they had been heavily influenced by Platonic spirituality which devalues physical bodily love as a lower form compared to spiritual love, which they believed could reach a higher ideal. The logic of the argument was that if Jesus is divine, his mother could not have been flawed by the low love of human sexuality, which is, according to St. Augustine, mainly necessary for the ‘procreation of children.’”

Veneration of Mary by the traditional patriarchal church elevates her status and piety so greatly that it creates a disconnect for women in general to come even remotely close to attaining it. An example of this reality is its effect on women seeking the priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church. Women are denied the ability to give the sacraments because they are not in the “personhood of Christ,” i.e., they are not male, like Jesus was. This was made clear in the 1976 Vatican declaration Inter Insigniores, and describes the role of the priest as “in persona Christi, taking the role of Christ, to the point of being his very image, when he pronounces the words of consecration.” This further elucidates the reality of women as “a weaker, but honored vessel.”

Implications of veneration of Mary for Unificationism

In terms of Unification faith, it is instructive to consider the veneration of Mary and compare it to Unification Church co-founder, Hak Ja Han Moon (Mother Moon), understood to be the Only Begotten Daughter of God.  Since the passing of her late husband, Rev. Moon, Mother Moon has declared a new age for the Unification Movement, which includes her messianic position along with the idea of God as Heavenly Parent, or the perfect union of Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother.

Prior to her declaration, the Unification Church operated on a similar patriarchal foundation as Christianity, although it aligned more closely with Protestantism than Catholicism.  In some ways, it is advantageous that Protestantism did not delve too deeply in the veneration of Mary. This would seem to make a transition to the idea of a divine Son and Daughter possibly easier than the dogmas of Mother Mary by the Catholic Church. Nevertheless, the role of Mary in the Roman Catholic faith continues to be dynamic and in process, which opens the possibility of a different outlook on its impact for women as well.

“The Virgin” by Joseph Stella (1926); courtesy Brooklyn Museum.

Ultimately, the issue at hand behind Mary’s elevated — but not too elevated — stature as the “Mother of God” has to do with human value and gender equality, which is where Mother Moon’s leadership offers clear guidance. One of the greatest benefits of the Unification view of Mother Moon and the idea of Heavenly Mother, is it makes it possible for women to have a unique and personal relationship with the feminine aspect of God. This understanding of Mother Moon, in her salvific capacity as the Only Begotten Daughter and True Eve, has also profoundly opened a way for women to realize their original, sinless value as God’s daughters in a way never before possible by traditional Christian faith standards. Women now have an example of their own, which embodies the fullest experience of womanhood, including the beauty of sexuality and familial roles of daughter, sister, wife, and mother.

Nevertheless, the actual reality and manifestation of such an age in the Unification Movement, on an organizational level at least, seems to be lagging behind. Despite the Movement using phrases like the “Age of Women” time and again, there have not been very many women in the forefront of leadership able to stand together with Mother Moon. This has been a painful reality, especially for elder “first generation” women, who spent many years of loyal devotion and investment to the Movement.

In the years since her husband’s passing, Mother Moon has often shared how lonely the work has been, continuing the path of God’s providence. It has been no secret she has not often felt supported nor understood by those around her. As a result, it is imperative to ask ourselves whether we are truly adopting this new age as quickly as Mother Moon would like us to.

Several very important questions stand out, including whether women have genuinely been given opportunities of leadership in the Movement and if so, do we currently see so few women leaders because of their negative experiences, particularly with their male counterparts? Also, there has been an understanding in some respects, that during the Age of Restoration, and in particular the need for the restoration of the role of women, perhaps women were unable to assume leadership positions before because Mother Moon was not herself able to stand in that position. It may be that the Age of Restoration was a time of predominantly masculine leadership, where there was a requisite need for furthering the Will in an organized and strategic fashion, and that perhaps, as we now transition out of that Age, the Movement can settle into a time of greater feminine leadership than before.

Of course, to be clear, it is less about the need for increased leadership roles for women as it is ultimately a matter of demonstrating a real acknowledgement and reverence for the true worth of men and women of God equally in the precious work needed for God’s providence ahead of us. Ultimately, an increase in women leadership ought to naturally occur as a reflection of such accepted values. At the same time, it will be interesting to also see the subsequent evolution of the devotion to Mary, as truly a devoted woman of God in her own right, and how the Christian Church shifts its own patriarchal views towards women as a result as well.♦

Mika Deshotel has been a secondary school educator for 13 years. She earned her B.A. in biology from Clark University, an M.A. in education from the University of Bridgeport, and is currently pursuing her D.Min. from Unification Theological Seminary. She also is the Associate Dean of Student Life at UTS. She served as FFWPU District Pastor of New England and State Pastor of Connecticut for the past seven years. Mika lives in Bridgeport, CT, with her husband and four children.          

Painting at top: “Madonna and Child” by Giovanni Battista Salvi (1640).

13 thoughts on “The Veneration of Mary and Its Implications for Women in the Church

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  1. Thank you, Mika, for your insightful approach.

    Your essay combines two sets of ideas. First, you analyze Mariology in light of Unificationism. In the second part, you proceed to analyze Unificationist practices in light of Mariology; I found this approach through Mary really educational for us.

    Unificationists sometimes hold simplistic views of Mary and Mariology. One reason is our statement that Jesus’ mission of salvation was not fully accomplished, and his mother Mary bears a certain responsibility in the frustration of the Providence.

    Actually, the Divine Principle mentions Eve 40 times and Mary only four times. In the EDP, she appears first in pages 117-120 (Mission of the Messiah), but this concerns strictly the appearance of the Angel to her (Annunciation). She appears again in the Course of Moses and Jesus, p. 229. This concerns the “cooperation between Mother and son”.

    The Divine Principle is therefore discrete regarding Mary, as if her role is unimportant to understand salvation.
    However, Mary is present in our movement, because Father often spoke about her.

    I found your explanation on Mary excellent. Yet I would recommend to speak about her somehow in warmer terms. Mary has inspired very deep feelings to people for 2,000 years. The adoration of Mary may not be grounded theologically speaking but the feelings inspired by this feminine figure have often helped people reach a high spiritual level. Until the appearance of True Mother, Mary has attracted people’s souls to help them purify. The Principle insists on the role of the Holy Spirit in the redemption process. But much of the work described in the Principle seems to be shared by the Holy Spirit and Mary. When Christians experience rebirth, atonement, Protestants say it is because of the Holy Spirit, Catholics rather turn to Mary. The imagery of Mary has inspired painters, musicians, poets. She became a central person, the mother of the Western World. Michelangelo, among others, has made Mary a noble figure, who exemplifies pure and silent sacrifice. For many artists, Mary is pure, divine beauty (albeit with “theological cosmetics”).

    Father talked about Mary mostly regarding the Blessing Providence. Father had to explain what is called a mystery by Christians: the possibility to remove original sin. According to True Father, Jesus should be born as the son of God, new Adam, sinless Messiah, out of a special lineage. Mary’s role is examined in relation to the purified lineage, using the genealogy of Matthew and Luke. According to True Father, the Messiah must be born from an act of love which restores Eve’s mistake with the Angel. When we deeply understand Father’s explanation regarding Tamar and Mary, we come to know that Father is a real “feminist”.

    He ascribes to the woman a key role in the process of rebirth. It is a very active, a risk-taking role. It has to do with womanhood and the restoration of sex. I always found Father’s explanation so profound, and then, I had a deep feeling for Mary. It made me shed a lot of tears. As a male, I felt that men are so wretched and hopeless without the sacrifice of women. After the matching, I often felt from my Japanese fiancée that she was like Mother Mary to me. Words cannot describe such a deep feeling of being saved from death.

    It made my wife a bit uncomfortable, but she tried her best to play this role, in a “natural” way. Men need this experience to leave the Archangel’s position. They can feel totally dependent on the Mother’s divine love.

    I believe that Mary was put on a lofty pedestal for 2,000 years, simply because she did so well to give birth to Jesus. Yet, she did not help Jesus find the bride. But this “secret” could not be revealed, until the appearance of the Lord of Second Coming. I think God allowed Christians to embrace a theory which is incomplete, i.e., that Jesus came to die on the cross, and that, behind his sacrifice, there had been another divine sacrifice, on behalf of Mary.

    Jesus gave his most precious life to us, and this precious life had been conceived and born out of sin. In the absence of a clear view of the Fall, Christians created a story of the Virgin Mary and immaculate conception, which today reveals its inadequacy but was helpful for a long period.

    If we were able to express our view of her story (Mary’s true story) with the proper heart, attitude, with tears, many Christians and Muslims would be moved. They would see that we have the “missing link” connecting Eve and Mary.

    Later, I may elaborate more, but this is my first comment. Thank you again.

    1. Laurent,

      You wrote: “the Messiah must be born from an act of love which restores Eve’s mistake with the Angel. When we deeply understand Father’s explanation regarding Tamar and Mary, we come to know that Father is a real ‘feminist’.”

      For those who have been raised in biblical myths (Jews, Christians and Muslims), women always had the bad role, for Eve brought sin into the world. So God approved that women should be submissive to men. Jesus however brought a bit of comfort and dignity to women and Mary became the fantasized ideal woman whom Catholics came to idolize. Over time, it became plain “Mariolatry” even though for centuries Catholics had also, without any pang of conscience, tortured and burned witches they had superstitiously imagined as the cause of all kinds of evils.

      In other cultures which ignore the Genesis myths, sexism and machismo became simply a matter of power and domination without needing any particular religious justification. That might probably have been the case in Korea where men are used to feeling essentially “superior” to women. That might be why Rev Moon came to explain that women should always walk a few steps behind their husbands, as Mrs. Moon herself had to do it for many years.

      I won’t then be so categorical as to say that Rev. Moon was a real “feminist”. Wasn’t he indeed deeply influenced by the rather macho Korean culture? Concerning women’s leadership, I remember being personally so shocked and distressed at reading one of his official speeches in which he was mentioning that when facing a problem, the most stupid man can easily find three solutions while a woman would hardly find only one.

      That being said, it’s undeniable that naïve idealization and unwavering faith — even in the weirdest beliefs based on an obvious denial of reality — have such a fascinating power to positively help us improve our lives and possibly become better people.

      1. Jean-Jacques,

        You wrote, “Mary became the fantasized ideal woman whom Catholics came to idolize. Over time, it became plain ‘Mariolatry’ even though for centuries Catholics had also, without any pang of conscience, tortured and burned witches they had superstitiously imagined as the cause of all kinds of evils.”

        Well, maybe. I could argue about these matters, but would rather proceed through questions.

        Alright, there was misogyny in the Catholic Church. Let’s say that it should be recognized, admitted and atoned for, once and for all! I would go for that, if it helps. But then, I would have questions.

        It there was so much animosity against women in Catholicism, how do we explain, then, the extravagant role of Mary as Theotokos? Is it mere idolatry? Even if there is a bit of idolatry, is it all, or is it more complex?

        So many women, in Catholicism, became founders of religious orders, congregations, missionary programs. Why? Can any other religion “compete”?

        Why were so many Catholic women recognized as saints and even Doctors of the Church? In the Middle Ages alone, women like Catherine of Siena, or Joan of Arc, could play such a decisive role. Why? You may see things in both ways.

        Yes, Joan was burned to death, but so were men at that time who were labeled as heretics. And she did manage to move history quite much. Likewise Catherine. How would you explain that, for most Catholics, Teresa of Avila stands as high as John of the Cross? Why would millions of people believe that Bernadette did the right thing in Lourdes, if the Catholic Church was wrong about women?

        Mika Deshotel is inviting us to a balanced meditation. She says clearly the pros and cons about the Catholic doctrine of Mary. She does so with nuance. And likewise, she observes very good practices in our own movement, but also not so good practices.

        The day when I meet God in the Spirit World, I think I shall make an honest confession. In my life, I did many good things to my sisters, and I also offended figures who were like my mother, my wife, my sister, or my daughter. I sometimes did the very best and the worst in the same hour of my life. It is partly due to my being a man, but more fundamentally, it comes from my fallen nature.

        1. Laurent,

          I fully agree with you that questioning helps to have a more fair and balanced approach to the whole picture. Examples and counterexamples can be found almost everywhere in human society.

          Exceptions however can’t counterbalance what is vastly majority. A white dove among a bunch of crows doesn’t make a white flock.

          On the other hand, concerning the “feminist” attribute, does not any single established sexist statement invalidate or seriously downshift the label?

  2. Thank you so much for your explanation and discussion of Mary and her place in the history of Christianity.

    I was raised Catholic and participated in the veneration of Mary growing up. I was always moved by the fact that Mary witnessed her son’s crucifixion and suffered tremendously — maybe aware of her own guilt in failing to support him enough in his ministry. Sometimes I feel that the stories of Mary appearing at Fatima and Lordes and even more recently in the former Yugoslavia are her efforts to make up for some failure in life by now supporting the cause of salvation through her son, Jesus; I don’t know.

    Regarding the lack of female leadership in our movement, I think this has a lot to do with the patriarchal society that we live in, especially since the country of our origins, Korea, has been reluctant to acknowledge female leadership.

    The world has never seen (or barely conceived of) a woman messiah, so it is not surprising that this is a difficult cultural obstacle to overcome. I was at a celebration in East Garden for the one-year anniversary of the inauguration of Women’s Federation for World Peace when Father expressed delight in having a “woman messiah.”

    It will be very interesting to see how the Catholic Church continues to tell the story of Mary and her place in the providence. With Pope Francis, things seem to be evolving. He recently spoke of the possibility of priests being able to marry — thus elevating the position of conjugal relationships in the life of a person who performs Christ’s duties of giving the sacraments.

    Could this also mean women can someday give the sacraments themselves, becoming not just the “bride of Christ”, but taking on a messianic role themselves? Very interesting. Thanks, Mika, for getting the discussion going. Thanks also to Laurent for your thoughtful and moving comment.

    There has been a longing on the part of God and religious people to recognize a restored Eve, a true daughter that God could completely recognize as the pure object of his love. This is likely why Mary became so important a figure in Christology. She has served her purpose. Now I hope the world can come to recognize our True Mother for who she truly is.

  3. It seems there is, within the human psyche, some archetype of the Original Yin, the femininity of God.

    Whereas Protestants deal with the historical Mary of the biblical scriptures, Catholic and Orthodox traditions have piled up layers of other notions of Mary, making her into a persona, who she surely is not, in reality. In a way, part of Mary is to the Catholic Church what the personification of the United States, Columbia, is to the United States of America. The difference is Columbia never existed. Mary existed, and some archetype was projected on her, mostly for good reasons, I would say.

    Various names were given to the Original Yin. One of the most interesting names comes from Goethe, in Faust. It is called the Eternal Feminine, and has been much discussed. Goethe says, mysteriously, “The eternal-feminine draws us on high”. I like it, it is almost nonsensical, yet it means something beyond logic, like pure poetry.

    Goethe made clear that the Eternal Feminine can never be personified, but is represented and manifested in several figures.

    The concept of the “eternal feminine” (German: das Ewig-Weibliche) appears at the end of Faust, Part Two (1832):

    Everything transient
    Is but a symbol;
    The insufficient
    Here finds fulfilment;
    The indescribable
    Here becomes deed;
    The eternal-feminine
    Draws us on high.

  4. The Catholic Church’s dogma of “perpetual virginity” doesn’t fit the biblical narrative of Jesus’ brothers and the Book of James, Jesus’ most famous brother. Good article.

  5. Mika,

    Nice effort on trying to introduce various historical theological and doctrinal explanations on the role and function of women operating within the confines of religious institutional environments.

    I like that you decided to create meaning and craft a narrative on “what’s been and not been happening” with/to men and women, boys and girls, within the confines of the Unification movement.

    If I were to ask, “What is the main argument of your essay?”, what would be your answer, in one sentence, if you could kindly make an attempt?

    Good luck with your UTS D.Min. program! Look forward to seeing how things unfold for you.

  6. Dear Mika,

    Thank you so much for being brave enough to write this article. You are inspiring young people like me to express our beliefs and ideas through the written word.

  7. First of all, Mika, thank you for expressing your concern for a balanced representation of men and women in the leadership of the Unification Church. Secondly, I resonate with you for your reminder of the growing awareness of the divine image in both men and women. Yes, we sisters in the church have lots to offer to complement and collaborate with brothers in the Heavenly Parent’s Holy Community. Let us support True Mother in this era of emerging women’s ministry and leadership, starting from the family level, to usher in our Heavenly Parent-desired Cheon Il Guk.

  8. Thank you, Mika, for speaking words of wisdom, as an expression of God’s caring love which is definitely beyond gender.

    Men and women have all sadly felt unloved. They have endlessly been fighting each other with or without theological justifications since quite a while.

    Can’t actually matriarchy and patriarchy be equally satisfying, as long as gender discrimination no longer exists? So let it be!

    May the day come when the broken-hearted people living in the world agree!

    Men and women’s voices will now be heard everywhere to foster peace and reconciliation, echoing the parental heart of God. If all deserve to be praised, none will ever detain the monopoly of the process, nor deserve any particular “justified” idolatry.

    Mary McCartney came one night whispering to her son’ ear. This cosmic event led Paul McCartney to write the song “Let It Be” which has moved the hearts of millions of people all around the world.

    May all the Marys in the cosmos — including you Mika — keep whispering words of wisdom! Let it be!

  9. Mika,

    Thank you for your excellent essay.

    History, theology, church tradition and a reflection on the meaning for our movement today. I believe that there is so much hidden from view about the pathos of Mary. How did she feel when Jesus said, “what have you to do with me?” True Father said the same to his mother Choongmo-nim in Heungnam, and it really crushed her. I admire Mary greatly for humbling herself. At the cross, she stood with the disciple John, and Jesus told her that John was her son, and she was his mother, and from that point she lived with John. When I read the Gospel of John, and his epistles and Book of Revelation, I cannot help but reflect that he was living with Jesus’ mother. His writings are completely unique; many things show up there that are not in the Synoptics, too many to list here — the Holy City coming like a Bride, the Wedding of the Lamb, the story of Nicodemus, the “eat my flesh, drink my blood” event, so many. Finally, to note that Mary went under the disciples. She was with them in the Upper Room at Pentecost. Jesus had castigated her, but there she was, not claiming anything for herself, praying with the disciples. A good model for us all.

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