Virgin Mary became a divisive issue at the council

April 1, 2013

One of the more significant points of evolution in Church teaching that emerged from the Second Vatican Council was that on the Blessed Virgin Mary. It was an evolution, however, that came with considerable gnashing of teeth and a most emotional debate.

The issue: Should there be a separate document on Mary or should Mary be included in the document on the Church?

Over the previous 110 years, the Church had defined two new doctrines about the Mother of God – the Immaculate Conception (that Mary came into this world without the stain of original sin) and the Assumption (that, at the end of her life, Mary was taken bodily into heaven).

Marian devotees among the bishops were itching for Vatican II to issue another solemn definition – either that she was co-redemptrix or that she was the mediatrix of all graces. A separate document on Mary could be the place to do that.

Others maintained that Mary was part of the Church, a model for our lives as Christians and a model for the Church. Moreover, giving excessive exaltation to Mary would be an obstacle in developing ecumenical relationships, especially with the churches of the Reformation.

A painting depicts the appearance of Mary to St. Bernadette of Lourdes France in 1858.


A painting depicts the appearance of Mary to St. Bernadette of Lourdes France in 1858.

Historian John O'Malley put the issue succinctly: Some saw the inclusion of Mary in the document on the Church as slighting Mary; others maintained that a separate document on Mary would give her greater prominence than the Holy Trinity.

Theologian Karl Rahner was not happy with the proposed document on the Blessed Virgin, but he felt that it could not be cast aside as easily the proposed document on divine revelation (De Fontibus) had been rejected at the council's first session. Marian questions should be dealt with in the document on the Church.

Yves Congar, another leading theologian, wrote in his diary that he had spoken to many bishops from several countries who were hesitant about including Mary in the document on the Church. They were not opposed to the idea, but they saw no compelling reason to do so.

For Congar, however, there was a compelling reason: It would avoid the possibility of making exorbitant claims about Mary's role in salvation. As well, it provided the opportunity to write something about Mary that could be a building block in ecumenism.

There was considerable emotion around the issue and the possibility loomed of a lengthy debate on the council floor that could last for weeks. So, it was decided that on Oct. 24, one proponent for each side would put forward their case. Then five days later, the council fathers would vote on whether to include the teaching on Mary in the constitution on the Church or in a separate document.


Cardinal Rufino Santos of Manila put forward the case for a separate document. Although Mary is a member of the Church, she also has a close connection with Christ and with salvation and so her role cannot be reduced to ecclesiology, he maintained.

Indeed, her unique role in the Church as well as her great dignity would be more apparent in a separate document, Santos said. Further, including Mary in a document on another topic would give a sign to the faithful that the Church was giving Mary a decreased emphasis in its teaching.

Cardinal Franz Konig of Vienna advocated for the inclusion of Marian teaching in the document on the Church. He pointed out that the Church was the central theme of Vatican II, thus making it appropriate to examine Mary's role in relation to that theme. Viewing Mary in that context would help to avoid an overly institutional conception of the Church.

Karl Rahner

Karl Rahner

A separate document would give the erroneous impression, which had many times been denied, that the council intended to define another Marian dogma. As well, including Mary in the document on the Church would not imply any lessening of proper veneration of Mary, but would encourage the faithful to purify their devotion of improper excesses.


Over the next four days, the intense lobbying of the council fathers by both sides in the debate increased still further. "Marian devotees of every shade are conducting a massive offensive," Congar wrote. "The Virgin Mary, who ought to unite us, would become a source of division."

On Oct. 29, the council fathers voted 1,114 to 1,074 in favour of including its Marian teaching in the document on the Church. It was the closest vote on a major issue during the entire council.

(Later in this series, an article will examine the Marian teaching of the finished document, Lumen Gentium.)

Still, the council did not avoid granting a new title to Mary. Pope Paul VI the next month declared Mary to be the Mother of the Church, a title alluded to, but not explicitly stated, in the final Vatican II constitution, which was approved the next year.


Examining how Pope Paul used that title, theologian George Tavard concluded that his usage was extremely cautious and without any real content.

So, why did the pope declare Mary to be the Mother of the Church? Tavard maintains that it was to soothe the bruised feelings of those who came out on the losing end of the close vote at the council. Ever the diplomat, Pope Paul sought a compromise which would ensure the unity of the Church.

Although no schism loomed over the issue, Pope Paul wanted everyone to feel happy with the final document and to be able to go home with their heads held high.

(Information for this article came from What Happened at Vatican II by John O'Malley, My Journal of the Council by Yves Congar, The Rhine Flows Into the Tiber by Ralph Wiltgen, The Thousand Faces of the Virgin Mary by George Tavard, Alberto Melloni's article in History of Vatican II, volume three [edited by Giuseppe Alberigo and Joseph Komonchak], and Frederick Jelly's article, "Mary and the Church" in The Gift of the Church [edited by Peter Phan].)