Decoding Vatican II’s Marian Paradigm Shift

This Vatican II Mariological paradigmatic shift reverberated into all areas of ecclesial theology and liturgy, through a new hermeneutic or interpretation that went beyond the council’s purview and became what is described as a new ethos, the “Spirit of Vatican II.” 

A long “lost” 1951 unpublished thesis on the Blessed Virgin Mary by the theologian Fr. Karl Rahner (1904-84) has resurfaced. In German, it is called, Assumptio-Arbeit, and was published in 2004 in the Sämtliche Werke (Collected Works, volume 9 of 32).  In the 2012 issue of the journal of Marquette University, Philosophy & Theology,1 Peter Joseph Fritz offers his analysis to English readers, entitled, “Between Center and Periphery: Mary and the Saints in Rahner.” The following is a review article intended for those interested in understanding the paradigm shift in Mariology that occurred at, and after, the Second Vatican Council.

Peter Joseph Fritz is assistant professor of theology at the Jesuit College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. He has translated a 2004 work from the Censors of the estate of Fr. Karl Rahner, S.J., on the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In his review of this never published 1951 work, Fritz offers readers an insight in how to understand the Catholic Church’s teaching during the time of the Second Vatican Council on the Blessed Virgin Mary; particularly, the paradigmatic shift in emphasis on the place and role of the Blessed Virgin Mary that occurred during and after the council. In his article, “Between Center and Periphery: Mary and the Saints in Rahner,” Fritz first situates the “Marian” question, i.e., the place or role of the Blessed Virgin Mary in theology, by contrasting Fr. Karl Rahner’s Mariology with one that is representative, typical (perhaps) of the pre-Vatican II era, by Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar S.J., (1905-88).

In order to understand the Vatican II era, a little historical summary is needed that is not provided by Fritz, but it may be assumed that he would approve. Simply put, the century approaching the council (1962-65), beginning with Pope Pius IX’s infallible decree on the Blessed Virgin Mary’s Immaculate Conception (Ineffabilis Deus, December, 8, 1854), up and through Pope Pius XII’s infallible papal bull on her Assumption into heaven (Munificentissimus Deus, November, 1, 1950) represents what is called by some as “high” Mariology. Here, Fritz explains that before the council, Mary’s placement and role in salvation history is exalted for a maximalism, or maximalist, Marian emphasis. So much was she emphasized that going into the council, according to Mariologist Msgr. Arthur B. Calkins, some bishops asked St. Pope John XXIII to either make a statement, or declare a dogmatic decree, giving Mary a new title: Coredemptrix and/or Mediatrix of all graces. Msgr. Calkins further notes that even the first draft of Lumen Gentium’s (Dogmatic Constitution, “On the Church”) in chapter eight on the Blessed Virgin Mary, desired to acknowledge the validity of the term; but in the redactions, it was taken out due to ecumenical concerns.2

By the closest of all conciliar votations (17), the independent Marian draft schema was set aside. Instead, the Marian thesis was incorporated into the schema “On the church.”  As such, the date of this vote, October 29, 1963, is “ground zero” for post-Vatican II Mariology. Thus, a shift in momentum occurred in the ethos of the Church regarding the role of the Blessed Virgin Mary for Catholics. With a new paradigm came a new ethos, intentional or unintentional, that was promoted, in which the role of Mary must now be subsumed, in favor of other considerations (e.g., ecumenical). The question is then, how do we, as churchmen and churchwomen, interpret this shift?

Peter Joseph Fritz is providing an answer via a Rahnerian Marian ethos. That is, even though this work was not published until 2004, Rahner’s thinking behind it was present at the council through his influence; for he participated as a peritus—an expert advisor at the council. Fr. Rahner was associated with a group of theologians who promoted Nouvelle Théologie (New Theology) and was, at first, pre-censored from lecturing or writing without prior approval. This meant that he was effectively banned from the council. Then, in November of 1962, he was appointed by St. Pope John XXIII, giving him direct access to not only the council Fathers, but to the drafting of the documents. In fact, he was one of seven theologians who had a hand in drafting the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium. This is the document that contains the revised and reworked schema on the Blessed Virgin Mary that then became chapter eight. According to Fr. Vorgrimler (a theological collaborator of Rahner), Rahner had an influence on most of the other documents as well.3

This Vatican II Mariological paradigmatic shift reverberated into all areas of ecclesial theology and liturgy, through a new hermeneutic or interpretation that went beyond the council’s purview and became what is described as a new ethos, the “Spirit of Vatican II.”  This “Spirit” is often in contrast over, and at times, against, the letter of Vatican II. It is to be hoped that this “Spirit of Vatican II” was an unintended consequence following the council, although Cardinal Kasper, who worked as an assistant to Fr. Hans Küng—also a peritus—has recently been quoted as saying,

In many places, (the Council Fathers) had to find compromise formulas, in which, often, the positions of the majority are located immediately next to those of the minority, designed to delimit them. Thus, the conciliar texts themselves have a huge potential for conflict, opening the door to a selective reception in either direction.4

Nevertheless, a rupture or fissure ensued which pitted ecclesial ethos as either before, or after, Vatican II. The topic of a ruptured ecclesial ethos was addressed during the 1985 Extraordinary Synod of Bishops. The Synodal Fathers, on the 20th anniversary of the closing of Vatican II, called for a “return to the sacred,” and a proper relationship between the letter and Spirit of Vatican II. However, it would not be until 2005, in his Christmas address to the Roman Curia, that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI (at the time of Vatican II, he was, of course, Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, also a peritus), would call for a proper “hermeneutic of continuity,”5 as opposed to an interpretation of rupture—thereby settling the dispute or debate. Pope Emeritus Benedict has firmly established the proper, post-Vatican II ethos for the future by interpreting the documents of Vatican II as in keeping with the Church’s traditional Magisterial teachings, and not reading the documents of Vatican II up against, or opposed, to them.

All this brings us back to Fr. Rahner, and the newly released Assumptio-Arbeit (2004) on the Blessed Virgin Mary and her Assumption. Fritz notes that while it was written in 1951, Rahner’s censor prevented Assumptio-Arbeit from being published due to its disharmony with Pope Pius XII’s Munificentissimus Deus, then considered to be the new dogmatic decree on Mary’s Assumption. Fr. Rahner critiques this particular papal bull on Mary as being too limited to her “privileges and prerogatives,” and not fitting her role as the “Eschatological Woman.” Rahner would rather see a Mariology that would usher in a new emphasis in all areas of theology, based on the Eschaton (e.g., Mary as the New Eve, and the eschaton being the linchpin to all theological categories) in which grace and freedom coalesce in the Vorgriff (a Rahnerian neologism representing a cosmic comprehension). Hence, Fritz posits that Rahner was seeking a fundamental-theological transposition of Mary being moved away from the center (where von Balthasar had placed her), to Mary and the saints being close to, but not quite on, the periphery of the theological existential.

What is meant by this is that Rahner would rather propose, as a founding principle of Mariology, that her reception of grace be emphasized, rather than her maternity. He would have Mary, not as a Platonic ideal, but as a referent for the whole of humanity. For Rahner, the times have changed. Generations who loved the Blessed Virgin Mary have given way to a new generation that finds in emphasizing Mary’s uniqueness—via exalted titles and privileges—a divisive force. (Again, this is Rahner’s perspective.) Instead of forcing us toward the center, these Marian titles and privileges drive people away, and not toward, the center. Peter Joseph Fritz agrees. The problem here is (and this will be addressed below) just what is “the center?”

In short, Rahner’s Mariology—which includes the saints in their examples of existential living in grace—considers in Mary’s Assumption a theological emphasis, not for Mary’s sake, but for humanity’s. That is, Mary’s cosmic end (in heaven) is our end; and we should live our daily lives in grace, as she did hers.  However, Fritz relates that while Rahner found value in the veneration of Mary (and by connection, any of the saints), that veneration is optional—not required for Catholics. For Rahner, veneration of Mary, or any saint, is not a duty; whereas loving one’s neighbor in charity is. For Rahner, veneration may be conducive to personal holiness, but only if it leads us to neighborly charity. Thus, for Rahner, Mary and the saints can occupy neither the center nor the edges, but move within the “middle ground” of Christian existentialism, whose center is in constant motion. Thus, for Fritz, Rahner’s Mariology is vindicated by the council’s 17-vote margin of victory in which the proper emphasis on Mary is not as a stand-alone “Saint of saints,” but rather, as the model Christian—in and amongst the Church, in the Church, and as part of the Church.

Peter Joseph Fritz concludes by bemoaning the fact that there is a sector within the Church in the Untied States which seeks to return to devotions to Mary, and “especially the rosary, to the center of Catholic life.” He characterizes it as being mean-spirited to those who do not have such devotions. He speculates that these “pro-Mary group(s) (are) rather anti-Rahner”; moreover, that Rahner gets the blame for ruining “mid-century” (sic) Marian fervor, “thus betraying the Church.” For Fritz, he will have none of it. His paper is an attempt to maintain a post-Vatican II ethos by holding onto an openness, both to Marian veneration and veneration of the Eucharist (but never in the center, and never out of a notion of “strict enforcement of ‘the sacred’”); and, to“an openness that uses multiple paths—some manifestly sacred, and others not—to advance toward enjoyment of God(?). In fact, it may be both, so long as the former does not cancel out the latter tout court. This last clause, of course, is the key.”

Peter Joseph Fritz’s primary thesis is that Rahnerian Mariology is the Church’s post-Vatican II Mariology as supported by the paradigm shift in emphasis at Vatican II—from Mary and the saints at the center of Catholic life prior to Vatican II, to Mary and the saints somewhere near, but not on, the periphery of Catholic life after Vatican II. The thesis was substantiated by the newly published—but censored until 2004—1951 Rahnerian work on the “Assumption of Mary.” The thesis is controversial to the extent that a whole subculture of Catholicism was built, in large part, around the devotion and veneration due to the Mother of God during the so-called “Marian Century,” from 1854 to 1950, and up to Vatican II as noted above, but was abruptly shifted, or ended, at the council in favor of other concerns and considerations, mainly ecumenical.

Fritz acknowledges that something happened “mid-century” (viz., the Council of Vatican II, hence the use of “sic” in the text above), which “ruined the Marian fervor … thus betraying the Church.” He rejects any association that Rahnerian theology would have played in the ruination of Marian devotion and, rather than betraying the Church, his, Rahner’s, Mariology refocuses or situates the proper relationship between the saints, Mary, and “the center” which presumably is God. Although in rereading the article, one does not get a straightforward answer on what does occupy the center. For Rahner, Mary, or the saints, are not there at the center, and whatever the center is—it moves. Thus, dogma plays a role, Rahner admits, in Christological doctrine, for example; but on the other hand, he says, “The concept of ‘central truths’ is very ambiguous.” This has something to do with the Rahnerian anthropological/theological construct of the Vorgriff, which Rahner understood as the mind’s ability to reach out to the infinite. Thus, anthropology is theology, and theology is anthropology. Yes, it is confusing.

The author’s style is clear, and he refrains from using Rahnerian neologisms, like the Vorgriff, which helps in trying to understand someone who can be very dense. The author does us a great service in informing us on this new Rahnerian work on the Blessed Virgin Mary. However, the article is not for the novice, or the beginner in theology or philosophy.  Being a Thomist, I am not well schooled in Rahnerian theology; however, I am also not unfamiliar with his teaching.  Fritz’s article needs to be read and understood by those who study Mary—Mariologists—because whether he knows it or not, herein explains, in part, the paradigm shift in Marian ethos at Vatican II and immediately thereafter.

What now needs to be better understood is the post-Vatican II, unofficial promulgation of an ethos that led to a dismantling of a Marian subculture of Catholicism; beginning with what Mariologists call the “decade of silence” regarding the Blessed Virgin Mary. A subculture ethos that was pro-Marian before the council became overnight the “Spirit of Vatican II,” with a bias against not only her, but also the veneration of the saints, relics, and even the Blessed Sacrament, outside of Mass. For example, the act of worship of the Eucharist outside of Mass via Benediction was greatly diminished following the council.6 Besides Pope Emeritus Benedict’s analysis of the post-Vatican II period of reform in his Christmas Address of 2005, where can we find the proverbial “smoking gun” as it were, pointing to the beginning of this momentum shift?

Well, we do have the date of the Marian schema votation of October 29, 1963. This remains a fixed point of the Marian paradigm shift. However, the promulgation of a post-Vatican ethos is another matter. Who would promote such an ethos is another question?  The answer is, perhaps, answered by Peter Joseph Fritz himself.  He comments that Rahner was blamed by the pro-Mary segments of the Church for “allegedly ruin(ing) the Marian fervor of mid-century Catholicism” (he means at Vatican II), and he proposes to answer that critique with his paper as “a partial venture in that direction.” Here, he wants us to think that Rahner’s Assumptio-Arbeit should stand as something new to the theological world (2004); whereas it is anything but, since we now know that its author was not only involved in the drafting of Lumen Gentium’s chapter eight—albeit behind the scenes as one of seven; he also was most influential publicly after the council with his various commentaries promoting a post-Vatican II ethos. If anything, this brings to mind a whole host of questions as to Rahner’s influence over this document and others.

Did St. John XXIII know of Assumptio-Arbeit prior to appointing Rahner a peritus? This needs to be asked since there must have been some reason for Rahner’s pre-censure status prior to Vatican II. What role did Karl Rahner play in removing any title that would validate Mary as “Coredemptrix and/or Mediatrix of all graces”—since it appeared in the first draft?  Or conversely, did Rahner have a hand in incorporating the meaning of this proposed title into Lumen Gentium’s §56, §57, and §58, as Msgr. Arthur B. Calkins observes?  Pope Paul VI wanted to entitle chapter eight of Lumen Gentium “Mary, Mother of the Church,” but this was nixed by the drafters; did Rahner play a part in this decision?  Could the Censor(s) of Rahner’s estate be withholding other works, letters, diaries, that could further intimate the state of his thought around these events; works that would give Mariologists a better understanding of the Vatican II Marian paradigm shift, and its post-Vatican II ethos?

Nevertheless, the final, proper interpretation of the documents of Vatican II has been given to us by Pope Emeritus Benedict in a timeless image, namely the “hermeneutic of continuity.”7 In that, Vatican II must be seen or understood as part of the Church’s two-thousand-year-old Magisterium or doctrinal teaching. One cannot now say, “before and after Vatican II,” the ethos of the Church is thus and thus. Now, one would say that the Church’s proper ethos is in continuity with the ages, with the saints of old, with the Body of Christ. This is why the Ignatian phrase, Sentire Cum Ecclesia (To Think with the Church) is so very important for theologians. While one’s desire to fulfill this phrase may ebb and flow in a variety of ways, the Analogy of Faith remains constant. The Church cannot undo or reverse her teaching; particularly doctrine that applies to salvation from revelation.

In brief, Peter Joseph Fritz’s article is important for Mariologists, and for all theologians, because it gives us another piece of the puzzle as to what happened at the council, and what the genesis is of the “Spirit of Vatican II,” vis à vis the role and placement of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the life of the Church—away from the center but not on the periphery. Dear Mother Mary, pray for us!

  1. Peter Joseph Fritz, “Between Center and Periphery: Mary and the Saints in Rahner,” Philosophy & Theology 24, no. 2 (2012), 297—311.
  2. cf. “Mary Coredemptrix and the Second Vatican Council: An interview with Msgr. Arthur B. Calkins,” December 11, 2002.  Although the proposed Marian title was not used in Lumen Gentium, Msgr. Calkins notes that Lumen Gentium does validate its meaning in #56, #57, & #58.
  3. cf. from June 29, 2013. See footnotes 8 & 9.
  4. Cardinal Walter Kasper, L’Osservatore Romano, April 12, 2013.
  5. cf. “Address of His Holiness Benedict XVI to the Roman Curia Offering Them His Christmas Greeting,” December 22, 2005.
  6. cf. “In the period of liturgical reform, Mass and adoration outside it were often seen as in opposition to one another: it was thought that the Eucharistic Bread had not been given to us to be contemplated, but to be eaten, as a widespread objection claimed at the time.” “Address of His Holiness Benedict XVI to the Roman Curia Offering Them His Christmas Greetings,” December 22, 2005.
  7. cf. “Address of His Holiness Benedict XVI to the Roman Curia Offering Then His Christmas Greetings,” December 22, 2005.”
Fr. Timothy J. Sauppe, STL About Fr. Timothy J. Sauppe, STL

Father Timothy J. Sauppe was born in Milwaukee in 1957, lived two years in Kansas City, KS, and went to High School in Strongsville, Ohio,graduating in 1975. He went on to Cleveland State and graduated with BBA, majoring in marketing. He joined the Discalced Carmelites in 1982 and started theology in 1984 at the Dominican House of Studies, Washington, D.C., graduating in 1989 with a MDiv/STB. Then, through a generous grant from the Knights of Columbus, he went to the then Pope John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, graduating with a STL in 1991. He came to the Diocese of Peoria, and was ordained in Rock Island, Illinois in 1992. Since then, Fr. Sauppe was in Monmouth, Illinois, for three years as a high school chaplain at Alleman Catholic in Rock Island, and a pastor for the last 17 years (11 years in Annawan, Illinois, and the rest at St. Mary's, Westville, Illinios/St. Isaac Jogues, Georgetown, Illinois). Fr. Sauppe is currently a STD candidate with the International Marian Research Institute, Dayton University, Dayton, Ohio.


  1. Avatar Christopher Knuffke says:

    Von Balthasar was part of the so-called Nouvelle Theologie. He was completely in favor of the Council’s reentering Marian doctrine within the doctrine of the Church. He (and de Lubac) refers to the medieval concept of Maria Ecclesia. This is in keeping with Hugo Rahner and his book, based on the Fathers: Our Lady and the Church (Ignatius Press, forward by then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger).

  2. Avatar martin B. Drew says:

    The Blessed Virgin Mary was honored by her Son with several apparitions to chosen simple persons. These can give the reason for a hermeneutic grasp of Mary and Jesus. . Mary and Jesus gave proof they happened to those of simple faith. Mary , the Mother of God, choses to be within the Tradition. Yet when a person through baptism from infusion ex opere operato with Faith , hope and Love the person with help from God is also given the knowledge of the Blessed Virgin Mary with the eschaton for a person to live the good life.

    • Avatar Christopher Knuffke says:

      Knowledge is not infused at Baptism, that is why we have catechesis in the Church. . .

  3. It would be a devastating rupture with the tradition of both East and West to reduce Marian devotion and the cult of the saints to mere option,a shift in the direction of protestantism. It certainly appears as if the saints have taken a back seat in the new Mass, especially since so many feasts have been outright abolished and or made simply optional. Our Lady is still large in the hearts of fellow Catholics, although I have NEVER heard a sermon with anything of substance on her nor heard a priest so much as mention her with affection.from the pulpit at a Novus Ordo Mass. I think both Marian Piety and the cult of the saints were downplayed after the Council and that this is sad because both are integral to the Faith as its developed for millenia in both East and West regardless of what protestants think of it. We cannot betray our patrimony in the name of a so called “ecumenism”.

    • Avatar Christopher Knuffke says:

      “In the Church” is an ambiguous phrase: Mary is clearly taught (not downplayed) by St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Adrienne von Speyr, Blessed Mother Teresa. . .to name just a few!

  4. When the new Mass was introduced in a neighbouring parish, the priest told his congregation not to bring their Rosary beads to Mass – this was very upsetting at the time. Fortunately, we live near Our Lady’s Shrine in Knock, and forty years on and we still have our Rosary beads

    • Avatar Brian Diehm says:

      Well, yes, but I remember those days. The elder ladies would sit in the pews during Mass, praying their rosaries and completely ignoring the Eucharist being consecrated before their very eyes! I know this; I watched my own mother in law doing this into the 1980s — bless her soul. I think this was the error that Vatican II was trying to correct when they called for greater lay participation in the Mass. Of course, the “spirit of Vatican II” folks took that to mean that lay people should take over everything, almost including the homily and the consecration! Basically, the “correction” of inappropriate mariolatry was interpreted as somehow meaning the opposite extreme. No one seemed to recognize that it was a call for balance. So yes, people were told not to bring their rosary beads to Mass, and the priest was right in so asking, at least, while the Mass was being offered! But he should have also provided appropriate times and opportunities for those whose devotion is the Rosary.

  5. A lot of unnecessary thinking going on here. Just break out the rosary and begin. Six months later you will understand – and continue.

  6. Praying the Rosary at Mass is a way of participating by praying. It’s not necessary to make responses or even follow along in the Missal even though those things can be helpful for some. The point is to pray, to commune with God at the Mass. As laity we bring our hopes, dreams, prayers and concerns to the threshold of Heaven and the priest, acting in the person of Christ, brings our Lord down onto the altar and offers Him to the Father along with our prayers. Hand shaking, talking, walking around the sanctuary, reading from the ambo or whatever us not the point. Active participation is to be active in praying, not being busybodies.

  7. Fr. Timothy Sauppé Fr. Timothy Sauppé says:

    Dear Mona–my sister: Who is this person? And, Help you to understand him? Are your questions. Hen picking this iPad2 is difficult and makes it hard to give a substantial answer to your questions. Who is he? I do not know, more than his name. To help you to understand him, may be beyond my poor ability. His response refers not to himself but to Michael Davies, God Rest His Soul. Mr. Davies fought the good fight. All I can say for now regarding Vatican Council II and it’s aftermath is something, I believe I read early on in Pope Benedict’s tenure from him, is we must not ascribe bad will to those who tried to implement Vatican II. I need to find where and when he said this. If anyone knows….please post it. But we have to move on and plant the good seed now and not waste efforts on what should have been or what could have been. The fight is before us, against the culture of death–for God’s sake, let go of the past, and pitch in now where God, and His providence has placed you! On Monday we will hear the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision which will make all of this discussion moot.

  8. Avatar Christopher Knuffke says:

    You say it’s wrong on so many levels, yet you adduced no arguments – just the unsubstantiated assertion. The track back is not specifically directed to the topic, rather it relates to Vatican I I and the Sacred Liturgy. . .


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