An Analysis of the Motherhood of the Church as Expounded by Henri Cardinal De Lubac

Mary as Mother of the Church

“Hear, O daughter, consider, and incline your ear;
Forget your people and your father’s house;
And the king will desire your beauty.” Psalm 45:10

This quote from the Psalms refers analogously to the nuptials of Christ and his Church; a beautiful bride bedecked in jewels and fine clothes—the envy of all. The Song of Songs is in the same vein expressing the great love between Christ and his Church in romantic or allegorical language.1 The next step in becoming a bride is becoming a mother—the end of bridehood. Catholics have heard many times from the pulpit the expression “Holy Mother Church.” It needs to be asked, however, how seriously is this whole symbolism of bride and mother taken; how close to the truth is the allegory, and what support for it occurs in the sacred Tradition of the Church?

A twentieth century theologian who delved into this problem was Father Henri de Lubac of the Society of Jesus. Lubac was born in 1896 in Cambrai, France, and died in 1991. He was ordained a Jesuit priest in 1927, teaching theology at the Catholic University of Lyon, France until 1961. Among his students were the famous Jean Cardinal Daniélou, S.J., and Father Hans Urs von Balthasar. Pope John Paul II, with whom he had collaborated during the Second Vatican Council, named him a Cardinal in 1983.2

Father de Lubac was one of a number of original thinkers who graced the Church in the 20th century. The early and mid-19th Century had seen the discovery of a number of early Church documents, such as the Philosophumena of St. Hippolytus. Lubac and a number of his past students—such as Daniélou, Von Balthasar, and also Yves Congar, O. P., Karl Rahner, S. J., among others—decided to “return to the sources” of the Church or “ressourcement.” This included the early Church Fathers, because of their theological insights. This was in place of merely relying on the Scholastic formulae used in the theological manuals of the time. De Lubac, himself, founded Sources chrétiennes,3 which published the writings of these early Church Fathers.

From the Reformation onward, many Catholic thinkers had turned Scholasticism, and especially the writings of St. Thomas, into a kind of ideology, equating Catholicism with Thomism. Anyone who did not parrot the formulae had his orthodoxy attacked. This new theological methodology used by de Lubac, von Balthasar, et al., was pejoratively termed “nouveau theology” by the famous Dominican theologian Father Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange.4 It is strange that there was opposition to this “new” way of thinking, since the other branch of Revelation is oral tradition, reflecting the writings of the Church Fathers, to which these theologians were returning.5 Father de Lubac suffered from this rigid approach to theology. He writes:

Troubles were not lacking in these years before the war [World War II]. One would have had to be deaf and blind not to have made out much lack of understanding, distrust and even opposition within the Church… A certain Scholastic conservatism, which claimed in all good faith to be tradition itself, was alarmed at any suspicion of novelty. A kind of so-called “Thomist” dictatorship which was more a matter of government than intellectuality, strove to stifle any effort toward freer thought.6

This “Thomist” dictatorship was seen and enforced especially in some of the Roman curial offices.7 The results were suppression of new developments in theology, even if they remained orthodox in tone. In some cases, exile and/or silencing were the reaction to such thinking.

The election of John XXIII as pope changed much of this, and many of the previously “suspect” theologians were rehabilitated. One such theologian was Henri de Lubac. He was assigned to the preparatory commission of the Vatican Council as a peritus, as well as others in the previous group, such as Father Yves Congar, O.P., and Father John Courtney Murray, S. J. Pope John Paul II elevated both Fathers de Lubac and Congar to the college of Cardinals, and Fr. Murray might have been so elevated to Cardinal had he not died in 1968.

Henri de Lubac was, above all, an ecclesiologist. Almost all of his writing consisted of analyses of the Church, and even the English edition of his memoirs is entitled At the Service of the Church, which accurately describes his calling to more explicitly develop an understanding of the Church, which is truly a mystery. That the Church is truly a mystery is seen clearly in his various analyses of its different aspects. In The Splendor of the Church, he discusses the importance of understanding the Church as mystery. He says that some people either see the Church as just an organization, as many Protestant denominations do, but others shy away from penetrating the nature and wonders of the Church. They say that we should just “live the church” and not analyze it. They believe that there is a danger of approaching the Church from too objective a position, and potentially damaging our relationship with her.8

While Lubac admits this danger, his method of spiritual exegesis9 forestalls this danger. Everything Lubac does, he does in the light of Christ and redemption.10 This means that any examination of the nature of the Church will exclude a sociological or political examination, such as one sees coming from the writings of many historians, or even anti-Catholic propagandists. But the spiritual exegesis reveals the great marvels and paradoxes within the Catholic Church which are unavailable to anyone viewing the Church with unbelieving eyes.

De Lubac discusses the reason that it has become important to reflect on the mystery of the Church. He writes that in the centuries where sacred Tradition had inspired men, there was little or no reflection on the Church, or other mysteries of our Faith, because those people “lived” Tradition. Their lives and their surroundings were saturated with it, and in that sense, not only was reflection not necessary, no one questioned the Tradition. They passed it on without much interference from inside the community. But now, reflection has become necessary, because Tradition itself has become “disputed territory.”11

The contrast between past ages and more recent times is shown in a quotation by Lubac demonstrating that some scholars never understood this permeation of Tradition that Lubac sees: “Mgr. Bartmann’s Lehrbuch der Dogmatik says, somewhat exaggeratedly, ‘The Church was in existence for about fifteen hundred years without reflecting on her nature, and trying to formulate it in the precision of a logical definition.’ It demands amazing prejudice, or at least astonishing ingeniousness, to find it a ‘curious thing’ that ‘in his De Principiis’ Origen ‘devotes no chapter to the Church.’ (Eugène de Faye, Origène, 1928, vil. iii, p. 275).”12

Perhaps the first stage of understanding the concept of the Church as “mother” is to understand the idea of the Church as the Mystical Body, with the emphasis on the body. Lubac says that prior to understanding the supernatural unity of the Church as Mystical Body, one must understand the human race as having a natural unity. The Church Fathers, he says, “in dealing with creation were not content only to mention the formation of individuals, the first man and the first woman, but delighted to contemplate God creating humanity as a whole.”13 St. Irenaeus says that God planted the vine of the human race: “He [God] loved the human race and purposed to pour out this spirit upon it and to give it the adoption of sons.”14

Other Fathers speak of Christ coming to earth to bring back the fold, meaning human nature itself. The Second Person is so moved by the plight of the human race that He left the flock of angels, so to speak, and redeemed the flock of men.15 Many Fathers, Lubac says, saw the redemption focusing on Adam. Christ is the new Adam, redeeming the old Adam, and becoming the head of the rejuvenated human race.16 So, without denigrating the reality of individual human persons, the context of the redemption is that the whole race was redeemed.17 We are all children of a common Father.

But there needs to be a mother. Even Our Lord had a mother. Lubac writes: “The foregoing leads us to a specific and fundamental principle: the Church is our mother.”18 Even the earlier reformers, such as Calvin, saw the Church as a mother, and traditional Catholic liturgies have emphasized the motherhood of the Church. For example, a hymn from the Church in Paris for the Feast of the Dedication says:

. . . Now Christ, the model of what all may be has taken Church, our Mother, for his bride, Unlocked the prison of her misery—His love is she.19

Under the principle, lex orandi, lex credendi, we see that the understanding of the Church as a mother has been in the very fabric of Catholic beliefs. This hymn reminds one of the quotation from Psalm 45, quoted at the beginning of this paper. But it also brings up a number of interesting threads, as well. In a well-known passage from the Book of Revelation, we read the following:

Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of the covenant was seen within his temple; and there were flashes of lightening, loud noises, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail. And a great sign appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with a crown of twelve stars; she was with child and she cried out in her pangs of birth, in anguish for delivery. (Rev 11: 19–12:1)

There are two aspects to this passage. Lubac has written two books discussing the Church as paradox. This explains why the Church is such a mystery, and certainly this is clear in his understanding of the Church as “mother.” The paradox here is seeing the woman in the passage as Our Lady, and the Church.

Some say that the passage could not refer to Our Lady, because we know that she did not suffer pain in childbirth. But that is taking the passage in a very literal sense. In this passage, the woman can be Our Lady as mother of the Church, because the spiritual birth of the members of the Church, of whom she is a real mother, is painful, considering the persecutions with which the Church must endure, and the defections of her sons and daughters. On a different level, the woman is the Church, again, because of the painful births she must have, and the attempts of the devil, never resting, never relaxing his implacable hatred for everything of God, to destroy God’s work in the saving of souls.

Lubac also links the Church to convocation, that is she calls her members together even prior to becoming a congregation, that actual gathering.20

St. Basil tells Julian the apostate: “You have turned against God, and you have insulted the Church, the mother, the nurse of all.”21 Clearly in these two concepts of convocation, and the mother and the nurse, we see the motherhood of the Church. Looking at any mother with her children, one of the things she frequently does is to call them together: She calls them from play for dinner; she calls them together for prayer and chores; she calls them to her for safety; she calls them together to introduce them to company.22he Church is . . . the assembly which results from the reuniting of all peoples.”] She also nurses them in the sense of feeding them, so that they can grow out of babyhood—a clear image of baptism23 and Holy Eucharist. She nurses them in illness, a clear image of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and spiritual direction. The Church is the prostitute Jesus saved on becoming Incarnate; she is the New Jerusalem, the bride of the Lamb, the unspotted virgin, the mother of saints, who was born on Calvary from the pierced side of the Lord, or she is “the very assembly which he has made holy.”24 As a society founded by Christ for the salvation of men, she “labors” to bring them to that salvation; hence, the woman in the book of revelation, who is in labor.

But Lubac brings up an additional aspect of this motherhood, and this coincides very well with his major theme of paradoxes.25

He states that Pascal wrote to Mlle. De Roannez saying that “all that happens to the Church happens also to each Christians individually.”[26 Lubac, The Motherhood of the Church, 79.] He quotes Cardinal Newman: “The heart of every Christian should represent the entire Church in miniature, for the single Spirit makes the entire Church and each of her members a temple.”26 So, according to Lubac, each Christian participates in that same motherhood, or maternal function, according to his own vocation. Why? Through his action, the Christian continually gives birth and growth to the Word of God in the world. He lives this word and makes it bear fruit.27

Father de Lubac is not just making this up, but following the ressourcement, he quotes St. Hippolytus: “The mouth of the Father has begotten a pure Word: this Word appears a second time, born of the saints. Constantly producing saints, it is also itself reproduced by its saints.”28 The theme, Lubac says, was seen in the Western Middle Ages in the Christmas liturgies, where the third Mass of Christmas represented the birth of the Word in the “womb” of the Christian soul. Origen speaks of the “seed of the Word” which the soul receives, forms this Word, and gives birth to the “spirit and the fear of God.29

Guerric d’Igny, following St. Bernard, exhorts the Christian to open his breast to conceive the one whom no creature can contain. Rupert of Deutz says that the Christian soul should truly become the mother of the Word of God.30

This theme, Lubac shows, is continued by the German Dominican mystics, St. Francis de Sales and Bérulle, the founder of the Sulpician School. But even in more recent times, this theme is repeated. Pope John XXIII stated in his Christmas message of 1962: “O Eternal word of the Father, son of God and son of Mary, renew once again in the secrecy of souls the wonderful marvel of your birth!”31

The Eastern Church has the same understanding of this mystical motherhood. Lubac quotes the Russian Orthodox writer Leo Zander: “If the Church is and remains the body of Christ, perpetuated by the Spirit, we, her members, are all called to conceive the Lord who is born in our soul so that we may participate in the divine life.”

Lubac says that this is the essence of Christian mysticism. But this conception does not lead to any individualization of the mystery. So this is not just, as is heard so much today, one’s personal experience of God, although that is certainly part of it, but only a part.32 One is experiencing the objective flowering of Grace, the divine life itself, in the soul. God still remains “other,” thus avoiding any possibility of a pantheistic interpretation.

But there is another aspect of this motherhood of the Church which needs to be brought in here, and which is also very enlightening. That aspect is the Fatherhood of the Clergy.

Contrary to many protestant conceptions of the clergy in which the clergy are just laymen who happen to be educated in religion—for the Catholic, the clergy are those through whom the maternal function of the members of the Church spoken above can be exercised. It is the clergy who have the responsibility to see that the virginity of the motherhood of the Church remains intact and fruitful. The clergy are “co-workers with God,” and “dispensers of the mysteries of God.”33 They pronounce the “word of reconciliation over us” as God’s plenipotentiaries. He says that this is the origin of the title, Domina Mater Ecclesia, which the second letter of John inspired Tertullian to call the hierarchy of the Church. St. Paul claimed the title “father,’ which is given to the bishop of the diocese, who is truly the spiritual father of his people. Those early theologians who faithfully passed on to us the understanding of the doctrines of the early Church are called Fathers, and St. Augustine says that that doctrine was passed “from Fathers to Fathers,” and that the Arian teaching “does not come from the Fathers.”34
Another insightful aspect of Lubac’s analysis of the Church as mother is the fact that no one is ever satisfied detached from her. The reason that most people do not realize this is their distraction by the world’s activities: “Many people are not aware of it [their longing and need for the Church], because they live in the passing moment, alienated from themselves, ‘rooted in this world like seaweed on the rocks.’35

The preoccupations of daily life absorb them; ‘the golden mist of appearances’36 forms a veil of illusion around them.”37 We are called to the depths of communion. We long to wrench ourselves from solitude, and all attachment to other social groupings, good and necessary as they may be, never fill this longing. Why? “God did not make us ‘to remain within the limits of nature,’38 or for the fulfilling of a solitary destiny; on the contrary, He made us to be brought into the heart of the life of the Trinity.” Hence, “the Church is the only completely “open” society, the only one which measures up to our deepest longings, and in which we can finally find our whole shape.”39 The Church is the matrix forming the unity of the Spirit which is nothing if it is not also the “unity of the body” of the Church.40 It is in this unity of the body that we are incorporated into the Mystical Body, which is the beginning of our incorporation into the mystical life of the Trinity. A true Christian is “ecclesial,” whether lay or cleric.41 When contemplating the mystery of the Church, the true Christian is compelled to sing a hymn of gratitude to this mother who gives him a life infinitely more valuable than the one his earthly mother gave him;42 this Mother who suffers for him by constant calumny and persecution; this Mother who protects him from implacable enemies; this Mother who teaches us to love all that is good, and who has given us countless brothers:

The sorrowful Mother with the sword-pierced heart re-lives from age to age the passion of her Bridegroom; this strong Mother exhorts us to fight and bear witness to Christ, and she does not hesitate to make us pass through death—from the first death, which is Baptism, onwards—in order to bear us into a higher life. For all these benefits we owe her our praise; but we owe to her above all for those deaths she brings—the deaths which man is incapable of, and without which he would be condemned to stay himself indefinitely, going round and round in the miserable circle of his own finitude.43

It is so sad that more people have not taken up Lubac’s work on this question. For not only is this good and original theology, but what he writes would benefit the ordinary Catholic, as well as those separated brethren. The Church needs missionaries to bring his wonderful understanding of this Motherhood to others.

  1. Fr. Juan G. Arintero, O.P., The Song of Songs: a Mystical Exposition (Cincinnati: The Dominican Nuns Monastery of the Holy Name, 1974), 19.
  2. accessed 1/13/08.
  3. Henri de Lubac, At the Service of the Church: Henri de Lubac Reflects on the Circumstances That Occasioned His Writings, trans. By Anne Elizabeth Englund (San Francisco: Communio Books, 1993), 50.
  4. “Nouvelle Théologie,” Accessed 1/13/08. Also, see James Hitchcock, “Was Vatican II pre-Conciliar?” For a critique of Scholastic methodology see, Avery Dulles, S. J., The Craft of Theology: from Symbol to System, new expanded edition (New York: Crossroad, 1992), 44-46. Also, Susan K. Wood, Spiritual Exegesis and the Church in the Theology of Henri de Lubac (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 6 et seq.
  5. De Lubac, At the Service of the Church, 50.
  6. See the letter on this subject from Etienne Gilson to Father de Lubac in de Lubac, At the Service of the Church, 81-2.
  7. See, Giuseppe Alberigo and Joseph Komonchak, History of Vatican II: Volume II—The Formation of the Council’s Identity, First Period and Intercession, October, 1962-September, 1963 (New York: Maryknoll, 1997), 233 et seq.
  8. Henri de Lubac, The Splendor of the Church, tr. by Michael Mason (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986, 18.
  9. See, Robert Louis Wilken, “Forward” to Henri de Lubac, Medieval Exegesis: The Four Senses of Scripture, tr. by Marc Sebanc (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), ix.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Lubac, The Splendor of the Church, 15-17.
  12. Ibid., 17-18, n. 3.
  13. Henri de Lubac, Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), 25.
  14. Ibid, quoting St. Irenaeus, In Genesium.
  15. Ibid., 25-6.
  16. Ibid., 27.
  17. A good friend and colleague of this author, Dr. John Rao of St. John’s University, said to the author about 27 years ago that depths of the doctrine of the Mystical Body have not been even slightly plumbed. The writings of Lubac were not available to us at the time.
  18. Lubac, The Motherhood of the Church (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1982), 75, emphasis added.
  19. Ibid., 76, English translation by A. Swain, S.J., in note 3.
  20. Lubac, Catholicism, 64. Quoting St. Isidore of Seville, Lubac writes: “She is properly called Church because she calls all to herself, and gathers all unto unity.” Note 58.
  21. Ibid., 66.
  22. Ibid., p.68: “[T
  23. See ibid., p. 68: “She is baptized and also baptizes.”
  24. Ibid., 68-9.
  25. Lubac, The Church: Paradox and Mystery (New York: Alba House, 1969).
  26. Ibid, note 9.
  27. Ibid, 79-80.
  28. Lubac quoting St. Hippolytus, In Daniel, 1, I, c.
  29. Lubac quoting St. Hippolytus, In Daniel, 1, I, c.
  30. Ibid., 81.
  31. Ibid, 82
  32. Ibid., 83
  33. Ibid., 85.
  34. Ibid., 86
  35. The reference here is from St. Cyril of Alexandria.
  36. This reference is from Pierre van der Meer van Walcheren, Journal d’un Converti.
  37. Lubac, Splendor of the Church, 237.
  38. Lubac is quoting Bérulle here but this is a major theme of Lubac and is discussed at length in his Mystery of the Supernatural (New York: Crossroad, 1998).
  39. Lubac, The Splendor of the Church, 238.
  40. Ibid., 243.
  41. Ibid., 242.
  42. Ibid., 273.
  43. Ibid., 277.
Dr. William R. Luckey, PhD About Dr. William R. Luckey, PhD

Dr. William R. Luckey is Professor Emeritus and Scholar in Residence at Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia. He has a BA from St. John's University in New York, where he also taught for five years. He has an MA and PhD in political philosophy from Fordham University, an MBA from Shenandoah University in Virginia, an MA in economics from George Mason University, and an MA in systematic theology from the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology of Christendom College. He is widely published in scholarly and popular forms. He has been married for 45 years, and has four grown children, and 22 grandchildren. Dr. Luckey and his wife are Lay Dominicans.


  1. Avatar From. Robert migadde Dean of Studies in Eastern Africa.i says:

    This is a meaningful article given a rain court of the historical perspective from the biblical point of view coming across tradition.

  2. Avatar From. Robert migadde Dean of Studies in Eastern Africa.i says:

    Sacred heart seminary mubende.

  3. Dr. William C. Zehringer Dr. William C. Zehringer says:

    Dear Dr. Luckey: I was so very pleased to read your thoughtful essay on one of the true
    lights of the Church in our time. I thank Our Lord for such as he, and for the valiant and
    vibrant faith displayed in the lives of so any of my French Catholic ancestors. As Cardinal
    Wright once remarked, “The France of KIng Saint Louis, of Joan of Arc, of Margaret Mary,
    and of John Vianney still lives on.”
    It was surely one of Father de Lubac’s rare gifts not only to be able to penetrate the minds
    of influential thinkers quite far removed from the precincts of Catholic Faith and practice, but
    also, to render judicious opinions on their erratic ideas. I’m calling to mind here his unrivaled
    May his tribe increase!