Mary for Today provides timeless insights for our deeply confused age

Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar’s book, originally published decades ago, offers some provocative and much needed sanity when it comes to contemplating authentic womanhood.

“Can’t you see, this is me, I’m a woman,” sang musical superstar Tina Turner. None of the obituaries or commemorations of Ms. Turner, who died recently at age 83, seem to have any doubt that Ms. Turner was indeed, without a shadow of a doubt, a woman.

And yet, one need not scratch very hard to identify our culture’s confusion when it comes to perceiving and defining authentic womanhood.

Consider the extreme emotivist argumentation from the secular, feminist left when it comes to abortion and transgenderism. Since last year’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization (and admittedly well before), the pro-choice camp has soudned the alarm regarding the threat posed by the pro-life movement to female autonomy. Implicit in those warnings is a presumption that a woman’s body is unique in its capacity to conceive and bear children (no pundits I’ve read or heard claim Dobbs is a threat to male autonomy).

Yet, in practically the very same breath, those same pro-choice voices also assert that biological men have the right to claim the identity of womanhood, even though such men have absolutely no ability to conceive or bear children.

Is womanhood something natural, given, and, to Ms. Turner’s point, obvious? Or is it something malleable, amorphous, and manufactured, an identity anyone can claim, simply by an assertion of the will? If it’s the latter, what exactly is womanhood, except a subjective classification entirely beholden to our personal, individualized whims? And, moreover, if that is the case, what does it even mean to defend or champion womanhood as a universal category, given that it would seemingly amount to little more than, say, any other group we might temporarily and capriciously inhabit? Woman, Florida resident, Dallas Cowboys fan … what’s the difference?

I was surprised to find a part of the answer to our society’s gender confusion in an unexpected place: the writings of Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar. In his book Mary for Today, recently published in a revised edition by Ignatius Press (with a Foreword by theologian Edward Sri), the Swiss theologian offers some provocative — and much needed — sanity when it comes to contemplating authentic womanhood.

And, as the title suggests, Balthasar believes the key to understanding femininity is understanding the true role of Mary.

Though the crisis of womanhood has become more acute than it was when Mary for Today was first published in the late 1980s, Balthasar’s description and analysis of that crisis is most relevant. The Swiss theologian writes:

In our time, we struggle for equal dignity between man and woman, but often this means, in an all-too-masculine technical culture, that the woman strives to secure her place by conforming herself to specifically masculine functions. Yet such functions remain superficial and fruitless — and indeed, over time, prove destructive — if man no longer realizes that he himself sprang forth from the maternal, bridal fruitfulness of woman and owes himself to her.

It is true, acknowledges Balthasar, that many cultures struggle to appreciate the equal dignity of women. But the frequently promoted solution to this problem — that women should aspire to inhabit traditionally male roles, be they professional or personal — often serves to obscure, rather than clarify what makes womanhood distinctive.

Consider, for example, the tensions and anxieties stemming from women balancing careers and motherhood, manifested in the fierce backlash to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, which marks its ten-year anniversary of unrealistic (and guilt-inducing) exhortations this year. Or contemplate the U.S. military’s apparent willingness to push pregnant women into combat roles. Any task or trait traditionally associated with males, so the thinking goes, should be equally available to females.

Balthasar perceived the problems with this, which rather than foregrounding women’s uniqueness, often betrays it. “Many of the demands of feminism are understandable, but any attempt to smooth over the difference between the sexes into an anti-like neutrality, a sexlessness, would be a distortion.” The more women try to be like men — or, in the case of hyper-feminized “transgender” man Dylan Mulvaney, encourage men to pretend to be women — the more difficult it becomes to identify what authentic womanhood actually is. If femininity is anything and everything, it ultimately is nothing.

Nevertheless, argues Balthasar, women have a “distinctive femininity.” He calls feminine power something that “cannot be grasped and graphed with the masculine science of statistics, but by no means is this a disadvantage.” Rather, says Balthasar, “it is clearly an advantage, and a sign of its superiority.” What, precisely, does he have in mind? Certainly part of the answer lies in the unique reproductive role of women. “Our whole overly masculine technical culture easily forgets how profoundly it owes its existence to the womanly source from which it springs.”

Yet there is more to it than simply the ability to physically bear children — which not all women can do, or are called to do. Balthasar appeals to the creation account itself. “Man without woman is helpless,” he writes. “Though he can name the animals, inventing labels for them, he finds nothing in them for himself, for his development, for his happiness. The Woman given to him, the ‘helper,’ helps above all to provide meaning to humanity.” The proper understanding of woman as “helper,” is not to view her as serving a distinctly ancillary role, but rather what we might call a contextual, essential one: without woman, humanity lacks meaning.

As the title of the book indicates, Mary is an exemplar for what true femininity looks like. Without her fiat, there is no salvation of man. Indeed, Balthasar emphasizes the importance of this by noting the peculiar Trinitarian character of the event: the angel Gabriel appears to Mary representing God the Father, inviting her to welcome the Son into her womb, by means of the Holy Spirit (Lk 1:26-38). Yet Mary’s feminine power extends beyond simply saying yes to God and bearing Immanuel — in her purity and virtue she also embodies perfect discipleship, providing all Christians with a model for how we are to follow Christ in trust and humility.

It’s likely (though no way provable), that Mary even played a central role in the catechesis of the early Church, including the authorship of at least John’s Gospel. Balthasar speculates: “Since she lived in the house of the beloved disciple, it would be astonishing if her presence and words were not a party of the inspiration for the Gospel of the love of the triune God made manifest in Christ.” In this sense, then, Mary would also act as a theologian or proto-Doctor of the Church, helping illuminate Christ’s identity, mission, and teaching to the early Church.

Mary’s motherly identity also takes on an added layer of complexity and profundity in the maturation of the Church, foreshadowed in Jesus’s decision on the cross to direct St. John to care for his widowed mother. Mary is mother not only of Christ, but of all the faithful; her fruitnessfullness is not only corporeal, but spiritual.

Explains Balthasar:

Here human fruitfulness has finally transcended the sphere of sexuality, but not in the direction of hostility toward the body and ‘spiritualization’ of it, but in the direction of a Church whose core is formed by the eucharistic link between Christ and his ‘bride’ and ‘wife.’

Mary, through both her fiat and her spiritual motherhood, plays an integral role in facilitating the salvation of us all. And it is all women, following Mary’s example, who can do the same in a peculiarly feminine manner, either for their biological children, or their spiritual progeny. What greater calling could any woman ask for?

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About Casey Chalk 36 Articles
Casey Chalk is a contributor for Crisis Magazine, The American Conservative, and New Oxford Review. He has degrees in history and teaching from the University of Virginia and a master's in theology from Christendom College.


  1. I grew up as hyper-shy kid but I had plenty of authentic Catholic women shape my character and help me build strengths that I thought were impossible for me to develop. They and the Nuns became my best friends. Their most authentic femininity was highlighted by the solid fact that they never ever attempted to feminize me in spite of my original high sensitivity. They helped me bring forward my true identity, as a man who could be sensitive or strong depending on the circumstances, people, etc.

    They set God’s gift of masculinity for me and not themselves as the highest standard I should tend to. That’s the real Ultimate-Woman-Mary-attitude, birthing up to God. Their courageous humility and brave self-respect would have never accepted the emotional-mysticism exaggeration from Balthasar quoted here: “Without woman, humanity lacks meaning.” Whoa! Really? I’ll follow the women that birthed and raised me up to God instead of Balthasar’s hyper-feministic extremes that, Pastor Joel Osteen style, mix great and amazing wisdom with the “ecstasy” of toxic gas loaded with a million philosophical justifications.

    • Von Balthasar saw everything as manifesting (shall we say, the “extreme”) Glory of God. Not to be glanced aside as “hyper-feministic extremes”…

      An insight gained in the decades after he left the Jesuit Order, in order to serve more exclusively as the spiritual advisor for Adrienne von Speyr: widow/ physician/ author/ mystic and stigmatist. Of her contribution to his thought, he writes:

      “A concluding word is necessary in order to remove the impression that in the books that I have mentioned, and in others, I have simply expounded my own convictions. The greater part of so much of what I have written is a translation of what is present in more immediate, less technical fashion in the powerful work of Adrienne von Speyr, only part of which has been published [….] The works of Adrienne von Speyr, almost all of which were dictated to me, represent about a third of the books written with my own hand [!]; a second, weak third is made up of the books published under my own name; a more full-bodied third, finally, is made up of books translated by me for my publishing house”…

      Balthasar summarizes that our true response to all of reality is captured in the smile of a newborn child when he or she first recognizes the mother, and smiles as four things are revealed:

      “that he is one in love with the mother, even in being other than his mother, therefore all being is one; that that love is good, therefore all Being is good; that that love is true, therefore all Being is true; and that that love evokes joy, therefore all Being is beautiful” (“My Work in Retrospect,” Ignatius, 1993).

      A note here, also, to Batzing & Co. about Mary as the Mother of the Church…that a self-demoting female priestesshood is quite different—shall we say, “ecclesial lesbianism”? With the coming of Theotokos, temple prostitutes are passe.

  2. I require more time to assess Chalk’s essay primarily due to his referencing von Balthasar who can’t be appreciated in a speed read. Otherwise, Chalk’s emphasis on Mary’s femininity via von Balthasar, her Motherhood embracing us all is basic and good.
    Today, the Church celebrates the memorial, Mary Mother of the Church [29 Mon The Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church white Eighth Week in Ordinary Time Memorial Gn 3:9-15, 20 or Acts 1:12-14/Jn 19:25-34 USCCB]. An essential doctrine instituted by Paul VI. Today’s Mass an affirmation of Chalk’s “Mary is mother not only of Christ, but of all the faithful”.
    The Church is also Our Lord’s bride. A reflection I have on this is the consummation of Christ’s marriage to the Bride. That marriage was consummated on the bed of the Cross, sealed by his precious blood.

  3. In ‘ “I” is man and “Thou” is woman’ ‘ appears the simplest most sublime case for human meaning. Without woman, man does not exist, literally: man cannot mean anything. God is not, without trinity, without an “other”. It doesn’t matter which one is “the other”, the fact guarantees meaning for each. What other archetypes could there be? God has created the only two needed. It is human enlightenment to say yes to the obvious. No brings untold and bottomless misery, which we are watching with continuous wincings.

  4. Tina Turner’s voice right now is either singing triumphantly in heaven or screaming in eternal agony………hopefully she trusted in Jesus as her Savior. I’ve never read or heard if she was a believer or not or give any glory to God for her exceptional talent.

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