The Case of Mary’s Decency by Xochitl Alvizo

Incarnation, Goddess spirituality, Xochitl Alvizo, god became flesh

This post builds on yesterday’s post on Marcella Althaus-Reid’s indecent theology.

In her book, From Feminist Theology to Indecent Theology, Marcella Althaus-Reid states that liberation theology has two dominant characteristics: the familiar ‘preferential option for the poor,’ with its suspicion of class structures and the influence these have on faith and church teachings to perpetuate and preserve its unjust systems of oppression and domination; and  for its praxis of transformation of said unjust systems (FFTIT, 11). Marcella Althaus-Reid credits liberation theology for “systematically and structurally using the concept of ideological formation in order to unveil class economic interests embedded in theology” (FFTIT, 11).

To build on this, Althaus-Reid uses the concepts of ‘decency’ and ‘indecency’ to challenge theology’s obsession to regulate and control “sexual performances, roles and behavioral patterns of people…through a sexually based patriarchal hierarchy based in a particular androcentric understanding of life according to predetermined identities” – in other words, heterosexism. Indecent theology, then, aims to strip away theology’s false claim to sexual neutrality and its obsession to control, and instead aims to develop a theology free from the heterosexism that confines it (FFTIT, 83). One key place in theology she seeks to indecent (she used the word as a verb) is the “legend of Mary” (IT, 40).

Mariology, Althaus-Reid contends, is one of the decent theological areas into which women are encouraged (allowed) to explore and into which feminist theology accordingly delved (IT, 36). She argues that the approved theological decency of Mariology constructs tight patriarchal ideals for women, which feminist theology has left largely unchallenged (IT, 36). She describes Mary as “the icon of a no-body,” “a myth of a woman without a vagina” that has been used to ascribe Latin American women’s role in an incontestable and obligatory manner (IT, 39). In the same way that liberationists worked to unmask structures of oppression, Althaus-Reid suggest feminist theologians must take on the task of unmasking and denouncing the decent “legend” of Mary.

Althaus-Reid asserts that liberation theology produced a discourse of the Latin American woman as a poor, asexual but strong mother who chooses political concerns (as long as these are not deemed indecent) over sexual/gender ones – a discourse that further implied women could not ‘afford’ to be concerned with issues of women’s ordination, abortion, sexual abuse, etc. She credits the “Mary-Machine model” for supplying this ideal woman and positing her as the only one worth respecting (IT, 34).

Madrecita - Pinche MichiThe method by which the “Mary-Machine model” can be unmasked, as can other tools of theological and political oppression, is through theological reflection on the sexual stories of poor and marginalized people; she refers to this as the hermeneutical circle of indecent theology. Theological reflection on sexual stories, particularly stories of indecency, reveal the false “border limits between the material and divine dimensions” that are placed by the oppressive systems these stories challenge (IT, 148).

For example, theological reflection on adultery reveals and denounces the “imposed lie” of the “ideal model of heterosexual marriage. Materially speaking, what adultery does is threaten the power that the ideal model of marriage, as an institutionalized ideal, has to control the construction of people’s relationships and the economies that surround it. By giving attention to the sexual stories of the poor and marginalized, which have been excluded as ‘indecency,’ indecent theology exposes and erases (or at least denounces) the false dichotomy imposed, particularly on poor women, between being political and being sexual; as if poor women cannot be concerned about issues of sexuality because they are too concerned with political issues (feeding their children). (IT, 132-151)

Althaus-Reid asserts that sexual theologies (which is to say, all theologies) have a direct relationship to economic and political systems and that the deviancy of an indecent theology serves to challenge them. Here it is necessary to understand her use of decency and indecency and their function within these systems. Decency works to maintain centralized control, to homogenize, and impose the universalization of the multi-layered oppressive ideological systems of heterosexuality and patriarchy (IT, 168, 170). Indecency, then, through deviant sexual stories betray the sexual hierarchy of heterosexualism that in turn supports the dominant economic system of capitalism that likewise depends on oppressed-oppressor categories (IT, 195).

The case of Mary’s decency, then, serves as one aspect of a larger method of hegemonic construction and control that defines the political, social, and sexual order of the world and which theology has not only left intact, but has instead perpetuated. Althaus-Reid’s analysis is based in a very particular context but she offers it as a framework for thinking more broadly about how oppressive institutionalized systems work. She explains:

In the process of ideological formation, ideas always come first, and people come second. Great universal principles and general statements about the values are established first (usually under the influence of some political and economic criteria disguised as a spiritual principle). People are then asked to fit their lives into those principles, now presented not as political creations, but as ‘original truths’ or the ‘will of God’, and in any case, the normal state of things. But people’s lives seldom fit these discourses, and then those whose lives do not adapt to these ideological constructions (be they secular or divine principles) are considered ‘abnormal’. Call them deviants or sinners, the sad thing is that when some people cannot adapt their lives or circumstances to the ideas of the controlling elites, they need to pay the price of marginalisation for that.

Acts of theological indecency, then, break theology’s “sacred heterosexual assumptions” and the oppressive structures they create, leaving  the theologian with the opportunity and possibility of getting to know God, Mary, Christ, and one another, in new potentially liberative ways.

Marcella books

(FFTIT): Marcella Althaus-Reid, From Feminist Theology to Indecent Theology (London: SCM Press, 2004).
(ID): Marcella Althaus-Reid, Indecent Theology: Theological Perversions in Sex, Gender, and Politics (New York: Routledge, 2000).
Linked text: Marcella Althaus-Reid, “On not Looking Like Christ…” (Catholic Women’s Ordination July/August 2000, Issue 18, pp 2-7) Women Priest website:

Xochitl Alvizo is a Ph.D. candidate in Practical Theology at Boston University School of Theology. She loves all things feminist. She often finds herself on the boundary of different social and cultural contexts, and works hard to develop her voice and to hear and encourage the voice of others. Her work is inspired by the conviction that all people are inextricably connected and what we do, down to the smallest thing, matters; it makes a difference for good or for ill.

Categories: Feminist Theology, Gender and Sexuality, General, Justice, LGBTQ, Mariology, Mary, Theology

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10 replies

  1. I’ve always wondered how the church figured Mary was impregnated by an angel and where that impregnation occurred. I’ve read the myth as given in the Bible, but it never made sense to me. The idea of decency and indecency makes sense…………if you buy into the church’s myth. Will the old men in skirts ever catch up with real life??


  2. Thank you Xochitl – this is an area of thea/ology I’ve not explored and your introduction, together with Vanessa’s earlier thoughts are really useful. The control exerted by heterosexist theologies has so many negative consequences and I have been seeing the effects without knowing how to start working on the questions effectively. For me it is an area of complexity and your work and the introduction to Marcella’s writing will be very helpful.
    May you find delight and hope in your work to explore and offer possibilities to others


  3. Thanks, Xochitl, for this introduction to the work of Marcella Althaus-Reid. It’s too late at night for me to respond with any nuance, so I’ll write something here tomorrow morning. For right now, I want to tell you that I love the transgressive painting of Mary breast-feeding the baby Jesus — showing way too much of her body to remain the Virgin Mary as conceived of by orthodoxy.


  4. Just to mention an exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts called
    Mary and the Colors of Motherhood.


  5. Hi Xochitl —

    The point that caught my eye was Marcella Althaus-Reid’s assertion that “the approved theological decency of Mariology constructs tight patriarchal ideals for women, which feminist theology has left largely unchallenged…[Althaus-Reid] describes Mary as ‘the icon of a no-body,’ ‘a myth of a woman without a vagina’ that has been used to ascribe Latin American women’s role in an incontestable and obligatory manner.” This seems an overstatement to me. Already in 1973 Mary Daly problematized Mary in _Beyond God the Father._ She spoke of Mary as a “domesticated goddess” and demonstrated how Mary’s inimitable status forced all other women into the symbolic category of Eve (since they couldn’t be both virgin and mother). Then there was Marina Warner’s _Alone of All lHer Sex_ (1975). And Naomi Goldenberg devoted part of a chapter in _Changing of the Gods_ to Mary that begins with a story of seeing a vandalized statue of the Virgin Mary on which female genitalia had been painted. And that’s just the 1970s. When I taught “Cakes for the Queen of Heaven,” we certainly talked about these issues during the class on Mary. Since I wasn’t raised Roman Catholic, this hasn’t been a special focus of mine. Would you agree that a preponderance of feminist writers have left the symbol of the Virgin Mary unproblematized?


    • I completely see your point, Nancy. Thank you for raising the issue and providing the various resources. I do wonder if the issue arises because she had more of a Latin American context in mind as she wrote – that has been my working theory even in regard to Carol’s question on the previous day’s post about this. She doesn’t seem to contextualize her work/self within the broader feminist context where the writings you reference have been done. One thing for sure about her is that she wants to contextualize theology within the context of poverty and from the perspective and stories of economically poor Latin American women – street vendors, for example. Which I think is of tremendous value and a good challenge to many of us.


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