Many women who grew up in the Catholic Church were told to emulate Mary, the Mother of God – a woman whose purity and lack of sin can make her difficult to relate to. She is often portrayed in paintings as a meek, pale lady holding the baby Jesus, appearing to be agreeable, polite, and nice: three words that psychologist Dr. Nicole LePera used to describe “Good Girl” conditioning. But was Mary really a “Good Girl”?
Who was Mary?
Mary was a young Jewish woman living in the Roman Empire. Based on our knowledge of Jewish customs at the time of Christ’s birth, the fact that she was betrothed when the angel Gabriel appeared to her suggests that she was around 14 years old (possibly younger).
Mary was not wealthy. In the Gospel of Luke, there is an account of Mary and Joseph’s presentation of Jesus in the temple which recounts that they offered a sacrifice of “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons,” which according to Mosaic law is only allowed if the woman is unable to afford a lamb to sacrifice (Luke 2:24).
By all accounts, Mary does not have much power in her society: her age, her gender, her religious affiliation, and her socioeconomic status all place her fairly low in the social hierarchy.
Catholic tradition also tells us that Mary was “immaculately conceived” in her mother’s womb, free from original sin, making her an appropriate vessel to one day bear Christ into the world. To be clear, I am not questioning this teaching of the Church. Rather, I am exploring whether Mary fits into the contemporary image of a “Good Girl,” as it is being popularly discussed by psychologists.
What is a “Good Girl”?
As psychologist Dr. Nicole LePera recently explained in a Twitter thread, “‘Good girl’ conditioning is messaging we receive beginning in childhood to be: agreeable, polite, and nice.” These seem like good traits that we should try to emulate. But the problem lies in how far women are asked to go in order to keep up this image. Namely, to the extent that they are asked to betray their own needs or values in order to win other people’s approval.
Dr. LePera gives the following example: “As a young girl you feel uncomfortable around your uncle. He drinks a lot and is loud and your intuition guides you to avoid him. Your (well-meaning) mother senses your discomfort. Rather than helping to guide you through those emotions, to validate you, and to teach you how to honor your own boundaries: she tells you that you have to give him a hug. It's polite. And, she tells you that you can't ‘look rude.’”
As a result, she explains, girls learn that “external appearance is more important than internal feelings.”
Later in life, this conditioning often shows its effects when we are constantly appeasing others and avoiding conflict. Some examples of this are given by Dr. LePera: when “you feel bad asking for a waitress to fix your order, when you over-explain that you can't attend an event, when you automatically defer to someone else's opinion.” Or, to use an example from my own life: when you always dread the interview question that asks for an example of how you handle conflict, because you don’t have any. You avoid it at all costs.
Mary’s Fiat: Empowering or Appeasing?
With those terms established, we can return to our original question: Was Mary a “Good Girl”?
To begin to answer this question, we need to look at the story of the Annunciation in the Gospel of Luke. When the angel Gabriel appears to Mary, she is “greatly troubled” (Luke 1:29). And she is not alone in this feeling. For all of the artwork we have of adorable cherubs, angels are actually very frightening creatures. When Gabriel visited Zechariah to announce that his wife, Elizabeth, was pregnant with John the Baptist, he was also “greatly troubled by what he saw” (Luke 1:12).
Most of us have heard the story that comes next: Gabriel tells Mary, “Do not be afraid,” before explaining to her that she is to give birth to a child named Jesus. Mary says, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” This last line is celebrated as Mary’s “fiat” – her “yes” to God which enabled the birth of Jesus to be possible.
This question of whether Mary was a “Good Girl” hinges on whether she really said “yes” freely, without coercion. The word “yes” doesn’t appear in the English translation of the Bible. And she was never actually asked a question: everything that the angel Gabriel said comes across as a command, or at least a statement of fact: “you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus” (Luke 1:31) and “The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Luke 1:35).
It could seem like God sent Gabriel to tell Mary what she was expected to do, and she went along with it because there was a frightening, mysterious being in front of her who was literally sent by an all-powerful God. And, being immaculately conceived, does Mary even have the capacity to say “no” to God? Would that be considered a sin?
If Mary wasn’t actually presented with a choice – or even if she was, but she remained terrified and unable to make an uncoerced decision – then Mary failed to stand up for her own needs and went along with someone else’s plan, despite potential concerns about how it would change her life. This sounds like what Dr. LePera described: ignoring our own needs and desires to win approval from others (in this case, God). If those of us with “Good Girl” conditioning feel pressure to sacrifice our own needs to please mere humans in front of us, it is not too hard to imagine that a 14-year-old girl would feel pressure to please a divine being by going along with their plan.
Yet, after Gabriel’s assurance to “be not afraid,” Mary doesn’t act afraid. In fact, even before Gabriel said that, her reaction was different than that of Zechariah. Pope Benedict XVI writes about this in his book Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives. Zechariah was “greatly troubled” and afterwards, “fear fell upon him” (Luke 1:12). Mary too was “greatly troubled,” but afterwards she “pondered what sort of greeting this might be” (Luke 1:29). She was seeking to understand what was happening, rather than cowering in fear (Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, p.33).
Mary has enough courage to ask the question, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” (Luke 1:34). And at the end of their interaction, the fact that she felt the need to say “let it be done to me according to your will” suggests that she sensed that the angel was waiting for some sort of consent. When she went to visit her cousin Elizabeth shortly after the angel’s visit, both women joyfully celebrated their pregnancies, and Mary describes how God “has done great things for me” in the prayer that is called her “Magnificat” (Luke 1:46-50).
If that is the case, and she freely chose to become pregnant with Jesus, then Mary demonstrated incredible courage in the face of a daunting circumstance. She decided – without the permission of her father or her betrothed – to bear a child into the world in a way that would necessarily cause conflict and potential physical harm.
In becoming pregnant before she had gone to live with her betrothed, Mary was breaking a huge social norm. She would have known that her pregnancy would upset the majority of people around her. Until Joseph was visited by Gabriel himself, he would have thought that she had slept with another man, committing adultery. This was an offense that was punishable by stoning under Mosaic law, which is why Joseph had “decided to divorce her quietly” so as to not “expose her to shame” (Matthew 1:19). No one she encountered – other than those who had also interacted with the angel – would have understood that this baby was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and she remained a virgin.
Anyone with “Good Girl” conditioning would cringe at the thought of all of the conflict that could come from such a situation: all of the disapproving stares, demeaning words, and actual physical harm. Mary may have cringed too – but she did it anyway.
So, Which One Is It?
This question is hugely important, not just for our understanding of Mary, but also for our understanding of God. If God sent an angel to Mary with the intent of ordering her to bear a child into the world – a fully divine child – then God does not actually care about our free will. God would be a puppet master who orchestrates our lives at whim, and we would be mere puppets.
But if God sent an angel to Mary with the intent of appointing a more-approachable (though still initially frightening) mediator to bring God’s message and to await Mary’s response, then God is a loving parent who, though He knows what is best for us, allows us to make our own choices. God is a God who “lifts up the lowly” (Luke 1:52) rather than exploiting them like powerful human beings tend to do. God entrusts the “lowly” with large roles in the work of bringing about His kingdom, but He waits on them to choose to participate.
Theologians have explored these issues in depth – too much depth to fully go into here. But it is widely accepted among Catholic theologians of different persuasions that Mary did, in fact, have a fully free choice.
Pope Benedict XVI writes that the entire mission of Jesus is dependent on this freedom. Because humans first made the free choice to turn away from God, “the only way he can redeem man, who was created free, is by means of a free ‘yes’ to his will . . . His power is tied to the unenforceable ‘yes’ of a human being” (Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, p. 36).
To contemporary feminist theologians, this free choice of Mary demonstrates her strength.
In her book Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints, Elizabeth Johnson writes:
“This young peasant girl discerns the voice of God in her life, commissioning her to a momentous task. Exercising independent thought and action, she asks questions, takes counsel with her own soul. In a self-determining act of personal autonomy, she decides to go for it. This is her choice and it changes her life. A woman of Spirit, she embarks on the task of partnering God in the work of redemption.”
In her book Standing in the Shoes My Mother Made: A Womanist Theology, Diana Hayes writes:
“Black Catholics also speak a new and challenging word about Mary, the mother of God, rejecting the symbol of passivity for the courageous and outrageous authority of a young unwed mother who had the faith in herself and in her God to break through the limitations society placed upon her in order to say a powerful yes to God, standing alone yet empowered. Hers was not a yes to being used merely as a passive, empty vessel, but a yes to empowerment, challenging the status quo by her ability to overcome those who doubted and denied her and to nurture and bring forth her Son as a woman of faith and conviction.”
Mary was a courageous woman who chose to dive headlong into conflict in order to do what she believed was right. She broke social norms and didn’t let a desire to please other people stop her. She celebrated how God worked in the world, upsetting the status quo by throwing down rulers from their thrones, and believed that when she participated in that work of disruption, “all ages will call [her] blessed” (Luke 1:48).
So, no, Mary was not a “Good Girl.”