Marian devotion is also conducted at a more personal level. In many Catholic countries there are edicolae—small shrines, or prayer spots—on city streets and along rural paths, and many feature Mary. "Bathtub Virgins" in the United States are lawn statues of Mary, so-called because they're often sheltered beneath half-planted, upright tubs. Home worship, which often includes altars, has long been part of Catholicism in places like Mexico, New Mexico, and Louisiana, Carroll says.
In recent times, the cult of Mary has come under attack from some Catholic feminists. They decry Mary as a male-invented symbol used to subjugate and diminish women. On one hand, the church emphasizes Mary as the ideal mother; on the other, it uses her as a poster girl for chastity. The irony is that a woman cannot become a mother without engaging in sex. "The Catholic religion therefore binds its female followers in particular on a double wheel, to be pulled one way and then the other," says Marina Warner, author of Alone of All Her Sex. Other feminists, however, consider Mary one of the few strong women in the Bible. Indeed, some argue she provides a rationale for the ordination of female priests.
While Mary remains a key figure in the Catholic Church, over the past 40 years her importance has been minimized in a Vatican caught up in a wave of ecumenicalism and demystification. The Second Vatican Council (Vatican ii) played down the nonbiblical aspects of Marian veneration. Church teaching now maintains that the foundation for Mariology wasn't Mary's motherhood but her agreeing to carry the Christ child. Thus, the church says, she is to be honored as "the perfect disciple."
This thoroughly modernized Mary hasn't gone down well with all Catholics, and many want her restored to her full regal glory. A conservative lay group, Vox Populi Mariae Mediatric, has collected nearly 7 million signatures on a petition asking that Catholic dogma proclaim Mary as "Mediatrix of All Graces," or the sole dispenser of God's graces, as well as Christ's co-redeemer. The late Pope John Paul ii was inclined toward granting the Virgin those titles, Boss says, but was dissuaded by his chief aide, the German cardinal, Joseph Ratzinger, who argued that only Vatican councils—and not popes—should proclaim dogma. Now, of course, Ratzinger is Pope Benedict xvi.
Meanwhile, Spretnak argues that Marian devotion shouldn't be the province of conservatives only. She calls on her fellow liberal Catholics to also seek a return to traditional Mariology. "Vatican ii lopped off too much of [Mary's] symbolic, sacramental, mystical, and cosmological aspects, [and] it would be well to restore them." Besides, Spretnak says, many millions of Catholics have simply ignored the new doctrine. Indeed, the world's main shrines to the Virgin continue to attract millions of her faithful.