Recent posts on Mary, Mother of God and Marian devotions have prompted questions about the proposed Marian dogma called “Mary, Co-Redemptrix.” Supporters of the proposed dogma frequently refer to this teaching as “the fifth Marian dogma.”
There is a lay led group that promotes the dogma rather vigorously, Vox Populi.
Definition of the Proposed Dogma
Mary is given many titles by the Church: Queen of Heaven, Mother of God, Mediatrix of All Graces. Supporters of the fifth Marian dogma are petitioning the Holy Father to add one more: Co-redemptrix. What does this title mean? Simply put, the Holy Father is being asked to declare solemnly and infallibly that the Blessed Virgin Mary is a co-worker in the redemption of mankind through her initial assent to be the Mother of God and through her suffering with Christ as he dies on the cross. Essentially, the title would specify Mary’s role as a human co-operator with Christ’s redeeming sacrifice for us.
The controversy around the dogma is rooted in the easy misunderstanding that the Holy Father is being asked to declare that Mary is our Redeemer on level equal to that of Christ. This is false. In Latin, the prefix “co” means “with” not “equal to.” In English, we use the prefix “co” to mean “with” but it has the connotation of “equal to.” This is not the case in Latin. Think of how we use the terms “co-chair” and “co-pilot.” We tend to think of the co-chair and the co-pilot was functionally equivalent to the chair and the pilot. Again, not the case in Latin.
Essentially, the fifth Marian dogma, if declared, would do nothing more than make explicit what Catholics already believe to be the case regarding Mary’s role in our salvation history. She cooperated with the Holy Spirit by assenting to be the Mother of God, “I am the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38). With this assent, Mary became the spiritual mother of the Church by giving birth to the Word Made Flesh, Jesus (1). In the same way, any person who assents to the teachings of Christ, is baptized, and lives a life directed to growing in holiness is said to be a cooperator with Christ in his/her own redemption. Since God will not force His grace on us, we are free to “work with” or “work against” His gifts to us. When we “work with” God’s plan for our redemption, we are properly called “co-redeemers” in our salvation.
How is Mary a co-redeemer in my salvation? Assuming Mary’s freedom to accept or reject Gabriel’s call to become the Mother of God, we can see that Mary’s assent made it possible for the second Person of the Blessed Trinity to become man—a step necessary in for the universal efficacy of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Without her consent, the Son would have not been incarnated. You might object here and say that Gabriel could have accepted her no and moved on to another woman with the same invitation. This is purely speculative, of course, but had he done so, any woman who said yes would be our spiritual mother and worthy of the title “Co-redemptrix.”
In all of her titles, Mary is understood to be the perfected form of a human response to God’s invitation to live in union with Him in eternity (2). So, in every sense, we all participate in an imperfect way in all of Mary’s titles. We all mediate God’s grace to others—what are the corporeal works of mercy but our human use of divine gifts for the benefit of others? We all give birth to the Word made flesh—what is Eucharistic communion but the taking in of Christ so that we might become more and more the Word given flesh? We are all “co-operators” (operators with) God’s will for us when we assent to and make good use of His gifts for others (3).
There are basically two objections (4) to the fifth Marian dogma. First, a declaration of the proposed dogma is unnecessary since Catholic theology already recognizes Mary’s unique role in God’s plan for human salvation. Second, the dogma is ecumenically dangerous in that it threatens good relations with other Christian ecclesial communities by seeming to elevate Mary to a level equal to that of Christ as sole Redeemer.
In my judgment, neither objection is substantial. The first objection is easily an argument for declaring the dogma and making explicit what is already implicit. By declaring the dogma, the Holy Father will open up an area of theological and philosophical research that is underdeveloped in Catholic theology, namely soteriology (theology of salvation). The Eastern Churches have a much more developed theology in this area in their focus on theosis (deification) as the explanatory process of our salvation; that is, the theology that explores how the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection bring the human person into a relationship with the Divine and make that person a sharer in the divine nature. Aquinas calls this process “deiformity,” how the person is formed in the divine (5).
The second objection rests on the assumption that other ecclesial communities, mostly Protestant, will misunderstand the dogma. Two responses are appropriate here. First, the Church has never hesitated in teaching and preaching the truth of the faith out of a fear that the truth might be misunderstood by those not in communion with the Church. That we would flinch from speaking the truth because some might misunderstand simply means that we fear a negative response from our ecumenical partners. If the dogma is clearly defined to place Mary alongside Christ as a cooperator in our redemption, there is no reason for anyone to find this objectionable.
Second, this objection might have more weight if our ecumenical partners hesitated themselves when tempted to act unilaterally in redefining the historical catholic faith. Our Anglican brothers and sisters have ordained women, sexually active homosexuals, blessed same-sex marriages, approved the use of artificial contraception and abortion, and generally made a mess of the faith out of a misguided sense of “reading the signs of the times.” In other words, they have never hesitated in adding to or subtracting from the historical faith when they felt doing so was necessary for their members. The objection that the proposed fifth Marian dogma will damage ecumenical relations seems somewhat dubious in the harsh light of the ecclesial reality dropped into our Catholic laps without our consultation. Why this sudden need for Protestant approval of Catholic teaching?
My guess is that this objection is really more about a certain sort of generational embarrassment with Marian dogma and devotion in general and rests on the need of some in the Church to please those they feel are more theologically sophisticated. How am I supposed to show my Catholic face at the next meeting of the American Academy of Religion when all of my more enlightened Protestant colleagues from Harvard and Yale know we silly Catholics have infallibly declared that Mary is Co-redemptrix? How embarrassing! Such individuals are left with the choice of defending what appears to be another exercise of raw papal power and earning the pity of their more progressive betters or rejecting the dogma and winning the accolades of their more enlightened colleagues. Guess which one they choose over and over again.
Anglican Oxford scholar the Rev. Dr. John Macquarrie gets it exactly right when he writes:
The matter (of Marian mediation) cannot be settled by pointing to the danger of exaggeration and abuse, or by appealing to isolated texts of scripture as the verse quoted above from 1 Timothy 2:5 or by the desire not to say anything that might offend one’s partners in ecumenical dialogue. Unthinking enthusiasts may have elevated Mary’s position to a virtual equality with Christ, but this aberration is not a necessary consequence of recognizing that there may be a truth striving for expression in words like Mediatrix and Co-redemptrix. All responsible theologians would agree that Mary’s co-redemptive role is subordinate and auxiliary to the central role of Christ. But if she does have such a role, the more clearly we understand it, the better. And like other doctrines concerning Mary, it is not only saying something about her, but something more general about the Church as a whole, and even humanity as a whole (6).
To sum up, the proposed dogma, as written, does nothing more than make explicit what the Church already teaches about Mary’s role in human salvation history; that is, that by assenting to become the Mother of God, Mary cooperated with God’s invitation to live with Him in eternity by giving birth to His Word, Jesus, and suffering with Jesus while he died on the cross. Nothing more than all of us are called to do in virtue of our baptism (7).
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, O.P., Ph.D., is a member of the faculty of philosophy at the Angelicum in Rome. The preceding article was first published on his blog, Domine, Da Mihi Hanc Aquam!
(1) CCC 964.
(2) CCC 967-970.
(3) CCC 1996-2000.
(4) Cf. Dr. Mark Miravalle, A Response to 7 Common Objections, Queenship Publishing Company, 2001.
(5) St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theol. I. 12. 5.
(6) J. Macquarrie, “Mary Co-redemptrix and Disputes over Justification and Grace” in Mary Co-redemptrix, Mediatrix, Advocate, Theological Foundations II, p.246.
(7) CCC 628.