We begin by explaining what Mary Co-redemptrix does not mean. This is to avoid initial misconceptions that can prejudice the term, quite apart from how the Church, that is, popes, saints, doctors, mystics and martyrs, has in fact used it. It is one thing to espouse that “I do not accept the Church calling the Mother of Jesus the ‘Co-redemptrix,'” to reject the title due to a misconception of what the Church herself denotes by it. It is a different and intellectually unjust matter to maintain that the Church means something other than what she says she means when she calls the Mother of Jesus the “Co-redemptrix.”
What does “Co-redemptrix” not mean in the teachings of the Catholic Church? It does not mean that Mary is a goddess, that she is the fourth person of the Trinity, that she in any way possesses a divine nature, that she is in any fashion not a creature completely dependent upon her Creator like all other creatures. In quoting one of the greatest Marian saints of Church history, St. Louis Marie Grignion de Montfort, we join with him and the entire Church in asserting the Christian truth of Mary’s unquestionable creaturehood and total dependence on the Divine Lord of all, and that God has no absolute need for the participation of the Mother of Jesus for the accomplishment of his divine will:
The truth embodied by the Church’s doctrine concerning the Virgin Mary applies entirely to the subject of Redemption. The Church maintains that Mary’s participation in the Redemption accomplished by Jesus Christ, truly God and truly man, was by no means absolutely necessary. Moreover, Mary herself, as a creature and a daughter of Adam and Eve within the human family was in need of being preserved from the effects of original sin, and thereby was wholly dependent upon her Son-Redeemer for her own exalted form of Redemption.
Any concept of Mary Co-redemptrix, therefore, that suggests the Mother of Jesus is a fourth Trinitarian person or some type of goddess must be immediately and entirely rejected as grave heresy against Christian revelation.
In the revealed word of God, St. Paul identifies the early Christians as “co-workers with God” (1 Cor. 3:9) in a meaning and context of “co” which cannot possibly denote equality. So, too, are we “co-heirs” with Christ (Rom. 8:17), without meaning that we are equally heirs to heaven as the only-begotten Son of God is heir to Heaven.
The Latin verb, “redimere” (or re(d)-emere), signifies literally ” to buy back.” The Latin suffix, “-trix” is feminine, denoting “one who does something.” The etymological meaning of Co-redemptrix therefore refers to the “woman with the Redeemer,” or more literally: “the woman who buys back with.”
In summation, then, the title “Mary Co-redemptrix” as used by the Church denotes the unique and active participation by Mary, the Mother of Jesus, in the work of Redemption as accomplished by Jesus Christ, the divine and human Redeemer.
The Co-redemptrix title, rather, identifies Mary’s singular and unparalleled sharing with her Son in the restoration of grace for the human family. The Mother of the Redeemer participates in a wholly secondary and subordinate way in the buying back of humanity with and under her Divine Son. For Jesus Christ alone in his divinity, the Sovereign Alpha and Omega, could satisfy the just compensation for the sins of mankind necessary in reconciling humanity with God, the Father of all mankind.
This is why St. Louis de Montfort concludes his statement regarding the Virgin Mother of God by positively stating that her role in salvation, though not in the order of absolute necessity, is in the order of God’s perfect and manifest will:
Nevertheless, I say that, things being as they are now—that is, God having willed to commence and complete His greatest works by the most holy Virgin ever since He created Her—we may well think He will not change His conduct in the eternal ages; for He is God, and He changes not, either in His sentiments or in His conduct. (4)
The question for the disciple of Christ is not, “what was absolutely necessary, so that I may accept it?” but rather, “what was God’s manifest will, that I may believe it?” It was God’s manifest will that a woman and a mother be directly and intensely involved “with the Redeemer,” in the buying back of the human family from Satan and the effects of sin. Because of this role, which exceeds all other human and creaturely roles, the Mother of Jesus uniquely lays claim to the title of Co-redemptrix, “with Jesus” in the atoning work of human Redemption. It is a title given to her by the Church, and it is rightfully hers more than any other creature, beyond all other Christians who are called to be “co-redeemers.” (5) For the Immaculate Mother alone is spiritually crucified at Calvary in an experience of maternal suffering that is almost beyond human imagination. (6)
It is Mary, not the Church, who first gives birth to the Redeemer. It is the fruit of Mary’s suffering with and under the Redeemer that leads to the mystical birth of the Church at Calvary (Jn. 19:25-27). It is precisely this mystical birth by the New Eve, the new “Mother of the Living,” (7) which makes it possible for us to become co-redeemers within the mysterious and salvific distribution of graces which flow from Calvary.
The historical person of Mary, Virgin of Nazareth, through her lifetime cooperation “with Jesus” in the work of Redemption, becomes, in the words of John Paul II, the “Co-redemptrix of humanity.” (8)
Perhaps, too, the words of one contemporary Anglican Oxford scholar, who here travels in the footprints of another Oxford scholar, Venerable Cardinal Newman, will compel us toward a new open-mindedness to the Coredemptrix title and its further explanation within Christian Revelation:
(1) Ven. John Cardinal Newman, Certain Difficulties Felt by Anglicans in Catholic Teaching Considered, vol. 2, In a Letter Addressed to the Rev. E. B. Pusey, D.D., On Occasion of His Eirenicon of 1864, Longman’s, Green and Co., 1891, vol. 2, p. 78.
(2) St. Louis Marie Grignion de Montfort, True Devotion to Mary, ch. 1, n. 14.
(3) For example, Lk. 1:46: “my soul magnifies the Lord” and Jn. 2:5: “do whatever he tells you.”
(4) De Montfort, True Devotion to Mary, ch. 1, n. 15.
(5) Cf. John Paul II, Address to the sick at the Hospital of the Brothers of St. John of God, April 5, 1981, L’Osservatore Romano, English edition, April 13, 1981, p. 6; General Audience, Jan. 13, 1982, Inseg. V/1, 1982, 91; Address to candidates for the Priesthood, Montevideo, May 8, 1988, L’Osservatore Romano, English edition, May 30, 1988, p. 4; cf. Pius XI, Papal Allocution at Vicenza, Nov. 30, 1933.
(6) John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Salvifici Doloris, Feb. 11, 1984, 25; AAS 76, 1984, p. 214.
(7) Cf. Gen. 3:20.
(8) Cf. Pius XI, Papal Allocution at Vicenza; John Paul II, General Audience, Sept. 8, 1982; Inseg. V/3, 1982, 404.
(9) J. Macquarrie, “Mary Co-redemptrix and Disputes Over Justification and Grace: An Anglican View,” Mary Co-redemptrix: Doctrinal Issues Today, Queenship, 2002, p. 140.
The title of Co-redemptrix never places Mary on a level of equality with Jesus Christ, the divine Lord of all, in the accomplishment of human salvation. It would wound the Heart of Mary more than any other heart, hers an immaculate and transparent Heart created to reflect perfectly the glories of her Son, (3) if she were to be mistakenly perceived as an equal or parallel redeemer with her own divine Son.
Such blatant error clouds the real theological issues surrounding the doctrine of Coredemptrix, such as: the nature and limits of human participation in a divine work; the mysterious balance between Divine Providence and human freedom in salvation; the role of human cooperation in the individual distribution of the graces of Redemption; the divine desire to have a woman directly partake in the restoration of grace and its effects on personal human dignity, and several other relevant themes.
I avow, with all the Church, that Mary, being a mere creature who has come from the hands of the Most High, is in comparison with His Infinite Majesty less than an atom; or rather, she is nothing at all, because only He is “He who is” (Exod. 3:14); consequently that grand Lord, always independent and sufficient to Himself, never had, and has not now, any absolute need of the holy Virgin for the accomplishment of His will and for the manifestation of His glory. He has but to will in order to do everything. (2)
What then does the Church mean when she calls the Blessed Virgin Mary the “Co-redemptrix?” Let us first look at the etymological meaning of the title itself. The prefix, “co-” derives from the Latin term “cum,” which means “with” and not “equal to.” Although some modern languages, such as English, sometimes use the prefix “co” with connotations of equality, the true Latin meaning remains “with.” And in English, for example, the prefix “co” is at other times properly used to signify “with” in a context of subordination or dependence, in cases such as “pilot and co-pilot”; “star and co-star”; “Creator and co-creator” in the theology of the body and nuptial love, and so forth.
Jesus Christ, truly God and truly man, is the Redeemer of the universe. Mary, the Church teaches, is the woman completely “with the Redeemer” who like no other creature, angel or saint, shared in his saving work. She gave Jesus her own flesh and blood; she suffered with Jesus in all his earthly suffering; she walked with Jesus the steps to Calvary; she offered with Jesus at Golgotha in obedience to the Father; she died with Jesus in her Heart. What does the Church mean when she calls Mary the Co-redemptrix? In a phrase: Mary is “With Jesus,” from the Annunciation to Calvary.
The matter cannot be settled by pointing to the dangers of exaggeration and abuse, or by appealing to isolated texts of scripture such as 1 Timothy 2:5, or by the changing fashions in theology and spirituality, or by the desire not to say anything that might offend one’s partners in ecumenical dialogue. Unthinking enthusiasts may have elevated Mary to a position of 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 Coredemptrix. 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. It is a matter for theological investigation. And, like other doctrines concerning Mary, it is not only saying something about her, but something more general concerning the Church as a whole or even humanity as a whole. (9)