A New Marian Dogma: Fully Marian and Fully Ecumenical

Updated: May 30, 2020

Man can hardly be defined, after the fashion of Carlyle, as an animal who makes tools; ants and beavers and many other animals make tools, in the sense that they make an apparatus. Man can be defined as an animal that makes dogmas. As he piles doctrine on doctrine and conclusion on conclusion in the formation of some tremendous scheme of philosophy and religion, he is, in the only legitimate sense of which the expression is capable, becoming more and more human. When he drops one doctrine after another in a refined scepticism, when he declines to tie himself to a system, when he says that he has outgrown definitions, when he says that he disbelieves in finality, when, in his own imagination, he sits as God, holding no form of creed but contemplating all, then he is by that very process sinking slowly backwards into the vagueness of the vagrant animals and the unconsciousness of the grass. Trees have no dogmas. Turnips are singularly broad-minded.

— G.K. Chesterton, Heretics.

First there was the definition of Mary as Mother of God in 431. Then came the final proclamation of her Perpetual Virginity at the Third Council of Constantinople in 681. And then, over a thousand years later, the Church defined her Immaculate Conception followed nearly a hundred years later by the definition of her Assumption into Heaven. Now, as we begin the next millennium, we learn that over 500 bishops, 40 cardinals and over six million of the faithful around the world—following in the footsteps of Cardinal Mercier, St. Maximilian Kolbe and countless others throughout this past century—have petitioned the Holy Father to define as dogma the triad doctrine that Mary is Coredemptrix, Mediatrix of all Graces and Advocate for the People of God.

The publication of Mary: Coredemptrix, Mediatrix, Advocate: Theological Foundations II: Papal, Pneumatological, Ecumenical, edited by Dr. Mark Miravalle, Professor of Mariology at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, and President of Vox Populi Mariae Mediatrici, reminds us, like its three other companion volumes, that distinguished theologians from different denominations find this doctrine to be deeply rooted in Scripture, patristics, soteriology, pneumatology, personalistic philosophy and magisterial teaching.

A major contribution of Theological Foundations II is its ground-breaking and comprehensive analysis of the dogma in the context of the development of doctrine, and particularly with respect to the ecumenical effort. The cogently argued conclusion of the contributors is that a dogmatic definition of Marian mediation is not only demanded by the inherent dynamic of the development of doctrine but is ecumenically invaluable because it brings us to the typology of the earliest Church Fathers (see, for instance, the superb essay by Fr. Peter Damian Fehlner) who are revered by all Christians, thus giving us a new but common starting-point in the quest for unity.

At first glimpse the request for the definition of another Marian dogma may seem not just unecumenical but—worse still—anachronistic. In this past century of Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking, Sigmund Freud, Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre and Martin Heidegger, the mere idea of a new Marian dogma seems almost as fantastic as a debate on the relation between angelic activity and the movement of the spheres. But that century of brilliant freethinkers is also the century of Josef Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Mao Tse-Tung and the genocidal bloodbaths of Cambodia, Bosnia and Rwanda. And if there is one thing in common between the philosophies of the free-thinkers and the ideologies of the mass-murderers it is the dogma of determinism, the idea that the thoughts and words and acts of human beings are determined entirely by forces external to them. In other words, the free-thinkers do not believe in freedom.

Against this backdrop, the call for a definition of Mary’s unique participation as a free agent in the divinely conducted symphony of salvation is an affirmation of the greatest relevance: it signifies that human beings have the capacity for free actions, that they are responsible for their actions, that the consequences of their actions have a bearing on both their own eternal destiny and the lives of others. In freedom and responsibility lies our dignity.

Sadly, determinism is not restricted to philosophies and ideologies but has established itself in influential systems of theology—most clearly in the theology of Calvinism. A renowned Anglican contributor to Theological Foundations II, the philosopher-theologian John Macquarrie, gives a remarkable analysis of the relevance of the doctrine of Mary’s co-redemption in “correcting” the dangers of determinism in theology:

(Calvinist patterns of thought as embodied not just in Calvin but in Luther and Karl Barth) treat human beings like sheep or cattle or even marionettes, not as the unique beings that they are, spiritual beings made in the image of God and entrusted with a measure of freedom and responsibility…. Human beings, on such a view, have no freedom and no responsibility…. (The) hopeful view of the human race is personified and enshrined in Mary…. In the glimpses of Mary that we have in the gospels, her standing at the cross beside her Son, and her prayers and intercessions with the apostles, are particularly striking ways in which Mary shared and supported the work of Christ—and even these are ways in which the Church as a whole can have a share in co-redemption. But it is Mary who has come to symbolize that perfect harmony between the divine will and the human response, so that it is she who gives meaning to the expression Coredemptrix.

We are coredeemers and mediators all! To deny this is to implicitly assume we are puppets or worse still “part of God” (since we are incapable of independent action). Not all Protestants are Calvinists, of course, and the Methodists and Pentecostal groups in particular have rejected the deterministic impulse. Here we see how a definition of Marian mediation can make a positive contribution to an inescapable ecumenical dilemma.

Development of Doctrine in the Teaching of Paul VI and John Paul II

Strictly speaking, ecumenism and development of doctrine are two entirely distinct realms of thought and action. Whereas ecumenism seeks to bring about unity of doctrine and fellowship among “separated” Christian communities, development of doctrine concerns the ongoing process of understanding and articulating further implications of the Christian revelation. At its zenith, development of doctrine culminates in definitions of dogma either by popes or papally “certified” councils.

Fortunately, in John Paul II, the Catholic Church has a leader who is as concerned with the ecumenical vision as he is with explicating the traditional faith in the context of new knowledge.

On the latter we have only to review the Catechism of the Catholic Church and his vast treasury of encyclicals. On the former, we are touched to note how in Ut Unum Sint he talks of exercising his teaching office as a ministry of love to all Christian peoples.

It is not often realized that the three longest-reigning popes of the last fifty years, Pius XII, Paul VI, John Paul II, have made pioneering contributions to the development of doctrine. Everyone knows that Pius XII’s definition of the Assumption represented a major new milestone. We forget, however, that Paul VI’s proclamation of Mary as Mother of the Church was a breakthrough which he brought about in his capacity as Pope.

We read in Mary and the Churches, an anthology of the Ecumenical Society of the Blessed Virgin Mary, that in bestowing the title Mater Ecclesiae “the Pope took an affirmation of tradition a step further, with the help of a vocabulary that had come into use only in recent times.” Although the title had only been implicitly included in Lumen Gentium VIII, “because so many fathers from various parts of the Catholic world had pressed him for an explicit declaration of ‘the motherly role of the Virgin among the Christian people,’ and because it seemed so fitting, the Pope decided to proclaim Mary Mater Ecclesiae ‘for the glory of the Virgin and for our own consolation.'”

The actual proclamation took place on the last day of the third session of the Council in 1964:

The day had begun in dark humor, as the Pope came into St. Peter’s to concelebrate a last solemn Mass with twenty-four fathers from sees with national shrines in honor of the Blessed Virgin. The mood had changed; Pope Paul was interrupted seven times during his last address, applause increasing throughout. A standing ovation greeted the announcement of the title Mater Ecclesiae, signaling the assent of the Council fathers—but not all of them, for some voiced their criticism of the Pope’s independent action later when they had returned home. Cardinal Bea of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, pointing out that the issue had never been put to a plenary vote, asked: “By what right then can one pretend to know something about the presumed majority opinion of the Council?”

Paul VI was perfectly correct, and in no way overriding, in the sequence of his actions—a twofold exercise of his own supreme authority, and that of the Church. He first conformed himself to his College of Bishops by promulgating the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, which included the new Marian title in an “equivalent” manner. Afterwards, the first action completed, the Pope then invoked his own personal authority to state explicitly what he and the College had just stated implicitly or “equivalently.” Thus it is that a Pope may guide a Council, rather than surrender to it.

The proposed new dogma of maternal mediation is simply a logical culmination of Paul VI’s authoritative development of doctrine. As we see in Theological Foundations II, the doctrine of Mary’s spiritual maternity theologically presupposes her roles of coredemption and mediation. And, as the anthology notes, the usage of the term “Coredemptrix” is especially distinctive in the teachings of John Paul II (although it is present in those of other popes as well). Msgr. Arthur Calkins’ paper on “Pope John Paul II’s Teaching on Marian Coredemption” is a prolific evaluation of the pontiff’s thought in this area.


The charge that “Coredemptrix” is not present in Tradition fails on two counts. First, the doctrine of “Coredemptrix” is found in the first Church Fathers with their doctrine of the New Eve. And by using this term in a dogmatic definition, the Holy Father would only (as with Paul VI above) be taking “an affirmation of tradition a step further, with the help of a vocabulary that had come into use only in recent times.” Moreover, the terms “Theotokos” and “Trinity” are both instances of new “vocabulary” enlisted in the service of articulating ancient concepts.

The objection that the granting of dogmatic status to the term “Coredemptrix” would cause irreparable ecumenical harm is again misplaced. “Coredemptrix” is nowhere near as potentially misleading as the phrase “Mother of God.” And, despite its potential for misinterpretation, this latter term is an indispensable vehicle in understanding the Incarnation—and was judged worthy of dogmatic definition by an Ecumenical Council.