Is Mary Being Sacrificed on the Altar of Ecumenism?
Dr. Mark Miravalle*
Today’s ubiquitous global crises underscore the imperative for all Christians to unite to the greatest degree possible. The Catholic Church must likewise take seriously the call for authentic Christian unity. Pope Francis has placed great emphasis on Ecumenism throughout his pontificate, both in word and action. But how can the Church best accomplish real ecumenical progress and advance true Christian unity during these troubled times?
Ecumenical efforts since the Second Vatican Council have generally led to fruitful forms of common prayer and fraternal dialogue between the different Christian traditions, principally by emphasizing what all Christian confessions have in common. But is that enough? Can we really fulfill the ecumenical prayer of Jesus that “that they may all be one” (Jn. 17:19) by discussing only what all Christians have in common?
Many Catholics involved in the ecumenical mission of the Church have humbly come to the conclusion that, to a significant degree, the ecumenical movement has come to an impasse. While communal Christian prayer and dialogue are certainly beneficial, they alone will not bring the diversified Christian confessions into the one Body of Christ.
What then is required? For ultimate ecumenical unity to take place, the fullness of Catholic doctrine and life must be discussed honestly, in full transparency, and without any reduction or compromise.
However dogmatic or “un-ecumenical” this may sound at first, the fullness of Christian revelation is nevertheless the only foundation and pre-requisite for real, true, and lasting Christian unity. Unity flows from truth, communion from doctrine. St. John Paul II’s ecumenical instruction makes this indisputably clear:
The unity willed by God can be attained only by the adherence of all to the content of revealed faith in its entirety. In matters of faith, compromise is in contradiction with God who is Truth. In the Body of Christ, "the way, and the truth, and the life" (Jn 14:6), who could consider legitimate a reconciliation brought about at the expense of the truth?(1)
Free Human Cooperation in Redemption
At the bottom of the entire ecumenical discussion lies this central issue: the legitimacy and necessity of free human cooperation in Redemption. This essential Catholic truth appears to be losing its critical dogmatic status, or even in some cases denied, within contemporary ecumenical discussions.
Karl Barth, one of the twentieth century’s leading Protestant theologians, saw the centrality of this issue and its singular Marian component. Barth identified Marian doctrine and devotion to be the “one great heresy” of the Catholic Church from which all other Catholic heresies followed: “In the doctrine and worship of Mary there is disclosed the one heresy of the Roman Catholic Church which explains all the rest.”(2) He specifically singles out Mary’s human cooperation in Redemption as a preeminent example of this alleged Catholic-Marian heresy:
“The ‘mother of God’ of Roman Catholic Marian dogma is quite simply the principle, type and essence of the human creature co-operating servant-like in its own redemption on the basis of prevenient grace, and to that extent the principle, type and essence of the Church.”(3)
Barth went on to conclude about Marian doctrine: “Mariology is an excrescence, i.e., a diseased construct of theological thought. Excrescences must be excised.”(4)
Notice that Barth specifically referred to the concept of a “human creature co-operating” in “redemption” in his condemnation of the Catholic doctrine of Marian coredemption.
That a major Protestant theologian rejected the full Catholic teaching on Mary and her human cooperation in Redemption based upon his “solus Christus” “sola fide,” and “sola scriptura” Reformation premises should surprise no one. But when contemporary Catholic theological discussion presents similar rejections regarding Mary’s coredemption with and under Christ, then we must admit to a serious omission of Catholic faith. This omission of faith extends far beyond the domain of Mariology. In principle, it threatens the very essence of core Catholic soteriological truths concerning the nature of faith, grace, and redemption. It calls into question the Christian imperative for free human cooperation in our own redemption and the redemption of others.
When statements are made by members of the Church which reflect Barth’s misconceptions, such as “Jesus alone can be involved in Redemption,” and “no human can cooperate in Redemption,” then foundational Catholic teaching, as well as its singular embodiment manifested in Mary’s unique cooperation in Redemption is denied. This constitutes, however unintended, a rejection of a critical dogmatic component of Catholic Tradition, truth, and the depositum fidei: that a) free and active human cooperation with grace is necessary to receive the fruits of Redemption; and b) all Christians are called to participate in Christ’s universal mission of human Redemption for ourselves and others.
How then does the Church positively articulate the providential necessity of free human cooperation within the divine act of Redemption?
Freedom, Creation, Redemption
The greatest gift given to us by our Creator, inextricably joined to human life, is human freedom. Human freedom, an essential quality of being created in God’s image and likeness, enables us to choose and to love. God is free, and God made man free.
If freedom is such an indispensable component of being human, should we be surprised that the exercise of human freedom is such a critical dimension in human redemption?
God the Father freely chooses to send his Son to become flesh for our redemption. Jesus freely chooses to be obedient to the Father’s plan for human redemption by dying for us at Calvary. We, in turn, must freely choose to accept the graces of redemption merited by Christ for our personal salvation. It is a providential design of personal freedom, both divine and human, which makes our human redemption possible.
Jesus Christ is the Son of God made man who redeems the human race as only a divine Redeemer could. Jesus pays the infinite price of his own precious blood for human sin, in offering to the heavenly Father the sacrifice of himself at Calvary as an infinite price for the humanity’s offenses against an infinite God. Only a divine being could make such reparation for the totality of all human sin. Jesus alone, divinely and humanly, redeems the world in the order of justice—end of discussion, for any orthodox Christian, of the absolute necessity of a divine Redeemer for human redemption.
Next question: Can human creatures share in the mission of human redemption accomplished the only divine Redeemer?
“God created us without us, but he did not will to save us without us.”(5) St. Augustine clearly articulates the necessity of human freedom for human redemption.(6) The free and personal acceptance by every human person of the redeeming graces of Jesus obtained by his historic and objective redemption at Calvary constitutes an essential, perennial, and non-negotiable dogmatic Catholic teaching.(7)
We see further the Catholic imperative not only to freely cooperate with Jesus in our own redemption, but also to participate dynamically in the redemption of other human beings. This constitutes the universal Christian mandate of the Redeemer to go, preach to all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Trinity (cf. Mt. 28:19); to pray and make intercession for one another (cf. 1 Tim. 2:1); to offer our sufferings and sacrifices for the good of the Church and its increase (cf. Col. 1:24); and to be “co-workers with God” in the crucial mission of human redemption (cf. 1 Cor.3:9).
To Cooperate is to Co-redeem
The call to participate in the Redemption of others, to “co-redeem” to use a single term, never fails to recognize the absolute theological, metaphysical, and existential necessity of Jesus Christ as our sole divine Redeemer.
Nor does it, on the other hand, make the likewise necessary human cooperation in Redemption trivial or merely symbolic. How can both of these necessary realities exist at the same time without violating the integrity or freedom of either?
Take as an example (of course, always within the limitations of concrete examples) a number of human beings fall into a deep hole without the ability of getting out of the hole on their own. A divine hand reached down into the hole, the hand of Christ. One person in the hole freely chooses to grasp hand of Christ and is being pulled up from the hole. He is being redeemed from the hole by the power of Christ.
Let us further say that as that person is being pulled out of the hole by the hand of Christ, he grasps the hand of another person in the hole who willingly accepts his human hand, and hence the second person, too, is pulled out of the hole. The second person is redeemed from the hole by the all-necessary power of Christ, but also by the instrumental human cooperation of the first person. Thus, can humanity instrumentally share in the Redemption of Christ while still being absolutely and entirely dependent on Christ, the one divine Redeemer.
If we Christians, fallen though redeemed as we are, have been repeatedly called by the Roman pontiffs to faithfully enact our baptized obligation to become “co-redeemers with Christ”(8), could we possibly deny the same role to the human mother of Jesus?
The Uniqueness of Marian Coredemption
One human being was created “full of grace” by the Father. Mary’s Immaculate Conception, being free from sin and choosing never to rebel against the Father’s plan, prepared and sustained her special human role in Christ’s redemptive mission.
What other human being could reasonably claim to have given the divine Redeemer the very instrument of Redemption, his human body? “We are sanctified by the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Heb. 10:10), and that human body was given to Jesus through one human mother, in virtue of her free, active, and feminine “yes.”
But because Mary’s human motherhood was not surrogate but rather perennial, her human cooperation does not end with the divine conception at Nazareth and the miraculous birth at Bethlehem. Her co-redemptive mission with Jesus continues for the duration of his earthly life, where, as the Council confirms, she “faithfully persevered in union with her son unto the cross.”(9) The Mother suffered in her human heart what the Son suffered in his divine heart, and offered all her maternal agony in human coredemptive union with Jesus for the Redemption of the world. Mary freely and humanly “consented to the immolation of this victim born of her”(10) in this sublime teaching of Vatican II. St. John Paul II further explains that Mary’s human sufferings united with Jesus constituted a supernatural contribution “to the redemption of all:”
It is especially consoling to note—and also accurate in accordance with the Gospel and history—that at the side of Christ, in the first and most exalted place, there is always his Mother through the exemplary testimony that she bears by her whole life to this particular Gospel of suffering. In her, the many and intense sufferings were amassed in such an interconnected way that they were not only a proof of her unshakeable faith but also a contribution to the redemption of all. In reality, from the time of her secret conversation with the angel, she began to see in her mission as a mother her "destiny" to share, in a singular and unrepeatable way, in the very mission of her Son…And again, after the events of her Son's hidden and public life, events which she must have shared with acute sensitivity, it was on Calvary that Mary's suffering, beside the suffering of Jesus, reached an intensity which can hardly be imagined from a human point of view but which was mysterious and supernaturally fruitful for the redemption of the world. (11)
Half a century earlier, Pope Pius XI had already articulated Mary’s role of unparalleled human cooperation in the Redemption accomplished by Christ, and soundly defended his use of the Co-redemptrix title to indicate that role:
By necessity, the Redeemer could not but associate [non poteva, per necessità di cose, non associare] his Mother in his work. For this reason, we invoke her under the title of Co-redemptrix. She gave us the Savior, she accompanied him in the work of Redemption as far as the Cross itself, sharing with Him the sorrows and the agony and in the death in which Jesus consummated the Redemption of mankind.(12)
The use of titles like Co-redemptrix seeks to embody, in one word, the heart of the doctrine, and, at the same time, to accentuate truths key to our faith and salvation. The Co-redemptrix serves both of these purposes, while at the same time reminding the faithful by sublime Marian example of the call to offer our prayers and sufferings for the greatest possible efficacy of the New Evangelization—in short, to spread the faith and to save souls.
Long before the 20th century, the principle of Mary’s human coredemption returns us to the ancient teaching of the apostolic Church. As the Council reiterates, Mary as “New Eve” was “freely cooperating in the work of human salvation.”(13) As St. Irenaeus teaches in the second century, Mary’s unique human participation in the universal, historic Redemption was free, active, and even, causal, “for the whole human race”:
Thus Mary …devoted herself totally as a handmaid of the Lord to the person and work of her Son, under Him and with Him, by the grace of almighty God, serving the mystery of redemption. Rightly therefore the holy Fathers see her as used by God not merely in a passive way, but as freely cooperating in the work of human salvation through faith and obedience. For, as St. Irenaeus says, she "being obedient, became the cause of salvation for herself and for the whole human race."(14)
Eve’s participation with Adam in the loss of grace for humanity was real and essential. The participation of Mary, the New Eve with the New Adam in the Redemption which restored grace, was also real and essential.
How, then, can the Church deny or even question the legitimacy of Mary’s human active participation in Redemption? This Marian truth runs the full theological and historical gamut of authentic Catholic Tradition and Magisterium, conciliar and papal.
To cooperate is to co-redeem. To humanly participate in the Redemption is necessarily to humanly co-redeem.
Some might argue that the term “redemption” should be reserved only to the divine act of Jesus. But this would logically deny another core Catholic doctrine and mission: to freely and actively participate in the life and the saving mission of Jesus Christ. When an inferior being, a human, shares in a quality or perfection of a superior being, God, this participation takes nothing away from nor competes with the perfection of God. Thus, for a human being to participate in the work of Jesus, the divine Redeemer, takes nothing away from nor competes with Jesus’ one mediation (cf. 1 Tim 2:5), but rather manifests its glory. As the Council teaches: “Mary’s function as mother of men in no way obscures or diminishes this unique mediation of Christ, but rather shows its power.”(15)
The same reality of human participation in divine activity and life is liturgically celebrated in the words of the deacon, or in his absence the priest, who reverently prays during the adding of water to the wine at the preparation of the gifts during the offertory: “By the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” Human participation in divine activity and life pervades all of Catholic sacramental life.
The Council, moreover, defends the Christian reality of human “sharing” and “cooperation” in the divine mediation of the Redeemer:
For no creature could ever be counted as equal with the Incarnate Word and Redeemer. Just as the priesthood of Christ is shared in various ways both by the ministers and by the faithful, and as the one goodness of God is really communicated in different ways to His creatures, so also the unique mediation of the Redeemer does not exclude but rather gives rise to a manifold cooperation which is but a sharing in this one source.(16)
Analogy is a classic theological tool used throughout the history of Catholic theology. That someone or something can have an essential similarity and an essential dissimilarity at the same time has been used since the Apostolic Fathers to speak of human participation in divine realities. “Deification” and “divinization” were used throughout the first three centuries of Christianity to relay how the Christian individual participated in the life and the love of the Trinity—in one word, grace. To use expressions like “co-redeemers in Christ” for the universal Christian obligation to participate in Redemption (cf. Col. 1:24), or to call Mary the human “Co-redemptrix” simply follows in the rich theological tradition of Catholic analogy. Both were done repeatedly by the great John Paul II.(17)
Mary Co-redemptrix and Ecumenism
Anglican theologian, John Macquarrie offered wise and honest counsel to both Catholic and Protestant authorities involved in ecumenical activity regarding discussion of Marian Coredemption and mediation:
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 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. 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. (18)
Now is the time for the Church to explain in total ecumenical transparency its doctrinal teaching on the necessity of human cooperation in Redemption and trust in the Spirit’s power to unite Christians in head and heart.
Now is the time for the Church to unambiguously teach the Christian mission and mandate for human beings to actively and freely cooperate in their own redemption, and in the redemption of others.
Now is the time to call down the full intercessory power of Our Lady by solemnly recognizing her as Mother of the Church, our true human Co-redemptrix and Mediatrix, for a world that desperately needs the redemptive graces of Jesus Christ and authentic Christian unity.
*Dr. Mark Miravalle
St. John Paul II Chair of Mariology
Franciscan University of Steubenville
President, International Marian Association, July 13, 2021
(1) John Paul II, Encyclical, Ut Unum Sint, 1995, n. 18.
(2) Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics: The Doctrine of the Word of God, Part 2, edited by G.W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance (London and New York: T&T Clark, 2004) p.143.
(4) Ibid., p. 139.
(5) St. Augustine, Sermo 169,11, 13:PL 38, 923. Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1847.
(6) Of course, specific cases like infant baptism respect the principle of human freedom insofar as the Church as spiritual mother, coupled with the faith of the parents, choose for the infant until the child is old enough to freely cooperate with the choice of faith made by their parents within Mother Church (cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae III, Qu. 68, a. 9, responses to objections 1 and 2.
(7) Council of Trent, A.D. 1547; DS 1525 and 1554.
(8) Cf. Pius XI, Allocution to Pilgrims from Vicenza, Italy, November 30, 1933, L’Osservatore Roma no, Dec. 1, 1933, 1; Pius XI, Allocution to Spanish Pilgrims, L’Osservatore Romano, March 25, 1934, 1; Pius XI, Radio Message for the Closing of the Holy Year at Lourdes, L’Osservatore Romano, April 29-30, 1935, 1. See John Paul II General Audience, 10 December 1980 (Insegnamenti di Giovanni Paolo [Inseg] II, III/2 , p. 1646); General Audience 8 September 1982 (Inseg V/3 , p. 404); Angelus Address 4 November, 1984 (Inseg VII/2 , p. 1151); Discourse at World Youth Day 31 March 1985 (Inseg VIII/1 , p. 889–890); Address to the Sick 24 March, 1990 (Inseg XIII/1 , p. 743); Discourse of 6 October, 1991 (Inseg XIV/2 , p. 756). Moreover, in a homily in Guayaquil, Ecuador on January 31, 1985, John Paul II spoke of the “co-redemptive role of Mary (el papel corredentor de María: Inseg VIII , p. 319), which was translated as “Mary’s role as Co-redemptrix” in L’Osservatore Romano, English ed., March 11, 1985
(9) Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium, n. 58.
(11) John Paul II, Apostolic Letter, Salvifici Doloris, 1984, n. 25.
(12) Pius XI, Allocution to Pilgrims from Vicenza, Italy, November 30, 1933, L’Osservatore Romano, Dec. 1, 1933, p. 1.
(13) Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium, 56.
(15) Ibid., 60.
(16) Lumen Gentium, 62.
(17) For co-redeemers in Christ usage, see, for example, John Paul II, Discourse to the Personnel of the Fatebenefratelli Hospital, L’Osservatore Romano, April 5, 1981.For co-redemptrix usages, cf. John Paul II General Audience, 10 December 1980 (Insegnamenti di Giovanni Paolo [Inseg] II, III/2 , p. 1646); General Audience 8 September 1982 (Inseg V/3 , p. 404); Angelus Address 4 November, 1984 (Inseg VII/2 , p. 1151); Discourse at World Youth Day 31 March 1985 (Inseg VIII/1 , p. 889–890); Address to the Sick 24 March, 1990 (Inseg XIII/1 , p. 743); Discourse of 6 October, 1991 (Inseg XIV/2 , p. 756). Moreover, in a homily in Guayaquil, Ecuador on January 31, 1985, John Paul II spoke of the “co-redemptive role of Mary (el papel corredentor de María: Inseg VIII , p. 319), which was translated as “Mary’s role as Co-redemptrix” in L’Osservatore Romano, English ed., March 11, 1985.
(18) John Macquarrie, “Mary Co-redemptrix and Disputes Over Justification and Grace: An Anglican View,” Mary Co redemptrix: Ecumenically Doctrinal Issues Today (Goleta, CA: Queenship, 2002), p. 140.