Is Mary Co-redemptrix A “False Exaggeration”?

Is Mary Co-redemptrix A “False Exaggeration”?

Mark Miravalle* and Robert Fastiggi**

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In its treatment on proper devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Second Vatican Council warns the People of God against two potential extremes. After the Council Fathers encourage a “generous fostering” of authentic devotion to the Blessed Virgin based on solid doctrine, and call for Marian devotional practices recommended by the teaching authority of the Church over centuries to be “highly esteemed,” (1) they then issue the following admonition: “But [the Council] strongly urges theologians and preachers of the Word of God to be careful to refrain as much from all false exaggeration as from too summary an attitude in considering the special dignity of the Mother of God.” (2) Here identified are the two immoderations of devotion to Mary, that is, Marian excess and Marian defect.

What, then, constitutes either “false exaggeration” or “too summary an attitude” regarding Mary? The Council repeatedly commends Marian devotions “within the limits of sound and orthodox doctrine,” (3) as well those formed by the study of “Sacred Scripture, the Fathers, the doctors and liturgy of the Church and under the guidance of the Church’s Magisterium.” (4)

Therefore, according to the Second Vatican Council, if a Marian devotion has its doctrinal basis in Scripture, a longstanding presence in the Church’s Tradition, and then taught by the papal Magisterium, then surely it would constitute an authentic form of Marian devotion.

Why, then, do some in the Church today consider the Marian title of human “Co-redemptrix” with Jesus, the only divine Redeemer, to constitute “false exaggeration”? The doctrine of Marian coredemption, which refers to Mary’s subordinate role though unique human role with Jesus in the historic work of Redemption, is deeply rooted in Scripture, the Fathers, the Liturgy, and Church doctors, and explicitly and consistently taught by the papal Magisterium for the last two centuries (5) ; and the Co-redemptrix title, which in a single term denotes Mary’s unique human role in the Redemption, has enjoyed an unbroken presence within the Church’s devotional and mystical Tradition since the 14th century (6).

Mary’s free and active consent at the Annunciation brought Jesus, the divine Redeemer into the world, to whom she gave his body, the instrument of Redemption (cf. Lk. 1:38, Lk. 2:1-20, Heb. 10:10).). Simeon prophesies Mary’s co-suffering with Jesus at Calvary (cf. Lk. 2:35). At Calvary, Mary shares in the suffering of her Redeemer Son, and consents to the offering of him as the victim-ransom of Redemption (cf. Jn. 19:26-27). The Council profoundly articulates our Lady’s heroic coredemption with Jesus at Calvary:

Thus the Blessed Virgin advanced in her pilgrimage of faith, and faithfully persevered in union with her Son unto the cross, where she stood, in keeping with the divine plan, enduring with her only begotten son the intensity of his suffering, associated herself with his sacrifice in her mother’s heart, and lovingly consenting to the immolation of this victim which was born of her. (7)

From the second century, St. Irenaeus expounds Mary’s subordinate role with Jesus as the “New Eve” with the New Adam, and professes her as “the cause of salvation for herself and the whole human race.” (8) In the 5th and 6th centuries, eastern liturgies refer to her subordinate role in the Redemption, with the great Akathist hymn invoking her, “Hail, Redemption of the tears of Eve.” (9) By the 10th century, John the Geometer articulates Mary’s co-suffering with Jesus throughout her life and culminating at Calvary (10); and the term “Redemptrix” for Mary appears in liturgical hymns (11). In the twelfth century, Mary’s cumpassio ( suffering with”) was taught by St. Bernard of Clairvaux (12), and his disciple, Arnold of Chartres refers to the Mother at Calvary being spiritually “co-crucified” with her Son, and that she spiritually “co-dies” with Jesus in her heart (13). In the 15th century, the title, “Co-redemptrix” (14) appears, and by the 16th century, the prominent Tridentine theologian, Jesuit Alphonsus Salmeron defends the theological legitimacy of the Co-redemptrix title (15). The 17th century Golden Age of Marian coredemption would see over 300 theological references to the role and title, with the doctrine recognized as the “common consensus of theologians.” (16)

In the 19th century, the papal Magisterium begins its consistent doctrinal teaching on Mary’s unique participation in the Redemption, which will extend successively through the 21st century papal Magisterium to the present. (17) Under the pontificate of Pope St. Pius X, the Co-redemptrix title is first used and approved, significantly, by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith itself (then Holy Office) along with the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (then Congregation of Rites) (18). Pope Benedict XV unequivocally teaches the Coredemptrix doctrine: “… We rightly say that she [Mary] redeemed the human race together with Christ.” (19) Pope Pius XI explicitly uses the title on three occasions (20), and specifically defends the Co-redemptrix title:

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. (21)

Recognized Italian and French Protestant theologians in the 1950’s identified the doctrine of Marian Coredemption as the central and fundamental issue of 20th century Catholic Mariology (22), and recognized it as the essential synthesis of all Mariology in the minds of popes and Catholic theologians (23).

The Second Vatican Council authoritatively and repeatedly teaches the doctrine of Our Lady’s coredemption in Chapter 8 of Lumen Gentium, in terms of her “lovingly consenting to the immolation of this victim” (24); her “freely cooperating in the work of man’s salvation” as the New Eve (25); the “union of the mother with the Son in the work of salvation” (26); and “in a wholly singular way she cooperated by her obedience, faith, hope, and burning charity in the work of the Savior in restoring supernatural life to souls.” (27)

It is further noteworthy that the first schema of the document on Mary as prepared by theologians from the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith (Holy Office) contained a strong historical, theological, and magisterial defense of the Co-redemptrix title within its notation (28).

Pope Benedict XVI has prudently and wisely warned against a post conciliar “hermeneutics of rupture” with the Church before the Council, and instead directed the contemporary theological community, to a reverend and fruitful hermeneutics of continuity. How could any present rejection of the Co-redemptrix title in light of its undeniable foundation in Scripture, Tradition, Magisterium, and its ubiquitous presence in authentic 20th century Mariology, as testified to even by Protestant observers, not constitute an obvious rupture of hermeneutical continuity?

Five Post-conciliar Witnesses

Let’s examine the testimony of five prominent post-conciliar Church figures, who, well after the Second Vatican Council and from diverse roles from within the Church, have faithfully employed the Co-redemptrix title for Our Lady, and in several cases, have staunchly defended it.

Pope St. John Paul II used the Co-redemptrix titles at least six times (29) and universally taught the doctrine of Marian coredemption as Roman pontiff (30). One example of his teaching on Marian coredemption—highlighted within the context of a rich theology based on Lumen Gentium, n. 58—can be seen in this 1985 homily:

Crucified spiritually with her crucified Son (cf. Gal 2:20), she contemplated with heroic love the death of her God, she “lovingly consented to the immolation of this victim born of her” (Lumen Gentium, 58)…. At Calvary with the sacrifice of her Son that led to the foundation of the Church …. Having suffered for the Church, Mary deserved to become the mother of all the disciples of her Son …. Mary’s role as Co-redemptrix did not cease with the glorification of her Son. (31)

Any claims that John Paul II used the title in only marginal texts, or texts devoid of doctrinal value, seems to run contrary to the conciliar teachings regarding the norms for the required religious assent of mind and will to the manifest mind of the Pope even when not speaking ex cathedra (32), including the characteristic of repeated papal teaching. Nor do such claims remove the plain fact that a post-conciliar Roman pontiff repeatedly used the Co-redemptrix title. Hence, any position which holds that Pope John Paul II did not use the Co-redemptrix term as part of his magisterial teaching is historically, theologically, and factually erroneous.

Cardinal Luigi Ciappi, O.P., Papal Theologian under St. John Paul II, confirmed the legitimacy of the Co-redemptrix title and strongly endorsed the universal petition for its solemn definition (33). He has been joined by over 600 brother cardinal and bishops, who, since 1993 (obviously, well after the Second Vatican Council) have supported both the Co-redemptrix title and its solemn papal definition (34).

St. Teresa of Calcutta, the most universally acclaimed saint of the 20th century, repeatedly used the Co-redemptrix title and likewise supported its papal definition: “Mary is our Co-redemptrix with Jesus. She gave Jesus his body and suffered with him at the foot of the cross…The papal definition of Mary as Co-redemptrix, Mediatrix, and Advocate will bring great graces to the Church.” (35)

The Fatima visionary, Sr. Lucia, who in her final writings, Calls from the Message of Fatima (published in 2002), not only uses the Co-redemptrix title for Our Lady of Fatima on seven occasions, but also provides extended explanations and defenses of the title and role. Sr. Lucia concludes: “Mary does not simply offer her Son, she offers herself with Christ, because Jesus had received his body and blood from her; thus, she offers herself in and with Christ to God, Co-redemptrix with Christ, of humanity” (36); and again: “…Mary, made one with Christ, is the Co-redemptrix of the human race.” (37)

A fifth witness, Oxford theologian, John Macquarrie, from the Anglican tradition, offers a particularly valuable ecumenical testimony. Macquarrie, referred to as Anglicanism’s most prominent theologian of the last 50 years, defends an open theological and ecumenical dialogue regarding the potential merits of the Co-redemptrix title:

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. (38)