Mary’s Role in the Redemption and the Contemporary Church

Updated: May 30, 2020



Msgr. Florian Kolfhaus, an official of the Vatican Secretariat of State, gave the following presentation at the Franciscan University of Steubenville on October 19, 2013 in a dynamic articulation and defense of Our Lady’s title of Co-redemptrix, and her even more ancient title of “Redemptrix. ” Msgr. Kolfhaus is also a member of the Marian Pontifical Academy in Rome -Ed.


Despite the fact that veneration of Mary has entered ever deeper into the faith of ordinary people, as demonstrated by the countless pilgrimages made to and Masses celebrated at Marian shrines, Mariology has vanished from most Catholic Universities theology departments. I am therefore pleased that this University is an exception, and I want to congratulate all the professors and students for this. To study Mary means to enter deeper and deeper into the mysteries of Christ and his Church. She is the mirror in which we can contemplate the great truths of our faith. The Church needs Mariology to better understand who she is because Our Lady is the mother of Christ and of his mystical body.1


Like Mary, the Church is a Virgin – chastely and faithfully waiting for the coming of the Divine spouse. Like Mary, the Church is a Mother – generating Divine life within souls by preaching the Gospel and celebrating the sacraments. The Church, like Mary, is immaculate – she is not without sinners, but doctrinally she is without error, both in the sacraments she celebrates ex opere operato without any flaw, and in her liturgy, full of beauty and perfection. The Church is assumed into heaven like Mary – not only is she on earth, but she is already triumphant in heaven where her members help their fellow pilgrims to gain entrance. Like Mary, the Church is the Mediatrix of salvation – she gives us Christ, for it was through his mother that he entered the world. Extra Ecclesiam, extra Mariam nulla salus. Finally, the Church, like Mary is Redemptrix – she works with Christ for redemption and she is the instrument by which he brings salvation to sinners. It is through Mary, therefore, that the Church obtains a better sense of her own identity, which is essential for her members.2 The Church is not an NGO, a political party or just a club to join or to leave whenever one pleases. We need a supernatural view to understand what she is: a divine institution, the body of Christ, his immaculate spouse. By contemplating Mary we can better understand what this really means.


The task of dedicating oneself to offering reflections on the Mother of God, on her essential contribution to salvation history, her constant work of intercession for the children of God and her essence as Mediatrix of all races3, seems for most a useless, outdated, exaggerated endeavor and outside the realm of reality.4Doctrines on Mary, in particular, are considered by many a “maximalist” exaggeration. It is surprising that only two schools” of study exist on the subject of Mary – Maximalism and Minimalism – and their respective representatives do not hesitate to label each other this way.5 Karl Rahner, for instance, takes pride in being a “minimalist” in regards to Mariology. 6 Regarding other mysteries of our faith, the most holy Trinity, the Incarnation, the Eucharist, there is no mentioning of minimalists, who say little, or maximalists, who look for further development to express the truth in question. But these categories, which seem to target the quantity or beauty of certain expressions of Marian theologians, are indeed mistaken. With these come the risk of evaluating the practical value of a concept more than the truth it contains.


A blatant example of this is the discussion centered around the title of “Co-Redemptrix”, which many reject. There is the fear of misconceptions –especially among non-Catholics – not because they criticize its meaning, but because they consider the word to be undiplomatic. This is not only, cowardly but above all unscientific. Science must be about truth and not – speaking as a bad diplomat – diplomacy. We cannot be minimalist theologians, who try to reconcile divine revelation with the secular world.


Behind the unfavorable expressions of Marian “minimalism” and “maximalism” we can discover two lines of thought if we take a closer look. While the minimalists – and those who define themselves as such, like Karl Rahner – underscore the ordinary life of Mary, which in all aspects seems to be similar to that of any human being. The so-called maximalists emphasize the distinctiveness and excellence of the Mother of God. The point of division – if we can call it that – between the two theological approaches is the “anthropological turning point” of Karl Rahner. Theology becomes anthropology; reflection on God becomes the thought about man. With this way of thinking, the distinction between nature and grace is lost. Both become one single reality, which is dialectically connected to that of every human being who, in turn, is a priori and forever inserted into the supernatural life. In this line of thought, Mary is just an excellent example of who we all are. Mary is one of us. “The anthropological turning point does not lead to measuring Mary with the perfection of God, but with the imperfection of a creature pro Statu isto.”7


The minimalistic approach, more or less, sees Mary as merely one of us. The maximalist approach on the other hand emphasizes the unique event of a creature who was elevated above all others by divine grace and through her definite yes to the will of the Lord. Perhaps we could also speak of two theologies: one theology from below and one from above. The first falls easily into the risk of not really being theology; which by definition receives its object of study from above, that is, from divine revelation. History, sociology, psychology, and basically all the other anthropological sciences – without doubting their importance – can never enter into any mystery of faith. Every attempt to apply these sciences to Christian Dogma will not succeed in attaining revealed truth, which is reduced to nothing more than human truths in the realm of myths and fables. Consequently, the “minimalists,” who want to interpret every aspect of Mary’s life as a human or divine act, but common to every human life, cannot support the idea that God has privileged such a creature and has

exalted her more than any other. Furthermore the “egalitarianism” of modernity dominates Marian thought: that she cannot be different from us, neither more loved, nor privileged, nor uniquely glorified.


Even though it was the will of God to love all men and to give them all the grace to be saved and to collaborate with him, there is no right to this grace. One of God’s prerogatives is that He gives five talents to some, to others two, and others only one. Mary herself was chosen by God not only quantitatively, but also qualitatively. The mode in which she is redeemed is different from our mode of redemption: she is preserved from sin, whereas we are freed from it.8 She is the Immaculate one, according to the Franciscan school of thought, who is predestined before creation among all men to become Mother and companion of the incarnate Logos, who in turn – according to Franciscan thought – would have become man, even if sin had never occurred. The most profound reason for the Mary’s unique election is not an injustice to other human beings, nor is it an irrational, arbitrary decision of God. The opposite is true: it is because of the God’s great love for humanity. The predestination of the Incarnate Logos together with His Mother demonstrates that God does not just want to become man to free us from sin – to rid us from evil – but first and foremost because He wanted to give Himself as the supreme good because of His love for us. He does not, however, save us alone, but – and that is the object of this talk – He does so in co-operation with another human being.


Clarification of terms


The famous Mariologist R. Laurentin has produced an encompassing study about the historic genesis of the title “Coredemptrix”,9 which is closely tied to “Mediatrix of grace” (mediatrix). 10 Although there are no direct testimonies for a co-redemptive action of Mary in the first Millennium, some pronouncements do exist, such as the causa salutis (in St. Ireneus of Lyon) and the Eve-Mary parallel, which would be open for much development. Already in the 10th century Mary is at times called redeptrix, but always in connection to being the “Mother of the savior”.11 Mary is the object of the meditations of Anselm of Canterbury, founder of the Scholasticism and great medieval theologian on the incarnation of the savior (Cur Deus homo); most of all in his prayers, where he uses titles like “Mother of justification” (mater iustificatoris et iustificatorum) “Gate of Life” and “Gate of Salvation” (porta vitae et parens salutis). The Benedictine Abbot Rubert von Deutz for the first time makes the connection between the mediating work of salvation of the Mother of God with her standing at the foot of the cross. It was that Christ made her the “new human”: that is, the redeemer. In the 12th century, the idea of compassion appears in Bernard of Clairveaux, connected to the co-suffering or Mary under the cross, which made her Mother of all Sorrows and therefore higher than all other martyrs. Bernhard’s friend Arnald von Bonneval taught for the first time expressly the idea of Mary’s co-operation in the cross, and the pseudo-Albertinian “Mariale super Missus est” sees Mary as helper of the savior by her compassion. A known mystic who also elaborated on this idea is St. Bridget of Sweden (1303-1373).


Christ told her in one of her visions: “My Mother and I saved man as with one Heart only, I by suffering in My Heart and My Flesh, she by the sorrow and love of her Heart.” 12 The idea of “Coredemptrix” appears for the first time in an anonymous hymn in Salzburg from the 15th century. The Spanish Jesuit and companion of the founder of St. Ignatius of Loyola, Alfonso Salmerón (1515-1585) calls Mary as a theologian corredemptrix, mediatrix and cooperatrix salutis humani generis. The strong title Redemptrix is used until the 17th century and is replaced in the 18th century by Coredemptrix, later vanishing in the 19th century. 13

Unfortunately the older and beautiful title Redemptrix is only very rarely used today.

There is no doubt about the fundamental difference between Redeemer Christ and Coredemptrix Mary, who herself was saved – in a way that surpasses the salvation of all other men – and sanctified in order to collaborate in the work of salvation. There are more than a few saints who use the title of Redemptrix, such as St. Catherine of Siena (cf. Oratio XI). The Church does not hesitate to use the Christological title in its feminine form for Mary, despite the differences between the Son of God and his mother, without adding the prefix “Co” for specification. Nevertheless, the usage retains the clear and distinct difference of Christ (Rex de condigno) and Mary (Regina de congruo). There is an “abyss” between the incarnate person of the Logos and his Mother, a creature full of grace.14


Like many Marian titles, the terms “Redemptrix” – or “Salvatrix” – could be interpreted in a way that dissents from the faith. By themselves these titles express, if understood in the same way with two different genders, the unity of the work of salvation of the new Eve and the new Adam. This expresses also the said parallelism between Christ and Mary, savior and “savioress” of mankind, which does not lessen or relativize the honor of the incarnate Logos.

There is a unity of son and mother, whom he has created, saved and sanctified, making her his companion. This is expressed in another citation ofSt. Bridget, when the Mother of God tells her: “Filius meus et ego redimimus mundum quasi ex uno corde.“ 15 This expression signifies the same thing as Redeemer and Redemptrix: “My son and I have redeemed the world, as with just one heart.”


When speaking on the topic of the Coredemptrix and the Redemptrix, it is important to clarify the terms, as they are often confused. Salvation signifies the work of salvation of Jesus, and its fruits of grace, by which men are saved. Speaking in the thought of Scheeben, it became common practice to differentiate between the “objective Salvation” (the work of salvation of Jesus on earth) and the “subjective salvation” (the donation of the fruits of salvation to humanity). The main and most fundamental meaning of “salvation” points to the work of salvation on earth, which begins with the Incarnation and reaches its climax in the crucifixion: objective salvation. Salvation can also be described with the comprehensive category of the mediatorship: Jesus Christ as man is the only mediator between God and man (1 Tim 2:5). This mediation does not exclude a participated co-operation, which is rooted in Christ. Thomas Aquinas calls this subordinate mediation a “dispositive” (leading towards Christ) or a “ministerial” (a living instrument of the work of Christ). After Vatican II the connection of Mary’s influence in salvation establishes itself fully on the mediation of Christ. 16


The saving work of Jesus, which begins with the incarnation and ends with the crucifixion, takes effect in different ways, according to the classic separation of St. Thomas Aquinas: as merit (meritum), vicarious satisfaction (satisfactio), sacrifice (sacrificium) and redemption (redemption – that is salvation in a stricter sense).17 Most attention should be given to the category of merit. Hartmann calls the correct differentiation of Pope Pius X between the merits of Christ de condign, which by its own glory brings about salvation, and the merit of Mary as part of God’s plan, de congruo, which represents an “appropriation”. The merit of Mary obviously depends fully on the merit of the God-Man Jesus Christ on the cross. The word “Coredemptrix” does not signify anything else but the “co-operation in salvation”.


It is necessary to make another distinction between the concept of Coredemptrix and its content. Vatican II avoids the word “Coredemptrix” for ecumenical reasons, but the theological commission of the Council describes the title “as fully correct”. 18 The avoidance of this coined term, as I’ll show in a moment, does not mean a cancellation of the connected teaching on Mary’s co-operation in the work of salvation. The doctrine of Mary Coredemptrix, speaking about her co-operation, is present in the teaching of Vatican II and in the later Magisterium of Blessed John Paul II.


There is no essential difference between “active co-operation” and “co-operation” since “acting” (actio) is always an active event. The adjective “active” serves to emphasize the personal action (which is not just receptive). In the necessary separation from Protestantism it is of prime importance to emphasize Mary’s (active) co-operation.19


In his commentary on the Magnificat, Martin Luther20 defends the words of the Virgin by reciting the chant “Regina Caeli” to show that the honor of the Bl. Virgin is justified by the fact that she carried Jesus Christ: “quia quem meruisti portare”. Mary carried Christ, but also the Cross carried the Son of God. For Luther, there is no difference between the two “objects”, and the veneration of the Mother of God does not essentially differ from the veneration of the Cross.21 For him, Mary is worthy of veneration because she was a Christ-carrier, yet not possessing more worth than any piece of the wood-cross, which was chosen by the Roman soldiers to torture Christ.22 The Mother of God, however, spoke her “fiat” freely and renewed it every moment of her life until her Son’s life ended, by participating in his pain until the end. The cross is the “instrumentum materiale” of salvation; Mary on the other hand is the “instrumentum personale”. 23 This means that the Mother of God with her whole mind, illumined by grace and her free will, and supported and strengthened by the same, cooperated with God in a real, unique and unrepeatable way.


The Second Vatican Council and the teaching of the co-operation of Mary


The Council Fathers of Vatican II did not want to decide about any questions “which are not brought to completion by work of theologians”. At the same time in chapter 8 of Lumen Gentium, it is possible to read the teaching of a co-operation of Mary in salvation, which is not compatible with the teachings of Lennerz or a Goossens, as mentioned in the dogmatic writing of Ludwig Ott. According to some theologians, it is necessary to decide between an immediate co-operation of Mary in the work of salvation on the Cross, which they negate, and a mediated co-operation in salvation by the “Yes” of Mary in the incarnation of the Son of God. According to this understanding, the Incarnation of Christ is not part of the work of salvation, but only its precondition. The co-suffering of Mary at the foot of the Cross cannot be separated from her Yes to the Incarnation, a word that she lived her whole life. The Second Vatican Council calls Mary the “Mother” and “Companion” of the savior: She conceived, brought forth and nourished Christ. She presented Him to the Father in the temple, and was united with Him by compassion as He died on the Cross. In this singular way, she cooperated by her obedience, faith, hope and burning charity in the work of the Saviour ( opera Salvatoris singulari prorsus modo cooperate est) in giving back supernatural life to souls. Wherefore she is our mother in the order of grace.24


The Council Fathers understood the task of Mary within the economy of salvation beginning not only during her presence underneath the cross, but with the description of her acceptance of the Divine word: Embracing God’s salvific will with a full heart and impeded by no sin, she 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 (mysterio redemptionis inserviens). 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 (non mere passive…, sed libera fide et oboedientiae humanae saluti cooperantem censent). 25


A not-merely passive co-operation is obviously an active co-operation, which is emphasized by the Council as being paralleled to Eve: “death through Eve, life through Mary.”26 This theological axiom represents the core of the whole teaching of the Coredemptrix. The way in which Mary’s acceptance of the Incarnation is understood within the teachings of the Church Fathers, is far different from the understanding of the Dutch Lutheran de Ridder and the German Jesuit Heinrich Lennerz (+1961), according to whom the annunciation was merely the message of a divine decree, but not a co-operation in salvation. With citations from H.M. Köster, who denied turning the Eve-Mary parallel into a theological principle, the protestant theologian posits: “The parallel between Eve and Mary is a maybe a little baroque ornamentation on the structure of theology [of St. Ireneus], and belongs merely to the decoration not to the foundation.” 27


To understand Vatican II, the main writer of Lumen Gentium, the Belgian Ecclesiologist Gérard Philips, should be considered as he, together with the Croatian Franciscan Carlo Balic, edited the Mariological chapter. Philips originally sided with the minimalistic current of the co-operation of Mary and defended this thesis, along with the German Jesuit Heinrich Lennerz in the 30s. The discussion with Balic, the long term president of the Pontifical Marian Academy and dedicated supporter of the Co-redemption, in a special way led to a change of heart which obviously also influenced the above cited texts of the Council. Philips went against a separation of the acceptance of Mary during the Annunciation and on Calvary. In this sense he explained the connection of Mary with the sacrifice of Christ. The opinion of probably most studied Mariologist of the 20th century, Gabriele Roschini of the Servite Order, seems very similar: The Second Vatican Council propagates the connection of Mary with salvation as …a work of salvation that is not limited to the beginning (the Motherhood of the redeemer), yet embraces the whole work of salvation, until the death of the savior. This concept is equal to the immediate co-operation on the objective salvation. Whoever would dare to undervalue those clear concepts would position himself outside of the binding perspective of the Second Vatican Council. 28


It will be helpful to mention a topic here, one which is very dear to my heart: that Gabriele Roschini is one of the strongest defenders of the thesis that Mary did not have to suffer death.29 I myself am convinced that Mary, who was kept form sin from the first moment of her existence, did not have to taste its last bitter fruit, which is death. Because Jesus had died, she did not have to die. She is the only human being who is as the creator intended her to be: without sin and death, always beautiful and unchangeably young. Holding a similar opinion to Roschini, is the Belgian Jesuit Jean Galot, who (it seems at least) was deeply involved in authoring the Marian catechesis of John Paul II (1995-1997): “Without using the term ‘Coredemptrix’ the Council clearly proposes this teaching: the unique co-operation, a motherly co-operation in the life and the work of the savior, which reaches a climax in the participation in the sacrifice of Calvary and the supernatural restoration of souls. This co-operation forms the core of the spiritual motherhood of Mary.” 30


The teaching of John Paul II


Even the teaching of John Paul II31 should be considered as adding to Vatican II, who univocally speaks about an active participation of Mary in salvation and repeatedly uses the term Coredemptrix.32 One exemplary instance of this Marian Catechesis is the idea that “ Mary’s co-operation is totally unique” (April 9th, 1997).33 Moreover, when the Apostle Paul says: ‘For we are God’s co-workers’ (1 Cor 3:9), he maintains the real possibility for man to cooperate with God. The collaboration of believers, which obviously excludes any equality with him, is expressed in the proclamation of the Gospel and in their personal contribution to its taking root in human hearts. However, applied to Mary, the term “co-operator” acquires a specific meaning. The collaboration of Christians in salvation takes place after the Calvary event, whose fruits they endeavor to spread by prayer and sacrifice. Mary, instead, co-operated during the event itself and in the role of mother; thus her co-operation embraces the whole of Christ’s saving work. She alone was associated in this way with the redemptive sacrifice that merited the salvation of all humanity. In union with Christ and in submission to him, she collaborated in obtaining the grace of salvation for all humanity.34


The position of Benedict XVI


During an interview in 2000, Card. Ratzinger said that the word “Coredemptrix” is false, even though it contains a true intention. This skeptical approach did not lead him to censor this term: as Card. Bertone had emphasized, for example, it is repeatedly mentioned in the last work of Sr. Lucia, the visionary of Fatima, that was published in the year 2002 by the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith (the message of Fatima and the Co-redemption are indeed not separable).35


Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI seems to have learned, so it seems, decisive things from the Mariological evangelization of his predecessor John Paul II. While there are few mentions of an active connection of Mary in the sacrifice of Jesus in the works of the theologian and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, as Pope he clearly mentions the Co-redemption (without using this term). In his homily in the “house of Mary” in Ephesus he invites Christians to “meditate the moment of salvation”, in “which Mary, united with her son in presenting the sacrifice, widened her motherhood to all men and especially to the apostles of Jesus.” 36 After his visit to Bavaria for the feast of the sorrows of Mary, the pope explained that Mary “partakes” on Golgotha “in the salvific power of suffering, by uniting her ‘fiat’ to her son’s Yes.” 37 Speaking in Altötting, he stressed that during the Incarnation of God, the Yes of Mary becomes one with the Yes of the Incarnate Son of God in the saving sacrifice.38


Pope Francis first intervention on the issue


On October 23rd 2013 during the General Audience, Pope Francis explained: The life of the Holy Virgin was the life of a woman of her people: Mary prayed, she worked, she went to the synagogue… But every action was carried out in perfect union with Jesus. This union finds its culmination on Calvary: here Mary is united to the Son in the martyrdom of her heart and in the offering of his life to the Father for the salvation of humanity. Our Lady shared in the pain of the Son and accepted with him the will of the Father, in that obedience that bears fruit, that grants the true victory over evil and death.


Without using the term “Co-redemption” the pope spoke about the central mystery of Mary’s participation in salvation. She was totally united to Jesus. While he was dying