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The Athanasian Solution to Mary’s Role in Redemption

Amidst the 4th century Arian pandemic for which St. Jerome bemoaned his famous lamentation, “the whole world groaned, astonished to find itself Arian,” orthodoxy’s champion, St. Athanasius, had an inspiration.

By 360, the Christological battle reached dire intrenchment. The varied positions regarding the relationship between the Son and the Father became essentially grounded upon a single term. The pro- Nicene Homoouseans defended the term, homoousios (“of one substance”). The “moderate” Homoeouseans supported homoiousios (“of a similar substance”). The Arian Anomeans asserted anomoios, (“unlike” [the Father]). The Homoeans landed on the term, homoios (“like” [the Father]), for they maintained that since terms like “substance” and “essence” had not been explicitly revealed in Scripture, they should never be used by the Church.[i]

In response to these seemingly irreconcilable Christological differences, St. Athanasius called a “peace conference” in Alexandria (362 A.D.). He invited representatives of the battling camps to set aside the specific terms and titles for the moment, and rather to focus instead on the foundational doctrine behind the terms.

Athanasius offered a series of theological propositions, for which a simple “yes” or “no” response sufficed. For example, the Nicene hero asked the assembled representatives the doctrinal meaning behind the term, one hypostasis in relation to Son and Father: did they mean one substance or ousia (essence), because the Son is of the one substance as the Father? If they answered in the affirmative (along with a negative response to Sabellian modalism), Athanasius accepted them into full communion with the Church.

After a series of such propositions, Athanasius objectively and charitably articulated what each camp theologically stood for, thus making clear that, despite the different title-camp associations that had developed, the Nicenes and most Moderates really believed the same doctrinal truth and had no essential ground for disagreement. [ii] The Athanasian solution led to a historic unity between Nicene and Moderate bishops (and their respective theologians), a collegial union that consequently paved the way for the pro-Nicene Christological victory at the Council of Constantinople I.

Presently, similar theological entrenchments surround the role of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Redemption and their respective responses to the term, “Co-redemptrix.” One contemporary position interprets 1 Tim. 2:5 to signify that Jesus Christ is the “one mediator” and the only mediator, thus excluding Mary’s subordinate mediation in Redemption.[iii] Another group holds that Mary was “receptive” at Calvary, but not actively participating in the Redemption accomplished by Christ.[iv] Yet another group maintains that Mary actively and uniquely participated in the Redemption, from her fiat at the Annunciation, throughout her earthly life, and reached its culmination in her active participation with Jesus at Calvary.[v]

A further ecclesio-political difficulty exists regarding the “Co-redemptrix” title and its identification with an international Catholic movement seeking the solemn definition of Our Lady’s Spiritual Motherhood, inclusive of her co-redemptive role. For those not in favor of a proposed fifth Marian dogma, the public association of the Co-redemptrix title with this movement provides a further potential dubiosity towards the term.

Perhaps the Athanasian solution could be fruitfully applied to the current controversy concerning Mary’s role in Redemption.

Let us speculatively place to the side, for the moment, the Co-redemptrix title, and focus rather on what constitutes the authentic doctrinal role of Mary in historic act of Redemption.

We are bereft of a St. Athanasius in our day. Yet we have, in his stead, something greater—an ecumenical council. How does the Second Vatican Council denote the true doctrinal role of Mary in Redemption?

A priori, the Council defends the critical principle that creatures, i.e., human beings, can in fact participate in the unique work of the one divine Redeemer and Mediator:

No creature could ever be counted along with the Incarnate Word and Redeemer; but just as the priesthood of Christ is shared in various ways both by his ministers and the faithful, and as the one goodness of God is radiated in different ways among his creatures, so also the unique mediation of the Redeemer does not exclude but rather gives rise to a manifest cooperation which is but a sharing in this one source.[vi]

Vatican II confirms that Christians indeed must cooperate and share in the one, unique, all-sustaining, and all-necessary mediation of Jesus Christ, which takes nothing away from the mediation of divine Redeemer, but rather “manifests its power.”[vii]

Lumen Gentium 62 goes on to apply this principle of subordinate Christian mediation specifically to Mary:

The Church does not hesitate to profess this subordinate role of Mary, which it constantly experiences and recommends to the heartfelt attention of the faithful, so that encouraged by this maternal help, they may the more closely adhere to the Mediator and Redeemer.[viii]

Mary’s subordinate role with Christ the Mediator and Redeemer, the Council states, is a truth which the Church “does not hesitate to profess.” Is this Vatican II teaching being implemented today by its followers? Are otherwise faithful disciples of the Council “hesitating” to profess Mary’s subordinate role with the Redeemer in contemporary theological and pastoral discourse?

Mary’s free and active cooperation in the mystery of Redemption is explicitly taught in Lumen Gentium 56, based here on the testimony of the Fathers of the Church:

Thus, the daughter of Adam, Mary, consenting to the word of God, became the Mother of Jesus. Committing herself wholeheartedly and impeded by no sin to God’s saving will, she devoted herself totally as a handmaid of the Lord, to the person and work of her Son, under and with him, serving the mystery of the Redemption, by the grace of Almighty God. Rightly, therefore, the Fathers see Mary not merely as passively engaged by God, but as freely cooperating in the work of man’s 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.”[ix]

The Council’s confirmation of St. Irenaeus’ teaching of Mary as “cause of salvation” (causa salutis) for all humanity, even if secondary, instrumental, and incarnational, remains a certain Patristic and magisterial testimony to unique Marian cooperation in Redemption.

Lumen Gentium 57 refers to the Mother of Jesus’ unique salvific role with the Redeemer for his entire earthly life: “This union of the mother with the Son in the work of salvation is made manifest from the time of Christ’s virginal conception up to his death.”[x]

The Council culminates its extraordinary magisterial teaching on Marian cooperation in Redemption in Lumen Gentium 58, where the Council Fathers testify to Mary’s endurance of suffering in union with Christ’s redemptive sacrifice, as well her active “consent” to the immolation of her Victim-Son:

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. Finally, she was given by the same Christ Jesus dying on the cross with the words: “Woman, behold thy son (Jn. 19:26-27).”[xi]

In providing post-conciliar papal commentary on the nature and efficacy of Mary’s role with Jesus at Calvary as testified by the Council, John Paul II underscores the objective historic contribution of Mary’s suffering with Christ which was supernaturally and universally fruitful for all humanity:

In her, the many and intense sufferings, were amassed in such an interconnected way, that they were not only a proof of her unshakable faith, but also a contribution to the Redemption of all…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 mysteriously and supernaturally fruitful for the Redemption of the world.[xii]

Uniquely prepared by the Father through her Immaculate Conception[xiii] and in free, obedient consent to his plan, Mary faithfully persevered with the unparalleled suffering of her maternal heart –an immaculate heart completely united with the sacrifice of the heart and body of her Son, like a New Eve with a New Adam—for the one single goal of redeeming the world.

From this substantive teaching of the Second Vatican Council, let us, in Athanasian format and intent, derive a few essential propositions that capture the essence of the Church’s teaching on the role of the Virgin Mary in the Redemption, which can in turn be considered amidst today’s theological discussion:

1. Do you believe that Christians can subordinately cooperate in the unique mediation of Jesus Christ, the one and only divine Redeemer?

If yes…

2. Do you believe that Mary uniquely cooperated with and under Jesus Christ in the work of Redemption by giving birth to the Redeemer?

If yes…