03 January 2009

Mary, Co-Redemptrix?

Recent posts on Mary, Mother of God and Marian devotions have prompted questions about the proposed Marian dogma called “Mary, Co-Redemptrix.” Supporters of the proposed dogma frequently refer to this teaching as “the fifth Marian dogma.”

There is a lay led group that promotes the dogma rather vigorously, Vox Populi.

Definition of the proposed dogma

Mary is given many titles by the Church: Queen of Heaven, Mother of God, Mediatrix of All Graces. Supporters of the fifth Marian dogma are petitioning the Holy Father to add one more: Co-Redemptrix. What does this title mean? Simply put, the Holy Father is being asked to declare solemnly and infallibly that the Blessed Virgin Mary is a co-worker in the redemption of mankind through her initial assent to be the mother of God and through her suffering with Christ as he dies on the cross. Essentially, the title would specify Mary’s role as a human co-operator with Christ’s redeeming sacrifice for us.

The controversy around the dogma is rooted in the easy misunderstanding that the Holy Father is being asked to declare that Mary is our Redeemer on level equal to that of Christ. This is false. In Latin, the prefix “co” means “with” not “equal to.” In English, we use the prefix “co” to mean “with” but it has the connotation of “equal to.” This is not the case in Latin. Think of how we use the terms “Co-Chair” and “Co-Pilot.” We tend to think of the co-chair and the co-pilot was functionally equivalent to the chair and the pilot. Again, not the case in Latin.

Essentially, the fifth Marian dogma, if declared, would do nothing more than make explicit what Catholics already believe to be the case regarding Mary’s role in our salvation history. She cooperated with the Holy Spirit by assenting to be the Mother of God, “I am the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to your word.” With this assent, Mary became the spiritual mother of the Church by giving birth to the Word Made Flesh, Jesus (CCC 964). In the same way, any person who assents to the teachings of Christ, is baptized, and lives a life directed to growing in holiness is said to be a cooperator with Christ in his/her own redemption. Since God will not force His grace on us, we are free to “work with” or “work against” His gifts to us. When we “work with” God’s plan for our redemption. we are properly called “co-redeemers” in our salvation.

How is Mary a co-redeemer in my salvation? Assuming Mary’s freedom to accept or reject Gabriel’s call to become the Mother of God, we can see that Mary’s assent made it possible for the second Person of the Blessed Trinity to become man—a step necessary in for the universal efficacy of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Without her consent, the Son would have not been incarnated. You might object here and say that Gabriel could have accepted her no and moved on to another woman with the same invitation. This is purely speculative, of course, but had he done so, any woman who said yes would be our spiritual mother and worthy of the title “Co-Redemptrix.”

In all of her titles, Mary is understood to be the perfected form of a human response to God’s invitation to live in union with Him in eternity (CCC 967-70). So, in every sense, we all participate in an imperfect way in all of Mary’s titles. We all mediate God’s grace to others—what are the corporeal works of mercy but our human use of divine gifts for the benefit of others? We all give birth to the Word made flesh—what is Eucharistic communion but the taking in of Christ so that we might become more and more the Word given flesh? We are all “co-operators” (operators with) God’s will for us when we assent to and make good use of His gifts for others (CCC 1996-2000).


There are basically two objections to the fifth Marian dogma. First, a declaration of the proposed dogma is unnecessary since Catholic theology already recognizes Mary’s unique role in God’s plan for human salvation. Second, the dogma is ecumenically dangerous in that it threatens good relations with other Christian ecclesial communities by seeming to elevate Mary to a level equal to that of Christ as sole Redeemer.

In my judgment, neither objection is substantial. The first objection is easily an argument for declaring the dogma and making explicit what is already implicit. By declaring the dogma, the Holy Father will open up an area of theological and philosophical research that is underdeveloped in Catholic theology, namely soteriology (theology of salvation). The Eastern Churches have a much more developed theology in this area in their focus on theosis as the explanatory process of our salvation; that is, the theology that explores how the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection bring the human person into a relationship with the Divine and make that person a sharer in the divine nature. Aquinas calls this process “deiformity,” how the person is formed in the divine (ST. I.12.5).

The second objection rests on the assumption that other ecclesial communities, mostly Protestant, will misunderstand the dogma. Two responses are appropriate here. First, the Church has never hesitated in teaching and preaching the truth of the faith out of a fear that the truth might be misunderstood by those not in communion with the Church. That we would flinch from speaking the truth because some might misunderstand simply means that we fear a negative response from our ecumenical partners. If the dogma is clearly defined to place Mary along side Christ as a cooperator in our redemption, there is no reason for anyone to find this objectionable.

Second, this objection might have more weight if our ecumenical partners hesitated themselves when tempted to act unilaterally in redefining the historical catholic faith. Our Anglican brothers and sisters have ordained women, sexually active homosexuals, blessed same-sex marriages, approved the use of artificial contraception and abortion, and generally made a mess of the faith out of a misguided sense of “reading the signs of the times.” In other words, they have never hesitated in adding to or subtracting from the historical faith when they felt doing so was necessary for their members. The objection that the proposed fifth Marian dogma will damage ecumenical relations seems somewhat dubious in the harsh light of the ecclesial reality dropped into our Catholic laps without our consultation. Why this sudden need for Protestant approval of Catholic teaching?

My guess is that this objection is really more about a certain sort of generational embarrassment with Marian dogma and devotion in general and rests on the need of some in the Church to please those they feel are more theologically sophisticated. How am I supposed to show my Catholic face at the next meeting of the American Academy of Religion when all of my more enlightened Protestant colleagues from Harvard and Yale know we silly Catholics have infallibly declared that Mary is Co-Redemptrix? How embarrassing! Such individuals are left with the choice of defending what appears to be another exercise of raw papal power and earning the pity of their more progressive betters or rejecting the dogma and winning the accolades of their more enlightened colleagues. Guess which one they choose over and over again.

Anglican Oxford scholar, The Rev'd Dr. John Macquarrie, gets it exactly right when he writes: "The matter [of Marian mediation] cannot be settled by pointing to the danger of exaggeration and abuse, or by appealing to isolated texts of scripture as the verse quoted above from 1 Timothy 2:5 or by the desire not to say anything that might offend one's partners in ecumenical dialogue. Unthinking enthusiasts may have elevated Mary's position to a 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. And like other doctrines concerning Mary, it is not only saying something about her, but something more general about the Church as a whole, and even humanity as a whole."

To sum up, the proposed dogma, as written, does nothing more than make explicit what the Church already teaches about Mary’s role in human salvation history; that is, that by assenting to become the Mother of God, Mary cooperated with God’s invitation to live with Him in eternity by giving birth to His Word, Jesus, and suffering with Jesus while he died on the cross. Nothing more than all of us are called to do in virtue of our baptism (CCC 628).


  1. I seem to recall that it was the pope himself who said that the title was too likely to cause confusion. Even if co-redemptrix is a worthy title in Latin, that prefix "co-" really does have a different connotation in English. Wouldn't it make more sense to translate the title into English by some other phrase?

  2. Anonymous9:06 AM

    "Why this sudden need for Protestant approval of Catholic teaching?"

    I don't think that's precisely the issue, or perhaps there should be a third category: naming Mary co-redemptrix would be one more perceived stumbling block for evangelicals (and, I suppose, other Protestants) who are considering becoming Catholic. (And I suppose this ties to the first objection, the possibility of misunderstanding.

    To wit: I'd like to become Catholic, but my wife is somewhat hung up on Mary in particular (and the communion of saints more generally). Having to explain Mary as co-redemptrix would make this process just that much more difficult, and, as you say, it doesn't add anything to Catholic teaching that isn't there already.

  3. As a former evangelical (Catholic for 22 years now) I do think the title would have been a stumbling block for me as I was beginning my walk towards conversion. Not because the actual doctrine is anything I did not already believe, but because I had almost no Latin so would have misunderstood the meaning of co-redemptrix.

  4. The stumbling block argument against the dogma is a great reason to declare the dogma. It would give the Church a tremendous opportunity to teach and preach a central tenet of the faith!

  5. I wonder what you would say about this thought when speaking about Marian dogmas:

    Anything we say about Mary, we must also be able to say in a way about the Church.
    So, to proclaim Mary as co-Redemptrix would be to proclaim the Church, as a body, co-Redemptrix... the Church, and each of us insomuch as we are members of the Church, cooperates in the redemption of the human race.
    I was looking on a Protestant site just a few moments ago that was objecting to DeMonfort's phrasing that Mary was "transformed" into God--to them it sounds like idolatry. Now, what they are objecting to, when examined, is nothing more than the divinization that awaits all the saints in heaven (i.e., all of the redeemed Church).

    What say you, frater?

  6. Br Thomas,

    Exactly right. I make this point in the paragraph right before the section on Objections.

    A large part of the Protestant revolt against the Church is not only the rejection of dogma and doctrine but the rejection of a long history of Christianized Platonism and Aristotelianism as well. Protestants are philosophically incapable of conceiving our salvation as divinization. We can lay this fault at the door of late medieval Scotism and his nominalist followers.

  7. I would love to see the Church preach and explain the doctrine of Mary as co-redemptrix, but given the number of Catholics I've met who think the Immaculate Conception refers to Our Lord's conception rather than Our Lady's, I have some doubt about how well this would be communicated.

  8. I'll never argue with a man of God, it's like bringing a Leatherman to a knife fight.

    If the Pope says it, I have to go with the flow. Following orders doesn't automatically entail liking them.

    But I'll bet dollars to doughnuts this'll be used/abused by the feminazis within the Church as they continue pushing for the ordination of "wymn". The bishops, priests, etc. can explain all they want, the likes of Sr. Chittester(sp?) will take this ball and run with it.

  9. Subvet, dissidents don't need a reason from the Church to dissent...they just dissent b/c it's part of their made-up identity. Most of the sisters I know don't believe the in the Assumption or the I.C. In seminary, I had a class where I was one of three friars...all the rest were sisters...not one of them would assent to either dogma.

  10. Elizabeth,

    I agree...however, each Catholic is primarily responsible for his/her own formation, so ignorance is no excuse!

    The clergy have certainly failed us in this.

    Give God thanks and praise that His younger priests and religious won't make this same mistake.

    Someone needs to do a study of how many of the US are trained as canon lawyers rather than theologians...that could go a long way in explaining why we have this catechesis problem!

  11. Great post! Thank you Father!

    I too have done some apologetics on the need for a dogmatic definition:

    Mary is the Immaculate Conception, but is she the Co-redemptrix: http://kevinmclarke.blogspot.com/2008/12/mary-is-immaculate-conception-but-is.html

    (I have a number of saints quotes in there, but am now ashamed to have missed Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., a great theologian of the Co-redemptrix!)

    Is it OK to Petition the Pope for a Marian Dogma: http://kevinmclarke.blogspot.com/2008/12/is-it-ok-to-petition-pope-for-marian.html

    God bless you in St. Dominic!

  12. When the Church bases her statements of truth on whether or not others (protestants( accept it, it does not seem to work out well.

    The big example is changing the Mass to resemble the Anglican liturgy so as to make protestants 'more comfortable' in coming into the Church. How well ahs that worked out? Millions of Catholics left the Church is how that worked out! I meet ex-Catholics all the time. IF there is nothing different or exemplary about the Catholic Church, if we are all the same and have the same liturgy now as the Lutherans and Episcopals, then why not go the route that does not have so many rules? Or so many highly publicized scandals?

    It is doctrine that Mary is THE Co-redemptrix. This is a doctrine that we must give the assent of faith to. In due time, it will be declared Dogma.