Mary as Co-Redemptrix: God’s Foolishness

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“The foolishness of God is wiser than men.” (1 Corinthians 1:25)

There is no Catholic dogma on Mary as Co-Redemptrix. However, several popes (Pius IX, Leo XIII, Pius X, Benedict XV, Pius XI, Pius XII, and John Paul II) have taught the substance of this title; a separate essay could establish that point. What is the substance of the title? Christ’s work is twofold. First, on Calvary, his suffering gained the treasury of graces for the world’s redemption. Second, as high priest, he mediates or distributes these graces to us individually. Christ employs helpers in the second task: He incorporates others into his mediating work. For example, priests absolve sins and baptism washes us from original sin. Now, the magisterium has long taught that Mary is involved in the distribution of every grace since her Assumption. The title “Co-Redemptrix” is distinct; it means that Mary, with and under Christ, co-operated in the work of redemption that took place on Calvary.

There are two basic objections to this doctrine. First, what you ascribe to Mary you rob from Christ. The response is that if Christ produced a greater effect, He is a greater redeemer. The title “Coredemptrix” indicates a greater effect. The claim is that Christ’s redemptive act is greater if it produces an effect, Mary as redeemed, that also cooperates with him in the redemption of all others. In short, contrary to the worry of the objector, we only praise Christ more by this claim, for a greater redeemer produces a greater effect.

Secondly, the redemption causes her redemption. How, then, can she cause it? This is the most important objection. It also helps us note proper theological method. Theology does not prove the articles of faith and their elements: theology begins from them. Good theology begins with submission to the papal teachings on the substance of co-redemption and seeks to understand it. Thus, the theologian should not ask, “How can you prove this to me: What sign can you give me?” This is Zechariah’s unbelieving question. We should ask with Mary, “How can this be, for I am myself redeemed?”

In the early twentieth century, August Deneffe, S.J., drawing on principles from moral theology, suggested the following response. Christ’s redemptive work was one physical act of suffering on Calvary but a twofold moral act. By two intentions, Christ achieved a twofold effect. Moral theologians tell us that the same physical act can be susceptible to various intentions. Thus, the same physical act can actually be several moral acts.

The old-fashioned water pump can help us see this. You have to move the pump’s lever up and down to get water from the well. Now, consider a scenario in which the person getting water is also doing two other things. Not two other physical things but two moral things. First, he pumps the lever for water. But he also needs exercise. Pumping the water is hard work; therefore, he can get exercise doing this. The same physical task is the basis for two moral acts. Finally, he knows that his kids, who should be milking the cows, are still asleep. Well, the pump, which is near their bedroom wall, squeaks loudly. So, he has a third intention in pumping the water: to wake them. The same physical task is three moral acts.

We can apply this analysis to Christ’s redemption. Postulate that on Calvary, Christ offered up His suffering with two moral intentions. First, He aimed to procure the perfect redemption of His own Mother, the grace of her Immaculate Conception. Second, He aimed to procure, with the cooperation of His Mother, the redemption of the rest of the human race.

If the postulate is true, we have an answer to the second objection. How so? Mary does not cooperate in the first moral intention of Christ. Rather, she is simply a recipient of that first moral intention. However, Mary does cooperate in the second moral intention, for Christ by that intention lifts her up into a participation of His own salvific work. Furthermore, if this postulate is true, we have an even greater response to those who object that we steal thunder from Christ. By attributing this twofold work to Christ on Calvary, we come to fathom that His work was even greater than we first thought. Stammering our way forward, we magnify Christ by this praise of Mary.

When we extol the glories of Christ’s heart, we further magnify the greatness of the only true God—the God who founded the Catholic religion, which is the only true religion. Indeed, our God is great! And His foolishness proves wiser than the wisdom of man.

Image: The Virgin With Angels by William-Adolphe Bouguereau

By

Dr. Christopher J. Malloy is an associate professor of theology at The University of Dallas.

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