Is Mary Co-Redeemer?

Pope Francis
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Recently, Pope Francis declared that the Blessed Virgin Mary is the one “to whom Jesus entrusted us, all of us; but as a Mother, not as goddess, not as co-redeemer (non come dea, non come corredentrice): as Mother.” This comment generated much controversy in the Catholic world since one of Mary’s traditional titles is “Co-Redemptrix.”  

So is Mary, the mother of our Lord, co-redeemer (aka co-redemptrix) with Christ?

Straightforwardly, it seems to be a yes or no question: Yes, Mary is a co-redeemer with Christ. Or no, Mary is not a co-redeemer with Christ. That is to say, in basic logical terms, either the affirmative proposition, whereby the predicate “co-redeemer” is predicated of the subject “Mary,” is true. Or the negative proposition, whereby the predicate “co-redeemer” is denied of the Blessed Virgin, is true.

So, which is it? The affirmative or the negative? Is she, or isn’t she?

Well, it has to be one or the other, that’s just a matter of logic; but if we want to know which, then the first thing we have to know is what the propositions in question mean. And in order to know that, we have to know what the terms of the propositions mean. Now, the subject of the propositions is straightforwardly just Mary, the Blessed Virgin, Mother of our Lord. The real question is, does the predicate “co-redeemer” apply to her or not; and in order to decide that, indeed, in order to even intelligently pose the question, obviously we need to know what “co-redeemer” means. Obviously, it could mean a number of different things. So, what does it mean? It is a rather important question.

Pope Francis, presumably with awareness of the rich theological tradition asserting the affirmative proposition (that she is co-redemptrix), is apparently, in the face of that tradition, asserting the negative proposition: Mary is not a co-redeemer. And, of course, it also follows that Mary is certainly not the co-redeemer (co-redemptrix) par excellence, which in Catholic tradition she has both implicitly and explicitly long been claimed to be.

As theologians Mark Miravalle and Robert Fastiggi write, in an article worth reading:

The doctrine of Marian coredemption, which refers to Mary’s subordinate 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; 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.

Interesting. So the question is, what does Francis mean by “co-redeemer” when he asserts that Mary is not co-redeemer? And what is his argument for the negative proposition, understood in accordance with his meaning of the term?

It turns out, unsurprisingly, that in his published remarks Francis doesn’t actually define his terms or make a logically connected argument. He just makes a series of undefended, unexplained assertions, some of which seem to contradict the Catholic theological and magisterial tradition. So how should we understand those assertions?

According to Fastiggi:

Understood properly, what the Holy Father says is correct. The beautiful things said about Mary—including recognizing her as co-redemptrix—subtract nothing from Christ as the only divine Redeemer. He is the God-man, the Redeemer of the human race, He, though, chose to redeem us with our cooperation and in a special way through the cooperation of his Mother, the New Eve. The Marian title “co-redemptrix” can never mean placing Mary on equal footing with Christ, the Redeemer, and it certainly can never make her into a goddess. I think it’s best to understand the March 24th General Audience of Pope Francis as a warning against these false understandings of Mary as co-redemptrix.

So according to Fastiggi, understood properly, while the pope flat-out says that Mary is not (entrusted to us as) co-redeemer, he is actually correctly recognizing her as co-redeemer.

In point of fact, however, the pope is obviously not doing that, and Fastiggi is “pope-splaining.” In reality, if it were true that Francis was only warning against false understandings of Marian doctrine, as opposed to actually misrepresenting that doctrine, then Fastiggi wouldn’t be in damage control mode, writing to explain what Francis “really meant.” Francis’s actual claim implies, rather, that the title “co-redemptrix” is in fact on a level with “goddess”—Mary is entrusted to us “not as goddess, not as co-redeemer”—and that both terms are inaccurate and misleading. Understood properly, then (that is, honestly), Francis’s actual claim is that just as Mary is not a goddess, likewise she is not a co-redeemer.

But why would he say this? I think we can at best speculate—and only speculate, given that Francis chooses not to offer his remarks within a framework articulated by clear logical connectives that we could straightforwardly analyze—that his claim is based on the idea that the doctrine of co-redemption is false because it indeed does imply Mary’s divinity and/or her equality with Christ in the act of redemption.

That idea obviously just ignores the actual Catholic doctrine of co-redemption. That doctrine is two-fold: First, that insofar as she was chosen to bring Christ the redeemer into the world, she has become (and she henceforth eternally is) the mother of Christ, and to this extent the uniquely chosen and honored channel of Christ’s perfect, objective redemption of all mankind, which, in accordance with the good pleasure of the divine will, He wrought through his human life, beginning with His incarnation in her blessed womb. This sense of co-redemption is theologically certain.

Second, that, again in accordance with the good pleasure of the divine will, Mary has been given a unique and universal role in the dispensing, the mediating of all subjective graces, whereby individual men come to really participate in Christ’s objectively accomplished act of redemption. This latter sense is theologically well-attested and considered probable though not certain. It is certainly not a theological opinion that is simply dismissible without argument.

In any case, contrary to Fastiggi’s reading, what Francis actually claims in his published remarks is that some of the “beautiful things said about Mary” are pious exaggerations and, getting down to logical brass tacks, they are false. And specifically, although he declines to offer any clear argument, Francis does clearly enough indicate that the ideas of co-redemption and of Mary as co-redemptrix are beautiful, but false—notwithstanding that, in light of the actual traditional doctrine of co-redemption, some of the things he says would seem to imply that they are actually true after all. (Pope John Paul II sometimes emphasized the “Splendor of Truth”—Splendor veritatis. Pope Francis is perhaps more inclined to appreciate the beauty of falseness. In many ways, John Paul II was a man of his age. Francis is even more so a man of his.)

Fastiggi would do better to take an honest approach. He should just point out the obvious puzzle and/or error in Francis’s comments, and/or he should request the pope to explain himself. However, given the pope’s well-established track record of hesitancy for those who request him to explain his sometimes-dubious theological statements, it might be just as well to rest content with pointing out the error.

[Photo Credit: Vatican Media/CNA]

David McPike

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David McPike is a husband, father of six, and aspiring market gardener near Calgary, Alberta. In addition to an engineering degree, he earned a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Ottawa examining and defending Thomas Aquinas's account of transubstantiation in relation to the critique of another important thirteenth century Dominican master of theology, Dietrich of Freiberg. He blogs occasionally at davidmcpike.blogspot.com.

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