When exploring the Catholic faith for the first time, it’s almost inevitable that one will run across anti-Catholic sources alleging all sorts idolatry towards Mary. Most of these can be refuted with basic research. But there is one that seems to actually have some basis: the idea that Catholics regard Mary as a “co-redeemer” with Christ. Generally, the anti-Catholic will cite passages from John Paul II in support of this allegation.
It’s not a dogma
The first response of most Catholics is to point out that believing Mary to be Coredemptrix isn’t a dogma. While true, this doesn’t really get to the heart of the matter. Catholics shouldn’t just dismiss the testimony of popes. Instead, we should try to figure out what they meant and what level of teaching authority this idea enjoys.
What does it mean?
The doctrine of Mary Coredemptrix has several aspects, but let’s look at what it doesn’t mean:
- It doesn’t mean that Mary is equal to Christ.
(In Latin “co” just means “with.” A copilot works with the captain as his subordinate.)
- It doesn’t mean that Mary is another redeemer.
(Rather she co-operates in Christ’s one redemption.)
- It doesn’t mean that Mary didn’t need redemption.
(The dogma of the Immaculate Conception states that she was pre-redeemed by the Cross of Christ.)
Formulated positively: Mary, in a unique and preeminent way, cooperated with Christ in accomplishing the work of redemption. Spiritually uniting herself to Christ and His work, she is so closely associated with Him that it is fitting to speak of her as coredemptrix.
Mary’s participation in the redemption is tied especially to Christ’s Incarnation and Christ’s Passion.
Mary’s cooperation in the Incarnation
In some ways this is self-evident. If Mary didn’t cooperate in the Incarnation, there just wouldn’t be an Incarnation! But Mary’s cooperation is a fullness of cooperation befitting the “full of grace,” not merely a bare assent.
The Church Fathers often spoke of Mary as the New Eve, who assisted the New Adam in the work of redemption.
As Eve by the speech of an Angel was seduced, so as to flee God, transgressing His word, so also Mary received the good tidings by means of the Angel’s speech, so as to bear God within her, being obedient to His word. And, though the one had disobeyed God, yet the other was drawn to obey God; that of the virgin Eve the Virgin Mary might become the advocate. And, as by a virgin the human race had been bound to death, by a virgin it is saved, the balance being preserved, a virgin’s disobedience by a virgin’s obedience.
St. Irenaeus – circa 180 AD
Blessed art thou among women; for among women, on whose womb Eve, who was cursed, brought punishment, Mary, being blest, rejoices, is honoured, and is looked up to. And woman now is truly made through grace the Mother of the living, who had been by nature the mother of the dying…. Heaven feels awe of God, Angels tremble at Him, the creature sustains Him not, nature sufficeth not; and yet one maiden so takes, receives, entertains Him, as a guest within her breast, that, for the very hire of her home, and as the price of her womb, she asks, she obtains peace for the earth, glory for the heavens, salvation for the lost, life for the dead, a heavenly parentage for the earthly, the union of God Himself with human flesh.
St. Peter Chrysologus – circa 400-450 AD
Mary’s cooperation in the Passion
In the Bible, Mary’s participation in the Passion of Christ was foretold by the Prophet Simeon:
And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed.”
Luke 2:43-35 (RSV)
At least since the 1200s, the liturgy of the Church has proclaimed the following:
At the Cross her station keeping,
stood the mournful Mother weeping,
close to her son to the last.
Through her heart, His sorrow sharing,
all His bitter anguish bearing,
now at length the sword has passed.
O how sad and sore distressed
was that Mother, highly blest,
of the sole-begotten One.
Stabat Mater Sequence – Memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows
From Pius XII:
It was she, the second Eve, who, free from all sin, original or personal, and always more intimately united with her Son, offered Him on Golgotha to the Eternal Father for all the children of Adam, sin-stained by his unhappy fall, and her mother’s rights and her mother’s love were included.
And we find in the documents of Vatican II:
After this manner the Blessed Virgin advanced in her pilgrimage of faith, and faithfully persevered in her union with her Son unto the cross, where she stood, in keeping with the divine plan,(294) grieving exceedingly with her only begotten Son, uniting herself with a maternal heart with His sacrifice, and lovingly consenting to the immolation of this Victim which she herself had brought forth.
Lumen Gentium 55
How authoritative is it?
Mary’s participation as the unique and preeminent cooperator in Christ’s redemption is a matter of Catholic doctrine. Given the consistency and antiquity of this teaching, I think it is likely at the level of dogma via the “ordinary universal magisterium.” At the very least, it enjoys a great deal of authority.
Regarding the title, though, the situation is different. The term coredemptrix has been discussed for a long time, particularly in the 20th century. But thus far the only uses of the term by the universal magisterium is in a couple of John Paul II’s addresses. Given the nature of the addresses and the fact that the term coredemptrix is incidental to their main points, they don’t count as a full-blown magisterial endorsement.
On the other hand, these examples do indicate that use of the term coredemptrix is acceptable, so long as it does not infringe on the uniqueness of Christ’s redemption.
Nevertheless, given that the title coredemptrix can be very confusing to those without knowledge of the theology behind it (most people, even knowledgeable ones!) it is unlikely that the Pope and bishops will be promoting this title any time in the near future.