Pope may declare Mary 'coredemptrix'
By TIM UNSWORTH
At 77 and in uneven health, John Paul II invests virtually every allocution with some mention of his advancing years and of his devotion to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Before he dies, he may decide to use his charism of infallibility to elevate Mary's crown another tier.
Reports from Rome, the U.S. Catholic press and even Time magazine suggest the pope will cap his career by infallibly declaring Mary Coredemptrix of Humanity, Mediatrix of All Graces and Advocate for the People of God. Such a move would be the first time since 1950, when the doctrine of the Assumption was promulgated, that a pope has exercised his power of infallibility. It would bring to five the number of Marian definitions since she was declared the Mother of God at the Council of Ephesus in 431.
Her perpetual virginity was declared at the third Council of Constantinople 250 years later, in 681. In 1854, the Church defined the Immaculate Conception.
The proposed new teaching is certain to raise theological eyebrows. Pius IX had written to and received approval from his fellow bishops before declaring the Immaculate Conception to be an article of faith. Pius XII did the same nearly a century later. A unilateral declaration of Mary as coredemptrix would likely be received with anger, even by bishops prepared to support the pope.
Popes have shunned coredemptrix talk for over 50 years. Prior to this, a mixture of devotion and hyperbole combined to bring coredemptrix and its synonyms into the language. Writers such as Alphonsus Liguori and Louis de Montfort and popes from Leo XIII (1878-1903) through Pius XI (1922-1939) used the term freely. Leo devoted 11 of his 60 encyclicals to Mary, but no pope took the definition beyond an accommodated sense.
Vatican II pretty much decided not to give Mary any more titles. To declare a Marian dogma now would not only re-introduce the still controversial issue of papal infallibility but also raise ecumenical difficulties. According to Time magazine's religion writer Richard N. Ostling, "Protestants and the Orthodox would go into orbit, feeling Christ has been demeaned as the unique Savior" (Time, June 16).
Ironically, because a "coredeemer" would by definition be a priest, the proposed dogma could bring aid and comfort to the growing number of those who support the ordination of women.
"No way," several priests said over a luncheon recently. "No way. The pope can only define what the church already believes. And this notion has been rejected over and over again. He just can't do it."
Yet, some Vatican watchers suggest that such cautions will not likely deter John Paul II. Mark L. Miravalle, professor of Marian Theology at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, has edited a book of essays, Mary: Coredemptrix, Mediatrix, Advocate. Theological Foundations II: Papal, Pneumatological, Ecumenical (Queenship Publishing, Santa Barbara, Calif., 1996). According to Miravalle, the date has been set: John Paul II will promulgate the dogma on May 31, 1998, the feast of Pentecost and previously the liturgical feast of Mediatrix of All Graces, granted by Benedict XV.
NCR attempted to reach Dr. Miravalle at Franciscan University but was informed that he was out of the country. Allegedly, he has met privately at least twice with John Paul II.
Talk of "Mary, coredemptrix," has faded dramatically since Vatican II, largely because of the pastoral and ecumenical difficulties it raises. Its history dates to the patristic era when Mary, by her consent at the Annunciation and her actual maternity, brought redemption into the world.
Early medieval teaching has Mary offering Christ in the sacrifice of the cross. Jesus' wounds are suffered in Mary's heart. Thus, she actively shares in the redemptive work of her son.
Later medieval thought places Mary in heaven, distributing the fruits of Christ's redemption to unworthy sinners. (In Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling, we find Mary, standing under Christ's threatening raised right arm, pleading on behalf of other mortals.)
Such dramatic visions can lead to misunderstandings. They can reduce Christ to one half of a team of redeemers.
In practice, when the teaching was more popular, it often lent the impression that a vengeful Jesus -- arm upraised to strike as in Michelangelo's painting -- is holding back only because of Mary's intercession. However, Benedictine theologian Martin John Horak reminds us that official teaching holds that Christ alone, God and man, is redeemer in the full, proper and absolute sense of the term.
A more cautious and contemporary view considers coredemption not an intrinsic participation in the redemptive work of Christ but an acceptance of it. According to Fr. Horak, "By her 'fiat' to the Incarnation and Passion, Mary accepts Christ's redemption."
Vatican II gently closed the door to further promotion of the teaching. Lumen Gentium devoted a paragraph that said, in part, "By her maternal charity, Mary cares for the brethren of her Son who still journey on earth surrounded by dangers and difficulties. ... Therefore the Blessed Virgin is invoked by the Church under the titles of Advocate, Auxiliatrix, Adjutrix, and Mediatrix. These, however, are to be so understood that they neither take away from nor add anything to the dignity and efficacy of Christ the one Mediator."
In early June, L'Osservatore Romano's English edition carried a carefully worded note from the Theological Commission of the Pontifical International Marian Academy, which was asked by the Holy See to study the possibility and the opportuneness of the proposed definition. A geographically diverse commission of 15 theologians, including one American, chosen for their special preparation in this area, was asked to investigate the question. Their conclusion rated only a box in the official Vatican paper. Basically, it suggested that John Paul back off and leave things as they are.
"The titles, as proposed, are ambiguous," the declaration said. "They can be understood in very different ways. Furthermore, the theological direction taken by the Second Vatican Council, which did not wish to define any of these titles, should not be abandoned."
The report reminded readers that Vatican II did not use the term coredemptrix and that it used mediatrix and advocate in a very moderate way. It recalled that Pius XII avoided the terms and that during the first decades of this century the Holy See had three different commissions study the matter. Their conclusion was to set the question aside.
The recent declaration concluded that the titles were lacking in theological clarity and that they needed further study from "a renewed Trinitarian, ecclesiological and anthropological perspective."
The proposed new dogma would come giftwrapped in a plethora of other teachings and practices dear to the hearts of conservative Catholics. Miravalle's book was reviewed in Inside the Vatican, a conservative monthly magazine that supported Miravalle's thesis. It also has the backing of Mother Angelica's EWTN (Eternal Word Television Network) and of other organizations proclaiming a monopoly on truth and a fierce loyalty to the Holy Father.
This proposed dogma is unique in that it clearly does not enjoy the full support of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith or its prefect, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who cautioned the Holy Father over a year ago not to push the teachings.
If the pontiff chooses to exercise his charism of infallibility -- itself a controversial teaching -- he may do so alone and with little regard for the principle of collegiality.
The proposed teaching may, like the earlier pronouncements on the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of Mary, be labeled "worthy of credence" but not required, in the sense that Catholics could dissent from the teaching without fear of excommunication. In other words, the phrase "Let the force of anathema be on it" would not be attached as it is to core Catholic teachings.
St. Joseph Sr. Elizabeth Johnson, professor of systematic theology at Fordham University in New York, has written about earlier Marian dogmas in a manner that might provide some wiggle room for the pending one of coredemptrix. In her essay on the Assumption in the HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism, she cites the Catholic imagination and states, "Amid the constant hostility of history, the narrative power of these dogmas reminds the church of the undaunted power of this woman, free in her love for God and others through the power of grace."
The new dogma would suggest that Mary shares the front office in the redemptive role with the Son. I expect the pope will back off. I certainly hope he will.
Mary, herself redeemed by the Son, can perhaps share in his redemptive role, but it will always be a subordinate one. Such a view does not require an infallible statement.
Tim Unsworth's most recent book is I Am Your Brother Joseph: Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago (Crossroad).
National Catholic Reporter, July 18, 1997