Mary in the middle of debate Dogma: Some Catholics urge the pope to solemnly define the mother of Jesus as 'co-redeemer,' but others say that would equate her with her son.


March 15, 1998|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

Mary, esteemed by all Christians as the mother of Jesus Christ, holds an even more exalted position in the faith of Roman Catholics.

They have bestowed on her title upon title: Our Lady of Sorrows, Mother of Mercy, Our Lady of Perpetual Hope, Queen of Peace, '' Blessed Virgin Mary. And Catholics regard Mary as an intercessor who advocates on their behalf to her son; they pray to her in times of need, sadness or overwhelming joy.

The cult of Mary has been looked on with suspicion by Protestants, to whom it smacks of idolatry.

Now there is a move afoot among some Catholics to persuade Pope John Paul II to infallibly proclaim a new dogma about Mary: that she is the "Co-Redemptrix, Mediatrix of All Graces and Advocate for the People of God."

The Steubenville, Ohio-based "Vox Populi Maria Mediatrici" (The Voice of the People on behalf of Mary as Mediatrix) is circulating a petition urging the pope to solemnly define the teaching as a dogma of the church, which all Catholics would be obliged to accept as an article of faith. The group says it has sent the Vatican petitions bearing more than 4.7 million signatures from 157 countries on six continents.

The move to make Mary a "co-redeemer" strikes many Protestants, and even some Catholics, as an attempt to equate her with her son Jesus, as out-and-out heresy.

Even many Catholic theologians who study Mary as a specialty -- they are referred to as Mariologists -- believe that defining Mary as co-redeemer is not a good idea, at least for now.

The Rev. Frederick Jelly, O.P., a Dominican priest, a theologian at Mount Saint Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg and one of the world's pre-eminent Mariologists, uses a Latin phrase to sum up his thoughts on the matter: "Non est tempus opportunus" -- this is not the opportune time.

"I think that each one of these proposed titles can be explained in a satisfactory way," he says. "But it certainly would be premature without a lot more prayer and study to define them as dogmas. . . . I would say anybody I've talked to who is a serious Mariologist adopts that," he says.

Indeed, last June a Vatican commission of 23 Mariologists unanimously advised the pope not to proclaim the teaching. And the pope's spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, said last year that neither the pope nor any Vatican commission is studying the proclamation of any new Marian dogmas.

The Roman Catholic Church has proclaimed four Marian dogmas, two by ecumenical councils and two by the exercise of papal infallibility. The Council of Ephesus in 431 declared her the Mother of God, and the Council of Constantinople asserted her perpetual virginity in 681. Pope Pius IX in 1854 promulgated the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, the belief in Mary's conception without original sin. And in 1950, Pope Pius XII made into dogma Mary's bodily assumption into heaven.

The teaching of Mary as co--redeemer would be the fifth Marian dogma, and its supporters believe John Paul will proclaim it before the end of the millennium.

Jelly doesn't see that happening, not with the theological difficulties surrounding the terms "mediatrix" and "co-redeemer." The words refer to fairly dense theological concepts that are easily misunderstood.

"The theological problem with 'mediatrix,' I think, is that it tends to put Mary almost in a position of rivalry with her son," he says.

"Vatican II was very careful in not formally defining this . . . because it wanted to keep very carefully, very clearly, Christ [as] the sole mediator of redemption," he says. "Mary and the saints -- and I think even the Protestants will admit this -- are mediators of intercession for us, of praying for us in the community of saints. But Christ and Christ alone can mediate saving grace.

"Vatican II was very careful in saying [Mary's] mediation of intercession, that of all the saints, is completely dependent upon Christ, is completely derived from it, adds nothing to it, takes nothing away from it, as though his atoning sacrifice upon the cross were somehow insufficient," Jelly says. "It does have a tendency to say, 'Well, what is she mediating that Christ is not?' And that's something that needs further theological discussion before we clarify that.

"What has hurt us is the concept of mediation in our American society," he says. "We usually think of those who are in a mediating role of reconciling labor and management, hostile parties.

"And we don't need Mary for that. Her son has already accomplished that," Jelly says. "We have to appropriate it. So what we need Mary for is not somehow or other to get us together with God. Christ has already accomplished that definitively. But say, if as individuals we are spurning that gift, we are rejecting God's redeeming love, we need a mother somehow to know how to help us to open up our eyes of faith."

The notion of co-redeemer is even thornier.

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