By Corinne Winter
Who is Mary for Catholics today? The Tradition of the Church, including its teachings and its prayers, gives her many titles and descriptions.
She is Mother of God, our Mother, full of grace, ever virgin, model of discipleship, and the litany goes on. There are within Catholicism today strong proponents of a title that needs careful examination: Mediatrix of all Grace. In fact, since before the Second Vatican Council, some Catholics have expected and sought a dogmatic definition of that title for Mary. What does it mean to think of Mary as Mediatrix of grace?
We can say that by calling Mary “Mediatrix,” we recognize that Christ, in whom all grace is given by the power of the Holy Spirit, was born of her. We believe that by saying yes to God, Mary did freely cooperate with God’s grace and that her cooperation has meaning for us. Moreover, we view Mary as a powerful intercessor who will join her prayers with ours. It is in this sense that we find Mary named mediatrix in the Documents of Vatican II (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, para. 60) and both there and in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (n. 967-9) as our mother in the order of grace.
Both of those documents include within the same paragraphs cautions about the way in which we ought to understand Mary as mediatrix and mother. We are exhorted within these documents to remember the Church’s constant teaching that Christ is the One Mediator between God and humanity and we need no other. Mary’s cooperation with God serves not as another necessary link, but as a sign and exemplar of our call to cooperate similarly and that our cooperation with grace also has meaning. We can call on her as intercessor not as though we are calling on a nearly divine go-between, but as we call on other saints both living and deceased to pray with us. While we do use language in popular devotion that suggests such intercession somehow adds power to our prayer, we respect the mystery of prayer. We do not assert that prayers will be answered only if they are offered through her or that prayers are automatically more likely to be answered if they are so offered.
Pope Paul VI, writing in 1974 to encourage greater devotion to Mary, said that such devotion should be grounded in Scripture, should flow from and lead to our participation in the Eucharist and our celebration of the liturgical year, should be ecumenically sensitive, and should be attentive to the realities of human life in our day (Apostolic Exhortation for the Right Ordering and Development of Devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, Section Two). He described Mary as “Mother of Christ and our Mother in the communion of saints (n. 29),” stressing her unity with us as a fully human member of the body of Christ.
In 1996, Pope John Paul II asked the International Mariological Congress to study whether a dogmatic definition of Mary as Mediatrix and Co-Redemptrix was advisable. Pope John Paul II was well known for his devotion to Mary and his encyclical: “Mary, God’s Yes to Man” (1987), is well worth reading. The commission of 15 Catholic theologians from throughout the world returned the advice that the definition would not be wise for two reasons:
1. Previous popes and the Second Vatican Council had declined to issue a dogmatic statement on Mary as Mediatrix and Co-Redemptrix. Early in the 20th century, three successive commissions appointed by the pope did not advise a papal definition of Mary as Mediatrix. At the Second Vatican Council, the bishops of that council explicitly avoided using the title Co-Redemptrix and used Mediatrix in reference to prayer and devotion but not to doctrine.
2. The words are theologically imprecise. Some use them with an understanding that does fit within the Church’s constant teaching that Christ is the One Mediator.
The commission cited ecumenical sensitivity as a further reason for declining the dogmatic definition. Then Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) strongly supported the commission’s recommendation to decline it.
It seems as though groups that are advocating for a new dogma hope that it would lead to greater devotion to Mary among Catholics. The definitions of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption had that effect. But does the Church not already offer sufficient reasons to honor Mary? There are four Marian dogmas: that she is Mother of God, her perpetual virginity, the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption. All things considered, it seems wise to retain the concepts Mediatrix of Grace and Cooperator in the events of our Redemption within the realm of devotion as we do the title Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Finally, even as we integrate devotion to Mary in our spiritual lives, we must be mindful that with all her privileges, she is one of us, fully human. She should never be portrayed as a totally inimitable model or as a being somehow above humanity. The best ecclesial and theological tradition insists that what we say of Mary represents what we believe about our own calling.
(Corinne Winter is a professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)