Co-Redemptrix is one of the most controversial and misunderstood titles that Catholics give to Mary. Jimmy Akin explains what it means, what it doesn’t mean, and whether it’s an official Church teaching.
Caller: Just regarding the Blessed Virgin as the Co-Redemptrix, just curious if this is…is this considered a teaching of the Church a doctrine of the Church? I know it’s not dogma because there’s people trying to get it to be sort of a dogma. I’m just sort of trying to figure out what that statement is. And I kind of always get confused going back and forth to the difference between doctrine and dogma in general. Like, I get what is it when it’s like declared.
Jimmy Akin: So teaching and doctrine are the same thing. The Latin word doctrina just is Latin for “teaching,” and so anything that the Church authoritatively teaches is a doctrine.
Doctrines can be taught with different levels of authority. The highest level of authority is infallibility, and so within the set of doctrines there’s a smaller set of infallible doctrines; and within those infallible doctrines, the Church may teach different things about them. For example, it might teach that something is divinely revealed, or it might not; it may be something we know, something that’s guaranteed to be true, even though it wasn’t divinely revealed by God.
So you’ve got a split among the infallible teachings between those that are divinely revealed and those the Church hasn’t said to be divinely revealed. If the Church infallibly defines that a doctrine is divinely revealed, that’s what a dogma is. So it’s not sufficient that it be an infallible teaching; the Church must say infallibly: “God has revealed this,” and that’s—when the Church does that, that’s a dogma.
Now in terms of the the idea of Mary being Co-Redemptrix: I’m sure this what I’m about to say is something that may not be popular with everybody but it’s straightforward, honest assessment of the data. Also, I should clarify what this means, because when people hear the term Co-Redemptrix, they think: “Oh, well Christ is the Redeemer and this is somehow making Mary equal to Jesus, like she redeemed us in the same way that Jesus did, and so how would that work? That sounds really bad.” And if that’s what you mean, it is really bad. If that’s what a person meant by Co-Redemptrix, it would be false, because Mary is not equal to Jesus. She did not redeem us the way Jesus did.
But the word “co,” or the prefix “co-” in English can imply equality, and so that’s why it sounds that way. The prefix “co-” comes from the Latin preposition cum, and cum does not necessarily mean “equal.” It can just mean “with,” and that’s the sense that’s in play when Mary is under discussion with respect to the Redeemer. So she’s not equal to Jesus, but she is a woman who cooperates with the Redeemer. She cooperates with God’s plan and her son’s role in it.
So she, for example, when the angel Gabriel appears to her, she agrees to become the mother of the Messiah, the Redeemer, and thus—you know, she’s even told “He will save his people from their sins”—and so she willingly cooperates with the Redeemer, and in that sense she could be described as someone who works with the Redeemer in a unique way, by being his mom, and you could legitimately use the title for her in that sense.
You could also use it for other other people in other senses. All Christians who are doing their job as Christians are cooperating with the Redeemer in one way or another by living a Christian life and setting an example for other people and evangelizing them and telling them about Jesus and doing corporal and spiritual works of mercy. All of those things, we cooperate with the Redeemer and his plan. So there’s a sense in which all of us are co-redeemers in this little bitty way. In Mary’s case, it’s unique because she is the only one who’s the mother of the Redeemer. So she has a unique form of working with the Redeemer.
And so if that’s all you mean, is: “works with the Redeemer in some way,” well then you can use this language regarding Mary, and even with other people.
Now what about its status in terms of Church teaching? Well, historically, the the term Co-Redemptrix has been used occasionally in various documents coming out of the Magisterium; but it also has not been so used recently. The Second Vatican Council did not use it, and it has not been used recently, and you even have remarks from recent popes, like Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, saying that they don’t think that this is the best title because they recognize some of the problems and difficulties it can create in people’s understanding of it.
Pope Benedict, in an interview, had said—even as far back as the reign of John Paul II—that he didn’t think that there would be any action to make this a dogma, to proclaim this language of dogma. He’s also said that he thinks that it’s trying to compress too much into a single phrase and it becomes misleading, because a single phrase, people are going to lack latch onto the phrase and not properly understand everything that it implies or how it’s being used and what it does not mean. Pope Francis has, on more than one occasion, distanced himself from the term.
And so when you see—and I talk about this in in my book Teaching with Authority, where I also go into all these distinctions about dogma and doctrine and so forth—when you see the Church ceasing to use something, and even people like popes distancing themselves from it, that’s a sign that a particular thing is falling into what lawyers called call desuetude. Desuetude means “disuse.” So in the law, there can be a law, but if it’s never enforced it falls into desuetude and ceases to be a law.
And in the same way, for non-infallible teachings—this doesn’t apply to the infallible ones—but for non-infallible teachings that the Church has proposed, they can fall into desuetude and cease to be Church teachings. An example of that would be the idea that tonsure, which is a special kind of haircut that priests would have, the clerics would have, the Church in the 1500’s taught that was of apostolic origin, that that was an apostolic tradition. But by the 1900’s, that had fallen into desuetude, and you had Catholic scholars saying “Yeah, no, it really doesn’t go back to the apostles, it’s a later development than that.” And so that was never an infallible teaching, and later evidence shed more light on it and it fell into desuetude and ceased to be a Church teaching. Limbo is another idea. Limbo is no longer a Church teaching, it’s now a permitted theological opinion.
And so I would say, by watching the pattern of what’s happened with Co-Redemptrix, it is no longer being treated by the Magisterium as an authoritative expression of Catholic doctrine. Now the truths about Mary still being someone who cooperated uniquely with the Redeemer, that’s all still true, just like it’s true that all of us cooperate with the Redeemer in various ways; but as a privileged and authoritative expression of Catholic teaching, it looks to me like Co-Redemptrix has fallen into desuetude if you have popes saying “I don’t think we should use this expression.”
Now that could change with a future pope who might have a different opinion, might revive it; but that’s my assessment of the current status of this phrase vis-a-vis authoritative teaching.