The ‘Co-Redemptrix’ and the Holy Foreskin

Back in March, Pope Francis re-affirmed his belief that the Blessed Virgin is not in fact “Co-Redemptrix.”

The Holy Father said that Mary comes to us

as a mother.  Not as a goddess.  Not as a co-redemptrix.  As a mother.

It’s true that Christian piety always gives beautiful titles to her, like a son to the mother… how many beautiful things does a son say to the mother?  But pay attention: the [beautiful] things that the Church, the saints, say to Mary, take nothing away from Christ’s uniqueness as a redeemer.

Francis goes on to say that “Christ is the only redeemer,” and so these Marian titles “are expressions of love like a son to the mother, sometimes exaggerated, but we know love always makes us do exaggerated things. ”  He calls them a kind of “lovesickness.”

I think there’s a great deal of wisdom in what the Holy Father says—if not from a theological standpoint, then surely from a pastoral one.

Now, I’m inclined to agree with the Blessed John Duns Scotus: “If I must err, I would rather err by excess in giving a privilege to Mary, than by defect, diminishing or taking from her a privilege which she has.”

At the same time, surely Benedict XVI was right when he said,

The formula “co-redemptrix” departs to too great an extent from the language of Scripture and of the Fathers, and therefore gives rise to misunderstandings.  Everything comes from [Christ], as the Letter to the Ephesians and the Letter to the Colossians, in particular, tell us; Mary, too, is everything she is through Him.  The word “co-redemptrix” would obscure this origin.  A correct intention being expressed in the wrong way.

Needless to say, those who advance the title Co-Redemptrix don’t mean to depart from Scripture and the Fathers.  They don’t mean to obscure or give rise to misunderstandings.  They simply underestimate the ignorance of the laity.  They may be totally capable of referring to Our Lady as “Co-Redemptrix” without detracting from the glory due to Our Lord.  But many of us cannot.  

And here’s the crux of the matter.  While I know very little about theology, I know a great deal about ignorant laymen, having been one for nearly my entire adult life.  And I think that, in accounting for the ignorance of many of us laymen, Francis and Benedict show good pastoral sense.

I know many of my readers will be quite allergic to the P-word. But “pastor” comes from the Latin verb pascere, meaning “fed” or “grazed.” A pastor is a shepherd, a minder of sheep. So, to be pastoral simply means to be a good shepherd. It means keeping the herd together. It means knowing when to use the hook and when to use the crook.

Of course, we—the laity—are the herd. And, sure: some academics might be capable of using the title Co-Redemptrix without detracting from Christ’s glory. And, sure: some theologians might see that Vatican II spoke boldly of Mary “giving back supernatural life to souls.”  Yet these debates are too heady for many of us to fully grasp. We really are dumb as sheep.

So, our pastors have to deal with us gently. Our bishops need to work with (or perhaps around) our ignorance. Otherwise, we may get spooked and bolt.

For instance, if the title Co-Redemptrix were dogmatized, some Catholics may come to think that the Protestants were right all along—that the Roman Church raises Mary to heights that belong only to God. Those wayward lambs might quit the Church altogether.

Then, says the Lord, “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!”

This is why our bishops need good pastoral sense as well as sound theological convictions. It’s not just about what’s true and what’s false. It’s also about what kind of truth the laity are prepared to receive, at any given moment in the Church’s life, in a particular historical context, at a particular stage in their own spiritual development.

I shouldn’t think that’s a controversial notion. If you wanted to convert someone to the Catholic faith, you wouldn’t walk up to them and say, “Hello! Did you know that St. Catherine of Siena wore Christ’s holy foreskin as a wedding ring?” That’s perfectly true, of course. Our Lord did give His foreskin to St. Catherine as a wedding ring. Still, that’s probably not the best opening line.

If the Church does dogmatize the Co-Redemptrix title, of course, I will accept it. But I see the good sense of those like Benedict and Francis who decline to do so.

Whichever side is “right,” however, I’m sure Our Lord and Our Lady will pardon those who err—driven, as we are, by nothing more than the love of God and His Blessed Mother.

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