Marian Maximalism in Light of the Virgin's Fellowship in Christ’s Suffering

In his Wednesday Audience on 24 March, Pope Francis made an explicit theological pronouncement that will rile up several quarters of the Catholic Church. Near the beginning of the address, titled Praying in Communion with Mary, he said:

Christ is the Mediator, the bridge we cross to return to the Father. He is the only Redeemer, and there are no coredeemers with him. He is the Mediator par excellence, He is the Mediator.

Here, the Pope intervenes in one of the largest theological debates for Catholics in the last century and a half: whether and how Mary is an essential partner in her Son’s redemption of the world. This comment is not Francis’s first statement on this lengthy and intense debate. But for those who have cherished the Marian piety of several previous popes—let alone those who have repeatedly petitioned both Francis and his predecessors for a formal dogmatic definition of Marian coredemption—his comments will constitute a significant setback.

But if Francis’s remarks will disappoint many, they are not without precedent on his side of the Tiber. Even as he defended the newly-defined dogma of Mary’s immaculate conception to his erstwhile Anglican comrade-in-arms, E.B. Pusey, St. John Henry Newman expressed concern over Catholics who were so zealous for Marian piety that they confused Mary’s place with that of her Son:

And how, again, is there anything of incommunicable greatness in His death and passion, if He who was alone in the garden, alone upon the cross, alone in the resurrection, after all is not alone, but shared His solitary work with His Blessed Mother,—with her to whom, when He entered on His ministry, He said for our instruction, not as grudging her her proper glory, “Woman, what have I to do with thee?”[1]

Among Newman’s worries here are the ecumenical implications of Marian maximalism, concerns that were shared by Vatican II, John Paul II, Benedict the XVI, and quite obviously Francis. Indeed, the latter has often shown himself willing to court controversy in order to perform what John Paul II called the “office of unity,” in service to all Christians, Catholic and not.[2]

I find Francis’s attempts to be a Pope for all the Christian faithful admirable. As one of the separated brethren (an Anglican priest, to be precise) I share his concerns for the removal of ecumenical obstacles as well as his zeal for the uniqueness of Christ. After all, the job of the Pontifex is pontes facere, to build bridges. I also feel empathy with a pastoral problem widely observed in Catholic piety and devotion, in which Mary seems to eclipse her Son. Mary, as the Pope rightly observes, would not have it this way; she devotes herself entirely to the Lord and to the mission of his Son.

But just because she does this, her ordinary, graced human action has effects that no other human action could have. After all, no other woman is given to the Church as “our Mother” or as one who, in Francis’s words, “always points to Christ.” I would argue that she can only do this via a unique partnership in the economy of salvation. She is not the Redeemer, but without her fellowship in Christ’s work of love and suffering, the redemption could not have happened. She gives the Lord to the world, and that gift is what makes possible Christ’s self-gift. Not to recognize this fact arguably jeopardizes not only core tenets of Catholic Mariology (e.g., the Immaculate Conception) but even the principle of human cooperation with God, who, as Augustine put it, “will not save us without us.”


At times, it is hard to tell whether the debate about coredemption amounts to more than a dispute of words. For many Catholic thinkers in the post-Vatican II era, the problem with the term “coredemption” is not that there is no sense in which it can be held to express a truth but that it will inevitably lead to error. Among those who hold to this view one must count Francis’s immediate predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. For them, the term will inevitably lead the faithful to set Mary equally beside her Son. But just as often as one points out this difficulty, one can find an advocate for coredemption emphasizing that the Latin prefix cum need not, and in this case must not, be interpreted that way.

Before the Protestant Reformation, neither the Eastern nor the Western Church were bashful about honorifics and titles given to the Mother of the Lord. She has been called Holy, Immaculate, Spotless, Merciful, Anchor, Guardian, Pledge of Salvation, Font of Grace, Garden of Eden, Mercy Seat, Ark of the Lord, and so many others. But the Church’s earliest commemorations of the Blessed Mother have to do with what she did, with her place in salvation’s economy. As Newman makes clear to Pusey, the early Church hailed the Mother of the Lord first and foremost as the New Eve, the one who by faith and obedience reverses the curse that Eve merited.

Parallelisms abound in the early writings; whereas Eve believed the word of the serpent, Mary believed the Word of the Angel. Whereas Eve was seduced away from obedience, Mary believed and obeyed, and hence she merited to bear the Living One. Ephrem the Syrian, in his commentary on the Diatessaron, is utterly typical of early Christian reflection on the Mother of God:

As in the beginning Eve was born from Adam without a carnal relationship, so it happened for Joseph and Mary, his wife. Eve brought to the world the murdering Cain; Mary brought forth the Lifegiver. One brought into the world him who spilled the blood of his brother; the other, him whose blood was poured out for the sake of his brothers. One brought into the world him who fled, trembling because of the curse of the earth; the other brought forth him who, having taken the curse upon himself, nailed it to the cross.

Likewise, in his Eucharistic hymns, he writes that “Mary has given us bread of rest / in place of that bread of toil which Eve provided.” As Newman reminded Pusey, we can find this way of talking all the way back in the second century and before. Irenaeus calls her (Adv. Hær. iii. 22, 34), by her obedience, a causa salutis. Similarly, Justin Martyr argues that Mary’s willingness to obey God is the reason for the Incarnation (Dialogue with Trypho, ch. 100). And in the Johannine literature, one finds the “woman” who leads the servants in obedience to Christ (John 2:5) just as Eve led Adam in rebellion, and in Revelation 12, the crowned Mother of “the one who is to rule the nations with a rod of iron” (Revelation 12:5, cf. Psalm 2:9) makes war on the ancient serpent in fulfillment of the promise of Genesis 3:15.

Similar comments arise in Cyril of Jerusalem, Epiphanius, Jerome, Peter Chrysologus, Origen, Clement of Alexandria, and Athanasius, to say nothing of the mighty Ambrose and his even mightier successor Augustine. In the anti-Pelagian writings, the Bishop of Hippo makes clear on what basis the Church’s devotion rests:

Now with the exception of the holy Virgin Mary in regard to whom, out of respect for the Lord, I do not propose to have a single question raised on the subject of sin—after all, how do we know what greater degree of grace for a complete victory over sin was conferred on her who merited to conceive and bring forth Him who all admit was without sin?

The common thread of all early Church thought about the Blessed Virgin was that by her faith and obedience she somehow merited to be the mother of the Lord. That is, early devotion to Mary consisted in the wonder and marvel at the one who, by her obedience, faith, and devotion was found a suitable Mother for the Redeemer. Mary’s yes, which is held in honor by early fathers, by Thomas Aquinas (ST III.30.1), and by Francis, is rightly understood in the context of the “no” spoken by her predecessor. Devotion to her motherhood of the Redeemer belongs in that context as well; like Eve, Mary becomes the Mother she is because of her role in God’s economy with the world.

In the wake of the fourth- and fifth-century controversies, as the Church began to understand its own speech about divine and human Christ, as it became clear just what the gift was that Mary had been given, the dignity of the reward redounded to the wonder at her person. By the Middle Ages, the haze of titles, honors, and Scriptural motifs the Church referred to Mary began to apply a maximizing pressure to theological speech, and Anselm of Canterbury crystallized the problem in a way that would forever influence the western theological tradition after him: “it is fitting that this Virgin should shine with a purity so great that, except for God, no greater purity could be conceived.” This statement became the major premise for argument and a grammatical rule of Mariological speech. Mary is the creaturely limit of purity.

Thus, by the time of Thomas Aquinas, Bernard of Clairvaux, Bonaventure, and Scotus, Mariology is a negative exercise, one in which we are right to say of her whatever can be said without contradiction to her creatureliness and the uniqueness of Christ. Thus, Thomas Aquinas refutes the Immaculate Conception because in his mind it compromises the universal redemption of the Savior, and John Duns Scotus affirms its possibility on the grounds that it does not. In their disagreement, they both accept Anselm’s premise, highlighting its power to govern the ascription of titles and honors to Mary.

Even so, in medieval debates about Marian privileges, the influence of Anselm’s dictum gradually concealed its basis in Mary’s faith and obedience, which was replaced with a focus merely upon her nearness to the Incarnation. Mary’s fullness of grace came to be seen as a consequence of her closeness to the Incarnation, not the other way around.[3] This theological revision doomed Mariology to an appearance of caprice and special pleading. That God graciously placed her close to the Incarnation implied nothing special about her. And later Catholics who were sensitive to the ecumenical situation came to see detailed speculations about Mary’s partnership in redemption as an alien appendage and obstacle to unity.[4]

John Cavadini has aptly described a resulting awkwardness in contemporary devotion to Mary, and any discussion of it, as it has come to seem “adventitious to Christian worship.” It is hard not to see in this Catholic tendency an echo of Protestant worries. But they lead, as he points out, to a similar misunderstanding of divine things. Cavadini’s remedy is a full-throated retrieval of the Marian implications of “Christology, Ecclesiology, and Eschatology.” To that I would add contemplation on Mary’s role in salvation itself, as it sheds light on just how God has saved us.


The Second Vatican Council refocused on Mary as an exemplar of faith and the first member of the Church. The Council fathers insisted that Mary faithfully points the way of the faithful to her Son and gives him to the world.[5] Similarly, Francis adverts to “the beautiful, ancient painting of the Hodegetria in the Cathedral at Bari . . . It is simple. The Madonna shows Jesus, naked; then they put a shirt on him to cover his nakedness, but the truth is that Jesus is naked. He himself, man, born of Mary, is the Mediator.” For both the Pope and the Council Fathers, it is in the presentation of this human and divine Son to the world that Mary fulfills her vocation. In the gift to us of the One mediator, she completes her mission. But once we consider just what that mission entails in its particulars, and what sort of person Mary must be to accomplish it, we will understand the maximizing impulse that drove the development of Mariology in the early Church. We will also grasp why, absent that mission, so many came to see Mariology as a misguided enterprise, or worse, an idolatrous one.

Mary’s offering of Jesus to the world is not just a trope of iconography; it arises from the core of the gospel’s Mariological witness as Mary incites the wedding servants at Cana to obey Jesus’s words, or when she brings the infant Child to the Temple in the third Gospel. But Luke’s narration of the latter event is quite strange. He has Joseph and Mary bring the infant Jesus to the Temple to present him there “when the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses” (Luke 2:22). While the Law did mandate women to come to the Temple at their purification, there was no law requiring the presentation of the Son. Nor does such a thing seem to have been common practice.[6]

The Scripture that Luke cites in explanation of the presentation of Jesus is not Leviticus 12, where the purification after childbirth is described, but (probably) Exodus 13:2, which describes the redemption of the firstborn son. But that reference adds to the confusion as the offering they bring is the pair of birds for the mother’s purification from the blood loss of childbirth. The monetary redemption is not mentioned or given, and no priest arrives to receive it. Still, the aged Simeon and Anna take Jesus in their arms as if they have been waiting for him to be presented there. Just what is this odd event?

To make sense of the Presentation narrative, we need to step back two decades along the Joyful Mysteries, to the scene in which Mary visits her very pregnant kinswoman to help her along the path to childbirth. In response to the blessing pronounced upon her by Elizabeth, Mary sings a hymn of praise to God, “who has regarded the humiliation of his handmaiden.” There is an especially tight connection, long noted by scholars, between Mary’s song and that of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2. It also recalls the ninth chapter of 4 Ezra in which the “handmaiden” of the Lord is Zion, whose “humiliation” (v. 45) the Lord looked upon when he healed her barrenness. Like Hannah, Mother Zion called out to the Lord in anguish and was heard. But if Hannah and Mother Zion are Mary’s obvious company, her place among them is odd.

Both Hannah and Zion sing of God’s deliverance to rejoice at the end of their barrenness. But Mary sings as if delivered from childlessness when the exact opposite is the case; indeed, she has been made fruitful as no one ever has. Mary’s fruitfulness exceeds even the integrity of the Edenic two by two. Why, then, is Mary singing of deliverance from barrenness? In the Magnificat, Mary takes to herself a condition that is not her own but is that of her people. She, who has been made exceedingly fruitful, sings of Israel’s deliverance because her intent is to give the fruit of her womb to redress Israel’s poverty. Like the Lord, she will fill the hungry with good things while she herself is sent away empty (Luke 1:53). The song thus enacts the exchange it describes, as Mary takes to herself the story of Hannah, Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Elizabeth. She takes their barrenness as her own and offers her graced fertility to reverse the curse that had afflicted the children of Eve.

This backdrop makes sense of the strange scene that unfolds at the Presentation. The conception and birth of Samuel, which motivates Hannah’s hymn of deliverance, is followed by her presentation of the boy at the Shiloh sanctuary. As far as we know, after she brings her son to Eli, she never again lays eyes on the child God gave her. This act of Hannah is the right interpretation of Mary’s presentation of her Son at the Temple. Unlike Hannah, Mary is exceedingly fruitful. The child to be born of Mary was to be a source of unending honor to her, unending because, thanks to his indestructible life (Hebrews 7:16), nothing will weaken his ability to give it. The angel had promised her that her Son’s kingdom would never end (Luke 1:33). Like the gebirot, or Queen Mothers, at Jerusalem before her, she would no doubt hear in the angel’s promise the resounding promise of her unending queenship as the first mother whose child would defeat the sting of the ancient serpent. There is no bargain, no vow. She receives the Lord freely—more freely, in fact, than any woman had ever received a son.

But in bringing him to the Temple, as Hannah had, she offers him there to the Lord as a living sacrifice. She does not redeem him there because she renounces any claim at all to his life.[7] Although Mary receives a gift infinitely more valuable than what had been given to Hannah, she renounces the gift even more completely, offering it to God and to the empty womb of Israel. It is not a trivial detail then that one of the ancients keeping vigil at the Temple is a woman named Hannah. Just as Hannah leaves her son with Eli “for his whole life,” so Mary, in bringing her Son to the Temple, gives him wholly over to God. Though Jesus will live to God, he will be as dead to her. In a choice imitated by untold numbers of mothers whose children have entered cloisters, Mary renounces all benefits that her child was to bring her. Given the nature of the benefits, she makes an offering to God that no one could make who loved anything in the least respect more than God.

After that offering, like Jochebed, Mary receives Jesus back for a time, but always under the aspect of one who is no longer hers (cf. Exodus 2:7-10). He will remind her of this when he remains in his Father’s house (Luke 2:43). And when she comes to him later out of fear for his life, he will publicly renounce her: “My mother and brothers are those who hear God's word and put it into practice” (Luke 8:21). But this renunciation is not a scandal; it is what she signed up for in taking the bitter infertility of her people to herself and offering her Son’s life to God and to Israel.

This is the mystery behind what Francis, in his address, called Mary’s “disappearances” and her “returns at the crucial points.” In her return at the most crucial moment, as her Son hangs on the cross, we see simply the fulfillment of what Mary had willingly taken to herself in her consent to give this Child away. Mary merits the Incarnation because she is the woman who would, given the chance, do what Eve did not. Whereas Eve plucked the forbidden fruit from the tree, Mary waives her wholly legitimate right to the fruit of her womb, even when the rebellious crowd puts it on the Tree of the curse. She refuses to take it down. Her fullness of grace, whatever it might mean in the economy of merit and intercession, cannot mean less than her unfailing love for God and neighbor, the love that opens her hand and elicits from it the gift of everything of value that she has.

This point cannot achieve its proper resonance until it is considered just what a difficult time others in God’s economy had in delivering God’s Word to the world. Scriptural examples of this very phenomenon abound. Jonah refuses to call Nineveh to repentance out of his bitter resentment of the prodigality of God’s mercies to anyone who repents. No sooner does the Lord visit Solomon with divine wisdom than he turns to the gods of the nations. Eve, of course, had been given the divine command as the ground on which she could love God as God had loved her, revealing him to be the apple of her eye. But all of these failed. And as the gifts of God grow more extravagant, the temptation to turn those gifts to one’s own devices grows.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul shows how the availability of the knowledge of God in nature, because of our love for idols, turns us eventually into beasts (1:18-32). Later, he points out that although Israel had been given the very oracles of God, they had become worse than the Gentiles (2:24). The power of sin, waging war within our members (7:23-24), makes even the gifts of God deadly to those who, at bottom, do not love him. In Paul, the very Torah of God had raised in him the desires that motivated his sin and led him towards death. And the closer God comes, the more our lack of love motivates terrible things.

Thus, at Nazareth, the people who bristle with Messianic expectation when Jesus reads Isaiah 61 in the synagogue are ready to toss him to his death when they discover his Gospel will proclaim peace to Gentiles as well as Jews (Luke 4:24-30). The mother of Zebedee’s sons saw in Jesus’s reign an opportunity to advance the fortunes of her children (Matthew 20:21). Later, these two “sons of thunder” were ready to manipulate the power of Jesus to settle an old grudge between the Kingdoms of the North and South (Luke 9:52-54). And there are good reasons to think that Judas’s final betrayal was an attempt to force Jesus to act against the unjust Temple system that had corrupted the ancient ways and fallen into impurity and apostasy.

All of these people attempted to turn Jesus to their own ends, all in spite of the fact that he was never for a second actually in their power. The nearer God comes, and the better his gifts, the more they will expose in us every shred of our pet idolatries, unruly wills, and desire to have God on our own terms. But Jesus’s Mother was given the Incarnate God, the divine Word behind every other word, as a child entirely in her power and over whom she had actual rights. In comparison with the temptation this would cause, the Ring of Power might as well have come from a Cracker Jack box.

Here, as Newman understood all too well, is the rationale for Mary’s special protection from sin. Her mission in the economy of salvation required it. If she was called not simply to avoid falling into sin from a state of world integrity but actually to reverse the damage Eve had done via supererogatory obedience, at the very least, she would need the same grace Eve had enjoyed, indeed more so.[8] She would require a grace that would protect her from the uncountable and slight ways that humans find themselves resistant to the demands of love for God and neighbor.

In the light of that grace, when the time came to bear this child, she would willingly accept it. She would raise him in complete devotion to the voice of the Father, as the Torah shaped him into its living embodiment, just as it had shaped her. For all of Israel before them, Torah had seemed a set of imperatives. It was only with the arrival onto the scene of this woman and her Son that it was revealed instead to be a future indicative: you shall love the Lord with all your heart. As this child began to discern his Father’s voice, it would surprise him in only one respect: though it echoed her voice, it was not her voice. Indeed, it was her voice that perfectly echoed that of the Father; that too the child would learn.

And when the Father’s voice began to drive the Son down the road of his redemptive mission, he would hear it and know it because it said only what he had already heard in the voice of his mother, driving him away from her and towards his calling (John 2:3). In that renunciation, hinted at in the Magnificat, begun in the Presentation, developed in Jesus’s continual separation from her during his life, and completed at the Cross, is the barrenness Mary takes to herself in order that the world might have the fruit of what St. Thomas Aquinas called her “generous womb.”[9] In light of it, the Catholic teaching of the Immaculate Conception makes perfect, fitting sense. Absent it, that teaching looks like Marian devotion run off the rails of ecumenical teaching.

The assumption of Israel’s poverty is the cost to Mary of her constant presentation to us of her Son. This is what is required of her, if she is to be, as Pope Francis calls her, the Hodegetria. Of her alone can it be said that she offers her Son for the sins of the world (Matthew 1:21). Is this coredemption? In my upcoming work on the New Eve and her illumination of “Divine Motherhood,” I have said so and made the best ecumenical arguments I can for it. For all I can tell, Pope Francis would accept the substance of what I have written, but not (clearly) the name I have affixed to it. His pastoral charism should not be easily cast aside by anyone who loves the unity of the Church, least of all a Protestant contemplating treasures Catholics have guarded faithfully and shared generously with latecomers. What Francis denies, I deny; what he affirms, I affirm.

I have called this coredemption and would justify my claim with a reflection on the nature of Mary’s gracious act and the redemptive work that it uniquely makes possible. But it is far more important to me that we understand her place in the divine economy than that we agree on what to call it. Perhaps Francis is right that the name “coredemption” is an irresistible invitation to error and idolatry. I can certainly say from my own side of the Tiber that our view of divine freedom, of covenant, of the humanity of Christ, and the centrality of the Church to God’s redemptive plan are all clouded by the clumsy insistence that no one but God must ever receive the glory for our salvation. In the end, it is simply not so. God shares his glory and, thus, his work and his suffering with those who love him (Philippians 3:10, Colossians 1:24). To the one who loved him most, He gives the greatest share. Of her uniquely is it said that she offers her Son for the redemption of the world. To her alone is given the dignity of being the creaturely echo of the Father’s generosity.

To my fellow Protestants, I have provocatively offered the term “coredemption” as an invitation to contemplate again the depths of our faith in the reflected light that shines forever upon the Blessed Virgin, whom Francis calls the “woman of the Yes,” who partnered utterly and uniquely with God in his saving work. But if my fellows only did what Francis commends and honored their mother with love-inspired reflection, I do not doubt that in the end, it would amount to more or less the same thing.

[1] Reply to E.B. Pusey, §5.6.

[2] Ut Unum Sint, III.95. The Pope’s ecumenical intentions can be seen here not merely in his cold reception of the “coredemptrix” position but in his focus on a popular Marian title of the East, where Mary is said to be the Odigitria: she who points the way.

[3] See, e.g., in Thomas’s comments on Mary’s fullness of grace as the consequence of her nearness to the Incarnation (ST III.27.5, resp).

[4] The Acta Synodalia tell us that the reason the Council did not define a teaching on the title Coredemptrix, in spite of the requests of 266 Bishops that it do so, was because it would generate misunderstanding among Protestants and the East. A helpful discussion of this appears in Aidan Nichols, There Is No Rose: The Mariology of the Catholic Church, pp. 81-84.

[5] LG VIII.II.56.

[6] Seth Ward, “The Presentation of Jesus: Jewish Perspectives on Luke 2:22-24,” in Shofar, 21(2), pp. 22-39.

[7] Israel’s mothers have what, for lack of a better term, it is fair to call “rights”: “Children,” the Psalmist reminds us, “are a heritage from the Lord” (127:3), a blessing which makes one less vulnerable to an uncertain future. Likewise, Psalm 128 promises satiation and prosperity to the one who fears the Lord, importantly, via the fruitful vine of his wife and the healthy shoots of his children.

[8] Reply to Pusey, 45-46.

[9] Pange Lingua Gloriosi.

Featured Image: Photo taken by Dietmar Rabich, Chapel in the St Viktor Church, Dülmen, Germany, taken on 3 February 2018; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.


William Glass

William Glass is a Doctoral Candidate in Systematic Theology at Southern Methodist University and a priest serving in the Anglican Church of North America.

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