Virgin Mary

Would proclaiming her 'co-redeemer' be a promotion?


When theological issues shake the Catholic Church, they shake the larger religious community as well. That's not only because Catholics constitute nearly a quarter of the U.S. population, but because of the church's role in the evolution of Christianity.

Christians and non-Christians alike should be alert to the Catholic Church's internal debate over whether Pope John Paul II should proclaim the Virgin Mary a "co-redeemer." Proclaiming her such has the potential to split the church and to reverse the pope's efforts to improve relations with the Eastern Orthodox and Protestant churches.

The debate is controversial in part because the term "co-redeemer" sounds very much as if it puts Mary on a level equal with her son, Jesus Christ. Indeed, the New York Times said that the designation would make her "something close to a fourth member of the Holy Trinity." Newsweek said that "in place of the Holy Trinity, it would appear, there would be a kind of Holy Quartet, with Mary playing the multiple roles of daughter of the Father, mother of the Son and spouse of the Holy Spirit."

But Catholic theologians caution that the pope has no intention of enlarging the Trinity or of making Mary the equal of Jesus. Catholic theology doesn't treat Mary as divine. The term co-redeemer would signify that Mary participates with Jesus in our redemption, not as a substitute for or an equal to Jesus, they say.

The controversy may be over semantics more than anything else. That is because of the ambiguity of the prefix "co." Webster's dictionary defines it as meaning both "with" (as in co-pilot) and "in or to the same degree" (as in co-chair). That the proponents of the new dogma mean for the prefix to signify "with" and not the other may not be enough to alleviate the suspicions of other Christians, particularly Protestants who believe that Catholics already over-elevate Mary by attributing to her an ability to mediate between God and mankind.

Whatever the pope decides, people should be careful to examine what he says before they react.

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