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Vatican II on Mary: Mother of Redemption
"A sort of infinite dignity ... a dignity second to that of God." In such terms did Pope Pius XI speak of the Blessed Virgin Mary in his encyclical Lux veritatis (1931), commemorating the fifteenth centenary of the Council of Ephesus, which taught that Mary is the Mother of God. The Pope did not assert she was infinite, or divine; of course not. He did say that her dignity, as the Mother of God, is in a way similar to an infinite dignity because of' the infinity of God, and that her dignity is second only to the dignity of God Himself.
In the solemn document Ineffabilis (1854), in which was defined the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, Pope Pius IX taught that her holiness even at the beginning of her life was such that "none greater under God can be thought of, and no one, except God, can comprehend it."
Pius IX and Pius XI both spoke with theological precision. Yet, when even the incomprehensible holiness of our heavenly Mother is defined, not all, not nearly all, concerning her marvels has been said. She possesses another quality of which even Catholics devoted to her are little aware. It is this: though she herself, like all men, was redeemed, she actually contributed to redeeming the world!
Mary, the New Eve
Little understood as it may be, Our Lady's role in Redemption began to be elucidated in the writings of the earliest Fathers of the Church: several Popes of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries traced it further; Vatican II had much to say on the matter, notably in Chapter 8 of the Constitution on the Church. Our main concern here is with the Council's pronouncements, hoping in our examination of them not simply to understand the Holy Mother's cooperation in Redemption, but also to correct certain distortions of what the Church actually teaches on her. Far from having "downgraded" Mary in any way, the Council made clearer than ever before how exalted her place is in the scheme of things.
St. Paul loved to think of Christ as the New Adam (e.g., in Rom. 5: 19), who by his obedience undid the damage done by the disobedience of the Old Adam. The earliest Fathers of the Church liked to think of Mary as the New Eve.
St. Justin Martyr, in his Dialogue with Trypho, said that Christ "was made man of the Virgin, so that the disobedience brought on by the Serpent might be cancelled out in the same manner in which it had begun." He continued, contrasting Eve and Mary: "For Eve ... conceiving the word from the serpent, brought forth disobedience and death. But Mary ... when the angel announced to her that the Spirit of the Lord would come upon her ... answered: Be it done to me according to your word."
St. Irenaeus (who studied at the feet of St. Polycarp, who was in turn a disciple of St. John the Apostle) spoke at even greater length than St. Justin of Our Lady as the New Eve: "Just as she[the Old Eve] ... being disobedient. became a cause of death for herself and the whole human race: so Mary ... being obedient, became a cause of salvation for herself and the w hole human race" (Against Heresies). And he drew this suggestive analogy: "... for in no other way can that which is tied be untied unless the very windings of the knot are gone through in reverse: so that the first joints are loosed through the second, and the second in turn free the first.... Thus then, the knot of the disobedience of Eve was untied through the obedience of Mary."
Nearly all the early Fathers likened Mary to a New Eve. Let us consider but one more, Tertullian, who, like Sts. Justin and Irenaeus, pointed out the similarity between the manner of the fall and that of the restoration: ". . God, by a rival method, restored His image and likeness.... For into Eve when she was yet a virgin had crept the word that established death: likewise, into a Virgin there was to be brought the Word of God that produced life; so that what had gone to ruin by the one sex might be restored to salvation by the same sex."
These teachings of Justin, Irenaeus and Tertullian attest to the state of belief in the early Church in Asia Minor, Gaul. Palestine and Africa. Together with the other Fathers, we have in them a mirror, as it were, of the faith of the whole Church. That faith clearly included a belief that Mary cooperated, at least remotely, in the objective redemption of all mankind—in the acquisition of forgiveness and grace for all men. Such, universal belief cannot be in error, for, as Vatican II reminded us (On the Church #12): "The entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief."
But the early Fathers are liable to interpretation, and our own unaided reasoning cannot give us certitude as to the correct interpretation of their use of the "New Eve" analogy in regard to Mary. Did she share immediately in the work of Redemption, even unto Calvary itself? We must turn to the interpretation of the Church to answer this question. As Vatican II said (On Divine Revelation #10): "The task of authoritatively interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on [Scripture or the tradition of the Fathers] has been entrusted exclusively to the living Magisterium of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ." The Council further put it (On the Church #25): "... religious submission of will and of mind must be shown in a special way to the authentic Magisterium of the Roman Pontiff even when he is not defining, that is, it must be show n in such a way that the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to."
A significant papal teaching on Mary's cooperation in Redemption was imparted by Pope Pius IX. In Ineffabilis he wrote: "Just as Christ ... blotted out the handwriting of the decree that was against us, and, as a conqueror, fastened it to the cross, so the most holy Virgin, joined with Him in a most close and indissoluble bond, together with Him and through Him, carried on eternal enmity against the poisonous serpent, and, most fully triumphing over him, crushed his head with her immaculate foot."
Now, if the bond between Christ and Mary is "indissoluble," it should not be broken even on Calvary.
In 1904 St. Pius X promulgated the encyclical Ad diem illum to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the definition of the Immaculate Conception. He spoke there of a "never dissociated manner of life and labors of the Son and the Mother," and he added that, "from this common sharing of will and suffering between Christ and Mary, she merited to become most worthily the Reparatrix, of the lost world. and therefore, Dispensatrix of all the gifts which Jesus gained for us by His death ... she merited for us congruously, as they say, what Christ merited condignly. "
In 1918, Pope Benedict XV declared (Inter Sodalicia): "With her suffering and dying Son. Mary endured suffering and almost death ... she, as much as she could, immolated her Son, so that one can truly affirm that together with Christ she has redeemed the human race."
The great Marian Pope, Pius XII, addressing our theme even before his elevation to the Papacy, said in 1937 (quoted from Osservatore Romano): "After all, the application of the merits of Christ constitutes. together with their acquisition, a single complete work, that of salvation." Obviously, these words refer to both objective (acquisition of the merits) and subjective (application) redemption, as distinguished by theologians. The then Cardinal Pacelli went on: "It was fitting that Mary should cooperate equally in the two phases of the same work: the unity of the divine plan demands it."
As Pope, Pius XII issued his encyclical on the Mystical Body in 1943. Therein, speaking of Our Lady, he stated: "She it was who, free from all sin, original and personal, and always most intimately united with her Son, as the New Eve, offered Him on Golgotha, together with the holocaust of her maternal rights and love." That same year, Pius sent a Cardinal Legate to Fatima to place for him a crown on the famous statue there. He himself spoke to the crowds over the Vatican radio: "Jesus is King throughout all eternity by nature and by right of conquest: through Him, and subordinate to Him, Mary is Queen by grace, by divine relationship, by right of conquest, and by singular choice."
"By right of conquest" ... When applied to Christ, the phrase must refer to the very culmination and heart of the objective Redemption, the great sacrifice itself; when applied to Mary, it must mean that through Him, with Him, and subordinate to Him, she also cooperated in the objective Redemption on Calvary itself.
There is another, even more telling, text of Pius XII bearing on our subject, from the constitution in which he defined the Assumption, but before we consider it, let us turn to our main concern, the examination of what Vatican II said about Our Lady and her role in Redemption.
Most of the Council's teaching is found in chapter 8 of the Constitution on the Church, though there are significant statements in other documents too.
Early in the chapter (#53) the Council quotes St. Augustine: "She cooperated by love that the faithful might be born in the Church." The Council goes farther and adds (#56): "The Holy Fathers [of the first centuries] saw Mary as not just passively employed by God, but as cooperating with freely given faith and obedience, for human salvation. For she, as St. Irenaeus said, 'being obedient, became a cause of salvation for herself and the whole human race.'" This is the passage we cited earlier from St. Irenaeus. On the Church continues: "Hence not a few ancient Fathers in their preaching gladly say with him: 'the knot of the disobedience of Eve was untied through the obedience of Mary: that which the virgin Eve bound by her lack of faith. this the virgin Mary loosed by her faith.'"
The next paragraph (#57) enunciates a broad principle: "This joining of the Mother with the Son in the work of salvation is obvious, from the time of the virginal conception of Christ all the way to His death." The Council then marks every phase of the life and mysteries of the Redeemer, at each point showing the cooperation of Mary. Later we shall recall that summary, but now we want to note the stress placed on the constancy of her union with Him. Obviously, her cooperation as the New Eve could not have begun at the Annunciation, but then been interrupted and broken oft long before the great sacrifice. Indeed, the Council emphasizes (#58): "In faith she bore with her union with her Son, even to the cross, w here she stood, in accord with the divine plan, greatly grieved with her only begotten, and joined herself to His sacrifice with a motherly heart, consenting to the immolation of the Victim that had been born of her."
Again in #61 On the Church stresses that Mary shared in Christ's work of Redemption at every point in her son's life: "In conceiving Christ, in bringing Him forth, in nourishing Him, in presenting Him to the Father in the temple, in suffering with her Son as He died on the cross, she cooperated in the work of the Saviour in an altogether singular way, by obedience, faith, hope and burning love, to restore supernatural life to souls. As a result, she is our Mother in the order of grace."
Rich indeed is the content of this conciliar teaching. We note that the Council, like the early Fathers, speaks of the work of the Redemption as extending through the whole life of the Redeemer. Mary shared at every point.
The Council says Mary's sharing in Christ's work was "altogether singular." It said this because we have always been told, correctly, that we all cooperate in our own salvation. But our cooperation is not only lesser in degree than Mary's, it is different in kind as well.
Her cooperation was immediate and in the objective Redemption, the once-for-all earning of the infinite treasury of forgiveness and grace. Our cooperation is merely in the application of those graces.
We note, too, that the Council said she cooperated "by obedience, faith, hope and burning love." We have already seen the special stress the Council places on obedience. In an earlier chapter it had said of her Son that, "by His obedience He brought about Redemption" (an echo of St. Paul, Rom. 5:19).
Why such stress on obedience? To grasp the answer, we must undertake a brief excursion into speculative theology and try to fill in the outlines offered by the Council. Granted, in doing so we no longer have the guarantee of truth we have when we are simply repeating the teachings of the Council, but the effort is still desirable.
Our excursion is by way of a neglected part of theology, that of the covenants. (Theologians and Scripture scholars have made little use of covenant theology because parts of it are so much debated. For details of the reasons for positions taken here, see W. Most, "Redemption in a Covenant Framework" in Catholic Biblical Quarterly, Jan. 1967, pp. 1-19.) After the people of Israel had been delivered from Egypt by the mighty works of God, they came to the foot of Mt. Sinai. Moses ascended the mountain, and was with God there 40 days and 40 nights. God spoke to the people through him (Ex. 19:5): "If you really obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my special possession, more so than all people, though all the earth is mine." In these words God seems to say: If you keep my covenant law, you will receive special favor.
It seemed to be a kind of pact: If you do this, I will do that.
It is precisely this feature that has worried many scholars. God cannot owe anything to His creatures, they have contended; such a pact would bind Him so He would owe things to them.
We reply: It is true, God cannot owe anything to any creature. Yet, it He freely chooses to enter into such an arrangement as this, to give His word, then He will owe it to Himself—though strictly, not to His people-to do what He has pledged, provided they keep their part of the arrangement.
We note there are two features to this old covenant: 1) God binds Himself to show favor to the people of God; 2) He does so on condition of their obedience to His covenant law.
As we know, the first people of God did not do well in fulfilling their part of the pact. Again and again they went after false gods, even though He sent prophets to warn them of coming ruin. At length He would unleash the evil of which He had warned them. When they had suffered long, they would repent and turn to Him. Then He, in His goodness, always sent them a deliverer. Yet, sad to say, once they had been rescued it was not very long until they again returned to their previous infidelity.
Finally there came the greatest of the series of disasters: the final onslaught of Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon, who deported all but a few of the Jews to Babylon. During that era God sent one of the greatest of the prophets, Jeremiah. Through him God said (Jer. 31:31-33): "I will make a new covenant, not like the. covenant I made with their fathers.... My covenant they broke, and I was a master over them [instead of a Father] says the Lord. But this is the covenant ... I will place my law within them and write it upon their hearts. And I will be their God and they shall be my people."
We notice that the new covenant is to be different. The old was broken, and it is implied that the new will be unbreakable. The old was written on tablets of stone; the new would be written on hearts. But just as in the old, so also in the new, there are two essential features: both covenants bring into being a people of God; both do so on condition of obedience. In the old covenant, it was the obedience of God's first people. In the new, it is basically the obedience of Christ, the Head of the new people of God. Hence Vatican II said (On the Church #3): "by His obedience, He brought about Redemption."
In the Cenacle He pledged that obedience, on the morrow He carried out what He had pledged, by dying. He made His pledge in a dramatic, symbolic fashion during a Passover meal. Since we are not so apt at symbolism as were the old people of God, we do well to translate the symbols into our forms of expression Christ takes bread and wine and speaks to the Father: Father. I know the command you have laid upon me: I am to die tomorrow. Very well, here is body. here is blood, separate. under the appearance of the death to which I now turn myself over, I accept, I obey.
We were not present on either that Holy Thursday or Good Friday. But it is the will of the Father that we join with Christ in this offering—St. Paul makes clear that the Christian must do all with Christ. He must suffer with Him. die with Him, be buried with Him. rise with Him. All this the Christian does in a triple way: 1) sacramentally, in the death and resurrection of Baptism (Paul is thinking of course of the imagery of burial and emergence in Baptism by immersion); 2) mystically, in dying to sin with Christ, and rising to a new life, so that we live our present life with the eyes of a man who has just risen from the tomb on the last day—how different all values will seem then!—and 3) physically, by dying now, and rising on the last day. Hence Paul told the Romans (8:9): "If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ." That is, a man must follow the lead of the Spirit of Christ, who leads him to do things as He did. But Christ redeemed us by obedience; hence the Christian must be preeminently like Christ in this, as well as in all other things. So Paul adds (8:13): "If by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the flesh, you will live. Whoever are led by the Spirit of God, they are sons of God."
Now, Vatican II tells us that the Mass is the renewal of the New Covenant (On Liturgy #10). Since, as we said. we were not there when the covenant was made, Christ arranged for its constant renewal, the Mass, in which the priest "acts in the person of Christ" (On the Church #10) and repeats the same dramatized acceptance of the will of the Father that Christ Himself used in making the new covenant; this so we may join in His obedience. Into that point we focus our whole lives, past, present, future. We bring there the offering of our past obedience, with regrets for its defects, and our pledge of better future obedience, pouring both into the present instant of the renewal.
We can see the offering in the renewal of the new covenant is twofold. It is the offering of Christ the Head, with that of the members of Christ.
Someone may object: the offering of Christ is infinite. Infinity plus anything finite does not increase. We reply: quite true—in mathematics. But this is not the terrain of mathematics, this is the realm of divine generosity, which seems unwilling to stop as long as there is anything more that can be added to make it richer.
Now, if the Mass is, as Vatican II says, the renewal of the new covenant, obviously the renewal should repeat correctly, truly, that which it claims to renew and repeat. In other words, the making of the new covenant and its renewal should be really parallel—else we should call it not a renewal, but something different. And here is where we discover a magnificent conclusion: if in the renewal or repetition there is a twofold offering, then, in the making of the new covenant there must have been also a twofold offering. What could that second element be in the making of the covenant? Vatican II seems to indicate it. It said that Christ (On the Church #3), "by His obedience brought about Redemption." It stressed more than once that a basic aspect of Mary's cooperation with Him was her obedience. Hence, it seems inescapable: the making of the new covenant also included a twofold offering, that of Christ and Mary, so that the two melted together, as it were, to form the one great price of Redemption, to use St. Paul's expression (1 Cor. 6:20).
And now we cite that passage of Pius XII from Munificentissimus Deus (1950) which we earlier reserved: "We must remember especially that since the second century, the Virgin Mary has been presented by the Holy Fathers as the New Eve, who, although subject to the New Adam, was most closely associated with Him in that struggle against the infernal enemy which, as foretold in the protoevangelium, was to result in that most complete victory over sin and death, which are always associated with each other in the writings of the Apostle of the Gentiles."
The sentence is long and heavy. Let us stop to digest it before reading further. The Pope recalls the New Eve teaching of the Fathers. He says that, as foretold in the protoevangelium (Gen. 3:15: "I will put enmity between you and the serpent ..."), she was closely bound with the New Adam, her Son. in the struggle against sin, the sacrifice of Calvary. Then the Pope adds: "Wherefore, just as the glorious Resurrection of Christ was an essential part and final sign of this victory, so also that struggle which was common to the Blessed Virgin and her Son had to be closed by the glorification of her virginal body."
The Pope is telling us that Christ's death and Resurrection are really both part of the total victory: His death brought the glorification of Resurrection to Him. But—and here is the key to the thought—His great sacrifice, which Pius calls the "struggle," was a work that was "common to the Blessed Virgin and her Son." A work in common should bring a result in common. To Him, the struggle brought the glorification of the Resurrection; hence to her, it strictly "had to" bring the glorification of the Assumption. Or simply: a common cause had to have a common effect. The cause, the struggle, was common to Jesus and Mary; it brought the common effect of glorification to both.
Here indeed we have magnificent light on the full meaning of her cooperation in the Redemption. We speak of that cooperation not just in some loose, vague sense—it was true in a sense so strict, so full, that it could literally be the support of a solemn definition. For the truth of the Assumption flows from the fact that the struggle, Calvary, was a work in common, so strictly in common that it had to produce a common glorification for Jesus and Mary, Resurrection for Him, Assumption for her.
From what we have already considered, a further deduction is possible. If the Mass is the renewal of the new covenant, as Vatican II says, and if in the original making of that covenant, Mary had a role, then: can the renewal be carried out without the Marian element? Can it be said to be truly a renewal, a repeat, without her who had so great a part in the original? It seems hard to see how it could be done.
In what would that role of hers consist? Every sacrifice includes two elements, the internal dispositions and the outward sign that expresses those dispositions. On Calvary she provided the very flesh in which He could die. On our altars, it is still the same flesh that He received from her that becomes present.
The inward dispositions that are expressed by that sign were, in the case of Christ, His obedience, His adoration, thanksgiving, love, desire for reparation toward the Father. Mary on Calvary joined closely in those dispositions, at immense cost, as we have seen. Nov. that He is in Heaven, He has not changed those attitudes toward His Father: they are the very same as when He died So are her attitudes the same.
Hence, since Mary shares in both the interior dispositions and in the outward sign, we see there is no Mass without her Therefore, the more closely we are united to Christ in the Mass, the more closely we are united to her, whether we realize it or not.
We have noted from section 61 of the Constitution on the Church how the Council taught Mary's singular cooperation in redeeming us. In the very next sentence, it was added: "As a result, she is our Mother in the order of grace " These words, "as a result." carry a rich meaning. We reflect that in the natural order, a mother deserves that title because of two functions. First, she shares in bringing a new life into being; second, she takes care of that new life as long as there is need and as long as she is able.
As to the first of these functions, Mary shared on Calvary, at the cost of immense pain, in bringing new life into being, "to restore supernatural life to souls." In other words, it is because she shared in bringing new life to us that she can be called our Mother in the order of grace.
As to Mary's other maternal function: we never lose our need of her, for we never outgrow our need of grace. As the Council says in paragraph 62: "This motherhood of Mary in the order of grace continues without ceasing, from the consent she gave in faith at the annunciation, and which she continued unhesitatingly at the cross, until the eternal consummation of all the elect.... With her motherly love she cares for the brothers of her Son who are still on the way, still engaged in dangers and difficulties until they be brought to the blessed fatherland. For this reason, the Blessed Virgin is invoked in the Church under the titles of Advocate, Auxiliatrix, Helper and Mediatrix."
In light of all we have considered here, we see how fitting it is that On the Church should declare (#67): "This Most Holy Synod ... admonishes all the sons of the Church that they should generously cultivate devotion, especially liturgical devotion, toward the Blessed Virgin, and that they should consider of great importance the practices and exercises of piety toward her that were recommended by the Magisterium over the course of centuries..."