Mary, esteemed by all Christians as the mother of Jesus Christ, holds an even more exalted position in the faith of Roman Catholics.
Now there is a move afoot among some Catholics to go further. The goal is to persuade Pope John Paul II to infallibly proclaim a new dogma about Mary: that she is the "Co-Redemptrix, Mediatrix of All Graces and Advocate for the People of God."
Already, Catholics have bestowed title upon title on Mary: Our Lady of Sorrows, Mother of Mercy, Our Lady of Perpetual Hope, Queen of Peace, Blessed Virgin Mary. And Catholics regard Mary as an intercessor who advocates on their behalf to her son; they pray to her in times of need, sadness or overwhelming joy.
But the cult of Mary has been looked on with suspicion by Protestants, to whom it smacks of idolatry, and the move to make Mary a "co-redeemer" strikes many Protestants, and even some Catholics, as an attempt to equate her with her son Jesus, an out-and-out heresy.
None of that has deterred the Steubenville, Ohio-based "Vox Populi Maria Mediatrici" (The Voice of the People on behalf of Mary as Mediatrix), which is circulating a petition urging the pope to solemnly define the teaching as a dogma of the church, which all Catholics would be obliged to accept as an article of faith. The group says it has sent the Vatican petitions bearing more than 4.7 million signatures from 157 countries on six continents.
Even many Catholic theologians who study Mary as a specialty--they are referred to as Mariologists--believe that defining Mary as co-redeemer is not a good idea, at least for now.
The Rev. Frederick Jelly, a Dominican priest, a theologian at Mount Saint Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., and one of the world's preeminent Mariologists, uses a Latin phrase to sum up his thoughts on the matter: "Non est tempus opportunus"--this is not the opportune time.
"I think that each one of these proposed titles can be explained in a satisfactory way," he said. "But it certainly would be premature without a lot more prayer and study to define them as dogmas. . . . I would say anybody I've talked to who is a serious Mariologist adopts that."
Last June, a Vatican commission of 23 Mariologists unanimously advised the pope not to proclaim the teaching. And the pope's spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, said last year that neither the pope nor any Vatican commission is studying the proclamation of any new Marian dogmas.
Still, many supporters of the idea believe that John Paul will proclaim it before the end of the millennium.
In its history, the Roman Catholic Church has proclaimed four Marian dogmas, two by ecumenical councils and two by the exercise of papal infallibility. The Council of Ephesus in 431 declared her the Mother of God, and the Council of Constantinople asserted her perpetual virginity in 681. Pope Pius IX in 1854 promulgated the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, the belief in Mary's conception without original sin. And in 1950, Pope Pius XII made into dogma Mary's bodily assumption into heaven.
The teaching of Mary as co-redeemer would be the fifth Marian dogma.
Jelly doesn't see the proclamation of a fifth doctrine happening--not with the theological difficulties surrounding the terms "mediatrix" and "co-redeemer." The words refer to fairly dense theological concepts that are easily misunderstood, he notes.
"The theological problem with 'mediatrix,' I think, is that it tends to put Mary almost in a position of rivalry with her son," Jelly said.
"Vatican II was very careful in not formally defining this . . . because it wanted to keep very carefully, very clearly, Christ [as] the sole mediator of redemption," he said. "Mary and the saints--and I think even the Protestants will admit this--are mediators of intercession for us, of praying for us in the community of saints. But Christ and Christ alone can mediate saving grace.
"Vatican II was very careful in saying [Mary's] mediation of intercession, that of all the saints, is completely dependent upon Christ, is completely derived from it, adds nothing to it, takes nothing away from it, as though his atoning sacrifice upon the cross were somehow insufficient," Jelly said. "It does have a tendency to say, 'Well, what is she mediating that Christ is not?' And that's something that needs further theological discussion before we clarify that."
The notion of co-redeemer is even thornier.
"The big problem here is verbal," Jelly said. "The prefix 'co' in English ordinarily puts the one who is 'co' with another on the same level: co-signer of a check. And, of course, when you make Mary co-redemptrix and it's interpreted that way, then you're in trouble. And that is not Catholic doctrine."
A better idea, he thinks, is to use the prefix "con" in connection with "redemptrix." "Unlike English, the 'c-o-n' prefix in Latin has the connotation of saying that Mary is subordinate to, dependent on" Christ, he says.
Jelly notes that in Catholic popular piety, from the Middle Ages extending into modern times, there has been a tendency to see Mary as a surrogate for Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit. In this sense, he said, the Protestant reformers were correct in reacting against excesses in piety, in which Mary became more important than Christ.
Devotion to Mary "is good as long as you're letting Mary do her thing," Jelly said. It is a distortion, he added, "if you start thinking that, 'Well, I've got to go to Mary because she's the merciful mother and Christ is the just judge and the only way I can be forgiven is if Mary convinces Christ to be merciful toward us.' "
Defining a dogma is a serious matter, Jelly said, customarily invoked only to correct heresy or to enunciate a key teaching concerning faith and morals. Despite the pope's well-known devotion to Mary, he will not do this on a whim, without careful consideration and broad consultation. "The Holy Father himself can't define something on the basis of its being a pet devotion of his," Jelly said.