Terms “Mother of the Church,” “Mediatrix” Present Problem for Council

The last chapter of the schema on the Church has presented the council Fathers with a thorny problem.

It is devoted to the Virgin Mary, under the title: “The Blessed Virgin Mary, Bearer of God (Deipara), in the Mystery of Christ and the Church.” It replaces the formerly independent schema on Mary.

Discussion of the new text occupied more than two days of debate by the council Fathers. The debate centered on two points: Can Mary be called “Mother of the Church”? Should the schema speak of her as “Mediatrix”?

The sharp divergence of opinion expressed on the chapter must now be reconciled by the Theological Commission and brought back to the council for a vote. The question of the motherhood of Mary in relation to the Church is not raised by the present text of the schema, but by the absence of that expression from its title. For the phrase, “Mother of the Church,” appeared in the last version of the formerly separate schema on Mary. It was not in the original version, but only in the second, and it has now been omitted. The new title corresponds to the votes of the bishops during the second council session, when it was decided to treat the topic of Mariology in the context of the mystery of the Church.

However, Mariologists follow two main tendencies, called “Christo-typical” and “Ecclesio-typical.”

The first sees Mary as a beautiful imitation of Christ and describes her holiness, her function and her privileges on the pattern of the corresponding qualities and functions of Jesus.

The second sees her as the image of the Church, and understands her meaning in the history of salvation on the model of the meaning and place of the Church.

The current title of the chapter therefore shows one purpose of the text: To follow a middle way between Christo-typical and Ecclesio-typical Mariologies by drawing on the insights of both. The fact that the bishops’ speeches have not been concerned with this indicates that the synthesis of the two points of view has been fairly successful.

The bishops who have asked for a return to the title of Mary as “Mother of the Church” have done it on two grounds.

On the one hand, this title seems to them likely to increase the devotion of Catholics. But Augustin Cardinal Bea, president of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, felt it necessary to state that the question before the council is not the devotion of anybody but the accuracy of doctrine.

On the other hand, this title has been advocated because it has been found by some speakers to be identical with the title, universally recognized, of Mary “Mother of the Faithful.”

Among the more doubtful arguments used to support the title, “Mother of the Church,” it has been said that the Church is the family of God, in which there must be a mother. Obviously, this literal understanding of the word “family” takes no account of the symbolic or analogical use of theological terms. It has also been said that Mary must be the “Mother of the Church,” since she is already the “Mother of all men, the Mother of Protestants, of Mohammedans, of unbelievers,” and so forth.

Reduced to its theological proportions, the problem is simple. Does such a title correspond to the Church’s tradition?

As was pointed out by Bishop Sergio Mendez Arceo of Cuernavaca, Mexico, there are two known instances of this title being used in the 9th and the 10th centuries. The bishop could not find other uses of it until the end of the 19th century, with Pope Leo XIII. Recently Pope Paul VI invited theologians to find out if this appellation could be used meaningfully. An invitation to study this title implies at least that its legitimacy is not obvious to the Pope.

The contents of such a title depend primarily on one’s understanding of the Church. If the Church is seen simply as an aggregate of all faithful or even as the organ and channel of salvation, Mary could be called Mother of the Church. By bringing Christ into the world, she was made the spiritual Mother of all those who will be saved by Him, and she became a central element in the salvation of mankind.

But to see the Church only in this individualistic perspective does not do full justice to the mystery of the Incarnation. The Church is also the holy community of God and man communing with each other in mutual indwelling. Coming down from heaven as the New Jerusalem, the Church brings to men, and first of all to Mary in the mystery of the Annunciation, the fulfillment of the promises of God and the implementation of His covenant with man.

Of such a Church, Mary can only be the daughter. And it is a notable fact that the title “Mother,” from the time of the early Fathers to ours, has been given to the Church, mother of all the redeemed, who have been reborn in her through the waters of baptism.

After the bishops’ exchange on this question, it seems unlikely that the title “Mother of the Church” will be restored in the final text of the constitution on the Church.

The other major point on which the bishops have disagreed in relation to the chapter on Mary concerns the title “Mediatrix.”

The schema is very careful here. It does not itself call Mary “Mediatrix,” but it states the fact that custom has given her this title. And it cautions that this word must not be understood as taking away from, or adding to, the dignity of Christ as the only Mediator.

In spite of this prudence, several cardinals and bishops, some of them speaking in the name of a large number of their colleagues, have asked for the total removal of the word “Mediatrix” from the schema. Others, on the contrary, have insisted that it be kept and, if possible, reinforced.

This question arises originally from the Catholic (and also the Orthodox) practice of praying frequently to Mary, asking for her intercession in our favor. Orthodox devotion has done this for centuries. Yet Orthodox theology has never tried to express this by building up a speculative system concerning the place of the Virgin Mary in the plan of salvation.

But the trend of Latin theology has always been to rationalize the broad assumptions of Christian piety and to organize them into a rational system of thought. Piety, both liturgical and private, tends to see Mary in the halo of poetry, and most of the titles given to Mary first arose in the lyrical context of Marian piety.

Thus Mary has been called, not only “Mother of Jesus” and “the Virgin,” as in the New Testament, not only “Forth bringer of God” (Theotokos), as at the Council of Ephesus, which employed this expression to safeguard the integrity of the belief in the Incarnation, but also “Intercessor,” “Auxiliatrix,” “Advocate,” “Mother of the Faithful,” “Mediatrix.”

In their popular use, these titles are without a well-defined theological meaning. And the Litanies of Loretto provide a source-list of poetic titles of the Virgin which have never been studied theologically and probably never can be.

The difficulty arises when one tries to give a precise theological content to these devotional titles. The name in question, “Mediatrix,” clearly refers to Mary’s prayer with and for all Christians. It is sometimes qualified as “Mediatrix of All Grace” (singular). All grace being summed up in Christ, this means no more than the traditional names “Forthbringer of Christ” or “Christ-bearing Virgin.”

It has also been qualified as “Mediatrix of All Graces” (plural), which would seem to imply something quite different, namely that all graces do in fact come to men through Mary. At this point, theology, and with it the Council, runs into difficulties.

It is of course impossible to conceive that all graces without exception must come through Mary. For the grace of God was already given in the Old Testament, before she was born. And Mary herself received grace, of which surely she could not be the “Mediatrix” in her own favor.

In view of this, the extreme school of Mariology, for which Mary’s mediation is not only a fact of Christian life but also a necessity in God’s plan for the salvation of the world, places itself at the limits of orthodoxy. For were such a necessity taken literally, it would follow that Mary is not only redeemed by Christ, as implied in the definition of her Immaculate Conception, but also self-redeemed. And it would follow that she must have been somehow pre-existent to her own birth.

It is in keeping with the logic of this extreme type of Mariology that the title “Co-redemptrix” prolongs that of “Mediatrix.” Thus, the mediation of Mary does not remain posterior to Redemption, being the outcome of Mary’s elevation to heaven by her Assumption, but it becomes intrinsic to Redemption itself.

The chapter on Mary does not mention co-redemption but only mediation. It neither recommends nor condemns it, but simply warns not to take it in a way that would be detrimental to faith in Christ, the only Mediator.

The immediate question, then, is: Should this title remain in the council’s constitution, or should it not?

Some practical difficulties militate against its retention: How can one explain to Mohammedans and others, Archbishop Adrianus Djajasepoetra of Jakarta, Indonesia, asked, that we believe in only one Mediator between God and man, and also in a second Mediator subordinate to the first? How can we be certain that our own people, especially in regions where Marian devotion has a tendency to run wild, make no mistake about the only mediation of Christ, when they proclaim Mary “Mediatrix”?

The gravity of the situation was indirectly pointed out by Bishop Francisco Rendeiro of Faro, Portugal. He complained that removal of the word “Mediatrix” would scandalize Catholics in many parts of the world, who believe that all graces come to them through Mary. The statement implies that Catholics in other parts of the world do not hold such a belief. The question then is why should these be scandalized by retention of the name.

Among the arguments for keeping the word “Mediatrix,” several bishops have mentioned its use by recent popes, especially Leo XIII, Pius X and Pius XI. This raises an issue that has been basic to all the Council’s work: Is the use of an expression, a theological point of view or an explanation in a recent papal document a valid reason for an ecumenical council to do the same? If the council’s function were to provide a digest of papal documents, it would limit its work to the culling of papal writings, which would restrict its authority to that of the documents cited or referred to.

As was pointed out by Cardinal Bea, a conciliar constitution must be a more solemn document than a papal encyclical. An encyclical, written for the circumstances of the day, may use the transitory language of its period. This commits the pope who publishes it, but not the whole Church.

On the contrary, a solemn proclamation by an ecumenical council is expected to stand for centuries, inspiring and regulating Christian life and theology for a long time. For the same reason, it should look for its sources, not in the recent past, but in the oldest Tradition, and specifically in the writings of the Church Fathers and the decisions of previous ecumenical councils.

A council should also be consistent. It should therefore take care that what it says in one place is in line with the contents of its other constitutions, decrees and declarations. Now the already promulgated Constitution on the Liturgy, the proposed Constitution on the Church in its first chapters, the proposed Constitution on Revelation, which is scheduled to be debated later in the third session, center all piety and doctrine on the testimony of Sacred Scripture.

It would be inconsistent for the council to approve in its chapter on the Virgin Mary the use of a term which contradicts the New Testament.

As several speakers have pointed out, the term “Mediatrix” as applied to Mary is incompatible with the teaching of St. Paul: “As there is only one God, so there is only one Mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ, who gave himself as a ransom for all” (1 Tim., 2:5-6).

Admittedly, a strong expression is used in Orthodox piety: “Christ is the only Mediator, and Mary the only Mediatrix after Him.” This could set a precedent for a doctrine of “Mary Mediatrix,” if it were a doctrine in the Orthodox Church. But it is only a pious ejaculation. A council should not endorse an expression, however poetical and devotional, which runs counter to the New Testament.

In defense, the upholders of the title assert that the two are compatible. It is only under Christ that Mary mediates; she mediates as “Servant of Christ the Redeemer.” But this begs the question, for it assumes that Christ has such a servant in the work of Redemption itself. That the Church, Mary and also all Christians are, in their task of spreading the Gospel, associated to the Redemption of the world is undoubted. That such a contribution to the work of Christ and the Holy Spirit is intrinsic to Redemption itself and makes a creature into a secondary mediator is a totally different conclusion that many bishops feel unwarranted by the premise.

One cannot foresee how the council will finally decide on the hotly debated question of the legitimacy of the word “Mediatrix.” It is recognized that it does correspond to something which is true of the Virgin Mary, and not necessarily of her alone. But many contend that, in spite of this, the appellation remains unbiblical and misleading. Nevertheless others maintain that the name of “Mediatrix” should be kept because it extols the glory of the Mother of God.

The Doctrinal Commission of the council must decide what to do in view of the contradictory positions adopted by the council Fathers. Where the majority will lie if the matter is put to a vote is not certain.

But it is certain that if the constitution retains the title of “Mediatrix,” it will do so by way of description, without recommending its use and with a strong warning not to explain it against the basic faith in the unique Mediation of Christ.

At any rate, it seems likely that theology, if not piety, will learn from the debates at the council to be more sober in borrowing Marian titles from the language of popular devotion.

Father George H. Tavard

Father Tavard is author of a number of theological works, chairman of the theology department of Mount Mercy College, Pittsburgh, an official consultor for the Second Vatican Council, and a member of the U.S. bishops’ press panel in Rome.

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