No new dogmas please

 — Jan. 17, 199817 janv. 1998

Could ecumenism recover if the Catholic Church defined the Virgin Mary as Co-Redeemer? That is the project being pushed in the United States. In a series of Tablet articles, prominent mariologists will consider the issue. This week a Greek Orthodox bishop who teaches in the University of Oxford explains his opposition.

As a child, a friend of mine used to be told by his nanny: Before you say anything, ask yourself: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary? The same three questions may well be asked about the current proposal to define Mary as Co-Redeemer.

Is it true? The answer to that question depends on the way in which we interpret the title Co-Redeemer, along with the related titles Mediator of All Graces and Advocate of the People of God. As a member of the Orthodox Church I have no objection to these three titles in themselves — provided that they are rightly understood.

Indeed, closely similar language occurs in the prayers and hymns used in the Christian East. With the greatest frequency in Orthodox worship we say to the Virgin Mary, Most Holy Mother of God, save us. In our invocations to other members of the Communion of Saints, including St John the Baptist, except on very rare occasions we never say more than … pray for us.

This is not an isolated example. In the preparation before the beginning of the Divine Liturgy we address Mary in parallel terms: Open to us the door of compassion, blessed Mother of God; setting our hope in you, may we not go astray; through you may we be delivered from distress; for you are the salvation of the Christian people. Our evening prayers include the petition, All my hope I put in you, Mother of God: guard me under your protection. And at the end of the highly popular Paraklisis or Service of Intercession to the Theotokos (Mother of God) we sing, Queen of the world, become our mediator (mesitria).

Such language is not new. It has been used by Eastern Christians for many centuries, and scarcely ever has it given rise to scandal or controversy. The phrases are thoroughly traditional, just as the titles which the Pope is now being asked to endorse have a long history in the Latin West.

But precisely how are all these titles and invocations to be understood? Since Jesus Christ is the only Saviour and the one Mediator between God and humankind (1 Tim. 2:5), how can we speak of Mary in this way?

Here we may take as our guideline the striking words of St Paul (or one of his disciples) in Colossians 1:24: I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing that which is lacking in Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his Body, that is, the Church. What is meant by the paradoxical phrase that which is lacking? How can anything be lacking in Christ’s all-sufficient sacrifice upon the Cross, performed once for all time?

Yes, indeed: the sacrifice of the Cross — never for one moment to be sundered in our thinking from the resurrection — is altogether complete and unrepeatable. Yet at the same time through our own self-offering — through our own suffering and our martyrdom, inner or outward — we the baptised make up that which is lacking in Christ’s suffering: we bear witness to his perfect sacrifice and we make it ever present in a bewildered and broken world. In this sense all the members of the Body are co-redeemers with Christ.

Mary, however, is Co-Redeemer in a particular and outstanding way; for, as Mother of the Saviour, she is involved with a unique nearness in her son’s work of salvation. There is, then, a special appropriateness in calling her the Co-Redeemer par excellence, so long as we never forget that she and we share the same vocation. We too are called, in union with her, to complete that which is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.

So much for nanny’s first question, Is it true? Yes, it is, if understood in terms of Colossians 1:24. But is it kind? Is it ecumenically helpful? Alas! Any definition concerning Mary as Co-Redeemer and Mediator, however carefully hedged about by theological qualifications, will inevitably give rise to misunderstanding. And this is likely to happen especially among those Christians who in the past were alienated by devotion to Mary, but who are today beginning, hesitantly and cautiously, to discover in her — to use Tina Beattie’s words in The Tablet for 20 September 1997 — a unique person able to identify with the deepest delights, griefs and aspirations of people across ages, cultures and classes. Is it kind to snuff out so many candles that are just beginning to flicker?

If it is not kind, is it necessary? Ockham’s razor needs to be used when formulating doctrine: dogmas, like other entities, should not be multiplied without reason. Let us keep obligatory definitions to a minimum, whether concerning the Virgin Mary or anything else.

When in 1950 Pope Pius XII issued a formal definition concerning the bodily assumption of the Mother of God, the response of almost all Orthodox Christians was immediate and unambiguous. This is something that we have long believed, they said. It is plainly affirmed in our private devotion and our liturgical worship. But we see no need for any definition.

From apostolic times, Christ’s birth, death and resurrection were openly made known in the Church’s public preaching, proclaimed from the housetops for all the world to hear. But the mystery of his Mother forms part of the Church’s inner, secret tradition, that is revealed only through prayer and doxology to those inside the Church. In the words of the Russian theologian Vladimir Lossky: It is not so much an object of faith as a foundation of our hope, a fruit of faith, ripened in tradition. Let us therefore keep silence, and let us not try to dogmatise about the supreme glory of the Mother of God.

That was how we Orthodox reacted in 1950 to the papal definition of the Assumption. And if today, half a century later, there were to be a further papal definition about Mary as Co-Redeemer, our reaction would probably be exactly the same: let us keep silence, and let us not dogmatise.

Roman Catholics have long honoured Mary with the title Co-Redeemer, and doubtless they will continue to do so. By the same token, we Orthodox will continue to address Our Lady with the time-honoured invocation, Most Holy Mother of God, save us. For both of our traditions, she is a life-giving fountain of hope, joy and love. But, alike in East and West, let us refrain from promulgating Marian dogmas. It will not help the cause of Christian reconciliation, and it is not necessary.

Posted: Jan. 17, 1998 • Permanent link:
Categories: TabletIn this article: Catholic, doctrine, ecumenism, Mary, Orthodox
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