22-Jul-97 -- EWTN News Feature

By: Patrick Coffin

Members of an international lay movement based in Steubenville, Ohio, say the time has come for a definition of the Catholic Church's fifth Marian dogma. Members of Vox Populi Mariae Mediatrici ("The Voice of the People for Mary Mediatrix"), are encouraging Pope John Paul II to define as a dogma of Catholic faith that the Blessed Virgin Mary is Coredemptrix, Mediatrix of all graces, and Advocate for the People of God. Hand-signed petitions from over 155 countries are being sent to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at a rate of 100,000 per month.

Founded in 1993 by Dr. Mark Miravalle, a professor of theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville, the grassroots movement has amassed four and a half million signatures. Supporters include Cardinal John O'Connor of New York, Mother Teresa of Calcutta; the late Cardinal Luigi Ciappi, OP, papal theologian emeritus; Cardinal Jaime Sin of Manila, the Philippines; Cardinal Edouard Gagnon, president of the Pontifical Committee for International Eucharistic Congresses; over 480 bishops including 40 cardinals; prominent lay leaders and ordinary faithful from all parts of the world.

The group recently hosted its Second International Leaders' Conference May 30-31, 1997, at the Domus Mariae complex in Rome. The aim was to highlight the essence of the proposed dogma, how it is grounded in ordinary infallible Catholic teaching, and why sooner is better than later to define it.

Several dozen bishops representing 40 countries, along with two cardinals (Alfons Maria Stickler of Austria and Luis Aponte Martinez of Puerto Rico), met to hear presentations from the French Marian scholar Bertrand de Margerie, SJ; Most Reverend Paul T. R. Kim, bishop of Cheju, Korea; Dr. Scott Hahn, a theology professor at Franciscan University; Russian Orthodox scholar Dr. Vladimir Zelinsky, and others.

Dr. Miravalle told Catholic World News that his founding Vox Populi in 1993 was merely a renewed effort that began under Belgium's Cardinal Mercier in the 1920s. "It was the taking of the baton by members of the People of God," he says. "A Chinese bishop wrote to me early in 1993 and said, 'I have been praying for this movement and the fruit of this movement in a dogmatic definition since my ordination to the priesthood 40 years ago. What took you so long?'"

Bishops began writing endorsements, calling for the movement to be spread to their dioceses. Miravalle, who is married with seven children, likens Vox Populi's role to that of the last Olympic torch runner who happens to enter the stadium for the big finish. He sees himself more as catcher than pitcher.

Miravalle edited two companion anthologies that marshal the work of scholars such as biblicists Rev. Ignace de la Potterie, S.J. and Rev. William Most; Rev. Arthur Burton Calkins of the Pontifical Commission "Ecclesia Dei;" Rev. Michael O'Carroll, C.S.Sp.; personalist philosopher Dr. Josef Seifert; Anglican scholar Dr. John Macquarrie of Oxford University, and others. The volumes aim to develop the theological and anthropological bases for the dogma in Scripture, magisterial pronouncements, and patristic sources.

Since apostolic times, the Catholic Church has nursed an intuition, primitive at first, that the mother of Jesus was somehow intimately linked to his mission. The four current Marian dogmas (her divine maternity, defined in 431; perpetual virginity in 649; Immaculate Conception in 1854; and Bodily Assumption in 1950) relate organically to the others. Because she is Theotokos it is fitting that she be perpetually virgin; because she was preserved from original sin, it is fitting that she be preserved from the final effects of sin, namely, the decay of the body. Vox Populi proposes that the dogma would answer the questions, What is she doing in heaven, body and soul? If she is Queen of Heaven, how does she exercise her reign?

In his 1994 apostolic letter, Tertio Millennio Adveniente, Pope John Paul II called his preparations for the Year 2,000 "a hermeneutical key" of his pontificate. According to Vox Populi, just as Mary's cooperation with God preceded the Incarnation, so a dogma explicitating this cooperation would ideally precede the Jubilee celebration of the Incarnation. They ask, what better time by what better Pope to make explicit the whole truth about Mary in her relation to Christ and to his Body.

According to Vox Populi, the formula "Coredemptrix," "Mediatrix," and "Advocate" brings into clarity the roles that have always been ascribed to the Blessed Virgin, both in devotion and doctrine. The titles, they say, are not an innovation but an articulation of ancient Christian teaching that is already taught by the ordinary magisterium of the Catholic Church. Getting past the intimidating- sounding titles to the simple meaning of the titles-- especially in the context of children's catechesis-- may be another story. The title Advocate, of course, is most familiar to Catholics. The Rosary, the tradition of venerating icons, and the wearing of the Scapular strongly supports this aspect of the dogma. But the other two titles represent a semantic challenge, at least in English-speaking countries.

The term Coredemptrix, for instance, may seem to suggest that Christ does not redeem alone, but somehow needs a partner. But the word means "Woman with the Redeemer" and its Latin prefix, cum, does not denote equality or partnership, but accompaniment (as in co-star or co-pilot). Etymologically, it suggests dependence and subordination, and refers to Mary's unique association with Jesus Christ. While the earliest known recorded use of the term Coredemptrix did not appear in the fourteenth century, it's meaning was present in Catholic devotion for centuries before, and appeared, in seed, in the motif of Mary as the "New Eve" by Church Fathers such as St. Irenaeus, Ambrose, John Chrysostom and Gregory of Nyssa). These Fathers contrast Eve's disobedience with Mary's obedience, the latter of which spelled a reversal of fortune for the human race.

Vox Populi literature stresses that Jesus owes his historical existence as much to his earthly mother as to his heavenly Father. Her unconditional fiat to the Angel Gabriel (Lk 1:28) provided Jesus with his body, the instrument of salvation (Heb 10:10). Throughout her life she united her will to his in an unrepeatable way, a union seen most movingly at the scene of his death. Benedict XV taught in Inter Sodalicia that she relinquished "her maternal rights at Calvary, she suffered and almost died with her suffering and dying Son." In Redemptoris Mater, John Paul II called this "the deepest kenosis of faith in human history." Hence, she is Coredemptrix.

St. Augustine refered to her as "the cooperator in the Redemption" and wrote, "Him whom the heavens cannot contain, the womb of one woman bore; she carried Him in whom we are; she ruled our Ruler, she gave milk to our Bread." According to Lumen Gentium, after her Assumption into heaven, "she did not lay aside this saving office, but by her manifold intercession continues to bring us the gifts of eternal salvation." Hence, she is Mediatrix.

One of the criteria for infallible ordinary Catholic teaching is that a given tenet must be held, in the phrase of St. Vincent of Lerins, semper et ubique et ab omnibus, always, everywhere, by everyone. Vox Populi is trying to make the case that Mary as Coredemptrix, Mediatrix, and Advocate easily fulfills this criteria, since the titles are already woven into ordinary infallible teaching. Much of the suspicion toward Catholic teaching generally seems rooted in a fear of the both-and principle. While many non-Catholics insist on faith vs works, Bible vs Church, reason vs revelation-- and Jesus vs Mary-- the Catholic Church combines the pairs, and then some. Objections to Marian doctrine are of a piece with objections to other Catholic distinctives such as the priesthood and the communion of saints. For if Christ is unable, in principle, to share his work of mediation and intercession, then Mary is excluded out of hand.

Signers of the petition point out that God's favored modus operandi has always been to employ mediators, i.e., prophets, patriarchs, and angels. Also, the Pauline maxim, "there is but one mediator between God and man" (1 Tim 2:5) does not cancel the idea of secondary mediation, such as when one person prays for another. Further, the Greek word here for "one" is "heis," meaning first or primary, not "monos," meaning sole or only.

But the Vox Populi phenomenon has as much to do with the magisterium itself as with Mary; in particular, with the role of the Supreme Pontiff. The Second Vatican Council affirmed that the teaching authority of the Pope is not contingent upon consultation with other bishops nor with the lay faithful, but that his definitions are "irreformable by their very nature and not by reason of the assent of the Church, in as much as they were made with the assistance of the Holy Spirit promised to him in the person of Blessed Peter." And yet, "the assent of the Church can never be lacking to such definitions on account of the same Holy Spirit's influence, through which Christ's whole flock is maintained in the unity of faith and makes progress in it" (Lumen Gentium 25).

For Miravalle, any similarity between Vox Populi and lobby groups such as Call to Action collapses against the evangelical counsel of obedience. "The manifestation of the authentic sensus fidelium demands an unconditional obedience and loyalty to the Holy Father," he says. "The petitioning for anything outside of the deposit of faith is immediately disqualified."

Perhaps the most frequent objection against the dogma's definition -- including Catholics who privately accept the titles--- arises from a concern over ecumenism. The hard-won advances in relations with separated brethren since Vatican II are said to be delicate enough to be severely compromised, if not demolished, by a Marian dogma. The concern is not entirely groundless.

Due in part to sensitivity toward Protestant conciliar observers, the word "Coredemptrix" was dropped from the final schema of Lumen Gentium. The late Max Thurian of the Taize community in France personally asked Pius XII not to define the Assumption, and yet was present as an official conciliar observer who witnessed the promulgation of the Council's landmark "Decree on Ecumenism." Ironically, he went on to become a Catholic priest. Father Max Thurian died on August 15, 1996, the Feast of the Assumption.

New York's Cardinal John O'Connor, anticipating the ecumenical minefield, wrote in his Vox Populi endorsement letter that, "Clearly, a formal definition would be articulated in such precise terminology that other Christians would lose their anxiety that we do not distinguish adequately between Mary's unique association with the redemption and the redemptive power exercised by Christ alone."

Cardinal Edouard Gagnon stated confidently in his foreword to Miravalle's Volume II: Papal, Pneumatological, Ecumenical: "The Marian dogma that is to come is important, and all are surely called to reflect on it and prepare for it, particularly the sensus fidelium, the sense of the Church, so as to obtain from God and from the Holy Father the proclamation of this dogma, the doctrine of which is not new." Miravalle himself told Catholic World News that he has "a great moral certainty" that the dogma will dawn before the Jubilee Year 2,000, "not because of our work but because of the great incongruity of celebrating the 2,000 year anniversary of the Incarnation without the proper recognition of the Woman and Mother who made it possible preceding the Incarnation." But the confidence and certainty are not universal. The June 4 issue of L'Osservatore Romano published the findings of a special commission allegedly established by the Holy See in August 1996, the Theological Commission of the Pontifical International Marian Academy. The group formed during the 12th International Mariological Congress, held in August 1996 in Czestochowa, Poland. Its 15 theologians (along with three Orthodox and two Protestants) nixed the idea of a papal definition, stating that the proposed titles are ambiguous, lack sufficient magisterial weight, and would entail "ecumenical difficulties."

The Catholic News Service coverage quoted Father Salvatore Perella of Rome's Marianum Theological Faculty, who claimed that the term "Coredeemer" (sic) has been avoided for 50 years in papal teaching. CNS reported that, in an accompanying article in the L'Osservatore Romano issue, Father Perella said that "no creature, not even by her active cooperation, can be named on the level with the Word of God in his particular redemptive function" and that "Mary herself, like all those who are saved, was redeemed by Christ; according to Christian doctrine, he alone is the Redeemer."

In a detailed five-page response, Miravalle thanked the Commission for furthering the theological dialogue but highlighted certain elements "foundational to the question that appear to be missing from the considerations and conclusions of the Commission." The titles, far from being ambiguous, he countered, are firmly rooted in papal teaching, especially of the last two centuries: "Not only was the term 'Coredemptrix' used under the pontificates of Pius X and Pius XI along with its contemporary usage by the Holy Father, but the subsequent terms 'Mediatrix' and 'Advocate' and their roles have an even greater frequency of usage and teaching by the ninteenth and twentieth century papal magisterium."

One of the signatories of the Declaration, Father Johannes Roten, SM, director of the Marian Library-International Marian Research Center of the University of Dayton in Ohio, told Catholic World News that he was surprised to read the account in L'Osservatore Romano. Father Roten admitted that such reports were "a little bit of a mystery to me."

The Swiss-born Father Roten says he did not know the Commission was formally established by the Holy See, but rather that the Commission was arranged by organizers of the Congress at Czestochowa, under the leadership of Father Pavao Melada, OFM, president of the Pontifical International Marian Academy.

In fact, the topic of Marian coredemption was not even on the Congress's agenda until a group of apparently pro-dogma people intervened, asking that the dogma be discussed. "It was, in a sense, pushed on us," Roten said. "We were confronted with people who all at once showed up and wanted to the whole convention to start talking about it." This incident helped trigger the establishment of an ad hoc committee to deal with the Marian dogma question. In a single week, they had reached their negative stance.

Why was the story left alone for nine months before making the front page of the official Vatican newspaper on June 4, 1997, immediately following the Vox Populi conference in Rome? Father Roten suggests that favorable mentions of the dogma movement in such publications as Inside the Vatican and others called for a response from the other side. "Our position was kind of used to in order to answer other news releases," he said.

Ironically, Vox Populi Mariae Mediatrici was largely unknown until the appearance of the Theological Commission's bad review. Its mainstream Catholic media debut was a wave of negative publicity. Though the Commission's Declaration did not mention Vox Populi by name, the target was obvious.

Presuming the Theological Commission that grew out of the Poland Congress was officially requested by the Holy Father himself, the role of such commissions is only to advise and consult. For instance, the so-called Birth Control Commission set up by Pope John XXIII and enlarged by Paul VI published its strong recommendation of a change in the Church's teaching against contraception in 1967. A year later, Paul VI clarified the debate in Humanae Vitae. In 1993, the Pontifical Biblical Commission published a document through the Vatican's own publishing house, Liberia Editrice Vaticana, titled The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church. It was criticized in certain theological circles; Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, chairman of the PBC, eventually clarified that it was not a magisterial document. More recently, several years ago the prestigious Pontifical Academy of Science issued a statement on family limitation. Subsequently, the Holy See's spokesman Dr. Joaquin Navarro-Valls indicated that the statement did not represent the position of the Holy See.

At other times, the Holy See does heed the advice of consultative bodies, and the Theological Commission of the Pontifical International Marian Academy cites an example in its Declaration. Alluding to the movement begun under Cardinal Mercier for a definition of Mary Mediatrix, the theologians correctly noted that, "(I)n the first decades of this century the Holy See entrusted the study of the possibility of its definition to three different commissions, the result of which was that the Holy See decided to set the question aside."

Miravalle doesn't disagree, but says Vox Populi is simply putting the question back on the table. "Vox Populi will continue as is its canonical right and duty (Can.212) until the dogma is proclaimed," he says, "whether that be in the distant or not so distant future. Let us confidently leave such decisions of timeliness and opportuneness of a potential solemn definition of maternal mediation to the present Vicar of Christ, Pope John Paul II, who is at the same time both fully Marian and fully ecumenical."

In 1958, when Father Karol Wojtyla was installed as bishop of Cracow, Poland, his chosen episcopal emblem was an image of Mary Coredemptrix. More recently, over 50 of his General Audiences during the past 18 months have dealt directly with the Blessed Virgin.

Not surprisingly, the Pope of Redemptoris Mater, Mulieris Dignitatem, and the "Letter to Women," is seen as emblematic of what Miravalle calls today's "climax of the Age of Mary." In an era in which many Catholic teachings have yet to be given formal definitions, the issue of the "right time" for this one will be settled sola Papa, by the Pope alone. [Patrick Coffin, a native of Canada, is media relations coordinator at Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio.]

Last Modified 11/22/2001