Mary's Cooperation in the Redemption

Author: Fr. William G. Most

Scriptural Foundation

Many Protestants claim that the more advanced doctrines of the Catholic Church about Mary are unscriptural. They say this especially about our teaching concerning her cooperation in the redemption.

First, we want to notice that in the very earliest Fathers of the Church, such as St. Justin Martyr (c. 145-150), we find the New Eve doctrine, i.e., that just as the first Eve really contributed to the damage of original sin, so Mary, the New Eve, really contributed to removing it. They had in mind her obedient acceptance, in faith, to be the Mother of the Messiah.

But today the Church has considerably developed that early teaching. We quote a very official text, the Constitution on the Church of Vatican II, P61: "... in suffering with Him as He died on the cross, she cooperated in the work of the Savior, in an altogether singular way, by obedience, faith, hope and burning love, to restore supernatural life to souls." This same doctrine is found in every Pope from Leo XIII up to and including John Paul II.

So Vatican II was merely restating a repeated teaching. But the way it expressed it is very helpful. It said her role on Calvary was one of obedience. Earlier, in # 56, it had pointed out that obedience twice, in citing St. Irenaeus (late second century): "By obeying, she became a cause of salvation for herself and for the whole human race." Then (we first recall the comparison St. Irenaeus made of all sin to a complex knot, in which the Saint said that to untie a knot, one must take the end of the rope backwards through every turn taken in tying it) it added, from St. Irenaeus: "Thus then, the knot of the disobedience of Eve was untied through the obedience of Mary."

At first sight this teaching seems to have no basis in Scripture. But if we look more closely, we will see something quite obvious. First, at the Annunciation, she was asked to consent, in faith, to be the Mother of the Messiah. She knew this perfectly clearly, for as soon as the Archangel said, "He will reign over the house of Jacob forever," she knew that only the Messiah could reign forever. So she knew it was the Messiah. Then there would begin to crowd into her thoughts all the ancient prophecies of the Messiah, especially Isaiah 53, of His dreadful sufferings and death. She was asked to consent to be the Mother of such a Messiah.

She did consent, as St. Luke tells us, saying: "Be it done to me according to your word. "She gave her fiat, her obedience to the will of God, as the angel told her of His will. Did she later retract this acceptance of God's will? Of course not. Any soul either falls back or goes ahead in holiness. Holiness really consists in the alignment of our wills, through grace, with the will of God--for the free will is the only thing free we have. So Mary faithfully stood by Him, keeping in the background when the crowds gave Him praise, but moving out into the dark blackness that hung over Calvary. There she stood.

What was her reaction? Of course, she grieved, as any Mother would, seeing her Son suffering so horribly. And she saw that suffering as our crucifixes do not generally let us see it--they contain no trace at all of the horrid scourging, leaving Him bloody all over.

But now we can begin to realize something tremendous. As we said, spiritual perfection consists in the alignment of our will with the will of the Father. Further, when we know what He positively wills, it is not enough for us to say, as it were: "Let it go". No, we are called on to positively will what He wills. But what did He will in that dread hour? She knew from Isaiah 53:10: "It was the will of the Lord to crush Him with pain." So the Father willed that His Son should die, die then, die so horribly. So did the Son will it. So she was then called upon to will what the Father willed, what her Son willed, in other words, she was called on to will positively that He die, die then, die horribly.

We must add: the redemption was, under one aspect, the making of the New Covenant, foretold by Jeremiah 31:31 ff: "I will make a New covenant. It will not be like the covenant I made with your Fathers, for they broke my covenant, and I had to show myself their master. But this is the Covenant. I will write my law on their heart. I will be their God, and they will be my people."

In the Covenant of Sinai, the essential condition had been the obedience of the people (Ex 19:5): "If you really hearken to my voice, and keep my covenant, you will be my special people." So the New Covenant would have again as its essential condition obedience, which Jeremiah expressed by speaking of a law written on hearts. Perhaps Jeremiah did not see it fully, but that obedience was to be the obedience of Christ.

What did that law of the Father, written on her heart call for? It called for what we have just said: That she positively will that her Son die, die then, die so horribly. In that, she was joining in the fulfillment of the Covenant condition. He, in Gethsemani, had said: "If it be possible, let this chalice pass ... but nonetheless, not what I will, but what you will." In other words, He obeyed. St. Paul stressed that too in Rom 5:19: "Just as by the disobedience of the one man [the first Adam] the many were made sinners [original sin] so by the obedience of the one man [the New Adam] the many will be constituted just."

In fact, had His death taken place without obedience, it would not have been a redemption, it would have been merely a tragedy. So it was obedience that was the covenant condition, it was that which gave the value to His death.

To look at the same reality from a different perspective, His death was a sacrifice. God had once complained through Isaiah 29:13: "This people honors me with their lips ... their hearts are far from me." The ancient Jews were very adept at what is sometimes, simplistically, called "participation." They loved to make the responses, to sing, to join in processions. But too often it was all empty, for their hearts were far from Him: their hearts did not act in obedience.

But Jesus did offer His sacrifice in obedience. So just as obedience is the covenant condition, so too, it is that without which His sacrifice would be as worthless as those of which God complained through Isaiah.

From a third perspective, the redemption was an act of reparation to make up for sin. Since sin is disobedience of God's will, it was, once again, Christ's obedience which gave his death value to make up for sin. But we return to Our Lady. At the annunciation, she obeyed, she said her fiat. She knew too much for comfort even then, of what that entailed, as we explained above. But now in the blackness of Calvary, she was called on to continue to obey the will of the Father. That she did. As we said, we know this since any soul is required to conform its will to that of the Father. But then, she knew that will of the Father, knew it all too well. It was that He should die then, die horribly. So what she had to do, unless she would break with the Father, was to will what He willed, to will the terrible death of her Son.

All this is, of course, entirely Scriptural. It merely points out that at the start, she obeyed in saying her fiat, as St. Luke tells us. At the Cross, as any soul that loves the will of the Father must do, she had to continue her fiat, to continue to obey. Isaiah 53 had said that, "by His stripes we are healed", that, "it was the will of the Lord to crush Him in pain." Even the Targum knew Isaiah spoke of the Messiah, although in the stiff-necks of many, the message was even inverted. But she was not such, she understood, and yet she did not take back her fiat, she obeyed the will of the Lord. That obedience of hers was a joining in the essential condition of the New Covenant, it was a joining in the necessary interior of His sacrifice.

Her love of Him would multiply the difficulty. It was the love of the best of Mothers for the best of Sons, a Son whom she understood as no other person could. We cannot really calculate the terrible difficulty of her obedience, going counter to such love.

Would the Father accept her obedience as part of the covenant obedience? In the old covenant, He accepted the obedience of even very ordinary, sinful people--how much more hers! Would He put her in such straits, call on her to obey when it was so incredibly hard, and then not accept her obedience as part of the covenant condition even as He had accepted the obedience of very ordinary, sinful people, as we said, in the old covenant.

He could have redeemed us with something immeasurably less painful--the mere fact of the incarnation, even without so much as a short prayer added, would have been superabundant. Yet in His love of all goodness, in His love of us, He would not stop short when there was any way to make it all richer. It was in that attitude that He called for the death of His Son, that He called for her immeasurably difficult obedience.

So, Vatican II in its teaching, merely unfolded, by pondering in hearts, what the Scripture contains, and what the Church over the course of the centuries has gradually come to understand: "In suffering with Him as He died on the cross, she cooperated in the work of the Savior"--in the essential requirement of the New Covenant, in the essential interior of the Great Sacrifice--"by obedience, faith, hope and burning love."


Now about the objection that since she had to be redeemed, she could not cooperate in the redemption, which would include her own redemption, we have two replies:

1) the Magisterium has taught repeatedly, so often as to constitute an infallible teaching, that she did so cooperate. We see in the collection of papal teachings how precise and clear this teaching is. It cannot be taken as something merely loose or vague, especially since LG ## 56, 61 had said three times that she shared by obedience, the covenant condition, and that which gave its value even to His sacrifice. Pius XII, in the constitution solemnly defining the assumption, had even gone so far as to speak of her role on Calvary as a work "in common" with Him. Even if we could not explain the how, we should still believe an infallible teaching. The saying is very true: a thousand difficulties do not add up to one doubt, when the assurance of the truth is full.

2) We have said that one major aspect of the redemption is that it is a new covenant. Two comments on that:

a) He who makes a covenant does not ask, need not ask of a proposed covenantor: Are you worthy to fulfil this condition, so that if you do this, I will do that? No, the one who makes the covenant has the sovereign right to set whatever terms and conditions He wishes, and to choose whoever he wishes as a covenant partner, especially when the originator of the covenant is God Himself. Really, He could have set as a condition for the whole of redemption an animal sacrifice by any ordinary human, and have even bound Himself by advance promise to accept it.

b) There are two levels within the new covenant, so that if we ask why God gives good things under it, there are two answers, on the two levels. First, on the most basic level, everything He gives is unmerited, unmeritable, for no creature by its own power can establish a claim on God. And He cannot be moved at all. But then, on the secondary level, that is, given the fact that the Father has freely created and entered into a covenant, then if the human fulfills the condition set, the Father owes it to Himself to give what He has promised. Really, even the death of Jesus was on this secondary level. It did not move the Father: He could not be moved, did not need to be moved. It was because the Father always loved us that Jesus came, not that Jesus came and then the Father dropped His anger.

The old language on this subject often spoke much of meriting redemption on a basis of justice. But we must never forget that no creature at all can ever establish any kind of claim on God, whether in justice or on a lesser level, by its own power. It can establish any sort of claim only if God as it were says: "If you do this, I will do that." So St. Augustine wrote well in saying to God (Confessions 9. 5): "You deign to even become a debtor by your promises to those to whom you forgive their debts."

So there is no need to think of Mary as if she had to earn on a primary, basic level. No, as we saw, even the work of Jesus, infinite though it was, was on the secondary level. It was, to borrow an expression from St. Thomas, a hoc propter hoc (ST I. 19. 5. c) "Vult hoc esse propter hoc, sed non propter hoc vult hoc. That is: God in His love of good order, of all that is right, loves to have one thing in place to serve as a reason or title for giving the second thing, even though that title does not at all move Him. Again, we must not forget that He cannot be moved, and needed not to be moved to love us.

When we finally grasp this perspective, when we realize that even the merits of His Son did not move the Father, who did not need to be moved, who could not be moved, but who made a setup suited to His own purpose--we already saw that that purpose entailed two things: His desire to fully satisfy everything that was right, i.e. , to rebalance the scales of the objective order, and, secondly to provide a means of giving to us, of making us open to receive.

Within, then, such a framework, with such an attitude on the part of Our Father, if He, the supreme master who makes the covenant, wants to set whatever condition it pleases Him to set, then if any human, even if it were a mere, an ordinary human, if that human fulfills the covenant condition, then the human is providing the Father with a reason for giving, which the Father did not need, but yet willed for the two reasons just reviewed. So if Our Lady joins in the condition set by the Father, there is no problem at all: she is meeting the condition which His excessive generosity liked to set, as a means of giving us abundant life.


Mary's cooperation in the work of redemption is sometimes expressed by giving her the title "Corredemptrix." The Popes have used this title, but more rarely and in documents of lesser weight, because it easily admits of misunderstanding. The first extant use of the title is in a fourtheenth century liturgical book from Salzburg. The prefix "co-" signifies that Mary does not contribute independently to the redemption, but only as associated with her divine Son.

What Next?

Now that all graces have been earned, once for all (cf. Hebrews 9:29), is there further role for Our Lady? The mere fact that she shared in earning all graces--for Calvary did not earn just some graces, but all graces--would all by itself warrant our calling her the Mediatrix of all graces. But more about this title in the section on Mary, Mediatrix of all graces.