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Papers on Proposed 5th Marian Dogma

Can the Church Define Dogmatically The Spiritual Motherhood of Mary?
Objections and Answers

Rev. Bertrand de Margerie, S.J.

Translated by Salwa Hamati, Ph.D.

Fr. de Margerie is a member of the French and American Societies of Marian Studies, the International Society of Patristic Studies and the Pontifical Roman Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas at Rome.  Fr. de Margerie is also a frequent contributor to L’Osservatore Romano.

I would like to explain briefly here [2] the situation of the Catholic doctrine regarding the spiritual motherhood of Mary, following Vatican II and the pontificate of Paul VI; then underline the objections and problems that would result from the eventuality of a dogmatic definition of this mystery; offer answers that could be given to these objections and problems, various possible modalities of such a definition, and, finally, the advantages it could present to the Church and to mankind.

The study presented here is an extension of a previous article, published by the international review Ephemerides Mariologicae, in 1975-1976; I had then, examined at length the liturgical argument in favor of the spiritual motherhood of Mary, that is to say, the signs of the faith of the Church in this mystery, such as they sparkle in various liturgies of the East and the West (a very precise and technical study).

Three years later Pope John Paul II acceded to the Holy See. The Pontiff's great personal interest regarding Marian doctrine and devotion is well known. We should recall particularly his important address of January 10, 1979, on the spiritual motherhood of Mary. All these signs indicate, with certainty, that they do not hold any information or data hostile to the proposal of a dogmatic definition, nor consequently, to the subject of this article.

I.   The  Situation of the Catholic Doctrine Regarding the Spiritual Motherhood Twenty Years After the Council

In the twenty years following the Second Vatican Council, the Church has given its members three important documents on this subject: First, in 1965, two paragraphs of the dogmatic constitution Lumen Gentium; then, in 1967, the apostolic exhortation, Signum Magnum; finally, in 1968, a mention in the Credo of the People of God, of Paul VI.

(1)  The dogmatic constitution Lumen Gentium, in paragraphs 61 and 62, offers a first definite step in the development of the doctrine, even though, it is true, certain points remain open to further refinement. [3]  Let us restate the text:

The Blessed Virgin...as Mother of the divine Redeemer here on earth, above all others and in a singular way was the generous associate and humble handmaid of the Lord, (singulariter prae aliis generosa socia). She conceived, brought forth, and nourished Christ, she presented him to the Father in the temple, shared her Son's sufferings as He died on the cross. Thus in a wholly singular way she cooperated (operi Salvatoris singulari prorsus modo cooperata est)  by her obedience, faith, hope and burning charity, in the work of the Savior, in restoring supernatural life to souls. For this reason she is a mother to us in the order of grace.

One can see that such analogical conception of the spiritual motherhood means essentially a particular and unique cooperation of Mary, as Mother of God the Savior, with the redemptive work of her Son, in restoring supernatural life to immortal souls. Vatican II clarified the transcendent content, hidden within the image of maternity, once it was transposed to the spiritual and supernatural order: that of a privileged but dependent cooperation in the transmission of life. Such dependence, in equality, distinguishes maternity from paternity. It is obviously a mediating maternity and, in a larger Paulinian sense, a coredemptive one.  This is what the following part of the text reveals:

This motherhood of Mary in the order of grace continues uninterruptedly from the consent which she faithfully gave at the Annunciation and which she sustained without wavering beneath the cross, until the eternal fulfillment of all the elect....by her manifold intercession [she] continues to bring us the gifts of eternal salvation....Therefore the Blessed Virgin is invoked in the Church under the titles of Advocate, Helper, Benefactress, and Mediatrix. This, however, is so understood that it neither takes away anything from nor adds anything to the dignity and efficacy of Christ the one Mediator (Lumen Gentium, n.62).            

We see, in these two paragraphs, a clear distinction between the two periods of time of Mary's spiritual motherhood:  the time during which the Virgin cooperated with Christ in the acquisition of the treasure of salvation, and the present time during which she cooperates with her Son in distributing this treasure.

Notice too, based on the Latin text quoted in parentheses, below, - singulariter socia...operi Salvatoris singulari modo cooperata est  -, a very evocative echo of the same terms of the dogmatic definition of the Immaculate Conception, in 1854, by Pius IX: Mary is said to be immaculate by a "particular grace of God almighty" (singulari omnipotentis Dei gratia:  DS 2803).  Vatican II offers us, on the background of the unique privilege of the Immaculate Conception, the privilege of a spiritual motherhood, also unique, of the Virgin.

More deeply still, Vatican II, by presenting the unique cooperation of the Virgin in the work of salvation as the foundation of her motherhood of grace, in its definition of it, goes beyond the notion of a simple transmission of divine life, to include also the special efforts by the Virgin to obtain for men this same divine life. The result is that Mary is the Mother, not only of the just who have accepted this divine life, but also of the sinners who refuse it still, but are destined to receive it, just as Christ is the Savior even of those who do not agree to cooperate with Him for their salvation. We can therefore understand why the same Vatican Council II described Mary earlier (Lumen Gentium, n.54) as Mother of men, of all men.

A little further in the same constitution, Lumen Gentium, n.64, the Church confirms, in the context of the "eminent and singular" motherhood of the Blessed Virgin (reaffirmed in n.63), that she became herself a mother "by receiving and preaching the word of God in faith" as well as in the celebration of baptism:  Thus "she brings forth sons, who are conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of God, to a new and immortal life."

The comparison of texts relative to the respective motherhood of Mary and of the Church allows us to better understand the common concept of spiritual motherhood which comes in play in both cases:  Spiritual motherhood means a supernatural activity, received and subordinate, in the work of eternal salvation of another human being, by which a created person receives and transmits to another person the divine life. Spiritual maternity presupposes divine paternity and human fraternity. The human being who is elevated to the level of spiritual motherhood receives from God the Father the possibility of engendering supernaturally those who are his brothers and sisters in the natural order.

Once this fundamental meaning is understood one can recognize easily, in  other passages of Vatican II, the substantial affirmation of spiritual motherhood:  The word may not be clearly stated perhaps, but the reality is there.  This is the case especially in the decree on the Apostolate of lay people, n.16:

"The laity...conscious of being cooperators with God the creator, redeemer and sanctifier... should remember that by public worship and by prayer, by penance and the willing acceptance of the toil and hardship of life by which they resemble the suffering Christ (cf. 2 Cor. 4:10; Col. 1:24), they can reach all men and contribute to the salvation of the entire world."

In all these cases - whether it is Mary, the Church, or each of its baptized members - it is always an active, free and supernatural cooperation with God the Savior that contributes to the salvation of men, and to their spiritual regeneration, having as background the initiative of divine grace conferred both to the instrument and to the beneficiary of the work of salvation.  The image of maternity, distinct as such from the paternity which has the initiative and from the reciprocal filiation at the end, is therefore perfectly adapted here.

Briefly then, let us say that spiritual motherhood means a dependent salvific causality. When, on the human level, motherhood does not participate in fatherhood, although it is equal to it, spiritual motherhood constitutes essentially a participation in the divine paternity.

Having thus underlined the analogical character of the meaning of spiritual maternity, we can now study in depth its Marian application.

It is by emphasizing the actions that the Virgin freely offered at the service of the salvific work of her Son that Vatican II was able to assert the spiritual motherhood as valid even in regard to sinners and the non-baptized. Spiritual maternity, however potential, is not fully actualized. We sense here, indubitably, real progress, especially relative to the way spiritual motherhood was expressed before Vatican II. The emphasis placed on the part freedom plays, in going beyond emotional images, has made it possible to recognize the universality of spiritual motherhood. Additional information and reflections on the problematic of definability before Vatican II can be found in the appendix.

We can even suspect, if not prove, that Rupert of Deutz, the famous medieval exegete of the Gospel of John, is, by way of Suárez, at the origin of the explanation of spiritual maternity expressed in Lumen Gentium, nn.61-62. Indeed, we have seen how these paragraphs emphasize the relationship between Mary's compassion and Christ's restoration of supernatural life. Rupert of Deutz explains magnificently, commenting on Jn 16:27, the following relationship: "The Blessed Virgin is truly Mother to us all because she brought forth salvation to us all in the Passion of her only Son." [4]  Alluding to Jn 16:21: "Truly woman, truly mother, [Mary knew] at that hour the pains of childbirth."

(2)  Hardly two years after the end of Vatican Council II, Paul VI discussed Mary's spiritual motherhood in a paragraph that generated few comments, in spite of its extreme importance, a  paragraph from the apostolic exhortation Signum Magnum. The Pope offered there, a summing up - clearer perhaps than the original - of the fundamental thoughts, quoted earlier in Lumen Gentium. The passage contains three decisive pronouncements.

First of all, "Mary is our Spiritual Mother by participating in the sacrifice of the Cross."  This is the first time - that I know of - that this concept of participation, key-concept in the history of philosophy and theology, seems to be explicitly applied to considering the nature of Mary's union with the sacrifice of her Son on the Cross. When we agree not to overlook the importance of this concept in discussions with the Protestant world (unfortunately, not so sensitive to this idea of participation), we can better comprehend the importance of its introduction in the context of Mary's association to the sacrifice of the Cross.

In the second place, this truth, of Mary's spiritual motherhood by participation in the sacrifice of the Cross, is qualified as an "integral part of the mystery of our salvation."

Finally, it is declared also that "this truth must be held as a truth of faith."

Here is the decisive word, the word never as yet pronounced- as far as I know. Here is the closest declaration of a definition by the extraordinary magisterium. Here is the ordinary magisterium in its supreme exercise, recognizing a truth as divinely revealed, since such is the implication of this declaration.  Let us read over the original Latin text: [5]

Postquam Filii sacrificium, nostrae Redemptionis causam, participavit, idque ratione tam arta, ut ab eo mater non unius Ioannis discipuli, sed etiam - hoc dicere liceat - humani generis, cuius ille quodammodo gessit personam meruerit designari, ea caelitus nunc materno pergit munere fungi, quo ad gignendam augendamque vitam divinam in singulis hominum redemptorum animis operam confert. Haec veritas... e libera voluntate Dei sapientissimi, pars [6]  est expletiva mysterii salutis humanae; quam ob rem [7] ab omnibus christianis debet fide teneri.

Are we not here in the presence of a formulation,  offering - in an immediate and better way - the required conditions for a dogmatic definition, if we compare it to that of Lumen Gentium, still in progress?  Besides, we must recognize that Lumen Gentium, at the end of n.62, has prepared the deeper study in Signum Magnum. In fact, here is how it reads:

The Blessed Virgin is invoked in the Church under the titles of Advocate, Helper, Benefactress, and Mediatrix. This however is so understood that it neither takes away anything from nor adds anything to the dignity and efficacy of Christ the one Mediator.

No creature could ever be counted along with the Incarnate Word and Redeemer; but just as the priesthood of Christ is shared in various ways both by his ministers and the faithful, and as the one goodness of God is radiated in different ways among his creatures, so also the unique mediation of the Redeemer does not exclude but rather gives rise to a manifold cooperation which is but a sharing in this one source” (Lumen Gentium, n.62).

Let us quote the Latin expressions of the original text: "sacerdotium Christi participatur,...unica mediatio Redemptoris non excludit sed suscitat variam apud creaturas participatam ex unico fonte cooperationem."

One can see that the doctrine of participation is affirmed here, both on the natural level of creation and on the supernatural level in the economy of salvation. It is clearly stated that Christ himself is at the source of all participation in his mediation of Redeemer.

The doctrine of participation stands out precisely in respect to Mary's cooperation in the work of salvation. The conciliar text contains implicitly the confirmation of Mary's participation in the sacrifice of the Cross, explicitly confirmed in Signum Magnum. There is, therefore, perfect harmony and continuity between the pontifical exhortation of 1967 and the conciliar text, so much so that Mary's participation in the sacrifice of Jesus constitutes neither a derogation nor an addition to this sacrifice, but results from the initiative of Jesus himself.

It is also in perfect harmony with Lumen Gentium and with its conception of spiritual motherhood, that of Mary as well as the Church, namely that of a dependent and salvific causality, as we have demonstrated above, that Signum Magnum sees in the word of Jesus: "This is your Mother," the proclaimed expression of Mary's participated action in the economy of salvation.

(3)  Finally, a little later, in 1968, in paragraph 15 of the Credo of the People of God, Paul VI goes back to the preceding texts alluding only to the present and glorious activity of Mary's spiritual maternity, without other mention of past foundations:  such as acceptance at the Annunciation, compassion at the foot of the Cross. This partial silence, however, leaves whole the already proclaimed doctrines previously communicated by the same Pope. 

We could also have mentioned the solemn proclamation of Mary, Mother of the Church, by Paul VI, during the Council, in 1965. We have not done so, because it does not seem to carry a new doctrinal element, concerning the spiritual motherhood, in relation to Lumen Gentium. That is the difference with Signum Magnum

The wonderful concluding pages of John Paul II in his encyclical Redemptor hominis did not bring either a new doctrinal element as far as the 1967 exhortation is concerned, even though they enriched the Marian spirituality, as an exercise of our spiritual filiation towards the Immaculate.

II.  Objections to the Definition of Spiritual Maternity

We believe we could enumerate seven main difficulties which some would present opposing a dogmatic definition of the spiritual maternity of the Blessed Virgin. Let us present them here in detail:


(1)  First objection

If this is a matter of truth of faith recognized as such - demanding, if such be the case, martyrdom - for each one of us should be ready to give his life to confess before men any one of the truths of faith -, a definition seems useless, since precisely, this truth is already recognized as truth of faith.

Answer Pius IX offered us the answer at the time he defined the Immaculate Conception: 

The Church labors hard to polish the previous teachings, to bring to perfection their formulation in such a way that these older dogmas of the heavenly doctrine receive  proof, light, distinction, while keeping their fullness, their integrity, their own character, in a word, in such a way that they develop within the same objective contents and that they remain always in the same truth, the same denotation, the same thought (DS 2802).

In other words, a dogmatic definition, as it is evident in the great trinitarian and christological councils, perfects the ecclesiastical knowledge of the truth, for it may not be easy for certain members of the People of God to discern clearly the revealed truth, recognized as such by the Church with the help of its ordinary magisterium alone. A definition does not only bring out the considered truth, but more so helps to distinguish it from related truths. These advantages are certainly not slight.

(2)  Second objection

The fullness of the truth of Mary's spiritual motherhood, extending  - according to the previously quoted text of Lumen Gentium nn.61-62 - from the Annunciation to the Parousia, does it not reach far beyond any possible object of a definition?  Is that not self-evident if the spiritual motherhood on the one hand is compared with the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption on the other? The Immaculate Conception is a moment, an instant at the beginning of Mary's life, the Assumption another moment at the end of her life.

Answer:  Yes, seemingly. In reality, the initial fullness of grace affects all the earthly life of the Virgin and her Assumption relates to all her glorious life in terms of the pilgrim Church.

Remark: In fact, since the moment of the Immaculate Conception and well before her consent to divine motherhood, Mary is already, in a fundamental way, our mother spiritually. How is that?  In the threefold title of her eternal predestination, of her foreshadowing in time, and of her longing for the Messiah the Saviour.  The constitution Lumen Gentium, n.61, reminds us that the Virgin Mary was eternally predestined to divine motherhood; now, this divine motherhood is the root of her spiritual motherhood which, in some way, it includes.

It is this double mystery of predestination and foreshadowing, in eternity and in time, of the divine and spiritual motherhood of Mary ever Virgin that the bishop of Ravenna, St.  Peter Chrysologus, doctor of the Church in the fifth century, so magnificently celebrated in his sermon 146, commenting on Matt. 1,18: [8]  “When has she not been a mother, she who brought forth the author of the centuries?...Mary is called mother and when was she not a mother?

The bishop of Ravenna also sees Mary prefigured in the initial waters (Gn: 1) as the waters of passage of the chosen people to the Promised Land (cf.1 Cor 10) and finally as the sister of Aaron, Miriam, celebrating the liberation of the chosen people (Ex 15). By underlining the fact that Mary is the one who always precedes and guides the human salvation (semper Maria humanae praevia salutis), Chrysologus demonstrates well that her "numquam non mater" [9] concerns the Virgin's universal spiritual motherhood simultaneously with her divine motherhood. [10]

What, to my knowledge, St. Peter Chrysologus was not saying, but that we can add, is that the Virgin, predestined eternally and foreshadowed in time, by longing for the coming of the Saviour, by imploring him, wished and anticipated her own divine and spiritual motherhood, thus beginning to exercise her salvific, absolutely unique service, to humankind. 

In other words, we can think, with Rupert of Deutz and in harmony with the suggestions of Lumen Gentium (cf. nn.61 and 65), that the divine maternity itself is directed to the spiritual maternity and to its exercise, just as the divine Word was made flesh to save us. In the same way too, Mary accepted the divine maternity precisely for the salvation of the humankind fulfilling a spiritual motherhood in regard to man, having been prepared previously by her longing.

It is also obvious that, in a possible definition, there would be no need to consider the mysterious exercise of a spiritual motherhood preceding the explicit consent to divine motherhood according to the flesh.

(3)  Third objection

The third difficulty is in relation to the extent of spiritual motherhood. Whose spiritual Mother is Mary? Is she the Mother of angels too, or just of men? of sinners also or only of the baptized who remained faithful?


Answer:  A difficult problem. At first sight, it seems that Mary is the Mother of the latter only, since they alone have received and kept in a normal and human manner the supernatural and divine life. [11]

However, as we have seen, Vatican Council II and the subsequent documents have avoided this danger by studying in depth the concept of spiritual motherhood and by going beyond the mythic and limited character of an imaginative analogy. More particularly, Lumen Gentium (n.54) has answered this difficulty by presenting to us Mary as Mother of men, especially of the faithful: "Mater Christi, Mater hominum maxime fidelium."

What does that mean?  There is here, certainly, a hidden reference to a Paulinian thought: "The Living God is the Savior of all men, especially of the believers" (1 Tm 4:10).  The Marian transposition of the Pauline text by Lumen Gentium n.54 is obvious.

A possible dogmatic definition of spiritual motherhood would not have to worry about including the angels: A definition is the work of a pilgrim Church who wishes to express her concern for guiding the faithful towards the beatitude of the "viators," (the travelers). The holy angels are not in that category any more. The Church, however, does not deny that Mary, exalted to divine motherhood in the order of hypostatic union, has merited, in dependence on Christ, for the angels, grace and glory, according to the Franciscan school of thought.

The Church denies still less a certain "cosmic motherhood" of the Virgin, presumed as her privileged role in relation to all human and supernatural use of the universe or of each of its elements. This magnificent role was underscored by Saint Anselm. [12]

Without going into all these aspects, it would be sufficient for a definition to use the formulations of Signum Magnum and of Lumen Gentium. It would underline simultaneously the human universality and the preferential actualization for the righteous of the spiritual motherhood of the new Eve, mother of the living and of the dead whom she wants to bring back to life.

(4) Fourth objection  

With the difference of the Immaculate Conception and especially of divine motherhood, but also of the Assumption, spiritual motherhood does not appear to be a unique or almost unique privilege; in the case of Mary, the Church, up till now, has only defined privileges or unique gifts in an absolute or almost unique manner. [13]

Why define as a truth of faith, with respect to Mary, a truth which is realized in her analogically, in the universal Church, in the particular Churches, and even in each of the faithful?

Christ, in the Gospel (Mt 12:48-50), after having asked the question: "Who is my mother and who are my brothers?", did he not answer, stretching his hands towards the disciples saying: "These are my mother and my brothers: for whoever does the will of my Father who is in heaven is my brother, my sister, and my mother."

Answer: A possible definition could only be realized if the spiritual motherhood of Mary is established as a privileged motherhood in the total context of various and numerous spiritual motherhoods. Such a definition, precisely, would have to demonstrate the unique character, within a total analogy, of the spiritual motherhood of Mary.

It is certainly true to say that Mary is spiritually our Mother in the Church, by the Church, with the Church, for the Church and never without the Church. This is what Isaac of Stella has stressed in his sermon 51:

"As there is one Son and many, so Mary and the Church are only one Mother and many: both are mothers of Christ, but none of them can bring forth the total Christ without the other." [14]

Nothing is easier to understand if we keep in mind that the supernatural and divine life is usually conferred by the sacraments, which are always the sacraments of the Church, and do not overlook the fact that Mary's spiritual motherhood is fully actualized only in the very heart of sacramental life. Let us recall these words: Mater Christi, mater hominum, maxime fidelium.

It is no less true, however, that Mary is the only spiritual mother whose salvific activity is directly and immediately based on the fact of her divine motherhood according to the flesh; she is also the only spiritual mother who is the cause of all others, at the four levels of meritorious causality: effective, instrumental, exemplary and final. All the other spiritual motherhoods (ecclesiastical or individual) owe their existence, their activity, their horizon to the Virgin's spiritual motherhood, privileged and unique. Moreover, among all spiritual mothers, individual or institutional, Mary is, within the pilgrim Church, the only immaculate mother.

To define Mary's spiritual motherhood would, therefore, also be to define what is, in fact and tangibly, a unique privilege of the Virgin, seen within an analogical totality and the complementary interaction of all spiritual motherhoods. The purpose and the result of such a definition would be a better exercise of all other spiritual motherhoods, ecclesiastical or personal.

(5)­ Fifth objection

The Fathers of the Church developed only the heavenly aspect of the spiritual motherhood and, within the earthly aspect, the unique cooperation of the Virgin to the plan of salvation at the Annunciation, but little if any at the time of her Compassion. But our Church today recognizes also in the latter a basis of her spiritual motherhood. The Fathers have hardly mentioned anything on Mary's participation in the sacrifice of the Cross.


Answer: It is not necessary that a truth be explicitly stated in the Scriptures or the divine apostolic Tradition  for the Church to be able to define it. It would be sufficient for the Church of today to believe that this truth is included in Divine Revelation. This is the case here.  Furthermore, this truth has a more explicit foundation in Scripture than either the Immaculate Conception or the Assumption.

We can say as much in regard to the foundations of Mary's spiritual motherhood in the divine apostolic Tradition: Regarding the Annunciation, Irenaeus, Justin, Tertullian, all of whom are quoted by the constitution Lumen Gentium in this very sense, teach the privileged cooperation of the Virgin, the new Eve, in the economy of salvation, hence her spiritual motherhood. It is therefore, already explicitly present in the ante-Nicene tradition. We find again here, the famous "principle of association" (principium consortii) between the new Adam and the new Eve, a principle so much emphasized by Pius XII in the papal bull  Munificentissimus Deus on the Assumption (cf. DS 3901).

As for Mary's role at the foot of the Cross, it is but a development of her answer in Nazareth, as was explicitly recognized by the constitution Lumen Gentium, n.62. The consent of the Virgin at Nazareth applied to her complete association with the totality of the mission of the Savior, including her presence at the foot of the Cross.  The Fathers mention implicitly but really Mary's participation in the sacrifice of the Cross. This objection is therefore without foundation.

(6) Sixth objection

The "ecumenical scandal" of a possible definition. Would it not constitute a considerable obstacle to the very important work of "recomposition" of the visible and organic union between Catholic and Orthodox Churches? [15]  Would not the obstacle be even greater in terms of the reunification with the church communities of the Protestant world? To emphasize a privilege of Mary would discourage, beforehand, all attempts of reunification with the Protestant world, would it not?

Answer: It is true that such a definition would raise up, for the reasons given, vigorous objections, not only among the Orthodox and the Protestants, but even among Catholics.

Nevertheless, it is inaccurate to say that this definition would constitute in itself an obstacle. All the less, since no reunification would ever be possible without an agreement on Mary's spiritual motherhood, already held as a truth of faith by the Catholic Church (cf. see above Signum Magnum). The definition would state the truth precisely, but would not add any new truth to those already acknowledged by the Church.

On the other hand, a certain number of Anglicans and Protestants believe with the whole Orthodox world, the substance of the doctrine of spiritual motherhood, understood as unique and privileged cooperation of the Virgin with the economy of Redemption. Among those, let us mention Professor John Macquarrie (Principles of Christian Theology. London, 1966, p.254;  cf. G.M. CORR, Clergy review, [1976], p.313).[16] 

There is still more. In 1975, on the occasion of the 7th international Marian Congress, in Rome, the Protestant, Orthodox and Catholic participants in a Round Table drew up and signed together the following proposals, [17]   that included obviously the substance of the doctrine of spiritual motherhood professed by Vatican Council II:

  • (2): God has willed to associate in various degrees to the work of Redemption created collaborators, among whom the Virgin Mary  who possesses exceptional dignity and efficacy.                                                                          
  • (3): Mary was chosen to conceive and bring forth the Redeemer who received from his Mother the humanity he needed to accomplish his sacrifice on Calvary, as victim and high-priest.
  • (4): Mary's "fiat," which holds a permanent character, was her free consent to divine motherhood, and consequently to our salvation.
  • (5): Mary's collaboration was singularly demonstrated when she believed in the Redemption, accomplished by her Son, and when she stood at the foot of the cross, while most of the apostles fled.
  • (6): The prayers of intercession addressed to the Virgin have as foundation, in addition to the confidence that the Holy Spirit establishes towards the Mother of God on the part of the Christian people, the fact that Mary remains always linked to the work of Redemption and therefore to its application across time and space.

There is no doubt that many Protestants would refuse to sign such a text today. They realize however, that others, believing to be as faithful as they are to the fundamental principles of Luther and Calvin, sign it.

We can find in this text, not only the substance of the doctrine of Vatican II on the spiritual motherhood, but also the enumeration of the fundamental stages in Mary's earthly suffering and glorious life, of her privileged and unique cooperation with the Redemption, which is the very substance of this doctrine.

Let us add that the previous experience of the consequences of the definition of the Assumption shows the character, quite futile, of the fears that would be brought about by the spiritual motherhood. We know that Max Thurian, during a personal visit, asked Pope Pius XII to abandon the project of a definition. Notwithstanding, Pius XII defined the dogma. This definition did not impede the promulgation, fifteen years later, in the presence of Protestant observers, among whom was Max Thurian, of the Decree on Ecumenism by Vatican Council II. Neither, consequently, was the great development or the ecumenical bond that resulted interrupted.

We could even say that by this ecumenical gift the Virgin answered the generosity and courage of Pius XII who defined the Assumption. This should not astonish us: Is not Mary, according to the word of Saint Augustine, the "Mother of Unity," Mater unitatis? [18] 

This is the view that Leo XIII considered in depth already, September 5, 1895, with  a particular joyful language in his encyclical Adjutricem Populi: [19] 

Will it not be Mary's wish to employ her goodness and providence to bring to full perfection the bond of unity among the members of the Christian family, which is the illustrious fruit of her motherhood?... Mary will be the happy bond to draw together, with strong and yet gentle constraint, all those who love Christ, wherever they may be, to form a nation of brothers, yielding obedience to the  Vicar of Christ on earth, the Roman Pontiff, their common Father...For Mary has not brought forth - nor could she - those who are of Christ except in the one same faith and in the one same love; for "Is Christ divided (1 Cor 1:13)?"


We can see that, for Leo XIII, following Augustine, Mary, far from dividing Christians, is, by consenting to the redemptive Incarnation and by her intercession, at the very origin of supernatural gatherings that can exist and will exist in the future among them; their perfect and complete unity is the very reason of her divine and spiritual motherhood. How could, therefore, the definition of this unity cause really new divisions among them?


(7) Seventh and last objection

Is it certain that, with the Catholics, the truth of Mary's motherhood has already reached the degree of maturity necessary for its definition? Are there not still numerous discussions and disagreements among Catholic theologians on Mary's mediation, on the nature of her association to the redemptive work of Christ, that is to say, as we have already seen, on the very substance of her spiritual motherhood? How could the Church define a doctrine that does not appear to be fully developed?

Answer: A dogmatic definition would not have to enter into or take part in technical discussions among theologians; it is not the custom with the supreme magisterium of the Church to do that, or to suppress the freedom of discussion among theologians in matters that are not of faith; it is exactly for that reason that Vatican II has stated precisely that it does not "intend to give a complete doctrine on Mary, nor does it wish to decide those questions which the work of theologians has not yet fully clarified" (Lumen Gentium, n.54).

But it is obvious that the Church can define, by virtue of its extraordinary magisterium, a doctrine that it already considers as de fide, in the terms of Signum Magnum clarifying Lumen Gentium, without going into academic disputes, without pretending that no other subsequent study in depth be feasible any more. There will always be theological controversies about Mary, just as there are about Christ or the Trinity. After an eventual definition of the spiritual motherhood, within the unity of a deeper and more conscious faith, the freedom of research and theological discussion on many aspects of the defined mystery will persist.

 III.  Possible Modes of Such a Definition

Three modes can be identified.

(1)  The first possible mode: definition by an ecumenical council.

This is how - with the difference of the council of Ephesus which formulated no definition- the councils of Chalcedon and Constantinople III included in their christological definitions their reference to "Mary, Mother of God according to humanity."  Such a mode of definition would, in itself, be quite favorable, namely in the context of a christological council wishing to define the mystery of Redemption (which has never been done) [20] and of the coredemptive Church.  Nothing, however, allows us to believe that the convocation of such an ecumenical council is imminent.

(2)  The second possible mode: A definition by the Pope alone, preceded by consultation with the Catholic episcopate.

We recognize in this mode the model followed by Pius IX and Pius XII in the definitions of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption. 

The consultation could be extended to the bishops of the Orthodox and Monophysistic Churches (pre-Chalcedonian).

It could examine the essence of the subject, the substance of doctrine, and its formulation. 

As was the case in the definitions of Pius IX and Pius XII, the laity could be consulted indirectly through their bishops, by being invited to bear witness to their Churches. 

Cardinal Newman even thought:

"If ever there was a case where the laity should be consulted, it would be in that of doctrines directly related to devotional expression."  He cited the example of the Immaculate Conception, adding: "The Blessed Virgin is, preeminently an object of devotion." [21] 

The advantages for such consultations are obvious.  They could prepare the Church to embrace heartily the defined doctrine.  The disadvantages are not less clear. Social means of communication could seize the specifics of the consultation, and by creating difficulties within the Churches, try to obstruct and prevent any definition.

(3) The third possible mode: definition by the Roman Pontiff alone, without consultation with the bishops, but after examining apostolic Tradition, Scripture, the teachings of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, the tradition of his own Roman Church, indefectible in matters of faith: [22]  in harmony with the doctrine of Vatican I and Vatican II according to which

"the definitions of the Roman Pontiff are irreformable by their very nature and not by reason of the assent of the Churchwhose  "assent 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, n.25).

This third mode would be, in our case the more concretely realizable since it concerns a truth already peacefully accepted by the entire Church and more than ever, since Vatican II, so much so that Paul VI expressed and taught it as worthy of faith. This truth has not known - to reach the present state of its formulation - the inflamed history of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. In our case the Pope would define what the Church today believes without apprehension or doubt.

No doubt this third mode would also bring some disadvantages. One can never escape them! But that could be, perhaps, the mode that would present the least difficulties. 

IV.  Advantages of a Definition for the Church Today

Let us note the advantages for each of the members of the Body and those that will be reflected on the entire Body.

All baptized persons would be spurred on in the practice of their own spiritual motherhood, unique as each person is, but not privileged (as only Mary's motherhood is). This will mean that each member of the Church could, on the occasion of this definition, become more conscious of its divine vocation in the practice of spiritual motherhood, identical to a coredemptive mission, [23] for the triumph of the only Redeemer, in dependence upon Mary and by sharing her privileged mission in the Church and in the world. The definition would help each baptized person to better understand that Mary is, in a unique way, the Mother by whom each baptized person exercises his/her own spiritual motherhood, mainly through the apostolate of prayer. We have quoted above the Vatican II texts that state in substance this divine vocation of each baptized person to become the cooperator with God the creator, redeemer and sanctifier of all men and contribute to the salvation of the entire world (cf. Apostolicam actuositatem, n.16).

The Church - each particular Church as well as the universal Church - would find in this definition a powerful help for a better contemplation of the mystery of Mary [24] and for a better practice of her own spiritual maternity, by an increase in the theological virtues, mainly that of hope. The Spouse of Christ would thus always share better, in the image and in dependence to Mary, in the transcendent and redemptive activity, in the spiritual fatherhood of the new Adam, Jesus of Nazareth.

This definition would even seem to be, for the Pope and for the Church, [25] a spiritual recourse, in light of the present difficulties, and in so doing fulfill better the plea of Vatican II in regards to a permanent reform of the Church: Ecclesia semper reformanda. [26]  Indeed Mary reforms the Church constantly, since by her powerful intercession, she obtains for her, ceaselessly, to always conform itself to its original form, Christ, and to allow itself continually to be transformed by Him and in Him, present and acting in the Eucharist. Mary's spiritual motherhood is, in fact, constantly reforming the Church. In this regard, the definition of this motherhood could be seen as an element of reform in the Church.

This definition would express the gratitude of the Church toward the very Holy Virgin for her unique and privileged collaboration in the mystery of her Redemption by Christ, the Savior of his Body (Eph 5:23) and of her sorrowful compassion, at the foot of the Cross. The Church would thus show that she does not forget the suffering of its Mother (cf. Si 7:26).

Such a definition would also be a logical consequence of the consecration of the Church to the Mother of God, to her pierced and Immaculate Heart. [27]  It would be a sign of the Church's will to make amends for the insults of so many baptized Christians who forget, disregard or deny the privileged role of the Blessed Virgin in their own salvation.

What we are saying is that such a definition would bring enlightenment and devotion into our lives, increase our desire to make reparation and continue to seek reform and holiness. The Church, if His Holiness would deem it favorable - and he alone is the charismatic judge of such an opportunity -by way of such a definition would advance in the knowledge and love of Mary and of her own mystery, in the consecration to Mary, in the reparation towards her, in the conformity (reforming and sanctifying) to her.  In a word, by means of this definition, the Church would be and become more her real self.

Facing such a grandiose perspective and in view of attaining it, we must have recourse to the intercession of saints and servants of God whose history reveals the connection with the mystery of Mary, in her spiritual motherhood - as Saint Leo the Great, who confirmed it  unquestionably - or in her privileges: Pius IX and Pius XII who had the courage to define two of them, Saint Leonard of Port-Maurice, who recommended to the Holy See to have a consultation with the universal episcopate on the Immaculate Conception, Saint Antony-Mary Claret who encouraged Queen Isabella of Spain to ask Pius IX to define the Assumption. This was the very first petition ever received on this subject; we know that less than a century later the object of that petition became a reality.


The Question of Spiritual
Motherhood Preceding Vatican II

On the eve of Vatican II, we know that a number of "vota" or petitions coming from bishops (more rarely, from academic institutions), asked the Holy See, especially with the occurrence of the council, for a dogmatic definition of the spiritual motherhood of Mary, or of her universal mediation.

The formulations of these petitions can be found by going through the large volumes of the Acta et Documenta Concilio Vaticano II Apparando, published in Rome (some of them as early as 1961).

That is how the Mexican bishops (followed by the Antonianum) on the eve of the council, August 28,1959, refer to their previous petition of 1954, the complete text of which can be found in the volume: La maternidad espiritual de Maria.  Estudios teologicos. This volume was published in 1961 by the national Mexican commission for the dogmatic definition of the spiritual motherhood of Mary, at the Basilica of Guadalupe, pp.XXXIII-XLII. In 1959, the archbishop of Puebla de los Angeles, Mgr. Márquez Toriz, pointed out (Acta et Documenta. Ser. I, Vol. II, Pars VI, pp. 228-229) that 60 non-Mexican bishops who supported the petition in 1954 have renewed their attachment and support in 1959  as the council became imminent. He also pointed out that the spiritual motherhood implied the universal mediation. The text of the 1954 petition did not indicate precisely the metaphorical aspect of the image of spiritual motherhood.

The document of the Antonianum (acta et documenta, Ser.I, Vol. IV, Pars I, t. 2, pp.55-61), on the contrary, expressed it otherwise:  We can find (p. 58, regarding  Gn 3:15) the following clarification that indicates a perfect consciousness of the problems discussed here:

"Pater nunc cum sit spiritualis totius humani generis semen-Jesus ob redemptionem omnibus allatam, mater esse quoque dici debet Maria propter inseparabilem cum Filio suo actionem in primi peccati auctorem."

The wishes of the Saint Bonaventure Faculty of Theology  (ibid., p. 239) express a similar thought.

Looking at this long discussion, it is proper to point out that the majority, not to say the unanimity, of petitions issued by bishops, do not suggest, when they request a definition, an exact formulation, nor do they offer answers to objections, or sources justifying such a definition.

But a more extensive and methodical inquiry in the Acta et Documenta might lead to a few more subtle observations, without possibly calling to question the totality of perceptions and assessments developed here.


1.    [Note:  The following article is included in this volume because, as the       author himself has stated, “of the similarities and even partial identity of the       theme treated and also because the objections and answers are by and large the   same.”  Such points hold an immediate relevance to the theological       discussion regarding the papal definition of Mary as Coredemptrix, Mediatrix, and Advocate -- Editor].

Translated with permission from Marianum,  43 (1981) pp. 394-418, B. de Margerie, "l'Eglise peut-elle définir dogmatiquement la Maternité spirituelle de Marie? Objections et réponses."  It has seemed useful to include it because of the similarities and even the partial identity of the theme treated and also because objections and answers  are by and large the same.

2.  We are resuming here, with numerous enrichments and modifications, a study presented in Quito  (Ecuador), April 15, 1980, to the members of the Ecuadorian  Society  of Marian   Studies.  The  original Spanish text, quite incomplete compared to this one, has appeared in the international publication Ephemerides mariologicae 31 (1981) pp.131-138.

3.   Cf. R. Laurentin, La Vierge au Concile. Paris, 1965, pp.151-168.  Note: in this translation all quotes related to Vatican II are from Vatican  Council  II: The  Conciliar And Post Conciliar Documents,  Austin  Flannery, O.P. Gen.       Ed., The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota,1975.

4.   Rupert De  Deutz, In  Ev. Joannis Commentariorum Liber XIII: PL 169,       789-790; cf. Suarez, Opera  Omnia. Vivés, Paris, 1860,t.19, disp.22,§4,       p.327.

5.   Paul  V­I,­ Signum  Magnum, AAS 59 (1967) pp.467-468; See my       commentary in Eph.mar., 25 (1975) pp. 62-66.

6.   Note the harmony between the beginning of the paragraph (participavit) and       its end (pars). What does the participation of Mary to the sacrifice of the       Cross consist of? Certainly in her "station" at the foot of the Cross (Jn 19,26-27) and in everything she symbolized (especially sacrificing her maternal rights to Christ her Son: cf. Pope Pius XII, Mystici Corporis, AAS 35 [1943], p.247), but also in the participation already implied within the acceptance of the mystery of the redemptive Incarnation, by which Mary consented to provide the "subject of the sacrifice" (cf. St. Leo The Great, Tome à Flavien, c.4: DS 294); it is as Mother of God and as Immaculate that Mary took part, in a unique and privileged way, at the foot of the Cross, in the sacrifice of her Son;  hence the exceptional value and efficacy of her    participation; we could even demonstrate - but this would go beyond the limits of this study and this note - that the offering, by which Mary took part, at the foot of the Cross, in the sacrifice of her Son, included, at least implicitly, that of her future eucharistic communions (all of which mean as many real participations to the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross) and that of her loving death, yet to come, all of this offered in union with her Son for the salvation of the world.  

7.   The "quam ob rem" indicates clearly a relationship of causality:  That is       because Mary, by taking part in the mystery of the Sacrifice of Christ, shares in the mystery of salvation, that her spiritual motherhood is object of our faith, that it bears, in first place, on the mystery of our salvation just as the Council of Trent has highlighted it (decree on justification, ch.6: "credentes in primis a Deo justificari impium in Christo Jesu": DS 1526. There is here, (as Paul VI emphasizes) a free will of God, impossible to demonstrate by reason, known only through Revelation: Such is the fruitful participation of Mary in the sacrifice of Christ.

8.   St. Peter Chrysologus, Sermo 146 (PL 52,592 B): "genitrix  quando non quae       saeculorum generavit auctorem, principium dedit rebus?" This same doctor of the Church has expressed elsewhere,in a wonderful way, Mary's spiritual       motherhood, in the precise meaning we understand here (salvific dependent       causality), in these words: "accepit Virgo salutem saeculis  redditura," "The       Virgin received salvation so as to transmit it to the centuries" (Sermo 143:         PL 52, 583 C). 

9.  This often quoted formula is perhaps from St. Peter Chrysologus; in any case       it presents the advantage of summarizing concisely his thought, in his       sermon 146 (cf. footnote 7). He says (col.593): "Maria mater vocatur; et quando Maria non mater?".

10. Ibid., 593 B: "ut semper Maria humanae praevia sit salutis,  populum  quem       unda generatrix emisit in lucem, ipsa jure  praecessit in cantico."  The doctor of Ravenna speaks of Miriam, Aaron's sister, but thinks of Mary, Mother of Jesus, as it is evident from the whole of the sermon.

11. Cf. St. Ambrose, In Lucam 2.19.26-27 (CCL 14,42): "quaecumque  crediderit    anima et concipit et generat Dei  Verbum, secundum carnem una Mater Christi: secundum fidem tamen omorium fructus est Christus;” similarly,       Augustine De Sancta Virginitate, c.6: CSEL 41,239. "The context shows that Saint Augustine was not thinking of a universal motherhood of Mary",   says P. Friedrich and T. Koehler (Maria, Paris, 1970, t.VI, p. 570).

12. St. Anselm, Oratio 52,(PL 158,955-956): "Maria, mater rerum        recreatarum...Mater restitutionis omnium."

13. Cf. Mt 27, 52-53: A good number of Catholic theologians think that the       evangelist demonstrates here glorious and definitive resurrections, not temporary ones like that of Lazarus. John XXIII, following many among them, acknowledged in this context a bodily assumption of Saint John the Baptist and Saint Joseph, in a homily in 1960, Cf. AAS 52 (1960) p.456.

14. Isaac Of Stella, Sermo 51 (from which another excerpt is quoted by Lumen       Gentium): PL 194, 1862-1865. This point of view summarizes and synthesizes St Augustine's opinions.

15. In the degree where, as reactions of many Orthodox facing the definitions of       the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption have demonstrated, our  Eastern separated brothers are inclined today to criticize the precision, so called Latin, of the definitions...without forgetting perhaps that the councils of the first millennium, mainly Greek in fact, have not refused to "define."

16. The title of Father Corr's article is: Mother of the Church: An  ecumenical       Title?

17. The original text in French: Oss. Rom.,June 14, 1975; Documentation       Catholique 72 (1975), p.677.

18. St. Augustine, Sermo 192, 2 (PL 38, 1012): "Ecclesia... similitudinem        gerens Virginis quia, et in multis est mater  unitatis." This affirmation is directly about the Church, indirectly but really about the Blessed Virgin.

19. Leo XIII, Encyclical, Adjutricem Populi, in THE ROSARY OF  MARY,        translations of the encyclicals and apostolic letters of Pope Leo XIII collected       by William Raymond Lawler O.P.,P.G. St. Anthony Guild Press, Paterson,       New Jersey, 1944, pp. 135-140.

20. Cf. B.De Margerie, Christ for the World, Chicago, 1974, pp.267 and 271.

21. Card. Newman, On consulting the Faithful in Matters of  DoctrineLondon,   1961, pp.104-105. One must recognize however, that there is no strict obligation for the Pope, to consult, either with the bishops or (a fortiori) with the laity, before defining a dogma: cf. see texts quoted in the following footnote.   

22. See in this regard, the noteworthy doctrinal report by Msgr.Gasser in Vatican       Council I, just before the definition of infallibility, July 11, 1870; in his four hour speech(!).  Gasser (Mansi 52, 1216-1217) explained why the Pope       could replace a consultation with the bishops with an inquiry into Scripture and Tradition, this was followed by a suggestion by Vincent de Lérins: To overcome doctrinal dissenssions of the present time, one may have recourse to the consent of Antiquity (ex consensione antiquitatis dissensio praedicationis praesentis est  resolvenda): Cf. R.M. Gagnebet, L'infaillibilité du Pape et le consentement de l'Eglise au Vatican I, in Angelicum 47 (1970), pp.296 sq. and 448.   

23. Cf. B. De Margerie, op.cit. (n.19), all of Ch. XI.

24. That is to say of a greater loving awareness of this mystery. This definition       would especially permit a better understanding of how the spiritual motherhood is the fundamental principle of Mariology precisely, in so far as it is itself oriented towards and finalized by the spiritual motherhood: It is Mary, the new Eve, Mother of the new Adam and of all the living who is the cornerstone of Mariology.

25. It is certain that the Pope alone, or with a council would define, but the       definition would be preceded, accompanied and followed by the happiness and       thanksgiving of a great number of members of the Church. By so doing they       would be sharing in the merits of the papal or conciliar act.

26. Cf. Vatican II, Unitatis Redintegratio, n.6: "Christ summons the Church, as       she goes her pilgrim way, to that continual reformation of which she always       has need, insofar as she is an institution of men on earth."

27. We recall that Pius XII consecrated the humankind to the Immaculate Heart       of Mary on December 8th 1942.

The above paper first appeared in Mark I. Miravalle, S.T.D., (ed.), Mary Coredemptrix, Mediatrix, Advocate, Theological Foundations: Towards a Papal Definition? (Goleta, CA: Queenship Publishing Company, 1995)

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