In Defense of Marian Maximalism

It was Friday the 13th of December, and nothing unlucky had happened yet. Or so I thought, idly scrolling through the Catholic news—until my eyes landed on a startling headline from Crux.

“Pope calls idea of declaring Mary co-redemptrix ‘foolishness’ ” ran the title of the piece. On closer inspection, it turned out that in his Spanish-language homily for the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe (December 12), Pope Francis had said, “Faithful to her Master, who is her Son, the only Redeemer, she never wanted to take anything away from her Son. She never presented herself as co-redemptrix. No; but as a disciple.”

While a brilliant presentation of Church tradition on Our Lady’s association with Christ’s redemptive work (a tradition that dates from apostolic times) can be found in Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange’s Mother of the Savior, it was a different aspect of the Pope’s remarks that struck me.

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The notion that Mary “never wanted to take anything away from her Son”—with its implication that if she were called by an elevated title (such as co-redemptrix) it would somehow take away from the glory of her Son—seemed strangely familiar. Then I remembered where I’d heard it: C. S. Lewis.

As you may know, one of the reasons C. S. Lewis never became a Catholic was that he considered the Church’s veneration of the Blessed Virgin disproportionate. He once claimed, “If the Blessed Virgin is as good as the best mothers I have known, she does not want any of the attention which might have gone to her Son diverted to herself.”

It’s a commonly held notion among Protestants that honors given to Mary are honors stolen from Christ, to the detriment of His glory. As Martin Luther taught: “Because of the great honor paid to the mother of God, Christ’s honor and confession is weakened.”

This idea was echoed in the “minimalist” approach to Mariology that drew an influential following in the years immediately prior to Vatican II—including theologians such as Yves Congar and Karl Rahner. Theologian Christopher Ruddy sums up Congar’s attitude to Our Lady as follows: “Jesus’s conception and birth, in this view, are not something that Mary does but something that she receives; she has no active role, save that of her fiat, which ‘receives and recognizes that God is at work in her.’ ” Peter Dillard describes the minimalist position as trying “to come as close as possible to a high Protestant understanding of Mary without being Protestants.”

Marian “minimalists,” as historian Roberto de Mattei explains, fought what they called the “maximalist” school of thought. So-called Marian maximalists focused on “the intimate connection between Christ and His Mother in the only act of Redemption,” a union which resulted in “the co-redemption and mediation of Mary.”

Minimalists, on the other hand, affirmed that “the role of Mary was subordinated to that of the Church, to which, after Christ, the first place was due and of which Mary was only a member.” They thought Mary ought to be understood primarily as the model member of the Christian community, without emphasis on her unique relationship with Christ.

As you see, there is an enormous gap between these two approaches to Mary. The maximalist—and traditional—approach focuses on her union with her divine Son and the consequences of this union for her children. The minimalist approach avoids discussion of Mary’s union with her divine Son, instead focusing on Mary as a member of the Church and an example for the faithful—in other words, merely a “disciple.”

Concurrent with this push towards Marian minimalism was a new emphasis on ecumenism. At the Second Vatican Council, de Mattei tells us, the minimalists made use of this push for ecumenism, arguing that doctrines favored by the maximalists (such as Mary, Mediatrix of All Graces) would, in the words of Rahner, “cause unimaginable harm from the ecumenical point of view regarding both the Orientals and the Protestants.” Indeed, Protestants deny all formal cooperation of Mary with the redemption; they particularly abhor, according to De Mattei, “the terms ‘Mediatrix’ and even more ‘Co-Redemptrix.’ ”

While Pope Francis may not have been consciously inspired by Luther or C. S. Lewis when he said “she never wanted to take anything away from her Son,” it seems fair to argue that his words on December 12 may have been influenced by this “minimalist” school of thought, which sadly dismisses the importance of Mary’s unique relationship with Christ.


Although John Henry Newman died long before Marian minimalism saw the light of day, as a former Protestant, his approach to Mariology is worth examining. Unlike Rahner, Newman argued that the honors the Church pays to Our Lady may be “startling and difficult” to those whose imagination and whose reason are unaccustomed to them, but that they are “essential to the Catholic faith, and integral to the worship of Christ.”

How so? Newman explains that Protestants “have seldom any real perception of the doctrine of God and man in one Person… When they comment on the Gospels, they will speak of Christ, not simply and consistently as God, but as a being made up of God and man, partly one and partly the other, or between both, or as a man inhabited by a special Divine presence.”

However, the glorious reality of the Incarnation is that Jesus Christ is true God and true man. Our Lady is the key to a proper grasp of the Incarnation. Newman says: “Could you express this more emphatically and unequivocally than by declaring that [Christ] was born a man, or that He had a Mother?”

The grace and the glory of Mary, Newman says, “are not for her own sake, but for her Maker’s; and to her is committed the custody of the Incarnation; this is her appointed office—‘A Virgin shall conceive, and bear a Son, and they shall call His Name Emmanuel’. …Her glories and the devotion paid her proclaim and define the right faith concerning Him as God and man.”

So, there seems to be more to Pope Francis’s dismissal of Our Lady as co-redemptrix than first meets the eye. What are we to believe?

St. Vincent of Lerins taught that, in times of confusion, we are to believe “that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all,” applying the principles of “universality, antiquity, and consent.”

And according to Garrigou-Lagrange, the universal and ancient teaching on Our Lady’s part in the redemption is this: “According to what the Fathers of the Church tell us about Mary as the New Eve whom many saw foretold in the words of Genesis, it is common and certain doctrine, and even fidei proxima, that the Blessed Virgin, Mother of the Redeemer, is associated with Him in the work of redemption as secondary and subordinate cause, just as Eve was associated with Adam in the work of man’s ruin.”

We know from the apparitions at Fatima that Our Lady holds the key to our escape from the confusion in which we live today. If this is so, why not revert to the “Marian maximalism” of our ancestors, to the traditional attitude of the Church towards the mother of Our Savior and her unique relationship with Our Lord Jesus Christ?

Perhaps Newman could serve as our model in this. His attitude to Our Lady is, I think, well exemplified by this passage, in which he takes the story of Assuerus’s reward to Mordechai in the Book of Esther as an analogy to the reward granted by Christ to His mother (whom Esther is generally held to prefigure).

“The man whom the king wisheth to honour,” Assuerus was told, “ought to be clad in the king’s apparel, and to be mounted on the king’s saddle, and to receive the royal diadem on his head; and let the first among the king’s princes and presidents hold his horse, and let him walk through the streets of the city, and say, Thus shall he be honoured, whom the king hath a mind to honour.”

“So stands the case with Mary,” Newman declares; “she gave birth to the Creator, and what recompense shall be made her?…

“I answer, as the king was answered: Nothing is too high for her to whom God owes His human life; no exuberance of grace, no excess of glory, but is becoming, but is to be expected there, where God has lodged Himself, whence God has issued.”

Does that sound like “maximalism”—or “foolishness”? Perhaps. But let’s not forget that our religion was founded by One who did not disdain the folly—what one might call the “maximalism”—of the cross.



  • Jane Stannus

    Jane Stannus is a journalist and translator. Her writing has also appeared in the Catholic Herald of London, The Spectator USA, and the National Catholic Reporter.

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