Book Review: There is No Rose of Such Virtue (Aidan Nichols, OP)

Reading Fr. Nichols’ new text in Mariology, There is No Rose of Such Virtue: The Mariology of the Catholic Church (Fortress Press, 2015), reminded me of a conversation I had with my mother a couple of years ago.  At the time, my husband and I had just moved to Washington, DC, and I was homesick for the great state of Indiana.  My mother recommended I pray the traditional Marian prayer, the Memorare, to ask for Mary’s intercession and comfort.  “The ‘Memorare’”?  I asked.  “I’ve never heard of that prayer.”  My mother, utterly shocked, immediately rattled off the prayer—evidencing how the plea for Mary to “hear and answer” had been embedded in her Catholic subconscious, formed in an ethnic Roman Catholic parish in the 1950’s greater-Chicago area.  In amazement, she insisted, “Did they never teach you that in school?  How is it possible that you’ve never heard that prayer?”

For now, I’ll bracket the somewhat terrifying memory of, for lack of a better word, “thin” Catholic religious education in the 1980s.  Remembering this simple devotional prayer, which my mother knew so well, and I knew not at all—reminded me of other cultural practices which vanish within a generation.  My grandparents spoke fluent Slovak.  My mother knows a few phrases.  I know exactly four words, three of which (I recently discovered) should not be used in polite company.  In short, the Memorare, which was embedded in my mother’s brain as a natural spiritual response to human distress, was a completely foreign object to me.  In order for the prayer to be bring me solace, I would need to first learn the words of the prayer (a prayer cast in devotional language of the mid-nineteenth century) and, secondly, think of a Marian devotion as my first natural response in times of need.

My “gap” in Marian knowledge reflects perhaps a wider trend for Catholics whose subconsciouses were formed not during the heyday of Marian piety in the 1950s, but in the post-Conciliar decades of the 1970s and 1980s.  My dearth in devotional training seems to be, as Fr. Nichols’ historical tracing of Mariology suggests, the result of a phase of “Marian reform” which included the “suppression of…superstitious acts of popular piety”; a concern that Marian devotional practices, such as the rosary, were incompatible with liturgical prayer; and the influence of ressourcement movements which preferred a “low Mariology” rather than dogmatic emphases upon Mary’s role in mediating grace, or her role as co-redeemer (Nichols 145-148).

Certainly, as a Roman Catholic, I feel that I know very little about a central figure in the Church’s tradition.  I wanted to read this new volume by Fr. Nichols, There Is No Rose, because, as a liturgist and a historian particularly interested in the twentieth century (coincidently an era of flourishing Marian devotions), I wanted an opportunity to closely read about Mary.  To this end, Nichols’ text is well-organized and unfolds historically, tracing central Marian themes and dogmas from Biblical through patristic, medieval, neo-scholastic, and some modern texts.

As a liturgist, one of the most compelling sources of evidence which Nichols draws upon is his use of Marian hymns, iconographic depictions, and liturgical prayer texts.  Also compelling is Nichols’ discussion of the relationship between the gradual adoption of Marian feasts into the Church calendar and the articulation of Marian doctrine by the Church (Nichols 26).  For example, the attempt to add a feast celebrating the Conception of Mary prompted Pius IX, in his 1854 Ineffabilis Deus, to affirm the Immaculate Conception as dogma (Nichols 50).  In fact, I would have enjoyed seeing more discussion of the influence of Marian piety in articulating Marian dogma, attending to the dynamic relationship of lex orandi, lex credendi.

Likewise, Fr. Nichols’ last chapter, which he titles “An Excursus on Eastern Orthodox Theology and Marian Art,” should not be neglected, as it offers the reader a compelling presentation of how devotional traditions complement and teach Marian dogma, and implicitly suggests powerful points of connection between Eastern and Western Christians.  I found myself scurrying to the internet to search for the images he described; it would have been a great asset to the text if the particular icons he describes so beautifully could have been reprinted.

As a historian, I felt that the “gap” in Mariology and reflection on Marian development, which Fr. Nichols describes as occurring after the Second Vatican Council (Nichols ix), is evidenced by the sources drawn upon my Fr. Nichols.  Of the sources listed in the “Select Bibliography,” 62 of 86, or 72%, were published before 1980.  41 of 86, or nearly 50%, were published before 1960.  On the one hand, the large number of pre-Conciliar authors reflects the greater interest in Mariology in mid-century Euro-American circles.  To this end, Fr. Nichols usefully introduces the reader to a number of sources in French and German.  On the other hand, I am somewhat surprised that there are so few sources which discuss matters of Marian dogma, faith, or liturgical practice from the last quarter of the twentieth century.  Similarly, a more direct discussion of Pope St. John Paul II’s encyclical letter, Redemptoris Mater (1987), or his devotion to Mary throughout his papacy, might have drawn upon more recent sources.

One might argue that Fr. Nichols’ object is more descriptive of the development of Marian doctrine and, therefore, need not require the work of more recent scholarship on Mariology.  Yet, it seems that some descriptions of Mary, particularly her role as “Co-Redeemer” would have benefited from a discussion not only of why Mary has been described as such by Catholic theologians, but why such titles are potentially confusing—to fellow Christians and to Roman Catholics themselves.  Likewise, the Second Vatican Council’s determination to include a discussion of Mary within the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, rather than devote an entire document to her, is noted twice as a concession to the concerns of “Protestants” (Nichols 81 & 149).  Given the more recent interest in Mary by a variety of Christian churches, such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, some discussion of “common ground” regarding Mary which addressed her role as exemplar of faith, or mother of the church, might have provided a useful balance to this critique of ecumenical concerns in the Conciliar period.

In short, those interested in tracing the development of Marian devotion will find this text useful for its clear presentation of key Marian dogmas in the Catholic tradition.  In particular, Fr. Nichol’s discussion of how the Marian material within the New Testament develops key Old Testament images for Israel is compelling.  Readers will also benefit from the incorporation of numerous texts and images from Eastern Orthodox theological and devotional sources.  This text would be best-suited for students in upper-level or graduate theological courses which discussed Catholic doctrine, and would be especially useful for scholars seeking a concise resource for tracing mid-century Marian theological reflection.


  1. The concept of Mary as “co-redeemer” is extremely controversial, isn’t it? In what light does Nichols present it? I must confess that I find much of his writing about the liturgy tendentious, so I’m a little concerned that his book may have presented this as if the concept of co-redemption were a standard feature of Catholic Marian doctrine. As I understand it, this isn’t the case. What I mean to say is that talking about why it’s confusing is secondary to clarifying that it’s not representative either.

    1. @Rita Ferrone:
      Thanks for raising this question, Rita. To clarify Fr. Nichols’ presentation, he does describe the concept of Mary as “Co-Redemptrix” as a “plausible” dogma which would “not detract from the uniqueness of the work of Christ” (Nichols 85, 87).

      He offers a number of reasons why he finds this term theologically useful. For example, he notes that Mary’s “contribution to the redemption” and her role as a “helpmeet in the achieving of salvation,” as a New Eve to Christ’s New Adam, “enhances the symmetry of redemption as the inversion of the fall” (Nichols 86). And, he notes how this motif “Mary the New Eve” is employed by 20th-century popes, referencing passages such as Pius XII in Mystici Corporis 10 (Nichols 80).

      He presents this concept as an unfinished dogma–one which was avoided by the Second Vatican Council fathers–and a “gap” which remains to be filled (Nichols 88).

  2. I see two major influences that drew down the Marian knowledge and devotion after Vatican II. The first was the renewed desire to know and experience a more reachable Christ and the second would be the intended rise in Scripture in a Catholic’s life. The Christ of mercy and love seemed more reachable than before and the Scripture simply doesn’t have many Mary stories.

    That and trying to explain to third graders kneeling through a Rosary how they were the poor banished children of Eve. While not the Memorare, they would be asked to connect to the Mother of Jesus weeping and mourning in this valley of tears.

    John Paul II’s bump for Marian piety and the addition of the Luminous Mysteries has helped with poor Mary’s branding but if she is joyously sitting as the Queen of Heaven, the Church has to find ways to make her smile. Maybe that takes another Notre Dame win or the current popular role of the unbdoer of knots will help.

    Co-redeemer is not the best way to engage the world with Mary’s influence. Yes Rita it is controversial but other denominations find the title offensive.

    1. @Ed Nash:
      It’s not only non-Catholics who find that description offensive.
      I realised with a crash how much Marian and liturgical thought have changed when I was in Lourdes a couple of months ago. Above the main altar in the basilica is the inscription “Through Mary to Jesus.” The placing over the spot where all is offered to the Father “through Christ our Lord” was rather too much for my post-conciliar Anglo Saxon brain.

      1. @Alan Johnson:
        I suppose it’s a matter of context, isn’t it.

        “Ad Jesum per Mariam” can be an expression of an orthodox theology and a healthy spirituality if it means finding in devotion to Mary a stimulus for directing one’s gaze towards her son. If, as Marialis cultus suggests, Mary is thought of as a disciple of Jesus she is a legitimate role model for those who seek to follow him.

        Rita and Anthony 1+

  3. If the concept of Mary as co-redeemer is “controversial”, what are we to make of Lumen Gentium nn 60-65, in particular the statement in n 62 that:

    “Just as the priesthood of Christ is shared in various ways both by the ministers and by the faithful, and as the one goodness of God is really communicated in different ways to 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.”

    And what about Col 1:24 “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church”?

    If St Paul can say that, cannot the Mother of God do so as well?

    1. @Fr Richard Duncan CO:
      “Cooperation” (LG) and “make up what is lacking” (Col 1:24) are two beautiful texts, but neither of them, in and of themselves, quite adds up to “co-redeemer.” One would need to understand both texts so as not to detract from Christ’s saving work, and indeed LG is careful to add “this one source.” Paul had a theology of Christ working in him and Christ bringing about his own afflictions, but Paul certainly didn’t ever say that he is a “co-redeemer.”

      The reason “co-redeemer” is controversial is that it is so easily misunderstood. It is burdened by nearly insurmountable interpretive problems, which is why it is such an ecumenical disaster, and a disaster even for Catholics who would likely (and do) misunderstand it at the popular level.

      If a term is so problematic that you have to keep explaining it over and over and trying to make clear why it really doesn’t mean what most people naturally take it to mean, just what is the motivation for pushing and defending the problematic term? I hope it’s not that some people delight in throwing up a barrier between Roman Catholics and other Christians, but sometimes one does get that impression. “Catholic Identity!!!” and all that.


    2. @Fr Richard Duncan CO:
      From these texts then, do you wish to be called Fr. Richard, Co-Redeemer?

      Seriously, however, all the texts you quote above pertain to all the cooperation of all faithful in the redemption, but the title co-redeemer has never been used in this way. When the title is used for Mary, traditionally (and by its most ardent supporters), it evokes a much different order of importance.

      This title for Mary was indeed proposed for Lumen Gentium. And rejected. In his book on Lumen Gentium, Richard Gaillardetz writes:
      “Although the text briefly mentioned several traditional titles… many of the other titles open to misinterpretation (e.g. co-redemptrix and dispensatrix of graces) were avoided entirely.”

    3. @Fr Richard Duncan CO:
      I’m certainly not arguing for a dogmatic definition, either for myself (!) or Our Lady, not least because it would play into the hands of those who claim that she has spoken to them every day since 1981. Nevertheless, I think the distinction between “co-operation” (in the work of redemption) and “co-redemption” is quite narrow, and I would be concerned if in our quite proper concern to avoid misunderstanding the latter, we missed the precious spiritual lessons that the former has to teach us.

  4. It would make me a lot less suspicious about the title ‘co-redemptrix’ if some of its prominent proposers didn’t rely on insisting, falsely, that it means ‘woman with the redeemer’. It is an enormous leap in terminology, as Pope Benedict XVI recognised, and it may be worth remembering that Pope John XXIII felt the need to state that that the Mother of God is not pleased when she is placed above her son.

  5. I was also a child of the “thin” era, but upon my move to the Midwest, I was intrigued by the addition of the Fatima Prayer–unknown in my eastern experience of the Rosary in my ancestral Italian-German community. (They had a Lourdes shrine in the parish church, yes.) More and more additions now cloud the “original” as I experienced it. I find myself partially disengaged from public recitation these days. More is not better. And maybe more Mariology is likewise not an improvement.

    I find the treatment of the Blessed Mother more balanced, maybe more mature, in the Spiritual Exercises. A lot of the modern vector with Mary–Fatima and Medjugorje as two examples–makes me nervous.

    The Church’s greater need these days is evangelization, not necessarily the cultivation of piety among the elder brothers and sisters. The two are not mutually exclusive, certainly. But I would ask Marian devotees (as I have among my former students) how much she contributes to the outward impulse of the Church. A few have reflected on that somewhat successfully. If I were to read Professor Nichols, I would be looking for how his presentation of theology moves believers out, rather than over-explaining old topics that direct the gaze more inward.

  6. The fact that Mary was included in the Constitution on the Church is demonstrably not simply the result of protestant uneasiness.

  7. Msgr. Florian Kolfhaus, a diplomat for the Holy See and a member of the Pontifical Marian Academy, gave a talk two years ago at Franciscan University, in which he included a great deal on Our Lady as Mediatrix of All Graces, Co-Redemptrix and Advocate. He pointed out that it’s already doctrine, but it has not yet been declared a dogma. He also explained that Our Lady already shares the titles of Our Lord with only a few exceptions (she is Mirror of Justice, for example) and it is odd to Kolfhaus that only in the cases of her being Mediatrix and Co-Redemptrix is she assigned the feminine forms. Usually the titles remain masculine.

    Katherine, it’s good that Vatican II did not declare the fifth Marian dogma. It was probably two close to the declaration of the dogma of the Assumption, and the definition is not quite there for a dogmatic declaration. Though that disappointed many, I think. The Belgians and French had great devotion to Louis de Montfort and had his feast and the feast of Our Lady, Mediatrix of All Graces inserted into the calendar, and of course they pushed for Louis’ canonization.

    I look forward to reading this.

  8. (a prayer cast in devotional language of the mid-nineteenth century) ????

    The Memorare is much older,m and is pulled directly from the 15th Century prayer, Ad sanctitatis tuae pedes, dulcissima Virgo Maria.

    Maybe you are referencing the Raccolta translation from the mid-1800’s? Even then, this translation goes back until at least the 18th Century — not the nineteenth.

    1. @Todd Orbitz:
      Many thanks for this note. The use of the Memorare in the English translation to which I referred is one which first appears in the well-circulated 19th-century devotional text, The Garden of the Soul, which goes through numerous editions. The first incorporation of the Memorare appears in 1844 (even before Pope Pius IX established the granting of an indulgence in connection to this prayer, in 1846!).

      Because of the popularity of this particular translation and the increased ability to standardize language (improved printing technologies), the language which was still taught in the 1950s, and to me in the 2010’s, uses that 19th-century syntax. There are certainly other translations out there of this prayer, as you rightly note!

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