In Catholic theology, the word “Coredemptrix” (syllabified “Co‑re‑demp‑trix”) is a title sometimes applied to Mary, the mother of Jesus. But occasionally, you’ll find the word with a hyphen inserted, as in “Co‑redemptrix” (together with its much rarer case-variants: “Co‑Redemptrix” and “co‑Redemptrix”).

I find this to be fascinating from a linguistic standpoint, because the hyphen actually changes the meaning of the word. This treatise is meant to make a linguistic point, not a theological one. I’m not trying to argue for or against the title itself. But since this is a semantic inquiry, we must begin by establishing what a theologian would mean by the word.

This is how I would explain the concept that “Coredemptrix” tries to communicate. Jesus is the Redeemer who died out of love to save us from our sins so that we could be adopted into the family of God. This was accomplished at the historical event of the Passion 2,000 years ago, but the one act has supernatural effects throughout time and space. Adoption into the family of God is the greatest gift possible, and this great gift is meant to be shared. When we are adopted into the family of God, we gain the ability to mystically unite our sufferings to those of Jesus, thereby participating in that act of Redemption. That is to say, through the Redemption, God freely gives us the ability to become “co-redeemers” for others (see Colossians 1:24). This does not subtract from Jesus’s role as Redeemer, because our very ability to cooperate in the Redemption is itself a part of what Jesus accomplished. Anything we do in this regard is a part of the glory of Jesus’s Redemption. God certainly does not need our cooperation in the Redemption, but gives us the gift of doing so out of love for us. Mary, the greatest saint and mystic in history, who was physically present at the Passion of Her Son, is the greatest beneficiary of the Redemption, and therefore the one whose sufferings had the greatest possible mystical cooperation with the Redemption.

If a theologian chooses to use the title “Coredemptrix” for Mary, this is what he or she is referring to. The word “Coredemptrix” is from Latin, which is a useful language to have for Catholic theology, specifically because it can be used to convey complex theological ideas concisely and precisely. “Coredemptrix” is a constructed word: it is a composite of three semantic parts, assembled in the following order:

  1. The root “redemp” from the noun “redemptio,” meaning “redemption.”
  2. The prefix “co,” which indicates a subordinated cooperation.
  3. The suffix “trix,” which indicates a female grammatical agent. (The Latin suffix for a male agent is “tor,” as in “operator,” which would have a theoretical feminine equivalent of “operatrix.”)

Put the pieces together, and you get “Coredemptrix,” meaning, “woman who cooperates in redemption.” The base semantic component is “coredemption,” to which the suffix of feminine agency (“-trix”) is applied.

This word follows a pattern very similar to that of “coadjutor,” another ecclesial Latin word:

  1. The root “adju” from the verb “adiutare,” meaning “to help.”
  2. The prefix “co,” which indicates a subordinated cooperation.
  3. The suffix “tor,” which indicates a male grammatical agent.

The result is “coadjutor,” which in the Catholic Church refers to an assistant bishop who is the automatic successor to the main bishop once he retires.

The prefix “co” can have two meanings:

  1. It can be a prefix that simply means one of a group, as in “co-chair” or “co-dependent”
  2. Or it can be a morpheme that adds the meaning of subordination, as in “co-pilot,” “co-cathedral,” or “coadjutor”

A “co-chair” is one of a group, because the other chairpeople are also called “co-chairs.” A “co-dependency” implies that both sides are equally co-dependent. But the “co-pilot,” on the other hand, is subordinate to the other pilot, who is called simply “pilot.” Similarly, a “co-cathedral” is subordinate to a “cathedral” (subordinate in the sense that the co-cathedral was given its status after the cathedral was).

But “coadjutor” is different from the rest. It certainly doesn’t mean “one of a group” (because a Catholic diocese can only have one coadjutor bishop). It clearly implies subordination. But a coadjutor is not subordinate to an “adjutor.” The word “adjutor” means “helper.” When the morpheme “co” is added, we get the sense of “subordinate helper.”

This is why coadjutor is unhyphenated: because “co” is intrinsic to the meaning of the word. A coadjutor bishop does not exist in reference to an “adjutor.” Here, the “co” prefix is not something tacked on after the fact. We can’t add a hyphen, because a hyphen implies that the referent is complete prior to the addition of the hyphenated prefix. Take the noun “matter” for example. From this complete word, we can derive a new word “anti-matter.” The word can be spelled with or without the hyphen, but the hyphen, if it is present, gives us the additional information the word is defined in reference to “matter.”

This is why “coadjutor” isn’t hyphenated: because the presence of a hyphen would imply that the word is defined in reference to an “adjutor,” when, in this context, there is no such thing.

The word “copilot,” on the other hand, can be hyphenated as “co-pilot,” because it is defined in reference to a “pilot.” Additionally, words from the first semantic category — those that use “co” to mean “one of a group” — must be capable of hyphenation, because these are always built on an existing referent. All words in group 1 are capable of a hyphenated form, but only some words in group 2.

Given the theological assertion behind it, the word Coredemptrix is clearly in the second semantic category of subordination. And like coadjutor, there is a reason why it cannot exist in a hyphenated form: if we add the hyphen to make it “Co‑redemptrix,” then we are implying that there is a “redemptrix” (female redeemer) in reference to whom this word is derived. The base semantic component becomes “redemptrix,” to which the prefix “co-” is applied. A “co‑redemptrix” is defined in reference to a “redemptrix,” just like a “co‑pilot” is defined in reference to a “pilot.” But the word in question is supposed to define Mary in reference to Jesus.

The problem, then, with the hyphenated form is that it semantically denotes that Jesus is a woman, because it asserts “redemptrix” as its originating referent.

Now presumably, no one using the hyphenated form actually intends to communicate that Jesus is a woman. But this is what they are denoting even if it’s not what they mean to be connoting. Language matters, especially theological language. It is a problem, then, that the hyphenated form is used even by certain reputable theological sources.

A linguistic nominalist would say there’s no need to make a big deal out of this, given that the hyphenated form is adequately functional in communicating what is meant (assuming you’re talking with someone for whom “she-Jesus” is out of the question). But for those of us who believe that grammatical rules have a role to play in communicating meaning, the hyphen, in this particular case, is a game-changer.