Ecclesiasticus 4:28

"Fight to the death for truth, and the Lord God will war on your side."

Ora pro nobis,

Most Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Francis de Sales, St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. Dominic. Amen.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Mary, Immaculately Conceived (Part 2, examining the scriptural and historical evidence)

In Part 1 of our examination of Mary's Immaculate Conception, we looked at various common objections to the doctrine, namely that the Bible says that all have sinned, and that if Mary were without sin, she wouldn't need Jesus to save her, but could potentially even have been the saviour. Having demonstrated that the first objection is based on a problematical interpretation of Scripture, and is therefore inconclusive, and having demonstrated that the other objections stem from an inadequate understanding of the Catholic dogma, or worse, on an inadequate understanding of our own salvation, we turn our attention now to presenting the Catholic Church's basis for its belief.

A Reminder Regarding Tradition
As with our discussion of the Perpetual Virginity of Mary, I hasten to remind the reader that the Scriptures are not the sole rule of faith for Catholicism. Thus, a doctrine not explicitly spelled out in Scripture does not mean that it was not divinely revealed or any less binding upon the believer. We hold that Sacred Tradition, passed down from the Apostles, the understanding of which has developed over time (as has the understanding of Scripture), is just as much the Word of God as Scripture--and, in fact, Sacred Tradition encompasses Sacred Scripture within it. That is, Scripture itself is a form of Sacred Tradition, and the particular format of Scripture that Christians use today is a direct result of Tradition, and the Magisterial actions of the Church.

This point is crucial in our study of the Blessed Virgin Mary, because the dogmas about her are not explicitly stated in Scripture. There are, however, several passages that imply these doctrines more or less clearly. In the case of the Immaculate Conception, Scripture does more to corroborate the doctrine than to demonstrate it. That said, I plan to reverse the normal order of the discussion, and to begin with a logical approach, move to the historical testimony, and conclude with Scripture. First, however, let us review the actual Dogma.

The Dogma of Mary's Immaculate Conception

We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful (Pope Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus).
In this one sentence, densely packed with theological teaching, we see the following:

1. Mary received this grace "from the first moment of her conception," that is, from the moment God created her soul and infused it into her body.
2. Mary was "preserved free from all stain (Latin, macula) of original sin," that is, unlike the rest of us, in which the "active essence" of original sin is removed through baptism, for Mary, God never permitted it to even take hold. He prevented sin from touching Mary's soul. Further, in place of sin, she received the fullness of God's grace: the original sanctity, innocence, and justice was conferred upon her, which excluded every stain and fault, all depraved emotions, passions, and debilities, that essentially pertain to original sin.
3. Mary was given this grace "by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race," that is, Mary was uniquely given this gift because of her role as the Mother of God. It was bestowed upon her only because of Jesus' sacrifice, and in anticipation of the same. He thus saved Mary in a more perfect way than He did for the rest of humankind.

Immaculate Beginning, Logical Conclusion
In the beginning, God created Adam and Eve in His image and likeness, elevating them higher than the animal kingdom, giving them rational souls. He created them perfect, without any trace of sin, and filled with His divine grace. When they succumbed to the Serpent's temptations, however, they lost that gift of grace, not only for themselves, but also for all of us. This, of course, is Original Sin--that first sin of Adam and Eve, and the attendant consequences for us.

When Jesus came, He came as a Second Adam, to undo and save us from the consequences of Original Sin, so that we could be given sanctifying grace again, and be restored to correct relationship with God and with each other. Jesus, by virtue of His conception by the Holy Spirit, and His own Divine Nature, was Himself born in the same immaculate state as our original Parents, in order to fully recapitulate their initial disobedience. As St. Paul says, "Just as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man's obedience are many to be made upright" (Romans 5:19). Logically, though, we know that two people were involved in the Original Sin, and so, just as there is a New Adam in Christ, so there is also a New Eve in God's economy--the Blessed Virgin Mary. Since this was to be her role, God created her in the state of Grace which was otherwise lost in our First Parents, in order that, as Jesus perfectly recapitulated Adam's disobedience, Mary could perfectly recapitulate Eve's. I will explore this concept in greater depth when we examine the Biblical evidence for the doctrine.

The second logical argument states that there is an incongruity in supposing that the flesh from which Jesus Christ became incarnate should ever have belonged to one who was the slave of Satan. Yet this is the status of all who are born in Original Sin. Since this state of affairs is unfitting for the Incarnation of the Lord, and since God could do something to remedy that, logically, He would have. Or, in the formulation of Eadmer, intimate friend and scribe of St. Anselm of Canterbury, "Decuit, potuit, ergo fecit." Bl. John Duns Scotus would further develop this point, saying that "the perfect Mediator must, in some one case, have done the work of mediation most perfectly, which would not be unless there was some one person at least, in whose regard the wrath of God was anticipated and not merely appeased."

In other words, Jesus, who Himself gave the Law, was bound to fully obey that Law (for it is a contradiction to suppose that the Perfect Lawgiver is somehow free from His own Perfect Law). As such, He perfectly honoured His Mother, by saving her perfectly and completely from Sin.

The Church's Enduring Testimony
As I noted in Part 1, the Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was formally defined as Dogma only in 1854 by Pope Pius IX. Further, before this time there had been some controversy even among Catholic scholars and theologians about whether Mary was immaculately conceived. However, despite the fact that a few eminent theologians did not hold to the Immaculate Conception of Mary, even they held that she remained sinless throughout her life, as the Catholic Church has always taught since the beginning. It was the particular development of the doctrine of Mary's sinlessness--that she was sinless from the moment of her conception--that was contended, not the fact of her sinlessness.

The Liturgical Feast
The primary witness to the fact that the Church has always held Mary to have been Immaculately Conceived, as well as just free from actual sin, comes from the liturgical calendar, which celebrates Mary's Immaculate Conception on December 8th (nine months before it celebrates her Nativity). Jesus Christ, the very author and perfector of our faith, has His conception celebrated on March 25th, nine months before His nativity on Christmas Day, December 25th. All of the saints' feast days are celebrated not on their earthly birthday, but on their "heavenly birthday", the day they died. All but two, other than Jesus Himself: The Blessed Virgin, and St. John the Baptist, of whom it is said that the Holy Spirit sanctified him while in his mother's womb, when Mary visited her (Luke 1:15, 39-41). The fact that Mary's conception is also celebrated indicates to us that the Church holds that while John the Baptist was sanctified while still in the womb of Elizabeth, Mary's own sanctification was significantly greater and more perfect, occurring at the very moment of her conception, and preserving her even from the stain of original sin. While Mary remains infinitely lesser than Jesus, the God-man, she is still thus greater than even His precursor, of whom Jesus Himself said, "I tell you, of all the children born to women, there is no one greater than John" (Luke 7:28).

Early Church Writings
Moreover, there are countless texts from the Early Church (dating right back to AD 70, while Scripture itself was still being written) which implicitly and explicitly speak of Mary's sinlessness, and even her Immaculate Conception.

Texts known as The Ascension of Isaiah (AD 70) and The Odes of Solomon (AD 80), both speak of the birth of Jesus as occurring without causing Mary any pain. At first glance, this doesn't seem significant to the question of her Immaculate Conception, but consider, if she was not tainted with Original Sin, then the curses that followed from Original Sin would not have had power over her. One of the curses, according to Genesis 3:16, was pain in childbirth. For the Early Church to teach that Mary had no pain during Jesus' birth clearly implies her Immaculate Conception. The early dates of these writings, too, lend credence, for very likely Mary herself, if not people who knew her well, were still alive and would have corrected this misinformation.

Other early Christian writers, such as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Julius Firmicus Maternus, Cyril of Jerusalem, Epiphanius, Theodotus of Ancyra, and Sedulius elaborate upon Mary as the New Eve, and compare her obedience with Eve's disobedience, and equate the state of Mary's soul with Eve's before the Fall.

Other Fathers of the Early Church wrote explicitly of Mary's absolute purity, such as Ephrem the Syrian, who wrote in the Nisibene Hymns (27:8, AD 361), "You alone and your Mother are more beautiful than any others, for there is no blemish in you nor any stains upon your Mother. Who of my children can compare in beauty to these?"

St. Ambrose of Milan referred to Mary as "a virgin whom grace had made inviolate, free of every stain of sin" (Commentary on Psalm 118:22–30, AD 387). St. Augustine, arguably the greatest theologian of the Church, was quoted in Part 1, as excluding Mary from the company of sinners. Others who so testified include Hippolytus, Origen, Maximus of Turin, Theodotus of Ancyra, John of Damascus, Gregory of Tours, and others. (For more exhaustive lists and quotations, see the Catholic Encyclopedia and Catholic Answers.)

The Controversy
There was no controversy regarding belief in Mary's sinlessness, or indeed her immaculate conception, until around the twelfth century. The Feast of the Conception of Mary, having long been celebrated in the Eastern Church, was introduced to St. Anselm of Canterbury during his exile in Campania and Apulin. His friend and disciple, Eadmer of Canterbury, helped to spread devotion to Mary's Immaculate Conception, and St. Anselm the Younger, abbot of Bury St. Edmund's, introduced the Feast to the Western Church. Unfortunately, this drew sharp criticism from St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who, not knowing of the doctrine's history in the East, called it "foreign to the tradition of the Church", and reproved St. Anselm the Younger for introducing the feast of his own authority without approval from the Pope.

Bernard argued that Mary could not have been sanctified before she existed--that is, from the moment of the creation of her flesh in the womb. He further argued that Mary's sanctification after that point would render honour to her birth, but not to her conception. St. Albert the Great and his most notable pupil, St. Thomas Aquinas, would follow this reasoning in rejecting the doctrine of Mary's Immaculate Conception. However, in so doing, they committed the fallacy of the excluded middle, not at that time understanding the distinction between "active" conception, that is, the generation of the body by the parents, and "passive" conception, which is the infusion of the soul into the body by God, thus giving life to the foetus. St. Bernard's objections are overcome when it is understood that the Dogma refers to Mary's passive conception--that at the moment when God infused Mary's soul into her body, He removed all stain of original sin. This was not before Mary's existence, nor was it some time after her conception. Rather, it was simultaneous with that event.

St. Thomas Aquinas further would object to the doctrine in his Summa Theologica on the grounds which we addressed in Part 1, namely, that if Mary had never sinned, what need did she have of a Redeemer? Ironically, however, his own writings and theological framework ultimately laid the grounds for the final definition and declaration of the Dogma! This was how, for example, Blessed John Duns Scotus could argue that Mary herself was redeemed in a more perfect manner than the rest of us, by preservation rather than rescue.

The Solution
After Duns Scotus, the Feast and the doctrine grew in acceptance, and the universities and religious orders took up its celebration, except for the Dominicans, who resisted it, following the example set by their own St. Thomas. In 1439, the dispute was taken up by the Council of Basle, which ruled that it was a holy and pious doctrine which in no wise contradicted the Catholic faith. However, since the Council was not an Ecumenical Council (that is, having all the Church's bishops present), its ruling was not authoritative or binding. In 1476, Pope Sixtus IV officially placed the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on the Latin Calendar, and while he refrained from giving a definitive pronouncement at that time, he did forbid, by pain of excommunication, anyone from calling the opposite viewpoint from his own heretical. While the Council of Trent refused to comment on the question, the doctrine was more and more widely accepted by all the Church. Finally, in 1661, Pope Alexander VII settled the question by defining the definitive meaning of the term "Conception" in relation to the "Immaculate Conception", stating that it did absolutely refer to the creation and infusion of Mary's soul into her body. From that time on, all controversy ceased, even though Alexander VII hadn't formally pronounced on the dogma in a manner qualifying as "ex cathedra." However, his pronouncement was repeated almost verbatim (after having actually been quoted earlier on) in Pope Pius IX's document, Ineffabilis Deus, when he gave the final, infallible pronouncement of the Dogma.

Thus we see, from this cursory view of the history of the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception, that the controversy surrounding it did not extend to the whole Church, but was limited to the academic spheres of England and France, primarily. Furthermore, their objections to the Dogma resulted not from its untruth, but from their misunderstanding of the terms by which the truth was expressed. Had St. Bernard understood what was meant by the term "conception", had St. Thomas seen how Mary's salvation was preeminent among God's creatures, and had all the opponents of the Dogma been more familiar with the writings and Tradition of the Eastern Church, the Controversy may have been averted altogether. As the Catholic Encyclopedia puts it, "If St. Thomas, St. Bonaventure, and other theologians had known the doctrine in the sense of the definition of 1854, they would have been its strongest defenders instead of being its opponents." And yet, the controversy itself served only to clarify fully the beauty of God's grace given to Mary at her conception.

The Scriptural Evidence
I said above that Mary's Immaculate Conception is in Scripture only implicitly, and by way of deduction, and thus serves to corroborate the Dogma rather than to prove it. Having given the logical argument, and shown the unchanging teaching of the Church on the subject, let us turn to the Scriptures and show how they do, in fact, support Mary's Immaculate Conception.

The New Eve
As I mentioned above, the Early Church Fathers spoke often of Mary's Immaculate Conception in terms of her role as the New Eve. In Romans 5, St. Paul shows how Christ came as the New Adam to recapitulate the First Adam's sin and thus offer us redemption. Paul emphasises the parallel by stating repeatedly that "one man's" trespass plunged us all into sin, and "One Man's" obedience rescued us from it (cf. Rom 5:12, 15-19). But the account of the fall of our first parents in Genesis 3 clearly implicates two people in the Original Sin (to make no mention of the Serpent). While in Romans 5, St. Paul singles out the "man" as a parallel to Jesus, in other places, such as 1 Timothy 2:14, he singles out Eve, almost dumping the whole of Original Sin in her lap! Clearly, then, while Jesus' perfect obedience to the Father, even to death on the Cross, mediated to us the Covenant which reconciled us to the Father, St. Paul's typological parallel is logically incomplete without accounting for Eve's role in the Fall. And if "one woman" played a role in the Fall, the logic of Paul's typology requires that "one woman" also play a role in our redemption. That woman, of course, being the Blessed Virgin.

That is not to say that Mary's role in redemption is equal to that of Christ's, or that she alone could have redeemed us, or any such thing. But the fact is, she plays a role--and while that role isn't explicitly acknowledged by St. Paul in Romans 5, it is both implicitly and explicitly acknowledged in other passages, as we shall see.

Eve = Mary: The Parallels
The first and primary way in which Mary cooperates in our Redemption in her role as the New Eve, according to Scripture, is through her Fiat at the Annunciation. While on the one hand, Eve was tempted to disobedience by the Devil, Mary was invited to a new level of obedience by the Angel. And while Eve gave her assent to Satan, Mary gave her assent to God.

The next parallel is seen in Mary's Visitation to Elizabeth. Eve, having eaten of the fruit, brought it to Adam so that he might share in her sin. Mary, on the other hand, brought the most blessed fruit of her womb, Jesus, to Elizabeth, sanctifying John the Baptist in the womb and blessing Elizabeth with an outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Mary very literally "mediated" Jesus to them.

Third, while Eve was cursed with pain in childbirth, the Angels announced Joy to the world at the birth of Jesus from Mary. Again, while Eve was cursed with a yearning for Adam, who would dominate her, Mary yearned that all would come to Jesus, and herself prompted Him to perform His first miracle and thus begin His Ministry. More, where the Fall brought a rift between Adam and Eve, where blame was passed, at the Cross, Mary was completely united to Her Son in His Suffering, as the sword of suffering pierced her heart as Simeon had foretold.

If these parallels are insufficient to convince the sceptic, then I present further evidence. Note what Adam names Eve when he first sees her: "She is to be called Woman" (Gen 2:23). It is this very term, "Woman", that is used to describe Mary by St. John (and St. Paul) in the New Testament. Twice, John has Jesus address His Mother by the title, causing no small wonder among scholars and laymen alike. Yet the answer is here, in Mary's role as the New Eve. Jesus is not treating her as a stranger, or speaking to her with disrespect. Rather, He Himself affirms the fulfilment of the type. The first time is at the Wedding Feast of Cana, where Mary prompts Jesus into His public ministry. The second time is at the Cross, where He gives her into John's care.

St. John makes the parallel perfectly explicit, however, in his Apocalypse. In chapter 12, he describes a vision of the woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and a crown of stars about her head, who gives birth to the Messiah, as the dragon waits to devour Him. This vision depicts the fulfilment of God's first promise of redemption in Genesis 3:15, that there would be enmity between the Woman and the Serpent, and between her seed and his. John directly identifies the Dragon with "that ancient serpent" of Genesis 3. The Woman, then, the Mother of the Messiah, is the seed of that First Woman, and her own Seed, the Christ, will bring defeat to Satan. And just as Eve was called "the mother of all those who live" (Gen 3:20), so this Woman, Mary, the Blessed Mother, is Mother to all those who live in Christ (Rev 12:17).

I will discuss this mystery of Mary's participation in our redemption in a later article (after I write Mary, Assumed Into Heaven), but her role as the New Eve ties into the question of her Immaculate Conception in two ways. The first is the final comparison between Mary and Eve, and the second is in the words of God's promise of Genesis 3:15.

Immaculate Eve, Immaculate Mary
The final parallel between Eve and Mary, then, that fulfils the typology, is the state of their soul. God had created Adam and Eve in an elevated state of Grace, free from sin, perfect and fully integrated in their wills, their desires, their emotions. This is the state in which they were before the Fall. It is the state that Jesus lived on earth as a Man, free from sin, in order to redeem us, and fulfilling through it the type of the New Adam. We thus conclude that God specially created Mary in this same state of grace, through the Immaculate Conception, in order that she may more fully parallel Eve.

Genesis 3:15: Enmity between the Woman and the Serpent
Further, Mary's role as the New Eve fulfils the promise of God in Genesis 3:15. He says to the Serpent, "I shall put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; it will bruise your head and you will strike its heel." The latter part was fulfilled in Christ, whose "heel" was "struck" in the crucifixion, when the power of darkness appeared to have won, only to have been fully defeated--it's head crushed--instead. But what does it mean for God to put enmity between the Woman and the Serpent? Since all those born in sin are slaves to sin, and thus to Satan, it cannot be said that we are enemies of Satan. It is only once we have been redeemed that we become his enemies. But according to God's prophecy, He puts the enmity between the Serpent and the Woman before her seed crushes his head and redeems mankind. No one, as we said, born in sin is an enemy of Satan. Thus for the Woman, Mary, to be truly the enemy of the Serpent, she was conceived without sin. This was not, again, independent of Christ's sacrifice, but it did precede its occurrence in time. Thus we see in Genesis 3:15 the root of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception.

Mary, the Ark of the New Covenant
There are other Old Testament Types which Mary fulfils, such as that of the Eastern Gate, which we mentioned in the article on her Perpetual Virginity. I will not elucidate upon all of them, but I would be remiss if I did not again highlight Mary's fulfilment of the type of the Ark of the Covenant in connection with her Immaculate Conception; for just as the Ark was the holiest of all the sacred objects of Israel, so Mary is the holiest of all God's creatures (as the Eastern Church calls her, Panagia, the All-Holy). Just as the Ark was made of "incorruptible wood" and overlaid with "pure gold (Ex 25:10-11; Deut 10:3; according to the Septuagint), so Mary was preserved uncorrupted by sin.

Kecharitomene: What's so Amazing about Grace?
Finally, we turn to what I find to be the most compelling of the Scriptural texts pertaining to Mary's Immaculate Conception--and that is the Angel Gabriel's greeting to Mary at the Annunciation: "Hail, Full of Grace" (Luke 1:28). The first thing to note about this greeting is the fact that Gabriel addresses Mary first, not by her name, but by the phrase, "Full of Grace" (all one word in the Greek), in place of her name. In other words, Gabriel has, in effect, changed Mary's name--just as Abram became Abraham; Sarai, Sarah; Jacob, Israel; Simon, Peter; and Saul, Paul. The changing of a name was significant in Scripture, and the new name spoke something about who that person is in God's eyes (which, being the eyes of Truth, are the only eyes that count), about their calling, and about their destiny. Compare Jesus' promise to the Church of Pergamum in Revelation, to give to those who persevere, "a new name" (Rev 2:17).

So, Gabriel gives to Mary a new name, addressing her by the title that is more true of her than her own name. That name in the Greek is Kecharitomene, the depth of meaning of which I shall attempt to unpack. According to Thayer's Lexicon, the root word is "charitoo". Verbs in Greek which end in "oo" mean "to put someone into the state of" the root word, which here is "charis", which means "Grace". So what is "Grace"? We discover its meaning by looking at the only other passage in Scripture which uses a form of "charitoo", Ephesians 1:
Blessed be God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
who has blessed us with all the spiritual blessings of heaven in Christ.
Thus he chose us in Christ before the world was made
to be holy and faultless before him in love,
marking us out for himself beforehand, to be adopted sons, through Jesus Christ.
Such was his purpose and good pleasure,
to the praise of the glory of his grace,
his free gift to us in the Beloved,
in whom, through his blood, we gain our freedom, the forgiveness of our sins.
Such is the richness of the grace
which he has showered on us
in all wisdom and insight (vv. 3-8).
The phrase "his free gift to us" in verse 6 translates the form of charitoo, "echaritosen", which is in the "aorist, active, indicative" tense, which means, basically, that God is presently actively giving His grace to those whom He has chosen. So what does that Grace do, according to Ephesians 1? It makes us adopted children of God, gives us all the spiritual blessings of heaven, making us holy and faultless before Him in love, and given us freedom and forgiveness from sin. In sum, charitoo is the life and power of God to be holy and free from sin. That's what Grace is, and according to echaritosen, that's what God is actively doing for us who are in Christ.

How does that compare to Kecharitomene? Well, its different construction points to the fact that it has a different meaning--though that meaning is still based on charitoo: the state of being holy and free of sin. Unlike echaritosen, which is in the "aorist, active, indicative tense", Kecharitomene is a "perfect passive participle". So what's that mean? According to Blue Letter Bible, the Perfect tense means an action has been completed in the past in such a manner that it does not need to be repeated, and its effects endure to the present. The Passive tense means that the action is done to the subject. A Participle is a "verb noun", like in English. Putting it all together, Kecharitomene means that, at some definitive point in the past, God put Mary into the state of being holy and free from sin, in such a way that the action needs no repetition, but its effects endured throughout her lifetime. This act of grace was so complete that it could be said of Mary as though it were her very name. That is the powerful meaning behind the Angel's greeting of "Chaire, Kecharitomene"--"Hail, Full of Grace!" While it alone does not definitively bring us to Mary's Immaculate Conception, it does certainly point to her absolute sinlessness, purity, and holiness. Along with the rest of the evidence, the Immaculate Conception is very well corroborated by Scripture, attested to by Tradition, and evidenced by Reason.

Our Lady's Own Words
Before I conclude, however, having demonstrated the truth of Mary's Immaculate Conception, there is one last piece of evidence that I would submit, strictly as further corroboration. Over the centuries since the time of Christ, from time to time, God has sent Mary to the world with a message for mankind. The Church has approved many of these apparitions, and while it does not mandate belief in such private revelations, after much thorough investigation, the Church rules that specific ones are "worthy of all belief". After this series on Marian Dogmas, I will write a few articles regarding Marian Apparitions. For the present, I mention them as an opportunity to give the Blessed Virgin herself a voice regarding her Immaculate Conception.

In 1830, a full fourteen years before Pope Pius IX would officially define the dogma of Mary's Immaculate Conception, the Virgin Mother appeared to a poor and rather unintelligent nun in a convent on Rue de Bac, in Paris, named St. Catherine Labouré. She appeared to St. Catherine standing on a globe with her hands outstretched, with rays of light streaming from her hands. Around her was an inscription which said, "O Mary, Conceived Without Sin, Pray For Us Who Have Recourse To Thee." She told St. Catherine to have medals struck with this image and prayer on them, and promised that whoever wore such a medal would receive great graces from God through her. Thus, a decade and a half before the official declaration of the dogma, Mary bore witness to her Immaculate Conception--and this witness was confirmed through many miracles, as people began to wear what became known quickly as the "Miraculous Medal", and the promised graces of healings and other miraculous help from God were reported.

Later, in 1858, Our Lady appeared to a poor, illiterate peasant girl in Lourdes, in the south of France. She asked young St. Bernadette Soubirous to meet her in a grotto outside the village, where they would pray together. Despite harsh doubts, and even harassment by the local (and very atheistic) authorities, Bernadette kept up her appointments with the Lady for the two weeks that the Lady had requested Bernadette come. At one meeting, the Virgin told Bernadette to drink from a spring, which at that moment did not exist. In obedience to Our Lady's command, Bernadette dug at the ground, and washed her face in the dirt, to the ridicule of all the onlookers (who came to see a spectacle, since they could not see the Lady). Yet after Bernadette left, a spring miraculously bubbled forth, and flows in Lourdes to this day! Moreover, many healings have been reported after drinking or bathing in the water: the lame have walked, the blind have seen, cancer has been cured, and on and on! The Lady, however, had not told Bernadette who she was (though the whole town assumed it was Mary, if it was anyone at all). On the final day, St. Bernadette asked again who the Lady was, and she answered, "I am the Immaculate Conception." Bernadette, being illiterate and, quite frankly, a bit delayed, had no idea what this phrase meant, but she took her answer to the parish priest, who himself knew very well that the Pope had just defined the dogma four years earlier, and also knew that St. Bernadette could have no knowledge of what the dogma meant, let alone what it was called! In this way, Our Lady again confirmed the Pope's definition of the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception--owning it as her name, as once Gabriel had named her "Full of Grace." For the two things are of a piece.
O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.

(Category: Catholic Distinctives: Mary, Mother of God.)

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Mary, Immaculately Conceived (Part 1, responding to common objections)

We turn our attention now in our series to what I consider to be the most controversial of Marian Dogmas (which is why I'm a bit surprised at how much controversy Mary's Perpetual Virginity actually generated in the Introductory post). It seems somewhat ironic that in my faith journey, the ideas and doctrines that were the hardest for me to come to believe are now the ones to which I am most devoted. I think specifically of Our Blessed Lord present in the Eucharist, and Mary herself, in general. But of all the teachings about Mary, that she was immaculately conceived was the hardest belief for me to accept. Yet now, if it is possible to be more particularly devoted to one aspect of a person over and above others, her Immaculate Conception is the doctrine that most captivates my imagination and devotion, and makes me love my Mother all the more.

Mary's Identity
As I mentioned briefly in the Introductory post to Marian Dogmas, the first two Dogmas to be defined by the Church, namely, that Mary is the Mother of God, and that she is Perpetually a Virgin, spoke more about Mary's role in salvation history than about her personal identity (though those two things aren't entirely separate issues). What I mean is, God created and called Mary for a purpose (just as He does for all of us). The dogma of Theotokos succinctly sums up that purpose--that Mary was to be God's Mother--that God the Son would become Incarnate through her. The second dogma, her Perpetual Virginity, highlights the method by which God became Man--namely, the Virgin Birth--, but also illustrates poignantly the overwhelming holiness of God and the importance of His Incarnation, by teaching us that Mary, and her womb, was now consecrated exclusively to Him.

In these later centuries, however, the Church has seen fit to declare and promulgate two dogmas that deal more with who Mary is than with what she did. The Dogma of Mary's Immaculate Conception tells us about how God created Mary--to be full of grace and thus free of sin--, and the Dogma of Mary's Assumption into Heaven gives us the logical conclusion to a life that is free from sin, and thus, free from sin's consequences, which, as Romans 6:23 tells us, is death.

But I thought...
As in the previous articles, in part one, I'll look at the common objections to the Dogma, and then turn, in part two, to give a positive defense of it, examining Scripture, logic, and the historical witness. But before I move on to counter the specific objections, I want to pause and clear up some misconceptions about the Immaculate Conception.

First of all, many people who first hear the term think that it doesn't refer to Mary, but to Jesus, and that it is another way of referring to His Virgin Birth. This is not the case. While Jesus, certainly, was conceived without any stain of original sin (and thus could be considered to be "immaculately conceived"), the Dogma refers to Mary herself, and her own conception. The second misconception regarding Mary's Immaculate Conception is that people sometimes wonder if the Church thus teaches that Mary herself was born of a virgin. This, too, is not the case. Mary's parents, Sts. Joachim and Anne, were a married couple like any other, except, as The Protoevangelium of James tells us, like so many notable couples in God's salvation history, they were barren and unable to have children. As with Abraham and Sarah, God miraculously intervened in this elderly couple's life, and they, through otherwise natural means, conceived and gave birth to Mary. (Incidentally, this miraculously late birth to the elderly Joachim and Anne rather succinctly explains why Mary's cousin, Elizabeth, was so much older than her, according to Luke's Gospel.)

The Official Promulgation of the Dogma
So, if Mary's Immaculate Conception doesn't refer to Jesus' virgin birth, or teach that Mary was born of a virgin, too, then what does the Dogma teach? According to the official pronouncement by Pope Pius IX in 1854, the Catholic Church holds it to be an infallibly revealed truth "that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instant of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of Original Sin" (Ineffabilis Deus).

Common Objections
The Dogma of Mary's Immaculate Conception holds not simply that she was conceived free of Original Sin, but that she continued to remain sinless throughout her life. It is no small wonder that this teaching often receives the criticism that it does! The objections are many, but to my mind they seem to boil down to four main arguments--two from Scripture, one from History, and one from Logic. In sum, the objections run, 1. The Bible teaches very plainly that "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23); 2. Mary herself calls God her "saviour" in her Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55); 3. Many saints and teachers of the Church have disbelieved in Mary's Immaculate Conception, including St. Thomas Aquinas, arguably the Church's greatest theologian; and 4. If Mary was sinless, that means that Christ's death on the Cross was unnecessary--either God could have just "zapped" us all sinless, or Mary could have died to save us all. That, in a nutshell, covers the main objections to the Immaculate Conception. Let's take them in their turn.

1. Romans 3:23--"All have sinned"?
I begin with what could be considered the most damning objection to the doctrine of Mary's Immaculate Conception, and that is St. Paul's statement in the Epistle to the Romans about the universality of sin. He writes,

Well: are we any better off? Not at all: we have already indicted Jews and Greeks as being all alike under the dominion of sin. As scripture says:
Not one of them is upright, not a single one,
not a single one is wise,
not a single one seeks God.
All have turned away, all alike turned sour,
not one of them does right, not a single one.
Their throats are wide-open graves,
their tongues seductive.
Viper's venom behind their lips;
their speech is full of cursing and bitterness.
Their feet quick to shed innocent blood,
wherever they go there is havoc and ruin.
They do not know the way of peace,
there is no fear of God before their eyes.
Now we are all well aware that whatever the Law says is said for those who are subject to the Law, so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world brought under the judgement of God. So then, no human being can be found upright at the tribunal of God by keeping the Law; all that the Law does is to tell us what is sinful.
God's saving justice was witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, but now it has been revealed altogether apart from law: God's saving justice given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. No distinction is made: all have sinned and lack God's glory, and all are justified by the free gift of his grace through being set free in Christ Jesus. (Romans 3:9-24, NJB)
St. Paul is really hammering home the point that, whether one is Jewish or Gentile, they are a sinner and need Christ's salvation. As I said when stating the objection, Paul clearly states that "all have sinned", and even quotes Psalm 14 and others to make his case. But does Paul's case actually allow for no exception? Have all, in fact, sinned?

The fact is, St. Paul's discourse does, in fact, allow for exceptions, for all people have not, in fact, sinned. For most of my life, I assumed that Romans 3 was referring not simply to the actual sinful deeds committed by people, but to the underlying fact that all of us are born into a state of original sin, and are thus, at our core, wicked and guilty. Thus, I thought, when Paul said that "all have sinned", he meant that all are equally bound to this Original Sin. Of course, I was wrong here on several points: First of all, to be born with original sin does not mean that we are thereby wicked at our core, or guilty of any actual sin. What Original Sin means is that, due to Adam and Eve's initial rebellion from God, they lost the life of Grace in which God had created them. They became spiritually dead, and they passed on this state of spiritual death to their descendants. Original Sin, in a nutshell, means that we are born without the active life of Grace within us. While this means that we thereby have a disordered tendency toward sin, it does not mean that we are inherently wicked, or that we are guilty of sin by having that disordered tendency towards sin (known as Concupiscence). Since simply being "born in sin" does not make us guilty of sin, St. Paul cannot be specifically referring to Original Sin when he says that "all have sinned." Rather, the context makes it clear that Paul is saying that the "all", whoever that includes, have committed actual sin. That is, they have done sinful acts--they "have sinned, and fallen short of God's glory."

From this more accurate understanding of what St. Paul is saying, we are in a better position to know whether there are, in fact, exceptions to Paul's "all". The first and most notable exception to St. Paul's indictment that all have sinned, is, of course, Our Lord and Saviour, "the Man Jesus Christ" (1 Tim 2:15), about whom the book of Hebrews clearly states, "For the high priest we have is not incapable of feeling our weaknesses with us, but has been put to the test in exactly the same way as ourselves, apart from sin" (Heb 4:15). Now, one will say that Jesus does not count, since He was God, and therefore ontologically could not sin. And this is true, but it is also true that in Jesus, God became fully human, and, to that end, would have to fit into St. Paul's "all". And if that's the case, then "all" has an exception.

Are there other exceptions? Absolutely. Consider newborn babies (or even those still in the womb) who cannot make a choice, let alone choose to sin. They have committed no actual sin, and if one dies before doing so, it is true that they lived a sinless life. Consider also, for example, those who have a mental handicap that prevents them from understanding the rightness and wrongness of certain behaviours. They are not guilty of sinning, because to sin entails making a choice to do wrong. If a person does not choose to do wrong, they are not guilty of wrongdoing. These cases (and others that could be mentioned) demonstrate that "all have sinned" is not an absolute statement encompassing all people, everywhere, for all time. Since not all people have committed actual sin, Romans 3:23 cannot be conclusively used as an objection to the Church's teaching on Mary's Immaculate Conception, for how can one definitively assert that Mary wasn't one of these exceptions?

2. Luke 1:47--Mary called God her "Saviour"
While Romans 3:23 might not be conclusive on its own, when combined with Mary's referring to God as her Saviour in her Magnificat, it seems evident that she was, in fact, a sinner--because only sinners need a Saviour, right? Thus, the objection runs, since Mary needed a Saviour, she must have sinned, and thus the Immaculate Conception is a false doctrine.

This objection is a pretty thoroughgoing one. It is, in fact, part of the reason why St. Thomas Aquinas, as mentioned above, did not believe in Mary's Immaculate Conception. However, as with St. Thomas, those who put forth this objection have a wrong or incomplete understanding of what the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception actually teaches. We'll explore it more specifically later on when we provide a positive defence of the doctrine, but for now, let us look again at Pope Pius IX's formulation: "the most Blessed Virgin view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of Original Sin" (emphasis mine). That is to say, Mary's Immaculate Conception was only achieved, or even possible, because of Jesus' Death on the Cross. Yes, when Mary was conceived, Jesus hadn't been born, let alone died, yet. However, God, who exists outside of Time, already saw Christ's Passion in the eternal present as having been accomplished. He thus applied the salvific merits of Jesus' sacrifice to Mary in a special way at her conception. This is analogous to how the Old Testament saints were saved. Since no one can be saved without Jesus' sacrificial death on the Cross, those saved before the temporal act of His Passion were nevertheless saved by Christ's passion in an anticipatory way. That is, not only does Christ's sacrifice extend into the future to perpetuity for all generations yet to come and to experience His saving grace, but it extends retroactively and covers all those who lived faithful lives to God before Jesus' death and resurrection. Thus, while the particular method of Mary's salvation was unique, it nevertheless was fully dependent upon the Cross of Christ. As such, Mary truly could exclaim that her soul "rejoices in God my Saviour!"

Further, when Christ saves us, it is through the forgiveness of sins--that is, He takes away the sins we have already committed. In Mary's case, though, she was saved from sin not after committing it, but before. Blessed John Duns Scotus pointed this out as he wrestled with St. Thomas' objections to the Immaculate Conception. He compared sin to a muddy pit on a path. When a person walks down the path and falls into the pit, Jesus saves them by pulling them out and cleaning them off. But with Mary, He saved her not by pulling her out of the pit, but by keeping her from falling into it. In this way, he argued, Mary's salvation was actually greater and more perfect than our own. Thus, Mary even more truly could say, "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour! For He has looked upon the lowliness of His handmaid. Yes, from now on, all generations shall call me blessed, for the Almighty has done great things for me. Holy is His name!"

3. The Dogma has not always been believed
This objection stems from the Catholic Church's claim of Apostolic Tradition. Since the Church claims that she teaches nothing new that was not passed down from Christ and His Apostles, at least in seed form, objectors to Mary's Immaculate Conception point out that it was not universally held since the beginning of the Church, and, in fact, several notable saints denied it, such as Bernard of Clairvaux, Bonaventure, and, as we mentioned above, St. Thomas Aquinas. Further, the Council of Trent, which was expected to define the matter, opted not to do so, and thus left the question of Mary's Immaculate Conception dangling until Pope Pius IX finally declared it in 1854. If, therefore, there was such debate and disagreement about this dogma, how could it have been passed on as Sacred Tradition from the Apostles?

This objection highlights the tension between the Catholic Church's claim to possess the "Fullness of the Faith", and the development of doctrine over the ages. While on the one hand, the Church holds that all its dogmas were, essentially, handed down from the Apostles, this does not preclude natural development of those doctrines over the years, through reflective thought and further study. While the Church held certain teachings since the beginning, how those teachings were definitively stated or properly understood has grown over time. This is seen, for example, in the Dogma of the Trinity--that there is One God who subsists in three co-equal and co-eternal Persons. Scripture itself never explicitly teaches that formulation; nor was it arrived at very quickly. And over the centuries before the Doctrine of the Trinity was fully hammered out, there was much dissension and controversy surrounding it. The same is true for the doctrine of Original Sin, and of the Canon of Scripture itself, as well as many other doctrines of the Church. It should be no surprise that there were some who questioned certain formulations of a dogma that was otherwise believed since the beginning. When we examine the historical evidence for the Immaculate Conception, we'll have a clearer understanding of this idea. For now, though, let us briefly look at what the Church did teach throughout the centuries.

The seed of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is that Mary was sinless. This is evident from various sources in the early Church, most notably St. Augustine, who stated, "Having excepted the holy Virgin Mary, concerning whom, on account of the honor of the Lord, I wish to have absolutely no question when treating of sins--for how do we know what abundance of grace for the total overcoming of sin was conferred upon her, who merited to conceive and bear him in whom there was no sin?--so, I say, with the exception of the Virgin, if we could have gathered together all those holy men and women, when they were living here, and had asked them whether they were without sin, what do we suppose would have been their answer?" (Nature and Grace 36:42). Even those theologians, such as Thomas Aquinas, who disbelieved in the Immaculate Conception, as such, upheld the belief that Mary was, nevertheless, free of actual sin. It was only as the Church's teaching on Original Sin itself developed, that the question of whether Mary was conceived free from Original Sin could itself even be pondered. Nevertheless, the implications from Scripture, and the abundant testimony of the Church, overcame those who objected. How this took place, we shall examine more thoroughly in part 2.

4. The Dogma Nullifies Christ's Saving Work
The final objection to Mary's Immaculate Conception is that, if she is free from sin, then Jesus Christ did not need to die for our sins. This objection takes one of two directions, typically (if not both together). The first is that, if God could create Mary free from original sin, then He could have just as easily created all of us free from original sin. And if that's the case, then the whole Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection were needless wastes of time. The second point along this line is that, if Mary were truly sinless, then she could have saved us from our sins herself.

Both of these objections display a fundamental misunderstanding, either of the Immaculate Conception itself, or of basic Christian soteriology in general. The first objection is easily answered by recourse to the official declaration of the dogma, where we again note that Mary's Immaculate Conception was performed by God for her as a "singular" or unique act of grace, which was accomplished only in light of Christ's redeeming work on the Cross, and only because of her particular and important role in salvation. Thus, to say that God could have just "zapped" us all sinless, rendering Christ's atoning work as needless (as one person said in conversation with me), completely misses the point of the Immaculate Conception, and the fact that it was only accomplished by the merits of Christ's sacrifice.

The second form of the objection, it seems to me, is the worse of the two, because it goes beyond simply misunderstanding Mary, to misunderstanding our Salvation. Jesus was not able to save us merely because He was sinless (though that was certainly part of it). He was qualified because He was, in fact, God in the flesh. An offense against an infinite God is an infinitely grievous offense. Only an infinite price can satisfy it. None of us are infinite, and thus cannot satisfy our debt to God. Even Mary, who was sinless, was still not infinite. Only Jesus, who is God, is infinite and thus could satisfy the debt of our sins. Since He became truly one of us, He was able to pay that debt on our behalf.

Further, because we as humans do not own ourselves, but are servants of God, we cannot choose to make such a sacrifice for another. Only Jesus, who, as God, was fully in ownership of Himself, could voluntarily offer Himself on our behalf. Thus, supposing that simply because Mary was free from sin, it made her qualified to somehow save us shows a rather fundamental misunderstanding of our salvation. As such, the "logical" objection to Mary's Immaculate Conception fails to counter the doctrine as it is based on faulty premises.

This sums up my responses to the common objections to Mary's Immaculate Conception. If any of my illustrious readers has any further objections which I have overlooked, I invite them to share them in the comments for further discussion. In Part 2, we'll turn to look at Scripture, to see if it offers any clues to the doctrine, and then look at the historical witness of the Church.

(Category: Catholic Distinctives: Mary, Mother of God.)