Monday, December 09, 2013

The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary

The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary is a topic which can sometimes cause Dominicans a little bit of embarrassment. Why should this be so? Well, historically it was the theologians of the Dominican Order, following the Angelic Doctor St. Thomas Aquinas, who have been the most hesitant to declare Mary, from the moment of her conception, free from Original Sin. So much so that, even when the majority of the Church celebrated the Conception of Mary, the Order of Preachers did not include the feast in its liturgical calendar.

For many centuries the Church debated whether Mary had been preserved from the stain of sin. On the one hand, the idea seemed quite logical; how could the pure and holy Son of Man be borne in a corrupted vessel, that is to say Mary’s womb? Then again, St. Paul had said ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Romans, 3:23), if Mary had never suffered from the stain of Original Sin then in what sense did she need to be saved and how did St. Paul’s teaching apply to her?
Pope Pius IX
It is this question which vexed St. Thomas, and it is worth remembering that many of those of St. Thomas’s contemporaries who supported the Immaculate Conception did so with the understanding that Mary was exempt from the need for a redeemer, a notion neither accepted nor allowed for by the Church. So, what has the Church told us? Well, Bl. Pius IX defined on the eighth of December 1854 that the Blessed Virgin Mary ‘in the first instance of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace granted by God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race, was preserved exempt from all stain of Original Sin.

God bestowed on Mary a great and unique gift: not only was she to carry the Son of God, she was held pure from the moment she came into existence. We might wonder: God might choose to preserve Mary from Original Sin, but if he did that then in what way did she need to be saved? Surely if she never contracted the guilt of sin, she had nothing to atone for? We might dare to say that Christ’s redemptive sacrifice made little difference to her…

The Angelic Doctor
This is not an unfair point, and the answer isn't obvious. St. Thomas offered one response in his Summa, he proposed that Mary was conceived with the stain of sin but sanctified in the womb before her birth. In this scheme we can admit that Mary needed to be redeemed but still say she was extraordinarily holy during her life, and therefore a fitting mother of the Redeemer.

St. Thomas, when writing his Summa, wanted to firmly demonstrate that Mary needed to be saved by Jesus, which is true. However, it was for Bl. Duns Scotus to take up where Thomas had left off and offer the full picture of Mary’s conception. Surely, asked the ‘subtle doctor’, it takes a physician of greater skill to prevent a disease rather than merely to cure it? Does not Mary receive the greatest experience of redemption by being preserved by Grace from sin? Mary experienced the supreme redemption by virtue of the merits of the Cross, it was Jesus who saved her; he made her pure and spotless who was to carry him in her womb.

No one can deny the beauty of the care that Jesus showed for his mother. He gave her the greatest gifts of all, and protected her from the moment she came to be. Indeed, this example of God’s abundant love was well known to St. Thomas, for he wrote towards the end of his life, commenting on the Archangel Gabriel’s salutation, 'For she (the Blessed Virgin) was most pure in the matter of fault and incurred neither original nor mental nor venial sin.'


St. Thomas, without the benefit of Duns Scotus’s argument or the Church’s solemn definition of 1854, knew what all Christians now understand when they hear the words ‘Hail Mary, full of Grace’. The Blessed Mother of God the Virgin Mary was preserved in Grace, by the merits of Jesus’s death, from every sin, original, mental and venial, so that she might be the pure and unblemished vessel of the Son’s entry into the world.

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