Dogma #3: The Immaculate (Mis)conception?

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LA MADRE SANTISSIMA DEL LUME, c 1722 Anonymous Sicilian painter, Most Holy Mother of Light

Often, commonly said phrases become cliched, meaningless, and somehow dead. But let’s just think about this one for a second, just take a moment, and ponder this “Immaculate Conception.”

Namely, that Mary of Nazareth was perfect. She was utterly, thoroughly PERFECT.

That might sound like, “Mary was really good,” the same way that people describe “perfect weather” or a “perfect child.” Indeed the ‘perfect’ are (often) utterly, thoroughly robotic. Bland. Vanilla. 

Or at least, that’s how “perfect” people seem to me. Touchy overachievers the lot of them!

Vaguely frightening prejudice aside, I think many of us long for perfection-  real integrity, blamelessness, beauty.

Perfect humanity.

In Mary, Catholics claim that we see what “perfect” looks like: not in clinical and scholastic religious terms, but as a woman. A woman totally free, utterly human, and beguilingly complete.

One man’s trash is another’s treasure? Not in her case. This ‘perfection’ isn’t relative, not “merely in the eye of the beholder” but actually, in MARY!

If this is true, my friends, it is gently magnificent.

I mean, the notion that a human could be “immaculate” is so unheard of, so rare and precious. A pearl? Maybe, a diamond? Perhaps: but a woman? A lady?

What’s more: Mary of Nazareth’s holiness isn’t merely ornamental or decorative. Her immaculate conception is effective, and productive for all members of the Church. It’s a source of joy that has and will echo down through the ages.

That’s the case that this post attempts to make. Ambitious? perhaps, but I have been enchanted, like millions before me, by the woman who Bernadette Soubirious called the “Beautiful Lady

Upon seeing her, “Bernadette describes how initially she felt a bewilderment, but after a while she felt overcome with a great peace.” (Biography Online, Bernadette Soubirious)

May it be the same for those happy few who also find the Beautiful Lady. May trepidation and sanctimonious piety, give way to truth, the loyal companion of freedom.

Much credit goes to Mark Shea’s “Mary, Mother of the Son, Volume II” which has helped me to make my case.

Tota Pulchra Es Maria!

Let’s get started.

“We declare, pronounce and define that the doctrine which asserts that the Blessed Virgin Mary, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God, and in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, Saviour of the human race, was preserved free from every stain of original sin is a doctrine revealed by God and, for this reason, must be firmly and constantly believed by all the faithful”

-Dogma of the Immaculate Conception defined by Pope Pius IX, 1854. Taken from Catechises by Pope John Paul II.

One of the most common objections to Mary’s Immaculate Conception, might go something like this: “Only God is perfect! Humanity has need of salvation, which means that all human beings (apart from Jesus Christ) have sinned. If this is NOT the case,  then we ignore or deny Romans 3:23, “All have sinned and fall short of the Glory of God.””

Ok. First, we might affirm that God is unique. He is the source of every good thing, and that we are creatures. This much is true. But what we see in Romans 3:23, and I will be so bold as to say, in all scripture, is that God intends men to know him and even, to be like him.

Paul doesn’t mention Jesus, angels, children- in the list of all those sinners. More importantly, part of the point of Romans 3 (as far as I understand) is to break down the dichotomy of “God’s people” vs “Gentiles.” Thus, Paul’s statement bears more proof in context, than it does as a proof text.

That context is salvation: and what we have in the Blessed Virgin Mary is evidence that when God saves a person, he can do so, completely. We have proof, in this masterpiece of his creation, not of capricious divine intervention, or of empty theology, but of perfect divine power- power over the forces of sin and darkness.

I touch on this power over sin in a bit, but first, let’s consider why we’re made uncomfortable by notions that a human woman is ‘perfect.’

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Virgin, Madonna. Cusquena School of Art.

 

 

You see, we Catholics assert that there is a sense in which Mary is wonderfully similar to God, namely in her fulfilment of the mandate, “Be ye perfect, as I am perfect” (perfection being an attribute of God) But, to be frank, if her perfection is enough to have us chiding “don’t worship Mary,” then we must reconsider our notion of precisely why a man cannot be like his creator, without it seeming blasphemous to us. We’re too reserved, perhaps, in our understanding of God’s intention to ‘save us.’

God loves us, he wants us to be totally totally happy and free and good. Mary, by her cooperation with Grace, which, in any case she received as a grace from Him, was precisely that.

What we see in Mary is a human fully human, and fully free. We see it in Jesus primarily, and we see it in his first disciple, close companion and mother. If Mary did so happen to have some resemblance to the divine- need she be so very different from us? After all, we’re called “Temples of the Holy Spirit,” co-heirs, brethren!

Yes, it feels salacious to say that we can be like God, but, then again, that’s Christianity! God-Man!? Sounds weird, doesn’t it? It has to countless millions, its been the cause of centuries of controversy. In fact, it’s because of Godliness apart from God, that the dogma needed to be established. And this takes us to the second part of my post, a quick history of the dogma.

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Immaculate Conception

 

 

The Pelagian Heresy

The Pelagian heresy is more involved than I’m prepared to understand, but I think it comes down to whether we can be perfect by our own efforts, or by God’s help. Pelagius, a British monk took the former view, while Augustine took the latter. Arising from the belief that we could avoid ever sinning by gritting our teeth and baring it, was Augustine’s definition of “Original Sin.” Augustine insisted that men weren’t sinners merely because they sin, but because they have an intrinsic bias which leads them to do so. He used the example of a weighted moral scale in every human which worked to favour sin. (Shea, Vol 2, 120-121)

The Eastern Churches never dealt with the Pelagian controversy, so they never defined a dogma of original sin. As such, the Immaculate Conception operates in a framework, a language of talking about sin, which is somewhat foreign to them. The significance of their account for the nature of sin and of salvation is a little different- however, what remains true, is that the consensus in Eastern churches is that Mary is praised as “Panagia,” ‘all holy,’ spotless, perfect, etc. etc. etc.

Augustinian notions of Original Sin are now a standard means of understanding the fallen human condition in the Roman Catholic Church. Augustine affirms that Man can only escape the effects of Sin with God, because sin “in its most fundamental reality…the lack of life with God” (Shea, Vol II, 120)

If Mary had Original Sin, didn’t she need a saviour?

The Catholic Church confesses in its daily prayers, Mary’s acclamation that “My Spirt rejoices in God my Saviour!” It has not forgotten or ignored this truth. Insofar as the question of when she needed saving goes, (especially for Protestant or Western readers) here’s how it might be accounted for:

Consider an analogy: Suppose a man falls into a deep pit, and someone reaches down to pull him out. The man has been “saved” from the pit. Now imagine a woman walking along, and she too is about to topple into the pit, but at the very moment that she is to fall in, someone holds her back and prevents her. She too has been saved from the pit, but in an even better way: She was not simply taken out of the pit, she was prevented from getting stained by the mud in the first place. This is the illustration Christians have used for a thousand years to explain how Mary was saved by Christ. By receiving Christ’s grace at her conception, she had his grace applied to her before she was able to become mired in original sin and its stain.

-http://www.catholic.com/tracts/immaculate-conception-and-assumption

That might be a fair argument for clarification, but I find it a little lacking in its account of sin, which isn’t just an ‘in’ or ‘out’ state, but a living reality, a mess we see and feel tugging at us every single day. It’s a mire that we all fight, not just because God is some prude who can’t stand the sight of this metaphorical mud, but because it’s bad, it hurts us.

And Mary did see its effects, to say the very least. She was also grieved, heart broken, isolated, exhausted, sorrowful, in sum, human. Purity isn’t being a robot, surely. It’s being totally transparent, honest, joyous, vulnerable. She’s REAL, all the Saints are. They offer human examples we can follow, And I think, at least some of our discomfort about the Immaculate Conception comes from a place of insecurity and fear that such humanity is denied by it. That we can’t measure up, that God shouldn’t play favourites, and that she’s a cold, unfeeling robot.

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Our Lady of Sorrows

Conclusion

We have looked at some important issues: about conceptions of sin, about the account of God’s grace and faithfulness in different traditions. There are other proofs and disagreements which I haven’t touched too. One is the content of the Angelic salutatuon to Mary, “Kaire, Kecharitomene!” pregnant with meaning which exceeds the mere translation of ‘highly favoured.’ Another is the fittingness that God, the perfect mediator, should at least once, perfectly mediate, and that it should be Mary who received this gift: so that the Church might have an example of what He shall do for all his saints, and a witness to its own holiness and preservation through God (Shea, Vol II, 123)

The dogma was declared not to correct a heresy but in a spirt of love for Mary, “to show forth her prerogatives in resplendent light.” –Apostolic Constitution of Pope Pius IX on the Immaculate Conception (December 8, 1854)

Believing that inasmuch as it’s possible for someone to be perfect, she was, brings us joy, and causes us to praise our God. Yes, it also challenges me, everyday.

V. Tota pulchra es, Maria.
R. Tota pulchra es, Maria.
V. Thou art all fair, O Mary.
R. Thou art all fair, O Mary.
V. Et macula originalis non est in te.
R. Et macula originalis non est in te.
V. And the original stain is not in thee.
R. And the original stain is not in thee.
V. Tu gloria Ierusalem.
R. Tu laetitia Israel.
V. Thou art the glory of Jerusalem.
R. Thou, the joy of Israel.

Next and Final Dogma: #4 The Assumption, Let’s not get carried away.

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9 responses to “Dogma #3: The Immaculate (Mis)conception?

  1. Excellent post!
    You could even have used “My soul doth Magnify the Lord”. There is also a passage from the Old Testament “All your ways are immaculate, Oh Lord..” I just don’t remember which OT book, sorry.

    • Yes there are so many Old Testament types that relate to Our Lady, and they span across Catholic and Orthodox Tradition. I.e. the Coptic Church call her “rod of Aaron,” “burning bush,” etc. etc.

      Just wondering if anyone can help me confirm whether Eastern Orthodox unanimously affirm Mary’s sinless life?

      • The Apologist, Dave Armstrong covers this topic on his webblog. You can use his “search” to find this. I THINK that they hold it open as a “Theological question”, in that they are not required to believe in it, nor do they deny it. They do have a different point of theological view regarding Her Assumption.

  2. Hi Daniel,

    I think the texts on the liturgical offices to Mary in the various Eastern traditions i.e. Byzantine, Coptic, and Syriac will offer some clarity.

    I think this snippet from Dr. Anthony Dragani (an expert on Eastern Catholicism) will hopefully clarify the Eastern Catholic understanding of Mary’s sinless life. This is probably not the same view as the Orthodox, but nonetheless, here’s a good start:

    “In the Eastern Catholic Churches we have maintained much of the theological heritage of the Eastern Church Fathers. We try to be very Patristic in our theology, and generally model our theological approach after the great Eastern Fathers. In the West theology has developed somewhat differently. Beginning in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries a whole new style of theology developed, known as Scholasticism. Scholasticism utilized a great deal of philosophical terminology from the writings of Aristotle. It essentially created a whole new way to approach theological questions, and answered them with very specific philosophical terminology. Scholasticism was the dominant theological system in the Western Church until the beginning of the 20th century.

    In 1854 Pope Pius IX solemnly proclaimed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. Being a good Western theologian, he used a great deal of scholastic terminology in the definition. Here it is, with the specifically scholastic terms emphasized by me:

    “We declare, pronounce and define that the doctrine which asserts that the Blessed Virgin Mary, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God, and in view of the MERITS of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, was preserved free from every STAIN of original sin is a doctrine revealed by God and, for this reason, must be firmly and constantly believed by all the faithful.”

    There are two terms used in the definition that are completely foreign to Eastern Christian theology: “merits” and “stain.” Both of these terms are of very late origin, and came to mean very specific things in the scholastic system. But to us Eastern Christians, who still use only the theological expressions of the Church Fathers, these terms are completely alien. So is this a problem, or isn’t it?

    I don’t believe that this a problem at all. If something is written in a language that you can’t understand, you simply TRANSLATE it! With some very basic knowledge of scholastic theological terminology, what Pope Pius IX is saying becomes very obvious: From the very first moment of her existence, Mary was miraculously preserved from all sin. We Easterns would go even a step further: she wasn’t just preserved from sin, but was graced with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

    Also, the definition speaks of Mary being “free from every stain of original sin.” In the East we have always spoken of Mary’s perfect holiness. The language “free from every stain of original sin” is really a somewhat negative formulation in comparison. In fact, this definition speaks of Mary as being “absent of something (the stain of sin),” while we would prefer to speak of her as being “full of something (the Holy Spirit).” In this regard I think that the Eastern approach makes a marvelous contribution to the understanding of this dogma. So does Pope John Paul II:

    “In fact, the negative formulation of the Marian privilege, which resulted from the earlier controversies about original sin that arose in the West, must always be complemented by the positive expression of Mary’s holiness more explicitly stressed in the Eastern tradition.” (Pope John Paul II, General Audience June 12, 1996)

    So, the Holy Father agrees that the Eastern understanding of the Immaculate Conception actually helps to elucidate the meaning behind the definition.” – Dr. Anthony Dragani, http://east2west.org

    • What a thorough and fantastically useful comment. Reconciling Eastern and Western theology has been a challenge as a Catholic with a Coptic background. I guess it’s important to see the two with complementarity, rather than as alternatives in competition? Thank you!

  3. Ultimately, for us Eastern Catholics, that is the way we should go about it.

    ps: Welcome to the Catholic Church! You’re technically Eastern Catholic, as Canon Law suggests that if one is converting from an Orthodox Church, you would be be “enrolled” in the Catholic counterpart of your former Orthodox Church. In this case, you would be considered “Coptic Catholic”. There is a parish in Parramatta.

    Prayers and best wishes,
    Collin

  4. Thank you Collin! Yes, I’m aware of that parish, it’s in Prospect. So, as far as the pope is concerned, I’m an Eastern Catholic? Also, Laura and I had a fantastically involved discussion on the Immaculate Conception with a few lovely Orthodox folk: they do not object to her being Immaculate, they reject the terms ‘merit’ and ‘original stain’ I think that a deeper understanding of Pelagianism and Augustine would help them and me- yes? I praise God for this masterpiece: the Immaculata!

  5. Hi Daniel! Unfortunately, I live in Melbourne – but I am more than happy to be the first to contact you when I come to Sydney for a short weekend. 🙂

    For all intents and purposes, I think the Pope would consider so. But of course, at the end of the day, Catholic is Catholic, so all is good.

    With the Orthodox, it depends on where they’re coming from. T

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