Deciphering Mary’s Immaculate Conception Through the Wisdom of Saints:
Pope Pius IX’s declaration of the Immaculate Conception as dogma in 1854 stunned the world. Protestants flatly rejected the teaching, and within Catholic circles, numerous objections arose against the pope’s decision. Elevating Mary’s significance in salvation history not only appeared detrimental to ecumenical relations but also raised concerns about the doctrine’s theological and historical foundations.
Indeed, eminent theological figures like Saints Bernard of Clairvaux and Thomas Aquinas seemed to have opposed the notion. The prolonged absence of a defined dogma for many centuries remained a significant argument questioning its validity. The delay in proclaiming this teaching until the nineteenth century raised substantial inquiries about its truthfulness: why hadn’t it been declared earlier if it were indeed true?
Throughout its history, the Church has grappled with comprehending Mary’s role from its inception. The challenge has perpetually centered on crafting theologically precise statements about Mary that align faithfully with our understanding of her Son. In essence, explanations about the Blessed Mother ought to consistently deepen our comprehension of Jesus, and conversely. A prime instance lies in an early challenge the Church confronted: Nestorianism. This heresy debated whether Mary could be acknowledged as the Mother of God or solely the Mother of Jesus. The resolution came through the recognition that Jesus Christ embodies both divine and human nature, yet remains one person, not two. Thus, it is apt to refer to Mary as the mother of that singular Person, the Mother of God.
In the fifth century, the Church responded to Nestorius’ contentions regarding the title attributed to Mary, spurred by the steadfast devotion of ordinary Catholics who had referred to Mary as the Mother of God for centuries. Their shock at any challenge to this belief prompted the Church to address and affirm this aspect of Marian identity. Similarly, the commemoration of the conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary by Saint Anne likely originated as early as the seventh century, initiated by monasteries, and bishops, and inspired by the devotion of the laity.
In the twelfth century, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux’s inquiry into this prevalent practice primarily involved urging his fellow Catholics to articulate precisely what they believed when observing that feast. Meanwhile, Saint Thomas Aquinas extensively explored both perspectives on the matter and seemed to refute the notion of Mary’s immaculate conception. However, some contend that Thomas’s arguments paved the way for subsequent theologians to delve deeper into understanding Mary’s conception and to articulate it more clearly based on the framework he established.
For eighteen centuries, the central hurdle lay in deciphering the truth about Mary concerning sin, even preceding the birth of Jesus Christ, and accurately articulating this truth. Pius IX’s apostolic constitution, Ineffabilis Deus, followed a familiar papal pattern, substantiating his point by referencing Sacred Scripture, Church documents, and the apostolic constitutions of other popes. Yet, notably, the Constitution also integrated explanations formulated by saints across the centuries, encapsulating a comprehensive understanding of the doctrine.
Indeed, while not universally acknowledged among early Church fathers, the concept of Mary’s perpetual innocence found resonance among many. Esteemed figures such as Saints Irenaeus of Lyons, Justin the Martyr, and Cyril of Jerusalem, alongside others, depicted Mary as a second Eve. Pius IX, in Ineffabilis Deus, echoed and reiterated their assertions, characterizing Mary as the new Eve, immaculate and incorrupt, in stark contrast to the first Eve.
Absolutely, the Doctors of the Church extensively explored Mary’s purity in their writings. Saint Augustine of Hippo, amidst debates with theologian Pelagius regarding the Catholic perspective on nature and grace, noted Mary’s sinlessness, emphasizing her freedom from sin. Similarly, Saint John of Damascus, renowned for his eloquent and frequent references to Mary, firmly upheld the belief that she remained untainted by sin from the very onset of her life.
Indeed, Blessed John Duns Scotus played a pivotal role in establishing the foundation for the doctrine in the fourteenth century. As a Franciscan priest, theologian, and philosopher, Scotus staunchly advocated for the Immaculate Conception of Mary, aligning with the sentiments of many Franciscans of his era.
During a notable disputation in Paris, Scotus faced a challenge to elucidate his stance before papal legates. One prominent argument against his proposal centered on the chronological aspect: Jesus had not yet been born at the time of Mary’s conception. This raised a query: Did the belief in Mary’s sinlessness before the conception of her Son imply that she did not require a Redeemer?
Scotus emphasized that Mary’s sanctification after animation, occurring when her body received her soul at conception, followed the natural order rather than the chronological sequence. He underscored that Jesus, as our perfect Redeemer, transcends temporal limitations. The redemptive power of the Blood shed on Calvary extends to all since the Crucifixion, yet the graces from that same sacrifice flowed backward in time, blessing Mary from the very moment of her conception. This perspective emphasized the timeless efficacy of Christ’s redemptive act, encompassing Mary’s immaculate state from the outset of her existence.
Indeed, delving into Scotus’ reasoning would require extensive elaboration, possibly warranting an article or a book chapter. Yet, his explanation surmounted a significant theological hurdle. Despite numerous discussions and proposals over the centuries regarding the formal declaration of the Immaculate Conception as a Catholic teaching, the opportune moment never seemed to materialize.
However, on December 8, 1854, Blessed Pius IX, having consulted with bishops and theologians worldwide, made the proclamation: “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.”
That delay in formally declaring the dogma concerning the Blessed Virgin Mary might have unfolded for a purpose. Perhaps it necessitated centuries of devout saints and everyday Catholics, all seeking the Blessed Virgin Mary’s intercession and pondering the words of an angel, before the entirety of the Church could genuinely recognize that Mary is, was, and always has been imbued with grace in its entirety.