The nature and the extent of the knowledge possessed by the Blessed Virgin Mary while she was still on earth have never been decided by any official decree of the Church; but the problem has been studied extensively by theologians, particularly in their treatises on Mariology. (1) They agree that very little explicit information on this subject is provided in the deposit of divine faith, contained in Sacred Scripture and Divine Tradition. Nevertheless, from the privileges granted to Mary, especially the Divine Maternity and the Immaculate Conception, theologians attempt to discover, at least with a measure of probability, the kind of knowledge Mary possessed and the extent of this knowledge.
In discussing this question two extremes must be avoided. On the one hand, a person should not be so enthusiastic to ascribe to Our Lady every possible honor as to attribute to her a manner and measure of knowledge well-nigh equal to that of her divine Son in His human intellect. Mary’s state in life and the task assigned to her did not call for so extensive an intellectual perfection. Christ was the God-Man and the Redeemer of the entire human race; consequently, the fullness of knowledge compatible with a created intellect was due to Him. For this reason it has been the commonly accepted teaching of Catholic theology, confirmed by a decree of the Holy Office, (2) that the Word Incarnate through the beatific vision knew all things actual—past, present, and future. But such a degree of knowledge was not necessary or congruous for Mary. She was a mere creature; and her share in the Redemption, though real and efficacious, was immeasurably inferior to the redemptive activity of her divine Son.
On the other hand, in view of Mary’s dignity, as Mother of God, surpassing that of every other mere creature that has ever lived, and of her participation in the Redemption, it is surely unjustifiable to deny her an extraordinary measure of knowledge, particularly of a supernatural character. Moreover, in view of the statements of numerous saints and scholars, imbued with the sense of Catholic tradition, it is surely contrary to the mind of the Church to ascribe to Our Lady merely that degree of knowledge which would be suitable to a good woman preserved by God from the taint of original sin. Her Divine Maternity and her participation in the work of the Redemption, giving her a most important part in the eternal plan for the restoration of mankind to the adoptive sonship of God, call for a special privilege bestowed on her in the form of intellectual perfection.
There are three types of knowledge which Our Lady could have possessed during her earthly life—beatific, infused, and acquired. We shall consider each of these separately, and add another section concerning the knowledge which Mary now possesses in heaven.
I. Beatific Knowledge
By beatific knowledge we mean that understanding which the intellect receives from the direct perception of the divine nature in the Trinity of Persons. Every human being is destined to enjoy the beatific vision for all eternity; but normally this is granted only when the soul has left the body. (3) To elevate its natural power so that the divine essence can be thus directly perceived, the intellect is granted the supernatural habit known as the light of glory. (4) No species, or intellectual similitudes, of the divine nature intervene; the divinity itself is the immediate object of the act of intellectual cognition.
It is the common teaching of theologians that Jesus Christ possessed the beatific vision in His human intellect throughout His entire lifetime; and the Church has approved this view by censuring the opposite opinion. (5) However, theologians also commonly teach that the privilege of the beatific vision was not granted to Mary habitually during her earthly life. (6) She possessed the virtues of faith and hope; she advanced in grace throughout her entire lifetime. But if she had possessed the beatific vision, faith and hope would have been excluded; and she could not have increased in grace and merit because her soul would have been in statu termini, as was the soul of Christ from the first instant of His conception.
However, it does not follow from this that Mary did not receive the privilege of the beatific vision transiently on certain occasions in the course of her lifetime; and there are many good theologians who believe it probable that she was thus favored. Among these are Suárez, (7) Vázquez, (8) St. Bernardine of Siena (9)—to mention a few of the old writers—and, among more recent writers, Roschini (10) and Martinelli. (11)
The main argument is the Mariological principle that whatever has been granted to any creature by God was not denied to Mary. But the privilege of a transitory enjoyment of the beatific vision was probably granted to Moses and St. Paul; for of Moses the Scripture says: “The Lord spoke to Moses, face to face, as a man is wont to speak to his friend,” (12) and St. Paul asserts that he was “caught up into paradise and heard secret words that man can not repeat.” (13) The majority of commentators understand these expressions as indicating that these two saints were favored for a brief time with the beatific vision. (14) Consequently, it is argued, God would not deny this privilege to Mary, the Queen of Saints.
Of course, if one held that the scriptural statements regarding Moses and St. Paul are to be understood of a high measure of infused knowledge of God, without the direct vision of the divine essence, the argument given above would lose its value. Thus, Merkelbach states: “Since present-day interpreters of Scripture do not consider the opinion about the vision of God by Paul and Moses well founded, the probability of the vision by the Blessed Virgin deduced therefrom disappears.” (15) However, Suárez, though he does not admit that Moses and Paul actually saw God “face to face,” believes that it can be piously believed that Mary did see God sometimes in her lifetime. (16)
Even independently of the argument from comparison with Moses and Paul, we can give arguments of some value to render it at least probable that Mary enjoyed the beatific vision sometimes in her mortal life. Since she had a share in the work of the Redemption, it seems that from time to time she should have beheld immediately the goal to which redeemed mankind was destined, since it was because of His r