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 redemptive office that Christ as Man enjoyed the beatific vision, according to St. Thomas. (17) Roschini adds that, as she suffered so much in her mortal life, it was fitting that she should be consoled in the most sublime manner, by gazing from time to time on the rapturous beauty of the divine essence. (18)
Theologians have also attempted to determine with some degree of probability the particular occasions in Mary’s life when this privilege would have been granted her. The most suitable occasion was doubtless the moment when the “Word was made flesh” in the chaste womb of Mary; and some add the time of Christ’s birth, and the day of His resurrection. The question has been discussed by theologians whether Our Lady was granted a transitory vision of the divinity at the very moment of her conception. Martinelli, who discusses this question very thoroughly, concludes that it can be stated with probability that this favor was granted her on that occasion. He says:
If it is believed that Mary’s intellect was at any time favored with such a clear vision of the divine essence, it is easily concluded that with great probability this took place on the occasion of the Blessed Virgin’s own immaculate conception, since apart from the Incarnation no other moment of her mortal existence can be found which was so solemn, so happy and so excellent. (19)
It is impossible to determine the extent of the knowledge possessed by the Blessed Virgin from the intuitive vision of God, since this was dependent on the free choice of the Almighty. We can safely assert, however, that this knowledge was immeasurably inferior to that which her divine Son enjoyed throughout His entire lifetime; for all things actual—past, present, and future—were made known to Him in the vision of the divine nature. (20) Yet, in view of the ineffable measure of sanctity that adorned the soul of Mary even from the first instant of her earthly existence, it seems evident that she enjoyed a more intensive and extensive perception of the divine nature in the Trinity of Persons than any other created intellect, save that of the Word Incarnate, ever enjoyed or will enjoy in heaven. It should be noted, however, that this knowledge was not necessarily surpassing with reference to created objects. Its pre-eminence consisted principally in a profound understanding of God Himself, especially the sublime mystery of the Holy Trinity. With far more reason than St. Paul, Mary could exclaim: “Eye has not seen nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man, what things God has prepared for those who love Him.” (21)
II. Infused Knowledge
In general, infused knowledge is that which is obtained by direct infusion by God, not by human effort. Theologians distinguish two kinds of infused knowledge—that which is infused per se, and that which is infusedper accidens. The former is that type of knowledge which, in its acquisition and use, is independent of the sensitive faculties, such as the imagination; the latter is dependent for its use on the sensitive faculties, although it has been directly infused by God. (22)
According to the more common theological view, Mary received per se infused knowledge in the course of her lifetime. For, such knowledge was granted to the angels; hence, by virtue of the principle that she was granted any privileges accorded to other creatures (as long as these privileges were compatible with her state and office), Our Lady must have enjoyed this divinely granted favor. It would seem, moreover, that she possessed this type of knowledge in the first instant of her life, so that she could accompany the privilege of her sanctification with an act of love. At the very moment when the Almighty manifested His special love for Mary by preserving her from original sin and by flooding her soul with an immense degree of sanctifying grace, Mary turned her heart to God with a most fervent act of divine charity. Since her perception of the infinite goodness of God on which this act of love was based came through per se infused knowledge, which could be exercised without the need of any sensitive faculties, we have no need of presuming that any miraculous development was granted to the body of Mary in her conception.
Father Martinelli argues to the opinion that Mary received per se infused knowledge in her conception, in these words:
Among those who pursue the study of Mariology it is the more probable and more common opinion that the Blessed Virgin Mary, at the time of her immaculate conception, received the actual use of reason from knowledge per se infused. For this type of knowledge granted to her by a singular privilege of God manifests those qualities which undoubtedly demonstrate it as probable: first, not only was this knowledge possible, but it was easy and did not exceed the state of a person on earth; moreover, it contributes toward the increase of grace, and, once its existence is granted, the many privileges which were given to the Mother of God are more readily understood and proved. (23)
Admitting that Mary received infused knowledge in the first instant of her existence, the question can be asked whether this was a transitory privilege, or was permanently possessed by Our Lady. The more probable opinion is that the privilege in question was permanent. In other words, from the very first moment of her mortal life Mary possessed and retained the use of reason. Through the infused (per se) knowledge which her intellect enjoyed she could understand the infinite goodness of the divine nature, the marvelous operations of divine providence, and especially the wonders of the plan of salvation which God had decreed, with Mary herself as one of the principal agents. And this knowledge was Mary’s privilege throughout her entire lifetime. Not even sleep interrupted her contemplation of the divinity conferred through this infused knowledge; for she could employ these divinely granted intellectual species without the concomitant use of any sensitive faculties. Hence, through ardent acts of love of God based on this infused knowledge, Mary could constantly increase in grace and merit.
The chief object of this infused knowledge was supernatural truth. Some authors have ascribed to Mary an extensive knowledge of human affairs, as well as of divine things. According to this theory, Our Lady was fully conversant with philosophy, geography, physics, chemistry, etc., even from the first moment of her existence. Such was the view upheld by Christopher de Vega. (24) But it seems immoderate to ascribe such knowledge to Mary, because her office did not call for it. She was to be the Mother of God; hence, her miraculously granted knowledge was concerned chiefly with God. It would seem that this infused knowledge embraced a recognition of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, although a fuller explanation of this sublime mystery was to come only later through the teaching of Mary’s Son. Those who hold that Mary received the privilege of the beatific vision transiently in the first moment of her conception could hold that she also then possessed infused knowledge. For the soul enjoying the immediate vision of God through the beatific vision of God cannot merit by an act of divine charity based on this knowledge of the divine goodness, inasmuch as the will is necessarily drawn to love God perceived in Himself. But an act of love for God based on infused knowledge of His goodness can be meritorious, because this type of knowledge does not necessarily draw the will to love. Hence, it was through the medium of this infused knowledge that Our Lady co-operated in her own sanctification, making an act of divine love in the very moment when God bestowed on her the immeasurable blessing of supernatural sanctification. (25) By this same act of love she also merited de condigno heavenly glory, according to the teaching of Suárez. (26) The transitory possession of the beatific vision would not put Mary in statu termini and render her incapable of meriting.
With the passing of time the infused knowledge of Mary was doubtless increased through the bestowal of new species by the Almighty. Thus, while we can hold that she did not recognize from the beginning of her existence the full plan of God for the salvation of the human race, including the part she was to take in the fulfillment of this marvelous design, it is certain that at least from the time of the Incarnation she was aware that she was to be the Mother of the Redeemer. In the words of Roschini: “As regards the knowledge of the future, and especially with relation to the divine decree bearing on the sanctification and the salvation of mankind, the Blessed Virgin had to know this, as the Coredemptrix, at least in general, if not in reference to all particular points, from the time of the Annunciation.” (27)
In connection with Mary’s infused knowledge the question arises: “Did she know that her Son was true God, and if so, from what precise period?” To this we answer that it would surely be unreasonable and out of harmony with the Church’s attitude toward Mary to hold that she was ignorant of this fundamental doctrine, at least after Our Lord had begun His public life and had declared that He was truly the Son of God. But was she cognizant of this doctrine even from the time of the Incarnation, when the angel brought her the divine message that her Son should be called the Son of the Most High, and should possess a kingdom that would never end? (28) Some Catholic scholars have held that even after the Annunciation Mary was not aware that her Son was truly God. One of the arguments they use in support of this position is that the incident of the loss of the Child Jesus in the temple indicates that Mary and Joseph did not understand His statement that He must be about His Father’s business (29)—something they would have understood had they been aware of His divine personality. (30) Others, however, argue that this lack of understanding on Mary’s part merely indicates that she was not enlightened as to all the circumstances of the Redemption, although she knew that her Son was the Redeemer and that He was true God. Thus, she was unaware that the plan of God called for a stay of several days by her Son in Jerusalem when He was only twelve years old. This explains her surprise when He remained behind after she and Joseph had started back to Nazareth. (31) At any rate, the more common theological opinion holds that Mary was certain (through per se infused knowledge) from the time of the Annunciation that Jesus was a divine Person, and that she herself was truly the Mother of God. Similarly, she realized that the work of Redemption demanded the suffering and death of her Son, and the prevision of His future agony made her truly the Mother of Sorrows all her lifetime.
It is likewise possible that God infused into the soul of Mary at some occasions in the course of her life knowledge which in itself was natural. Such knowledge would thus have been per accidens infused. Cardinal Lépicier believes that Mary received this type of knowledge in the first instant of her conception, for he does not allow the possibility of her receiving knowledge per se infused. (32) This view, however, has few supporters. As regards the divine bestowal of per accidens infused knowledge on Mary at other times, after she had come to the use of reason, while it is possible that it took place, there is no positive argument that it actually occurred.
III. Acquired Knowledge
By acquired knowledge is meant that which is arrived at by means of our own natural powers. It may be experimental, that is to say, based on the data furnished by the senses, or deductive, namely, acquired by means of intellectual abstraction or by way of a reasoning process. It is obvious that Our Lady possessed both types of acquired knowledge, since she was subject to empirical reactions, and was endowed with an operative intellectus agens and with an intellectus patiens capable of functioning normally. As to the principal sources of Mary’s information, we may safely state that, in addition to the natural experiences of daily life, they were the assiduous reading of Sacred Scripture (33) and, of course, the frequent discourses with her divine Son.
Regarding the perfection and extent of Mary’s acquired knowledge, we surmise that they must have been exceedingly great, considering that she possessed the gift of integrity and that, therefore, her intellect retained all its native brilliancy. However, as in the case of her infused knowledge, this acquired knowledge must not be conceived as extending to human affairs not connected with her office as Mother of God and co-operator with her Son in the work of Redemption. Thus, it would be frivolous to imagine her devoting herself to the study of the many languages spoken in the civilized world of her time, although, during her sojourn in Egypt, she doubtless acquired a good knowledge of the language of that country. Certainly, she must have been an excellent cook and a skillful seamstress. And with her natural knowledge guided and elevated by divine grace and faith, she must have been recognized as a woman of extraordinary wisdom and prudence. We can easily surmise that in the little village of Nazareth the simple folk must have often presented their daily problems to Joseph’s wife in order to obtain advice and inspiration.
The ancient tradition that Mary was presented to the service of God as a little child, commemorated by the Church on November 21, is quite conformable to the view stated above, that her intellect was keen and brilliant. A mind such as that given to the child chosen to be the Mother of God must have attained the natural power of reasoning much sooner than that of the ordinary child. (34)
IV. Mary’s Knowledge in Heaven
Since the moment of the departure of her soul from earth (whether through death or in conjunction with a bodily assumption without death), Mary has been in possession of the beatific vision in the kingdom of heaven. Since the intensity and extent of this act of intelligence are in proportion to the measure of sanctity with which a soul leaves this world, and the holiness of Mary was so great that, in the words of Pope Pius IX, “under God, no greater can be conceived,” (35) Our Lady beholds the majesty and the beauty of the Triune God more clearly and more profoundly than all other creatures, both angels and men, being surpassed only by her divine Son.
In the light of the beatific vision the soul beholds also many created objects, including those happenings on earth which have a special interest for this particular soul. Thus, a saint who has established a religious order during his period on earth will behold in the vision of God the successes and failures of his institute, and will thus be enabled to direct his prayers for his spiritual children in a definite form to the Almighty.
Applying this norm to Our Lady, we conclude that her knowledge in the beatific vision of earthly events surpasses by far that of any other blessed soul (save the soul of Christ) because, as Coredemptrix and Dispenser of all grace and the spiritual Mother of all mankind, she has an interest in every human being and in all the events that take place or will take place on earth. The Redemptorist theologian, Father Herrmann, states: “The Blessed Virgin clearly beholds all men, especially the elect, and also all their thoughts and the secrets of their hearts, and all the prosperous and unfortunate events of the world.” (36) The predictions of the Blessed Virgin in the apparitions at Fatima confirm this opinion as to the extent of her knowledge of the future.
However, it would not necessarily follow from this fact that Mary knows the ultimate fate of every human being—who will be saved, who will be lost. On this question we can have only conjectural knowledge. Yet, the great theologian Suárez did not hesitate to express the opinion that Mary’s perception of created objects in the beatific vision embraces all things actual—past, present, and future—except those that are proper to her divine Son. (37) Such extensive knowledge might include the discernment of the saved and the lost, past, present, and future.
To some it might seem unsuitable to inquire in so detailed a fashion about the nature and extent of Mary’s knowledge, particularly since we have so little explicit information on this point in the Bible. But it must not be forgotten that in the tradition of the Church there are definite indications that the woman whom God chose to be the Mother of His Son was the recipient of many extraordinary privileges; and these would naturally include great perfection of the intellect, the noblest human faculty.
And so, it is not unprofitable to seek some definite ideas on Mary’s knowledge, since a study of this kind helps us to understand the sublime dignity of the Mother of God, and inspires us to be more ready to seek through her intercession the wisdom and the understanding that we need in the journey of life.
This article was first published in J. B. Carol, ed., Mariology, Vol. 2, Bruce, 1957.
(1) It would be impossible to cite even a small portion of the numerous theological books and articles which treat of Mary’s knowledge. Hence, we shall mention only a few: F. Suárez, De mysteriis vitae Christi, disp. 4, sect. 7 and 8; op. omn., Vivès, Vol. 19 (Parisiis, 1860), pp. 70a-73b; C. de Vega, Theologia Mariana, Vol. I (ed. Neapoli, 1866), nn. 957-959; G. M. Roschini, Mariologia, ed. 2, Vol. 2, pars 2 (Romae, 1948), pp. 184-194; A. Martinelli, De primo instanti conceptionis B. V. Mariae. Disquisitio de usu rationis (Romae, 1950); F. Girerd, Science de Marie, in Nouvelle Revue Théologique, Vol. 49, 1922, pp. 351-363; A. Michel, Le mystère de Jésus et la science de la Sainte Vierge, in L’Ami du Clergé, Vol. 61, 1951, pp. 769-772.
(2) D.B., 2184.
(3) D.B., 530.
(4) D.B., 475.
(5) D.B., 2183-2185.
(6) F. de Guerra, in Majestas gratiarum ac virtutum omnium Deiparae Virginis, Vol. I (Segoviae, 1659), p. 67, and Th. F. Urrutigoyti, in Certamen scholasticum expositivum argumentum pro Deipara… (Lugduni, 1660), nn. 1248-1422, held that Mary possessed the beatific vision during her entire lifetime. But they also held the unusual position that the soul in permanent possession of the beatific vision can possess the virtue of faith and can increase in merit. Cf. also R. Rábanos, La gracia carismática de Maria, in Estudios Marianos, Vol. 5, 1946, pp. 261-262. An excellent history of the various opinions on this point is given by J. de Aldama in his erudite article ¿Gozó de la vision beatífica la Santísima Virgen alguna vez en su vida mortal?, in Archivo Teológico Granadino, Vol. 6, 1943, pp. 121-140.
(7) De mysteriis vitae Christi, disp. 19, sect. 4, n. 4; op. omn., Vol. 19, p. 305a.
(8) In S. Theol., disp. 56, c. 2, n. 5; op. omn., Vol. 7 (Lugduni, 1631), p. 211b.
(9) De conceptione B. M. Virginis, sermo 4, a. 1, c. 2; op. omn., Vol. 4 (Venetiis, 1745), p. 83b.
(10) Op. cit., pp. 185-187.
(11) Op. cit., pp. 81-83.
(12) Exod. 33:11.
(13) 2 Cor. 12:4.
(14) Cf. Martinelli, op. cit., p. 69ff.
(15) B.-H. Merkelbach, Mariologia (Parisiis, 1939), p. 198.
(16) Suárez, loc. cit.
(17) Summa Theologica, P. 3, q. 9, a. 2.
(18) Op. cit., p. 186.
(19) Op. cit., p. 82.
(20) D.B., 2183.
(21) 1 Cor. 2:9.
(22) Cf. A. Michel, Jésus-Christ et la théologie, in D.T.C., Vol. 8, coll. 1273-1274.
(23) Op. cit., p. 86.
(24) Op. cit., nn. 1056-1103.
(25) Martinelli, op. cit., p. 114.
(26) De mysteriis vitae Christi, disp. 4, sect. 8, n. 3; op. omn., Vol. 19, p. 73b. For the opinion of other theologians on this point cf. Martinelli, op. cit., pp. 118-121.
(27) Op. cit, p. 190.
(28) Lk. 1:32.
(29) Lk. 2:49.
(30) Cf. E. Sutcliffe, Our Lady and the Divinity of Christ, in The Month, Vol. 180, 1944, pp. 347-350; id., Our Lady’s Knowledge of the Divinity of Christ, in The Irish Ecclesiastical Record, Vol. 66, 1945, pp. 427-432; id., Again Our Lady’s Knowledge of Christ’s Divinity, The Irish Ecclesiastical Record, Vol. 68, 1946, pp. 123-128.
(31) Cf. Roschini, op. cit., pp. 193-194; H. Pope, Our Lady and the Divinity of Christ, in The Irish Ecclesiastical Record, Vol. 66, 1945, pp. 100-105; J. A. Kleist, The Annunciation, in The American Ecclesiastical Review, Vol. 114, 1946, pp. 161-169; Father Peter, When Did Our Lady Know She Was Mother of God? in The Irish Ecclesiastical Record, Vol. 67, 1946, pp. 145-163; D. Unger, When Did Mary First Know of Her Divine Maternity? in The American Ecclesiastical Review, Vol. 114, 1946, pp. 360-366; Father Peter, Mariology and Exegesis, in The Irish Ecclesiastical Record, Vol. 69, 1947, pp. 113-124; Sutcliffe, Scripture, Tradition and Mariology, in The Irish Ecclesiastical Record, Vol. 69, 1947, pp. 807-814; E. May, The Scriptural Basis for Mary’s Spiritual Maternity, in Marian Studies, Vol. 3, 1952, pp. 122-123.
(32) Institutiones Theologiae Speculativae, Vol. 2 (Romae, 1932), pp. 335-337.
(33) Every verse of the Magnificat reveals that Mary was quite familiar with the Old Testament prophecies. Cf. on this point T. Gallus, Ad “principium materiale” Redemptionis objectivae, in Divus Thomas (Pl.), Vol. 57, 1954, pp. 246-250.
(34) For a more detailed treatment of Mary’s acquired knowledge, cf. Roschini, op. cit., pp. 190-193; Rábanos,art. cit., pp. 266-268. On Mary’s immunity from all error, cf. Lépicier, Tractatus de Beatissima Virgine Maria(Romae, 1926), pp. 298-299, and G. Alastruey, Tratado de la Virgen Santísima, ed. 3 (Madrid, 1952), pp. 368-371.
(35) Ineffabilis Deus, in Acta et decreta Sacrorum Conciliorum recentiorum, Col. Lac., Vol. 6 (Friburgi Brisgoviae, 1882), p. 836.
(36) Institutiones Theologiae Dogmaticae, Vol. 2 (Parisiis, 1926), n. 1087.