The Mystery of the Immaculate Conception After the Dogmatic Proclamation

I. The Mystery

In his brilliant book, Cradle of Redeeming Love, John Saward states that

The human birth of the Son of God is a mystery in the strict theological sense: a divinely revealed reality that little ones can understand but not even learned ones can comprehend. Theological mysteries are truth and therefore light for the mind, but the truth is so vast, the light of such intensity, that the mind is dazzled and amazed. When a man meets a mystery of faith, he finds not a deficiency but an excess of intelligibility: there is just too much to understand. (1)

While Saward’s topic was specifically the “Christmas mystery,” his words are not at all inappropriately applied to the “mystery of the Immaculate,” the creature most intimately linked to the Redemptive Incarnation.

Indeed, as is well known, St. Thomas affirmed that “the Blessed Virgin, from the fact that she is the Mother of God, has a kind of infinite dignity (quandam dignitatem infinitam) from the infinite good which is God.” (2) Before him St. Anselm had already declared that “it was appropriate that this Virgin should shine with a purity than which under God no greater can be conceived,” (3) a declaration which was taken up almost verbatim in the Apostolic Constitution Ineffabilis Deus to the effect that Mary possessed that fullness of holy innocence and sanctity than which, under God, one cannot even imagine anything greater, and which outside of God, no mind can succeed in comprehending fully (innocentiæ et sanctitatis plenitudinem præ se ferret, qua maior sub Deo nullatenus intellegitur, et quam præter Deus nemo assequi cogitando potest). (4)

II. Penetration into the Mystery

Clearly, the Church’s ever-deeper penetration into the mystery of Mary’s Immaculate Conception in the course of the centuries is an illustration of the development of doctrine described in the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum:

The Tradition that comes from the apostles makes progress in the Church, with the help of the Holy Spirit. There is a growth in insight into the realities and words that are being passed on. This comes about in various ways. It comes through the contemplation and study of believers who ponder these things in their hearts (cf. Lk. 2:19 and 51). It comes from the intimate sense of spiritual realities which they experience. And it comes from the preaching of those who have received, along with their right of succession in the episcopate, the sure charism of truth. Thus, as the centuries go by, the Church is always advancing towards the plenitude of divine truth, until eventually the words of God are fulfilled in her. (5)

Recently Father Stefano Cecchin has made a valuable contribution to the study of how the Church arrived at formulating this mystery, particularly in his chronicling the work of theologians. (6)

To commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the proclamation of the dogma St. Pius X published his great Encyclical Letter, Ad Diem illum, of 2 February, 1904, and on the occasion of the hundredth anniversary the Servant of God Pope Pius XII declared a Marian Year from the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in 1953 to the same feast in 1954. He proclaimed that Marian Year with his Encyclical Letter Fulgens Corona of 8 September, 1953, which set in motion Marian celebrations, symposia and congresses devoted to the study of the doctrine of Mary’s Immaculate Conception throughout the entire Catholic world. No doubt the most prestigious of these was the International Mariological-Marian Congress held in Rome in 1954 which produced no less than 18 volumes of scholarly studies on the Immaculate Conception which are still available from the Pontifical International Marian Academy. Perhaps the most valuable scholarly volume produced in the English-speaking world to commemorate that centenary was The Dogma of the Immaculate Conception: History and Significance edited by Edward D. O’Connor, C.S.C., (7) which contained a bibliography on the subject from the years 1830 to 1957 in the major languages and spanning just under 100 pages. (8)

III. The Postconciliar Situation

Since that centenary the theological world has undergone many vicissitudes. The major ecclesial event since then which has marked the subsequent life of the Church was obviously the celebration of the Second Vatican Council from 11 October, 1962, to 8 December, 1965. In the eighth chapter of Lumen Gentium, the great Marian treatise of the council, Our Lady is spoken of in #53 as “redeemed in a more exalted fashion by reason of the merits of her Son” (intuitu meritorum Filii sui sublimiore modo redempta) and in #56 as “enriched from the first instant of her conception with the splendor of an entirely unique holiness” (singularis prorsus sanctitatis splendoribus a primo instante suæ conceptionis ditata). While it may well be argued, as Pope John Paul II has done, that “the Council’s entire discussion of Mary remains vigorous and balanced, and the topics themselves, though not fully defined, received significant attention in the overall treatment,” (9) it is also true that the battles on Our Lady’s mediatorial role which took place on the council floor and behind the scenes continue to have their effects. (10)