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)

Effectively, the interpretation of the Second Vatican Council’s Marian treatise found most frequently in the English-speaking world, and very often elsewhere, is represented by Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J.:

The achievements of Vatican II have been called a watershed. The chapter on Mary in the Constitution on the Church seemed to mark the end of an isolated, maximizing Mariology, and the inclusion of Mary in the theology of the Church. (11)

This departs notably from all of the commentaries on the Mariology of Vatican II offered by Pope John Paul II in the course of his long pontificate and constitutes what I refer to as “Vatican II triumphalism.”

“Vatican II triumphalism” is virtually always a partial and one-sided interpretation of the council documents which favors a position espoused by one party at the time of the council and studiously avoids mention of any conciliar statements which would counterbalance the “favored” position. In the case of chapter eight of Lumen Gentium on “the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, in the mystery of Christ and of the Church,” the “favored” position heavily emphasizes Mary’s role as model of the Church. This reflects the rediscovered insights of ecclesiotypical Mariology (which sees an analogy between Mary and the Church) which were emerging again at the time of the council, while very largely ignoring christotypical Mariology (which sees an analogy between Christ and Mary) and dismissing it as deductive and “privilege-centered.” (12) Father Eamon R. Carroll, O.Carm. consistently presents the ecclesiotypical Mariology as the great triumph of the council even as he discloses his discomfort at the christotypical elements which remained in the eighth chapter of Lumen Gentium:

The Council did indeed favor the notion that Mary is model to the Church, even archetype, without using that word, but its chapter on Our Lady is in fact a complicated compromise that sought to keep a balance between Mary’s association with her Son’s mediation and the obedient faithful Virgin as ideal of the Church’s own response to the Lord. (13)

There were obviously many theological insights which were coming to the fore at the time of the council, largely due to the historical researches begun in the previous century in the areas of biblical, liturgical, patristic and ecclesiological studies. Many of these found expression in the council documents and specifically in chapter eight of Lumen Gentium. All too often, however, an overemphasis on certain of these insights on the part of the majority of commentators to the exclusion of the other insights has, in fact, led to a “low Mariology” which focuses on Mary much more as “woman of faith,” “disciple” and “model” than as “spiritual mother” or “mediatrix” and tends to depreciate the importance of the antecedent papal magisterium. All too often the virtually exclusive emphasis on ecclesiotypical Mariology is coupled with the whole-hearted embracing of the historical-critical method of biblical exegesis and “lowest common denominator” ecumenism. (14) The practitioners of this methodology are almost always notably devoid of that awe before the mystery of Mary which comes instinctively to “little ones.”

The fact is that the statements of St. Anselm and Bl. Pius IX which I cited above cannot be understood other than as “maximalist” expressions, and this maximalism is rooted precisely in the eternal plans of God. Those who downplay or minimize the magnitude of those plans as the Church has gradually come to understand them in the course of the centuries are, consciously or not, attempting to reverse the development of doctrine. In attempting to justify their minimalism, they will often say that at the council the Church chose a different direction. Since this very frequently seems to be the case among contemporary mariologists, we should not be surprised that not many of them have shed great light on the mystery of Mary’s Immaculate Conception.

Nonetheless the Holy Spirit continues to breathe where he wishes (cf. Jn. 3:8) and thus to make the mystery of the Immaculate Conception shine brightly often when least expected. What I would like to do is to indicate ways in which the mystery of the Immaculate has continued to be illumined in our days. Obviously, I make no pretension at being exhaustive. I only hope to share some insights which I have discovered in recent years which have drawn me to marvel at the person and role of the Immaculate in God’s eternal plans. All of them remain to be further developed.

IV. The Mystery Manifested in Scripture

In a synthetic presentation of the scriptural bases for the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception in his Encyclical Letter Fulgens Corona, Pius XII explicitly indicated the protoevengelium (Gen. 3:15) and the angel’s salutation to Mary (Lk. 1:28). (15) This was also the fundamental orientation taken in Bl. Pius IX’s Ineffabilis Deus. (16)

Arguments about the best translation of the text of the protoevangelium as “he (the seed of the woman) shall crush your head” (ipse conteret caput tuum as in the Neo-Vulgata) or “she (the woman) shall crush your head” (ipsa conteret caput tuum as in the Vulgata of St. Jerome) continue to weigh the matter carefully. (17) I believe that Father Stefano M. Manelli’s treatment of the matter in his Biblical Mariology provides an excellent overview of this issue (18) and draws conclusions fully in harmony with the consistent use made of this text in the papal magisterium:

As Pope Pius IX summarizes it, both according to tradition (the Fathers and ecclesiastical writers) and according to the express declarations of the papal Magisterium, the Protoevangelium “clearly and plainly” foretold the Redeemer, indicated the Virgin Mary as the Mother of the Redeemer, and described the common enmity of Mother and Son against the devil and their complete triumph over the poisonous serpent. One can, therefore, without hesitation affirm that the content of the Protoevangelium is “Marian” as well as messianic. Not only this, but the mariological dimension in reference to the “woman” must be also understood literally to be exclusive to that “woman,” to Mary, that is, to the Mother of the Redeemer, and not to Eve. (19)

Pope John Paul II puts it this way:

Since the biblical concept establishes a profound solidarity between the parent and the offspring, the depiction of the Immaculata crushing the serpent, not by her own power but through the grace of her Son, is consistent with the original meaning of the passage. (20)

Already in drafting the Bull Ineffabilis Deus it was confirmed that, for Catholics, it is always necessary to read the biblical texts in the light of the patristic interpretation. (21) This latter point has been further corroborated and validated in the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum. (22)

Without doubt the fundamental biblical text in which the Church finds the mystery of the Immaculate Conception is the term “full of grace” (kecharitomene) in Lk. 1:28. Pope John Paul II offers us an insightful preamble on this expression:

The title “made full of grace,” which the angel addressed to Mary at the annunciation, refers to the exceptional divine favor shown to the young woman of Nazareth in view of the motherhood which was announced. But it indicates more directly the effect of divine grace in Mary. Mary was inwardly and permanently imbued with grace and thus sanctified. The title kecharitomene has a very rich meaning and the Holy Spirit has never ceased deepening the Church’s understanding of it. (23)

While Father Stefano Manelli provides us with a very useful resumé on the appellation kecharitomene, consistently translated in the Catholic tradition as “full of grace,” (24) I believe that the exegetical work of the late Father Ignace de la Potterie, S.J., furnishes us invaluable background for appreciating the richness and uniqueness of this biblical word as it applies to Mary. (25) He points out that the verb charitoun is a “causative” verb, indicating an action which effects something in an object, and proposes that the perfect passive participle kecharitomene should be translated as “transformed by grace.” (26) He goes on to ask:

What precisely has the grace of God properly produced, changed and realized in Mary? Certain authors like R. Brown and J. Fitzmyer, believe that here it is a question of the grace of the divine maternity which is announced to her. That appears impossible to us, for the maternity of Mary must yet begin. Here, as we have pointed out, the perfect passive participle is used by Luke to indicate that the transformation by grace has already taken place in Mary, well before the moment of the Annunciation. (27)

Here, I believe, he makes his greatest contribution:

In taking account of the later doctrine of the Church, we can now pose the question: can we see in the phrase “full of grace” used by the angel in addressing the Virgin, a relationship to the Immaculate Conception of Mary? In the bull of 1854, Ineffabilis Deus, in which Pius IX proclaimed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, it is said that in Luke 1:28, “full of grace,” read in the Tradition, is the biblical text which furnishes the most sure foundation (not the proof) in favor of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. This is a way of looking at the dogma from which many commentators recoil. Exegesis does not have as its task the definition of dogmas. Yet, if we take account of the explanations just given, the meaning of the phrase “full of grace”—which in the course of time was looked at more profoundly by the Church—seems effectively to establish the better foundation of the dogma. … If it is true that Mary was entirely transformed by the grace of God, that then means that God has preserved her from sin, “purified” her, and sanctified her. (28)

Father Manelli also indicates the image of the bride in the Song of Songs and, in particular, the tota pulchra text (Song 4:7) as alluding to the mystery of Mary’s Immaculate Conception (29) and, no doubt, there are other Old Testament images which could be adduced. One of these biblically-inspired images which, I believe, has been largely overlooked, but which is deeply imbedded in the tradition and could repay much more study is that of the “virgin earth.” (30) As the first Adam was formed from the earth (Gen. 2:7), so was the second Adam formed from the “virgin earth,” the Virgin Mary.

In his study of the Immaculate Conception, the first patristic reference which Father Cecchin adduces is Irenaeus’ evocative allusion to Mary as the “virgin earth” from which Jesus, the “new Adam,” was taken. (31) Father François-Marie Léthel, O.C.D., indicates that the “virgin earth” theme in Irenaeus takes precedence over that of the “new Eve” and is even more fundamental. (32) This fascinating theme has been explored at some length in the pioneering study, Maria Terra Vergine, by Father Emmanuele Testa, O.F.M., (33) who claims that it is one of the oldest titles for the Virgin Mary in Catholic tradition, traceable to the first days of the Mother Church of Jerusalem. (34) While Father Testa traces this theme through the Patristic era, it would be well worth continuing to pursue it in the course of the entire tradition. It appears, for instance, with some frequency in the works of Saint Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort, and would seem to constitute an important witness to the Church’s implicit belief in Mary’s Immaculate Conception.

V. In the Light of the Theology of the Saints

In treating of the mystery of Jesus’ agony in the Garden of Gethsemane in his Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Ineunte of 6 January, 2001, Pope John Paul II stated:

Faced with this mystery, we are greatly helped not only by theological investigation but also by that great heritage which is the “lived theology” of the saints. The saints offer us precious insights which enable us to understand more easily the intuition of faith, thanks to the special enlightenment which some of them have received from the Holy Spirit, or even through their personal experience of those terrible states of trial which the mystical tradition describes as the “dark night.” (35)

While we are concentrating our attention here on the mystery of Mary Immaculate, the Pope’s words mutatis mutandis retain their value. The saints are theologians par excellence. As Father Léthel boldly puts it, “All the saints are theologians and only the saints are theologians.” (36)

Without wishing to lessen in any way all that it owed to the immense “cloud of witnesses” (cf. Heb. 12:1) “from every nation and race, people and tongue” (cf. Rev. 7:9) who have testified to the truth of the Immaculate Conception, it seems that among these the holy sons and daughters of St. Francis of Assisi hold a special place and this was given expression immediately after the solemn proclamation of the dogma. (37)

This, it would seem, is far from being mere happenstance and here I would like to cite some works of recent scholarship that confirm this.

The patient historical work of Father Johannes Schneider, O.F.M., has brought to light with great clarity the Marian intuitions of the Seraphic founder (38) which have served as a “capital grace” for all of his spiritual sons and daughters throughout the centuries. This he brings out especially in the second part of his work which is given to the meticulous exegesis of the antiphon Sancta Maria Virgo. (39) This link between St. Francis and the Immaculate Conception was convincingly developed by Father Peter Damian M. Fehlner, F.I., in a conference given to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the dogmatic definition of the Immaculate Conception. (40)

Surely there can be no doubt about the role of Bl. John Duns Scotus in articulating this patrimony in a way that proved decisive for the progress of the truth of the Immaculate Conception. (41) Here is the way that our Holy Father described his role in the development of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception:

Following several 12th century theologians, Duns Scotus found the key to overcoming these objections to the doctrine of Mary’s Immaculate Conception. He held that Christ, the perfect Mediator, exercised the highest act of mediation precisely in Mary by preserving her from original sin. Thus, he introduced into theology the concept of redemption by preservation. According to it, Mary was redeemed in an even more wonderful way, not by being freed from sin, but by being preserved from sin. (42)

The importance of Scotus’ intellectual patrimony continues to be demonstrated by modern scholars. His explanation of the preservative redemption of Mary (43) is intimately linked in his thought to the joint predestination and absolute primacy of Jesus and Mary in the eternal plans of God. (44) This, in fact, has come to be known as the “Franciscan thesis,” (45) which Pius IX confirmed in the Apostolic Constitution Ineffabilis Deus by stating that “God, by one and the same decree (uno eodemque decreto), had established the origin of Mary and the Incarnation of Divine Wisdom.” (46)