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The Predestination of the Virgin Mother and Her Immaculate Conception

Updated: May 29, 2020

The following is an excerpt of an outstanding theological treatment of the Immaculate Conception by the renowned mariologist, Fr. Peter Damien Fehlner, OFM Conv. The full article can be found in the mariological anthology entitle, Mariology: For Priests, Deacons, Religious, and Seminarians, published by Queenship Publications. -Ed


The two closely related mysteries treated in this chapter are extraordinarily important, indeed, according to the Scotistic-Franciscan view of Mariology, crucially important, for a correct appreciation of Catholic theology on Mary and the Marian character of “our theology,” viz., the saving knowledge of God possible to us in a time of pilgrimage (1).

Since the close of Vatican II, and despite that Council’s very firm reaffirmation of both mysteries in the traditional sense (2), treatment of the predestination of Mary has disappeared from Mariological study. Some expositions of the Immaculate Conception have either 1) minimized its binding dogmatic character with calls for its “dedogmatization,” viz., its reduction to the status of a thesis pertaining to an unimportant and perhaps out-dated theological system no longer binding in faith on all Catholics; 2) downplayed or even denied its character as a unique privilege of Mary alone, and so reducing the Mother of God to the status of just another woman; or 3) totally naturalized the privilege (along the lines of the ancient heretic Pelagius) by eliminating any reference in its definition to original sin (3).

Closely examined, these trends reflect both the anti-metaphysical, anti-supernatural and ultimately pantheistic character fueling some current theological speculation claiming to offer “new” and “radically different” directions given to Catholic thought and life by Vatican II (4). Pope Benedict XVI has recently (5) described this kind of Vatican II hermeneutic as one of discontinuity, inevitably leading to rupture within the Church. Such a hermeneutic, says the Holy Father, betrays the genuine intentions and meaning of the council texts, which are those of continuity and renewal in harmony with Tradition. Continuity with Tradition in reading Vatican II means not opposing the metaphysical and supernatural character of patristic-scholastic theology, always insisted upon authoritatively by the apostolic Magisterium, to a biblical-historical approach as mutually exclusive alternatives. Rather, continuity with tradition postulates a recognition that the metaphysical and supernatural content of theology is at the very heart of the biblical-historical. Both Bl. Pius IX in the bull of definition of the Immaculate Conception, Ineffabilis Deus, 1854, and Pope Pius XII in the bull of definition of the Assumption, Munificentissimus Deus, 1950, expressly teach the joint predestination of Jesus and Mary: uno eodemque decreto (in one and the same decree). Vatican II, in its summary of the Mariology of the Church, has done nothing else but point this out, stressing in particular how 1) the joint predestination of Mary with Christ (Lumen Gentium 61 and 62) and 2) the Immaculate Conception as the beginning of her history (Lumen Gentium 56), are starting points for understanding the person and unique role of Mary in the mystery of Christ and of the Church, both in the mind of God and in the unfolding of the divine counsels of salvation. And John Paul II reiterates, in Redemptoris Mater 8-10, that this doctrine is at the root of the Church’s teaching and of our faith concerning the economy of salvation. This is what is meant when Mariology is described as metaphysical, and when our metaphysics is said to be radically Marian-Christic (6).

Hence, a biblically based theology is radically metaphysical at its core, because in the final analysis the very possibility of an economy of salvation and an order of finite realities outside the Creator and Savior is anchored in the counsels of the divine will, that is, on predestination or the order between various intentions determined by divine mercy and goodness. In turn, a full grasp of theological metaphysics is only possible via Revelation, viz., via Scripture and Tradition. No one has ever seen God or known the counsels of his will except him who is in the bosom of the Father. On entering our world through and from the bosom of Mary, he has told us about this “metaphysics” (cf. Jn 1:18). This is why biblical history is metaphysical, and theological metaphysics is biblical.

Because this is so, the relation between creation and grace, or between creation and predestination to grace and glory in Christ in the order of finite realities outside of God (ad extra), becomes central to any understanding of what exists and why it exists. The mystery of grace, viz., of the metaphysical (i.e., supernatural), is primarily the mystery of the grace of the Incarnation. Inseparably linked to this mystery is the grace of the Immaculate Conception, or unique personal sanctity of the Mother of the Savior God. For this reason the Virgin Mother as a person belongs not only to the economy of salvation as one of the saved-redeemed, but she alone among the saved also pertains to the order of the hypostatic union, because, as the Immaculate Conception or “Full of Grace,” she is capable of being the Virgin-Mother of God.

From these few introductory observations it should be clear that those who claim the authority of Vatican II for something this Council not only did not affirm, but firmly denied, not only reject patristic-scholastic Mariology, but the biblical as well. In doing so they undermine the basis of genuine faith in the Incarnation and redemption.

It is also possible to relate the two mysteries treated in this chapter in terms of a scholastic axiom concerning the divine counsels and their execution outside the mind of God. Quod primum est in intentione, ultimum est in executione (what is first in intention is last in execution). What is first in the divine counsels concerning Mary is the divine maternity; what is first in the implementation of this first counsel is the Immaculate Conception. This last is the unique personal sanctity of the Virgin, her personal consecration to her Son and Savior.

Mary’s only reason for existence is to be full of grace and Christ’s Mother, and he would come to be incarnate only through her because she is immaculate. All this would come to be, not by necessity of nature, but by the good-pleasure of the Father. This fittingness, the Scotistic decuit, far from being irrational and arbitrary, is the font of all rationality in creation.

The Predestination of Mary (7)

This mystery has been implicit in all discussions—biblical, patristic, scholastic—of the divine plan of salvation from its first revelation in the book of Genesis. According to almost all the Fathers of the Church (8), discussion of this plan is central to the interpretation of the first words of the Bible, “in the beginning” (Gen 1:1), as denoting not a first moment of time, but the first point in his eternal counsels, namely the incarnate Word, Son of Mary. The first point of those counsels is that God created heaven and earth for the sake of Jesus and Mary. This is why the first man and woman, the high point of the work of six days, were formed before the fall in a spousal context. Marriage as a divinely instituted covenant between Adam and Eve typified Christ and Mary, and through Mary, Christ and the Church. The absolute primacy of Jesus and Mary so indicated in the work of the six days constitutes the ontological basis both for the possibility of redemption from the tragedy of the fall and for the perfection of that redemptive work, namely, its character as most perfect (Bl. Duns Scotus) or quasi-infinite (St. Thomas).

We may call this the fact of Mary’s predestination to be the Mother of God, of the incarnate Word, before the foundation of the world. This fore-love of Mary by the Father may not, however, be regarded as arbitrary or capricious, because the will of God is always ordered and wise. Mary in some intrinsic manner pertains as no other person to the order of the hypostatic union, the grace of graces and source of all order and intelligibility both in the economy of salvation and in creation. To this fact and to the special place enjoyed by Mary in the economy of salvation, both in relation to the mystery of Jesus and of the Church (cf. Lumen Gentium, ch. 8, title), the whole of revelation affords abundant witness (as sketched out in Lumen Gentium, nn. 55ff.).

Foundation in Sacred Scripture

Taking this authoritative witness as the point of departure, we may indicate how the revealed teaching on the fact of Mary’s unique place within the predestination of all the saved before the foundation of the world in Christ is shown in Scripture and Tradition. Because the coming of the Messiah is via the divine maternity and therefore always Marian in mode, the messianic revelation of the Old Testament is a progressive realization and unveiling of the Marian mode of the divine counsels of salvation. What is true of the prophecies, is also true of the symbols, figures and types bearing on the Savior and his Mother. Their fulfillment under the New and Eternal Covenant is expressly related by St. Paul to the great mystery of predestination (cf. Eph 1:3-14; Col 1:13-20). Careful examination of Romans 1:3-4 (cf. Rom 9:4-5) and Galatians 4:4-7 shows that the predestination of the Son of God to become incarnate, and so son of David, and the predestination of the saved-redeemed to adoptive sonship of the Father in Christ, both hinge upon the woman who conceives and gives birth by the operation of the Holy Spirit. Hence the importance of generic Pauline texts on the predestination of all in Christ (e.g. Eph 1:3ff.), that he might be the firstborn of many brethren, e.g., Romans 8:28-30. On these generic references depend the more detailed explanation of the order of those predestined to Christ and to each other, reflected in texts such as Romans 5:12-21 (Adam—with Eve, Christ—with Mary; original sin vs. superabundant grace), Philippians 2:5-11 (the kenosis of the Son via the virgin birth and Cross is crowned in the glory of the Father), Hebrews 10:4-10 (the assent of Christ to the Incarnation and counsels of salvation, corresponding to the assent of the Virgin Mother, Luke 1:38), Ephesians 5:21-32 (the Church as bride of Christ to the degree that she is one with the immaculate purity of Mary: sine macula, sine ruga—without spot or wrinkle).

Pondering texts from John 1:13 (belief in the one born virginally of God), 1 John 4:10 (the prior love of God) and Luke 1:30 (Mary found grace with God), we may say that the grace of predestination, viz., the prior love of God for us, is concretely our predestination with that of the incarnate Son. It is a mystery only brought to pass through the unique grace found by Mary to be chosen before the foundation of the world to be the immaculate, virginal Mother of the Savior God.

The Witness of Tradition

The predestination of Mary as a fact is frequently mentioned or clearly alluded to by the Fathers from the earliest days of the Church, and so is clearly a doctrine taught by the apostles and their immediate successors. St. Ignatius of Antioch tells us (9) that the virgin birth is one of the three principal mysteries of salvation hidden in the silence of the divine counsels, and inaccessible therefore to the Devil. The basic method of our theology, that of recirculation and recapitulation as set forth by St. Justin and St. Irenaeus, ultimately is grounded in the mystery of predestination. Among the many texts cited in the repertoire of Fr. Roschini (10) are these very explicit affirmations of Mary’s predestination:

St. Augustine: “Before he was born of her, he knew his Mother in her predestination” (Tractatus in Joannem, 9).

St. John Damascene: “Mary was predestined before all time in the foreknowing counsel …” (De fide orthodoxa).

St. Bernard: “The angel was sent to the Virgin … not found recently or by chance, but chosen before the ages, foreknown by the Most High” (Homilia II super Missus est).

To these should be added the testimony of the liturgy, for instance in these verses from the hymn O Virgo Mater (11), used in the office of readings for Our Lady on Saturday:

O Virgo Mater, Filia tui beata Filii

O Virgin Mother, blessed daughter of thy Son

Sublimis et humilisima prae creatures omnibus,

Sublimest of all creatures and humblest,

Divini tu consilii fixus ab aevo terminus,

Thou from eternity preset goal of God’s saving counsels,

Tu decus et fastigium naturae nostrae maximum.

Highest glory of our nature and zenith.

A long text of St. Augustine from The Predestination of the Saints, ch. 15, 30-31, provides an excellent summary of Catholic Tradition on predestination, stressing the simultaneous predestination of all the saints in that of Christ, the grace of graces. This is the point of departure for the systematic elaboration of Scotus, perhaps the profoundest ever achieved.

Theological Reflection

Systematically, however, the unique manner in which Our Lady alone enters the order of the hypostatic union and so occupies after Christ the highest place in the saving counsels of God, and the one closest to us (cf. Lumen Gentium, 54), came to be studied consequent to discussion of the absolute predestination or primacy of Christ as set forth by Bl. John Duns Scotus and his disciples, a discussion closely bound up with the theological justification of the Immaculate Conception. In fact, Scotus himself does not directly treat of the predestination of Mary. But he laid down the principles on the basis of which Mary’s predestination has been treated ever since. Hence, the best way to grasp the sense of the theme, to appreciate its importance and why the Catholic concept of predestination does not lead to predestinationism or Calvinism, is to organize our exposition along the lines of Scotus himself (12).

The Contribution of Bl. John Duns Scotus

1. By predestination Scotus means God’s gratuitous or gracious fore-choice of creatures for glory. It is the prior love of God for us, before we have loved him, viz., gained any merit, of which St. John speaks in his first letter (1 Jn 4:10). This act of love is absolutely gratuitous, viz., is prior to and independent of any consideration of personal worth or merit, not only in the case of created persons, but also in case of the Incarnation or hypostatically assumed humanity of Jesus. This prior act of the Father no more deprives the creature so predestined to glory, viz., to the sharing of the divine nature and beatific vision, of his personal freedom than does the act of creation and of formation of Adam preclude Adam’s freedom and personal activity. Quite the contrary: the formation of spiritual or rational creatures in the image and likeness of God is the very basis of their freedom and its presupposition, justice. So, too, in the higher order of glory which does not follow automatically from the fact of creation, the prior love of God is the presupposition of the very possibility of merit or cooperation in the work of salvation.

Set in this context, the many references of St. Paul to the absolute predestination of Jesus, and with him of the elect, as a pure gift of grace, antecedent to any considerations of merit or demerit (cf. Rom 9:6-13), hardly preclude, but constitute the very basis for the possibility of human freedom and merit. Ephesians 1:3ff. and 2 Timothy 1:9 are examples, but hardly the only ones, of the classic Pauline doctrine on which rests the articulation of the predestination of Mary.

This predestination to glory, at the very core of the theology of grace, is commonly considered a matter of faith. Further, this concept of predestination to grace and glory is, in the order of divine intentions, prior to any consideration of sin, either on the part of the angels or on the part of Adam and Eve and their offspring. On the very possibility of the grace of the Incarnation or absolute primacy of Christ rests the possibility both of creation and of a redemption from sin.

2. The second point on which Scotus insists is that of St. Paul in the Letter to the Ephesians. On the part of God, acts of predestination are not multiplied in relation to the number of persons predestined to glory; all are predestined simultaneously in the predestination of the Head of the saints, viz., Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word. Predestination is a joint affair within which the place or order of single persons to Christ the Savior is situated, not simply by divine fiat, but in view of the merits of Christ or in short, of his human fiat. The notion of headship implicates above all this truth. The conferral of the blessings of salvation occurs in and through the body of Christ according to the mutual ordering of the members therein. The grace of headship is precisely the power to do this in the context of the Mystical Body. The blessings of salvation are dispensed, not aside from or independently of the merits and satisfaction of Christ, but through him, nor according to a certain subordination to Christ as Head through the merits of the elect themselves. The elect can indeed merit eternal glory, but neither the first grace nor the grace of perseverance, for these are merited for them by the merits and satisfaction of the Savior-Redeemer. This teaching is also commonly acknowledged as a matter of faith.

3. The third point of Scotus, often known as the “Franciscan thesis,” but hardly exclusive to Franciscan theologians, concerns the absolute primacy of Christ as Head of those predestined jointly in him. The Incarnation of the Savior is willed absolutely prior to any consideration of sin or of creation, in that sense independently of both. On the other hand both creation, and afterwards the redemption of mankind, are willed dependently in view of the Incarnation, the central mystery of salvation effected through the divine-virginal maternity. Hence, within the one act of jointly predestining all in Christ, there is a more restricted sense of joint predestination, viz., that of one of the elect to be Mother of the incarnate Head-Savior, and so Mediatrix of all graces, viz., the person through whom the Mediator comes to us and through whom we are incorporated into Christ. On this basis later theologians will distinguish, within the divine counsels of salvation, between the order of the hypostatic union and the order of the saved-redeemed. Mary by reason of her singular role as Mother of God, a role resting on her unique personal state of holiness (Immaculate Conception), pertains to both orders, so making possible the realization of the Incarnation and the cooperation of the Church and faithful in the work of salvation.

The predestination of all the elect in Christ before the foundation of the world is in view of their cooperation in the work of salvation. Whereas the creation of the world depends solely on the fiat of the Father, that of its salvation depends also on the world’s cooperation (13). Here we see most clearly the root of the differences between a Catholic and Protestant soteriology, the Catholic insisting that the mediation of Christ does not exclude, as Protestant soteriology asserts in the famous Christus solus, but includes in a certain order a subordinate mediation of the redeemed. This is clearly affirmed by Lumen Gentium 62, precisely after ascribing the title Mediatrix to Mary. Just as clearly this implies that in the order of divine providence such cooperation hinges on the fiat of Mary. This point is fundamental to any grasp of the possibility, unique in Mary, to be actively involved not merely in the distribution of divine blessings once acquired by the Redeemer, but to be associated with him in their acquisition, in the so-called “objective redemption” or redemptio ad sufficientiam (14). Hence, Mary’s capacity, under and with Christ, to merit the conferral of grace on others. Without the Immaculate Conception, Mary’s maternal mediation, and so our cooperation in the work of salvation (cf. Col 1:24), would not be possible. Lacking that cooperation, a perfect redemption could not be realized. Whence, the crucial importance of the mystery of the Immaculate Conception as foundation for the actualization of all Mary’s other privileges in the order of history, culminating in the consummation of her maternal mediation in Christ and in the Church (divine and spiritual maternity).

Is this merely a theological theory or is it revealed truth? The disciples of Scotus (15) have always insisted that the theological discussion is rooted precisely in Revelation. Anyone who considers the evidence assembled in such works as those of F. Risi (16) and C. Urritibehety (17) will understand why more and more scholars, including biblicists, agree that the Scotistic reading is the correct one (18). It is this fact or “fecit” of the old axiom: potuit, decuit, ergo fecit (he was able, it was fitting, therefore he did it), associated with Scotus’ defense of the Immaculate Conception, which grounds the “decuit” and “potuit” (19). Our redemption is most perfect precisely because it follows upon the absolute primary of Christ, rather than acting as exclusive condition-motive for the Incarnation (20).

4. Our fourth point concerns the relation between predestination and conferral of the graces whereby the predestined come to enjoy all the blessings of paradise. Precisely because their predestination to glory is in Christ, therefore all of them attain these blessings in facto esse through the merits and mediation of Christ the Head: one way in Mary and another way in all the rest. Whereas the fullness of grace in Mary is in view of the foreseen merits of her Son, the participation in grace by all others is in view of the mediation of Jesus and Mary. Because of the fact of sin on the part of Adam and Eve, that mediation of Christ, when realized historically after the tragic event of original sin and the fall of the angels, is in fact redemptive as well as saving: preservatively in Mary (and in a subordinate way in the angels who did not fall) and libertatively in all others. In Mary redemption is her Immaculate Conception; in us it is our liberation from sin. In both cases redemption is the term of divine mercy: more perfectly, however, in Mary than in us, and in us dependently on its realization in the Immaculate.

This brings us to the final point, not expressly discussed by Scotus, but taken up by his immediate disciples, the predestination of Mary to be the Mother of God, the Savior-Head of the saved. Does this postulate in her a unique relation to Christ? St. Bonaventure calls (21) her relation to Jesus a singular sacred order (hierarchy), above all other orders, such that the mystery of the Incarnation and divine maternity constitute a single indivisible mystery of salvation (22), or as later theologians are accustomed to say the order of the hypostatic union. The Scotistic answer, reflecting Bonaventure, is affirmative, both in relation to the original holiness of the angels and in relation to Adam and Eve before the fall. Hence, it is the basis in Mary of her Immaculate Conception or preservative redemption. Precisely because Mary is predestined to be Mother of God in the joint predestination of all in Christ, therefore she is also Mother of the Church and so the pre-eminent member of the Church, because maternal Mediatrix of all grace. For in a manner beyond our comprehension she is actively involved in the conferral on Jesus of the grace of