The Predestination of the Virgin Mother and Her Immaculate Conception

Updated: May 30, 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)