The Immaculate Conception (8 December)

From today’s entry in the Roman Martyrology, we find:

Conceptio Immaculata gloriosae semper Virginis Genitricis Dei Mariae, quam fuisse praeservatam, singulari Dei privilegio, ab omni originalis culpae labe immunem. Pius Nonus, Pontifex Maximus, hac ipsa recurrente die, solemniter definivit.

The Immaculate Conception of Mary, the glorious ever-virgin Mother of God, who by a singular privilege of God was preserved pure from all stain of original sin. Pius IX, Supreme Pontiff, solemnly defined this doctrine on this same day.

The Immaculate Conception is one of those doctrines oft misunderstood by both Catholic and non-Catholic alike. Many think it refers to the Annunciation, when Christ was conceived. Yet if the doctrine were to mean that Christ, not Mary, was conceived without sin, such doctrine would be so uncontroversial that Pope Pius IX would have no need to solemnly and infallibly define it in 1854.

Speaking of Papal infallibility, the proclamation of this dogma by Pius IX (in the Apostolic Constitution Ineffabilis Deus) is one of the very rare times when a Pope actually invoked the charism of infallibility. (The next and last instance, save for the canonization of saints, was the proclamation of the Assumption 100 years later by Pius XII.)

One can consult the full text of Ineffabilis Deus to find the various reasons for defining this dogma. From the ancient liturgical devotions to the Immaculate in many local Churches, to the commentaries of several Church Fathers (Justin Martyr, Irenaeus of Lyon, Tertullian, Augustine, Cyril of Jerusalem, Sedulius, among others), to various interpretations of Holy Scripture, support for the doctrine in 1854 was strong throughout the Catholic world. In fact, the definition of the Immaculate Conception, while formally defined by a Papal act, is in fact an example of the close connection between the sensus fidelium and the infallibilitas Romana, between the collegiality of bishops and the Petrine primacy. As Pope Francis often affirms, il popolo santo di Dio, nella sua totalità, mai sbaglia— “the holy people of God, in its totality, never errs”. In the case of the Immaculate Conception, the formal definition by the Pope is the confirmation and guarantee of what the people of God, in large measure, already believed.

Pius IX did not act arbitrarily and simply decide to define the dogma; he first sent a letter asking the bishops of the world to examine devotion to the Immaculate in their regions and to see whether a formal definition from Rome would be welcome and opportune. Furthermore, he tasked a group of Cardinals and theologians to thoroughly scrutinize the idea of the Immaculate Conception to ensure that it did not contradict any other accepted truths in the deposit of faith. The response from the bishops and from the theological commission was resounding: with near unanimity, the Catholic faithful of the world asked Pius IX to formally define the doctrine, and he did so on 8 December 1854 at the Basilica of Saint Paul in via ostiense in Rome.

If such a devotion to the Immaculate Conception was so widespread throughout Catholicism, why did it take so long for the Church to formally define it as an article of faith to be held by all? Of all the reasons for such a late definition, one stands above them all. That reason is a man named Saint Thomas Aquinas.

It is well known that Thomas, that giant of theology, denied the Immaculate Conception. His opinion on the matter was so influential that many prominent Jesuits, and practically the entire Dominican order, argued vigorously against it until 1854 (when, rendering that humble obsequium religiosum to the Magisterium, they accepted the dogma). There is, however, a trend in English-language Catholic apologetic circles which says that that, at the end of his life, Thomas finally accepted the doctrine. Upon examination of Thomas’ works, this does not seem to be the case; we cannot prove that Aquinas explicitly changed his mind after denying the Immaculate Conception in the Summa Theolgiae.

The proximate source for this idea (that Thomas finally accepted the Immaculate Conception) seems to be a page from the blog of Taylor Marshall, a convert to Catholicism from the Episcopal Church and frequent commentator on such trusted Catholic outlets like EWTN and Catholic Answers. Responding to the question “Did Thomas Aquinas deny the Immaculate Conception?” Marshall writes:

I was reading Father Reginald Marie Garrigou-Lagrange and he suggests that Thomas Aquinas went through three stages of development with regard to the Immaculate Conception:

1.  Early Stage (before 1254 – Commentary on Sentences): Thomas affirmed the Immaculate Conception of Mary
2.  Middle Stage (1254-1272 – Summa theologiae): Thomas denied the Immaculate Conception of Mary
3.  Final Stage (after 1272): Thomas returned to his faith in the Immaculate Conception of Mary

Here are the texts that Garrigou-Lagrange gives to support his thesis:

In the first period, which was from 1253 to 1254, he affirmed the privilege, for he wrote: “Such was the purity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who was exempt from both original and actual sin.” [Com. in I Sent, d. 44, q. 1, a. 3, ad 3]

In the second period, St. Thomas explicitly denies the Immaculate Conception: “The Blessed Virgin did indeed contract original sin.” [Summa theologiae IIIa, q. 27, a. 2, ad 2]

In the third period, “For she [the Blessed Virgin] was most pure because she incurred the stain neither of original sin nor of mortal sin nor of venial sin.”[Expositio super salutatione angelica]

Oh what a happy thought – that Thomas died with full faith in the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary!

Something didn’t seem right to me. As one should do when a dispute arises, I turned to the original Latin language texts of Thomas’ works. Here is what we find:

…et talis fuit puritas beatae virginis, quae a peccato originali et actuali immunis fuit.
…and such was the purity of the Blessed Virgin, who was preserved from original and actual sin. [Commentaria super Sententiis Petri Longobardi, Liber I, d. 44, q. 1, a. 3, ad 3]

Sed beata virgo contraxit quidem originale peccatum, sed ab eo fuit mundata antequam ex utero nasceretur.
But the Blessed Virgin contracted original sin, but was cleansed of it before being born from the womb. [Summa Theologiae, IIIa, q. 27, ad. 3]

Sed Christus excellit beatam virginem in hoc quod sine originali conceptus et natus est. Beata autem virgo in originali est concepta, sed non nata… 
But Christ excelled the Blessed Virgin in that he was conceived and born without original sin. The Blessed Virgin, though, was conceived but not born in original sin. [Super salutatione angelica]

In his earlier years, Thomas did in fact support the Immaculate Conception, as seen in his commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard (cited correctly by Marshall). By the time he wrote the Summa Theologiae (also cited correctly by Marshall), however, he changed his mind.When citing the Expositio super salutatione angelica (“Exposition on the ‘Hail Mary'”), Marshall/Garrigou-Lagrange run into problems. According to the original text, Thomas (in both the Summa and Super salutatione angelica) held that to be conceived without original sin was a privilege of Christ alone. Although I know of the illustrious Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange, I have sadly not read much of his works, and my French is not good enough to examine his original texts. It seems strange to me, however, that the French priest, one of Thomas’ most celebrated interpreters, would make such an egregious mistake.

In fact, it seems that the text cited by Garrigou-Lagrange from Super salutatione angelica contains a deliberate redaction by later Roman scribes: Ipsa enim purissima fuit et quantum ad culpam, quia ipsa virgo nec originali nec mortale nec veniale peccatum incurrit. (“For she [the Blessed Virgin] was most pure because the Virgin herself incurred neither original nor mortal nor venial sin.”) The words nec originali are absent in the oldest and more authoritative copies of the text, and the critical edition of the Corpus Thomisticum leaves them out. Finally, this redacted phrase as cited by Marshall/Garrigou-Lagrange makes no sense, especially in light of the previously quoted sentence from the same Super salutatione angelica (“But Christ excelled the Blessed Virgin…”).

So, either Aquinas left a glaringly obvious contradiction in his work– mere sentences apart and in the same paragraph– or Marshall/Garrigou-Lagrange are dealing with an inauthentic text. In any case, either Marshall is wrong, Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange is wrong, or both are wrong. There is simply nothing in Thomas’ works to prove that he repudiated his rejection of the Immaculate Conception. 

As best we can tell, Aquinas was on the wrong side of this matter. This does not, however, detract in any way from the truth of the doctrine. What Thomas could not reconcile in his otherwise brilliant works was resolved by his contemporary, the Franciscan friar Duns Scotus. It is in fact Scotus’ line of reasoning that found its way into Ineffabilis Deus. The basic outline of Scotus’ argument runs like so: like all humans, Mary needed to be saved, but since God is not bound by time, and since the merits of the Paschal Mystery could have been given in advance, God allowed Mary to be free from original sin. This leaves three options: either Mary was conceived in sin and was purged of it soon before birth [Thomas’ view]; Mary was in sin for an instant but purged of it immediately after conception; or Mary was not conceived in sin. Relying on Anselm of Canterbury’s principle of choosing the most excellent option when speaking of God’s potential acts, Scotus concluded that Mary was preserved from original sin at conception.

I am, however, open to the possibility that Thomas finally did accept the doctrine, though this is pure speculation on my part since I have no primary source to back my claim. As we saw in our previous reflection on Thomas Aquinas, we know that he never finished the Summa Theologiae; after receiving a mystical vision while celebrating Mass, he decided to cease all work in 1272, two years before his death. His denial of the Immaculate Conception is in the Third Part (tertia pars) of the Summa, meaning that it was one of the last parts of the Summa to be written before he stopped. His other denial of the Immaculate Conception, from the Super salutatione angelica, also dates to 1272.

Thomas’ mystical vision and subsequent cessation of work occurred around the same time of his double denial of the Immaculate Conception. In fact, the date of the vision is commonly held to be 7 December– yes, the day prior to the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Could it be that, when he received the vision, Thomas finally saw the truth that Scotus strained to demonstrate? After all, when his friend Reginald of Piperno begged him to continue writing, Thomas replied that he could not, saying, omnia quae scripsi mihi videtur ut palea— “all I have written seems like chaff to me”. Perhaps his double denial was finally consumed like chaff in the light of what was revealed to him on the vigil of the great feast.

No matter what Thomas wrote of the Immaculate Conception, in heaven he now knows what he could not understand while he lived on earth. Today, we have the certainty, thanks to Blessed Pius IX, that “the glorious ever-virgin Mother of God, by a singular privilege of God, was preserved pure from all stain of original sin.” Today, we can join all Catholics around the world, along with Thomas Aquinas and all the saints in heaven, in singing: Tota pulchra es, Maria, et macula non est in te!

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