Thursday, May 19, 2011

A false problem

A question came up recently about the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary (IC). To Anglicans this is no dogma, but it is considered "a pious belief" that some Christians hold. "Pious" does not mean true, but that Anglicans are willing to tolerate it.

I do not have any intention of arguing the doctrine one way or the other; but, I offer critical thought about the underlying idea that it serves any purpose. To begin with, it is not a doctrine of Universal Church, even though the See of Rome, a single diocese, asserts its own ideas as "universal." The Eastern Orthodox do not teach it. Rome itself did not dogmatize the idea until the middle of the 19th century. Saints, including Thomas Aquinas, did not believe it, despite all sorts of sophistry employed to rewrite his position. The Fathers of the Church never mentioned it, and more so, seem never to have imagined a need for it. They never even discussed the alleged problem that it allegedly solves.

And, that itself is why IC cannot be a dogma. A doctrine that is wholly unnecessary cannot be a dogma (not to mention the fact that no such revelation appears in Holy Scripture). IC is the fruit of human speculation concerning an academic question. And, the question itself, especially when posited as a problem, presents a deeper problem still, and exposes a seriously flawed state of mind.

The same flawed state of mind is discernible in the "big rock question." You have all heard it: "Can God make a stone so heavy that He cannot lift it?"  This is supposed to make us cringe, and feel deeply challenged. The same people who consider it profound are the kind who think that the El Greco Fallacy should be taken seriously. The El Greco Fallacy was used by a professor of psychology at Harvard as an intelligence test, to weed out students who lacked sufficient intelligence. 

This is well described on the HSFP Journal website:

In his book Advice to a Young Scientist, Peter Medawar gives a test in logic based on the paintings of El Greco (Medawar, 1979). A striking feature of many of El Greco’s pictures is the way figures and faces often appear to be excessively elongated. In trying to account for this idiosyncratic style, an ophthalmologist proposed in 1913 that El Greco may have had a form of astigmatism, which distorted his vision and led to elongated images forming on his retina (Trevor-Roper, 1970). Although such an explanation may initially seem reasonable, it does not stand up to logical scrutiny. This is because even if El Greco did see the world through a distorting lens, the same distortion would apply to what he saw on his canvas. These two distortions would cancel each other out, and the proportions in pictures would remain realistic. Thus “if some of El Greco’s figures seem unnaturally tall and thin, they appear so because this was El Greco’s intention” (Medawar, 1979).

The Big Rock Question is flawed because it subjects the infinity of God, and His therefore infinite power, to the terms we know from the finite universe. The question itself does not represent a valid philosophical problem. The context in which it is asked, and in which an answer could be attempted, is insufficient to cover the subject itself.

This is one fallacy of treating IC as a dogma. Supposedly, IC answers a real question and solves a real problem. The question is, "How can God the Son be incarnate as a sinless man?" The answer, according to the Roman Catholic Church (as of 1850) is that the Church has always taught (retroactively, apparently) that Mary was born free of Original Sin. Therefore, her Son could be free of it.

The problem here is twofold. First, it has not been established that the Son would be tainted by Original Sin even if His mother was. That is simply a conclusion reached by the worst kind of scholasticisim. The larger problem is the question itself. 

In Christian theology we have no room for any question that includes the words, "How can God...?" We have one answer for every such presumptuous inquiry: "With God, all things are possible." (Matt. 19:26  Mark 10:27) Any question that includes the words, "How can God...?" takes us back to the fallacy of the Big Rock Question: As I said above, "it subjects the infinity of God, and His therefore infinite power, to the terms we know from the finite universe. The question itself does not represent a valid philosophical problem. The context in which it is asked, and in which an answer could be attempted, is insufficient to cover the subject itself."

If people want to believe in the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, well, I suppose we can live with that. What matters above all else is our shared conviction that her ability to conceive the sinless Son of God was by grace, and only by grace. It was entirely supernatural and charismatic, not due to her own merits.

The question, however, represents a false problem. It came about because men could not understand the infinite power of God, and the smallness of their own minds. Believe in IC all you want; but, know that it solves no real problem. At best, the whole subject is a waste of time.

43 comments:

A Christian in Florida said...

Fr. Hart,

Thank you for addressing and explaining the problems and differences that Anglicans, Orthodox and the rest of Christendom have with the doctrine and dogma of the Roman Church.

When considering the claims and doctrines of Rome, I have another quarrel that you have not mentioned, concerning the section in the catechism that validates Islam (CCC 841 - "The Church’s relationship with the Muslims. “The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day.”)

This statement was a major stumblingblock for me. How can or why would a church organization affirm a false religion that opposes and perverts Christianity, and that produces the opposite fruit than that of the Holy Spirit? It could only be spiritual blindness or political or both.

The rampant sexual abuse and cover up has been another cause of wariness. Yesterday, I watched online as the study by the John Jay Institute was presented to the press. The study claims to have found that homosexuality, pedophilia nor celibacy were to not to blame for the sexual abuse of 15,000+ children by over 6000 priests. This despite the fact that 80% of those abused were males under the age of 13. The blame for priests, the study claims, belonged to the lack of human formation classes in seminaries and the social upheaval of the times that allowed gays to enter seminaries. The blame for bishops to the level of knowledge about treatment of pedophilia and sexual abusers caused the bishops to respond the way they did to the abuse.

The closing statement by the presenting Bishop seemed to place some of the responsibility on the parents and laity. That is justified, of course. He also blamed a lack of accountability and transparency which I heartily agree. We will see if they actually are open and accountable. There are plenty of watchdog organizations and victims to keep their feet to the fire.

A large part of the blame can be attributed to the personification, reverence and almost deification of and the assertion of infallibility of the 'Holy Mother Church', along with the reverence for ordained clergy, saints, visions, etc., and the notion that is sacrosanct in the RC: 'once a priest, always a priest'(that one abusive priest claimed when refusing to leave the priesthood) and the institutional loyalty and self-protection the RC leadership has exhibited. Children and their parents trusted and looked to priests as holy and heroes, substitute fathers because of the cultural climate that pervaded the RC.

In a way, the presentation of the report and the denial of blame for homosex/gays may be construed as political. It would certainly make 'the church' seem more gay-affirming and take the heat off a bit.

Interestingly, the press did not (dare to) ask and the press conference leaders did not define what they or the designers and executors of the study meant by term 'deviant' nor did they define precisely what was meant by 'human formation' that was lacking in seminary education.

I'm not convinced that in presenting this study, Rome is sincere or just practicing a very sophisticated and expensive form of CYA and political correctness = aka bowing to the pressures of the culture both within (there are many clergy and laity who are homosex practioners/advocates) and without, primarily in the Western world.

A Christian in Florida said...

PS - Here is an example of the problems caused by CCC841 and the myth of the 'three Abrahamic religions' or 'three great monotheistic religions' that it fostered:

http://www.kendallharmon.net/t19/index.php/t19/article/36585/

Would you share your pulpit or sanctuary with muslims?

Fr. Robert Hart said...

A Christian in Fla:

It seems to me that a dogma must be revealed; and that IC was not revealed. However, I believe that I covered the essential doctrine we must all believe in: "What matters above all else is our shared conviction that her ability to conceive the sinless Son of God was by grace, and only by grace. It was entirely supernatural and charismatic, not due to her own merits." For this reason I never even think much about the subject of IC, let alone argue one way or the other. It is a doctrine of grace, not of human merit, and so I can live with it. But, I insist that it solves a problem that does not exist.

It is not at all in the same category as Muslim beliefs, and should not be treated as if it were.

As for the "once a priest always a priest" line: It is true that ordination is an indelible sacrament. But, that carries with it a danger, as St. Paul seems to express by saying "Lay hands suddenly on no man." It is true also, that Church discipline should be employed to remove notorious clergy from active ministry altogether.

Fr. Robert Hart said...

I have received the following by email from a bishop who has my deepest respect, both for his office and because he has earned my respect as a person:

"You are correct, of course, that the Immaculate Conception is not and cannot be a dogma. It has no Biblical proof or ecumenical consensus. But your positive definition of 'pious opinion' is not adequate. 'Pious' does not meaning that an opinion is tolerable, but rather that it is godly, devout, consistent with the doctrines of the faith, or beneficial to the souls of those who practice or believe the pious matter. A pious opinion is one that is not contrary to the more central and obligatory matters of doctrine, that is congruent with those more basic matters, and that supports Christian living and devotion.

An impious opinion, in contrast, is one that contradicts more basic matters of the faith or is harmful to Christian faith and practice. That 'you will receive grace if you do that which lies within you' was a theological maxim of certain medieval Franciscans: that is an impious opinion, contrary to the doctrines of original sin and grace, and destructive to Christian faith and practice as a whole.

The Immaculate Conception in its modern, Roman form is not and cannot be ecumenical. However, that our Lady is sinless or free from sin in some sense, which requires no particular explanation or precise definition, has much more of an ecumenical consensus. So much of a consensus that it does not seem to me very safe to reject it. Or, we might say, Anglican Catholics are willing to tolerate those who reject the sinlessness of our Lord's Mother, but should not much want to encourage them in that rejection."

Jack Miller said...

However, that our Lady is sinless or free from sin in some sense, which requires no particular explanation or precise definition, has much more of an ecumenical consensus. So much of a consensus that it does not seem to me very safe to reject it. Or, we might say, Anglican Catholics are willing to tolerate those who reject the sinlessness of our Lord's Mother, but should not much want to encourage them in that rejection."

"All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God."
"But they are all gone out of the way, they are altogether become abominable : there is none that doeth good, no not one."

Fr. Hart, what is accepted as true? I hope not the so-called consensus, for if so, then there is a huge contradiction between it and Scripture. I don't think our English reformers (take your pick) would be signing on. Is our rule of faith consensus or the Holy Word? Seriously, I am taken aback!

with respect,
Jack

Fr. Robert Hart said...

The question is not really about IC, but about grace and the meaning of justification.

"And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women." Luke 1:28

"Highly favored" is loosely translated in a famous devotion as "full of grace." I am unaware of any consensus in favor of IC, but am very much aware of a consensus that interprets the words of Gabriel to mean something beyond what we might call normal grace. "Highly favored," (χαριτόω)as opposed to what? The measure of grace we all can be given in this life?

Whatever it means, it has everything to do with a special grace that was all about the Incarnation. That much we can see from Luke. But, IC? Such an interpretation does not come easily from exegesis.

Little Black Sambo said...

To imply that "full of grace" is a loose translation of "highly favoured" is a little tricky. They are both translations; is one really any looser than the other?

Fr. Wells said...

A Dominican friend of mine who had spent several years studying in Rome usd to talk of a Franciscan church there which had a mural of the Pope issuing the Bull Ineffabilis Deus in 1854. At that very late date IC became a "dogma" in the RCC. The painting was modeled on Michangelo's famous fresco of the Last Judgment. In the center is the Pope. At his right hand a host of Franciscans smiling beatifically, raptured in spiritual delight. But on the left are the Dominicans, grimacing in anguish like damned souls, confounded in dismay that their hero, St Thomas Aquinas, had finally been refuted.

Whether this story is apocryphal (or deutero-canonical), I do not know. But I know what my friend told me. His point was that prior to 1854 IC was very much an open question even among RC's. The negative reaction was so strong that a damage control operation had to take place 16 years later in 1870 when the First Vatican Council papered over the controversy with this pronouncment on Papal Infallibility.

There are certain topics or issues where no real "consensus" exists. We
cannot honestly invent a consensus after the fact. And it is nonsense to speak of a "consensus" where Sacred Scripture is utterly silent. The real Ecumenical Consensus must surely be more than a majority opinion of those who have opined.

With due respect to the learned bishop, there has always been a distinction between the alleged sinlessness of Our Lady and the theory of IC. Aquinas and the other mediaevals (such as Bernard of Clairvaux, and some say Bonaventura) acknowledged Mary's sinlessness but denied the IC. The issue was precisely when she became sinless. They saw a world of difference between saying "Mary never committed actual sin" and "Mary was conceived exempt from Adam's fall."

IC has the baneful effect of minimizing what Scripture emphatically teaches concerning the universal pervasiveness of Sin. On that, Scripture is clear. But where IC is held, we see occasional speculations on others who might be so privileged, such as St Joseph or St John Baptist. If the Blessed Mother is an exception to "all have sinned and come short of the glory of God," then the first domino has fallen.

Anonymous said...

Fr Hart,

It is my humble opinion that it was the Lord's presence in Mary's womb that caused Mary, for the nine-month gestational period, to be purified of sin. She was at that time, I believe, a most sacred vessel... the Ark of the New Covenant... while containing and sustaining Him within her body. Mary believed what Gabriel told her when he visited her with his announcement; in her faith she did not question that she had been "highly favoured." It was Christ's presence in her that blessed her among women, for the Lord was truly with her (and within her) as God and Man.

One might merely touch the hem of His robe with faith and be cleansed - Mary encompassed His entire body, His soul, His Spirit... His Divinity, for although we know from Hall's Theology that God is not limited spatially or temporally, His essence is indivisible.

Susan

Fr Matthew Kirby said...

Jack,

Your verses prove nothing against the immaculacy of Our Lady unless they also argue against the immaculacy of Our Lord, which no one believes. After all, the word "all" and phrase "not one" are not qualified in the immediate context of the sentence, yet we know St Paul accepted there was at least one exception, Jesus.

Also, the OT quotation is deliberate hyperbole in its original context, both because it says "none" "doeth good" (as against frequent affirmations of God's servants doing good in the rest of the OT) and because the Psalm (14) refers in context primarily to "The fool" who says "in his heart, 'There is no God'". True, St Paul sees a deeper reference in God's underlying intention as Inspirer, nevertheless, the original context is sufficient to avoid a wooden literalism that would affirm an absolute universality of sin without any exceptions whatever and would deny all pre-Christian good deeds.

All of which shows that your perceived conflict between the consensual Tradition of the Catholic Church against Scripture is a kind of false antithesis. The only safe way to understand and interpret Scripture in consonant with and in submission to the Church.

MK+

welshmann said...

To all:

Re Fr. Wells: They saw a world of difference between saying "Mary never committed actual sin" and "Mary was conceived exempt from Adam's fall."

When I had to try to explain the supposed sinlessness and perpetual virginity of the BVM to my fundamentalist dad, I searched the Scriptures for common ground shared by fundamentalists and catholics.

As to the BVM being free from actual sin, as opposed to being free from Adam's curse altogether, I pointed out that fundamentalists as least have no problem believing that children who die in infancy are free from actual sin (which underlies some of their opposition to infant baptism). So there is no Biblical reason to say that God could not by His grace preserve the BVM from actual sin.

As to the perpetual virginity, of course Scripture says that Jesus had "brothers and sisters". Heretics use this as a pretext to deny the Virgin Birth. Fundamentalists argue that "brothers and sisters" means "half-brothers and -sisters", in defense of the Virgin Birth. Surely if fundamentalists can insert "half" as an understood modifier, catholics can insert "step".

On the larger question of the honor due to the BVM, Scripture says "honor thy mother". If the son in question is a poor peasant, that honor might be a place by the cooking fire. If the son is a rich man, surely more is required. What kind of honor would the Son of God show to His mother? Surely, the honor would be very great indeed.

My apologies for the lecture. I offer these items as someone from a fundamentalist background who was drawn to the catholic faith, but really struggled with these things. I hope my own experience might be of some help to folks who face the same problems.

welshmann

Fr Matthew Kirby said...

I would also like to support the episcopal comment passed on by Fr Hart.

A problem I see with Fr Hart's analysis of the significance of the IC doctrine is that it relies on a historical oversimplification as to motive. The question that IC answered was not "How could God the Son incarnate Himself as a sinless man", since theologians accepted that God could do what he liked, but "How did he in fact do so?" Or, to put it more extensively, "Given what we know about God's general economy of salvation, about the Blessed Virgin, and and from the prophetic and apostolic scriptures, how did God prepare the human vessel and matrix of his Incarnation?".

And what was the data that they had? That the most primal prophecy of the Christ in Divine Revelation implied that Mary was the "New Eve", partnered with her Son in his radical antipathy/enmity to evil (Genesis 3:15). That, from the same verse, as the woman's "seed" (note the almost unique ascription of "seed" to the woman rather than a man) Jesus was consubstantial with his Mother in his humanity (cp. the Athanasian Creed). That St Elizabeth ascribed the same blessedness to the Mother and the Son in his humanity (i.e., as fruit of her womb) in Luke 1:42. That Our Lady was singularly graced for an utterly unique vocation (Luke 1:28). That, throughout the scarlet thread of the history of redemption, God had chosen to save by mediating grace through human instruments, first fitting them by that grace for the task to be given. That the Church in her liturgies and Councils was consistently calling the Theotokos immaculate. That her freedom from sin could not be due to her mere effort or an inexplicable success in resisting temptation, but must be due to prevenient grace.

This may not amount to an explicit revelation of the IC, but it does explain why the Church has felt confident in saying that this teaching was implicit in the Revelation. And by "the Church", I include also the East, which did in fact tend to support the teaching until reaction against Rome dogmatising it caused widespread rejection. An interesting historic irony is that among Eastern readers and admirers of Aquinas (and there were many once), his rejection of the IC was one of the things that caused great offence.

In conclusion, given that Scripture and Tradition unite in presenting us with a singularly graced BVM, who symbolises a new and truly fresh start for humanity as New Eve, and who uniquely shares in her very essence with her Son in His human blessedness and opposition to evil, there is every reason to affirm the IC. That is, Holy Tradition justifies us in honouring her as immaculate in the full sense, ab initio as was her Son, entailing the IC quite naturally.

Fr Matthew Kirby said...

Fr Wells,

Your slippery slope argument does not work. The Roman Catholic explanation of the doctrine relies heavily, it seems, on the concept of the IC being a singular grace. And the only serious speculation I have seen regarding the possible sinlessness of others, such as St John the Baptist or even Enoch, has been by Eastern Orthodox who dispute the IC. Indeed, it is their belief that it was possible for the saints to perfectly follow God without any special privilege that they used as an argument against the IC!

So, rather than the IC undermining the gospel, it is opposition to it that has proceeded down the slippery slope you describe, due to an implicit approach to Pelagianism. Far from the IC working against the doctrine of grace, it protects it by showing the primary and most complete example of prevenient grace.

Nevertheless, those who are offended by the doctrine of the IC, I wish not to make stumble by asking too much. It is enough for me that this truth, which I hold to be more than opinion but less than creedal, ecumenical dogma, is safely contained within our Anglican Catholic tradition in, among other places, the canonical liturgical sources known as the Anglican and English Missals.

Jack Miller said...

Fr. Wells writes: And it is nonsense to speak of a "consensus" where Sacred Scripture is utterly silent... and
If the Blessed Mother is an exception to "all have sinned and come short of the glory of God," then the first domino has fallen.
Thank you, Fr. Wells.

Fr. Kirby _ My purpose with citing those 2 verses is not to offer them up as definitive proof texts, rather as examples of what is the consistent teaching of Scripture and the Church as noted in the Romans reference by Fr. Wells above.

Far from seeking an interpretation apart from the Church, my point is that there is nothing, to my knowledge, in the teachings and doctrines of the Anglican Church (i.e the formularies) or the Scriptures (apart from speculation as to Mary's status of "highly favored") that teaches or supports this so-called consensus of Mary's sinlessness or IC. It seems that this "tradition" is more of the nature of a personal position (clearly held by many) rather than the teaching of the Church and that distinction should always remain clear.

Fr. Hart and Fr. Wells, I should have mentioned this in my first comment: Thank you again for this series and the opportunity to enter into this important teaching and discussion of "what we believe."

Jack

Fr. Wells said...

"My soul doth magnify the LORD,
and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour,
for He hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden."

Fr. Steve said...

This whole line of reasoning is very disturbing. The Immaculate Conception is a myth, perpetuated by the Roman Church. Why is it even conceivable that Mary was born sinless? Its not. Scripture does not support it. Only the convoluted doctrine of a church that has lost its way, and we would not be doing ourselves any service by imitating it.

What I have read here today causes me to question what it is the authors of this blog really believe. If you'll be duped by one Roman heracy, what's next? Are you going to be catholic, or Catholic? You can't be both.

Jack Miller said...

"My soul doth magnify the LORD,
and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour,
for He hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden."
- the words of Mary while carrying Jesus in her womb.

Some thoughts:
It would seem reasonable that only one who has sin would be in need of a Savior or, in other words, would call God - "my Savior"... for the office of Savior is to save sinners from the penalty of their sin. Couldn't one say - the virgin Mary was highly favored and blessed with grace both as the mother of God our Savior and blessed with the grace of salvation from her sins. Her faith effectively was counted as righteousness (as with all believers OT, NT, & today) and thus accepted as holy and blameless before God. Yes, Mary was indeed most highly favored and blessed of God.

What we know: It is His grace that imparts to sinners the divine pardon of their sins secured through the sacrifice of Christ on the cross on their behalf. And it is by His grace that He now treats believers (as always He has OT or NT) - truly reckons us - as righteous (sinless) before the Law for Christ's sake. Thus we are now accepted as His children in the Beloved by grace. And one day we shall be like Him (sinless)... by His grace. I see no Scriptural basis for excluding or "elevating" Mary from this glorious salvation, nor is she.

by His grace,
Jack

Fr. Robert Hart said...

Susan:

I agree mostly with your point, except that we need to be very clear if we say she encompassed His Divinity. You mean, I take it, nothing other than "in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily." (Col. 2:9). That is, not that God head shrunk to fit into a human container, but that He remained fully God in His Incarnation. And, that would be correct.

Welsmann wrote:

"Surely if fundamentalists can insert 'half' as an understood modifier, catholics can insert 'step'."

Actually, no one added anything. Though written in Greek, the word "brothers" comes from the Hebrew culture of Jesus and His family. Cousins and nephews, etc. were "brothers." Achim ( אַחִים), the plural for ach (אָח) would have been the word that expresses the use of adelphos ("brothers" or "brethren" in the KJV; compare then Gen. 13:8 to Matt. 12:46 or John 2:12, and any other mention of Christ's brethren). So, in light of John 19: 27, where the Lord committed the care of His mother to someone not her own son, in a culture where sons or sons in law would be expected to care for her, neither "step" nor "half" is a stretch at all. But, I would say that if we use the word "half" we add the words "as supposed." Otherwise someone may miss the point.

Anonymous said...

Fr Wells,

I believe Mary's "lowliness" is an illusion to her humble choice to be His handmaid; that is, to be a female servant of God. She, being one of the least within the strata of society, was to be elevated from a most low estate to a highly-favored estate as illustrated by her own prophecy: "all generations shall call me blessed." Did this puff up her vanity, or did it simply fill her with joy to have become a chosen vessel for God's purposes? What would she think about being called the "Immaculate Conception?" Did anyone ever refer to her by that name before the RC Church gave it to her? Why didn't Christ, fully Man and fully God, refer to her by that name?

Her lowliness was not, at least in my mind, akin to an "immaculate" or sinless heart; rather it was a heart focused first and foremost on loving God. It was a heart that understood its own smallness and insignificance. It was a heart that comprehended its own sinfulness. It was a heart that recognized its complete dependence upon God in all things.

Susan

Fr. Robert Hart said...

Fr. Kirby is right that I addressed only one question, and in the process gave reason to dismiss the "how can God?" approach; and that I did not address the "how did God?" question, which is separate.

Well, the answer to that is the very thing we cannot treat as dogma, isn't it?

Fr. Steve:

The writers of this blog are not always in agreement on everything. Classic Anglican thought has always allowed room for disagreement on anything less than essential matters. We have more room for academic freedom than, e.g., Roman Catholics on one hand and Southern Baptists on the other.

Nonetheless, those who believe in IC (Fr. Kirby, and the bishop I quoted) do, in fact, base their belief on an interpretation of Scripture; for, even when they use the word "consensus" they believe that all genuine consensus stems from truth revealed in Scripture. And, neither of them presumes to require his belief of anyone, certainly not "as necessary to salvation" inasmuch as it cannot be "proved by most certain warrant of Holy Scripture."

But, they do not believe they are erring from Scripture. They do not believe IC is a RC myth. They see it as revealed in the word charitoō (χαριτόω) as used by Gabriel (Luke 1:28), translated in two words, "highly favored."

Charitoō (χαριτόω) is a form of charis (χάρις), the word normally translated "grace." They base their interpretation, actually, on the distinction between that general grace, and the special "high" grace ("highly graced" - a better translation perhaps) Virgin Mary. This must be understood in light of the fact that charis, or grace, means more than justification by grace as unmerited favor. The word is used in the New Testament also for the working of the Holy Spirit in our sanctification, and it used for the gifts (graces) of the Holy Spirit, etc.

To me, IC does not come naturally from exegesis, and I do not see it as the logical interpretation of Gabriel's words. And, I object to any idea that it is dogma. But, I certainly cannot dismiss those who believe it as heretics, especially in light of their strong faith that "Jesus Christ is come in the flesh." (I John 4:1f)

Matt Andrews said...

I have been reading this blog for at least 2 years. And have known of the continuum for 7 years. This and other things on this blog make scence. I really wish I could get out of rome and into the continuum and be ordained. If things change financially for us, It could be a reallity.

AFS1970 said...

It seems to me that Gabriel's words do not contain any mention of time. Thus we can not know at what point Mary became highly graced/favored, only that she was at that moment and from then on. This would accomplish (as far as our human sensibilities can comprehend) the same thing as her having always without sin.

Now as for Mary being born without sin, I think this sets up even more of a slippery slope. The main reason those that believe this do, is because the concept of Jesus being born of a sinful human is impossible for them to conceive of. However given the idea of a sinless one can not come from sin does this not also require Mary's entire maternal line to also have been without sin? Where does it stop?

We know that God can and does do whatever he wished. This includes extending grace to all of us, and extending high grace to Mary. Why is it important at all if this grace came a day before, a year before, a decade before or at the exact moment she was made with child?

It seems to me a fools errand to try and figure this out.

Timothy said...

The Eastern Church definitely does not have a consensus. I have seen some that believe she lived a sinless life, but then I found this at the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese Website (http://www.goarch.org/ourfaith/ourfaith8038)

5) The case of Mary, the Mother of God

Does the Mother of God, Virgin Mary, participate in the "ancestral sin?" The question does not make much sense for the Orthodox, for it is obvious that Mary, being part of the common human race issued of the first man (Adam), automatically participates in the fallen status and in the "spiritual death" introduced by the sin of the first man.

The Fathers of the Church speculate on Luke 1:35, concluding that Mary was purified by the Holy Spirit the day of Annunciation, in order for her to become the "worthy Mother of God." However, even after she gave birth to the Son of God, Mary was not exempted of less serious ("venial") sins. St. John Chrysostom attributes to Mary the sin of vanity, in the context of the first miracle of Christ in Cana of Galilee.

Mary was also saved by her Son, for God is her Savior (Luke 1: 47) as well. It is unfortunate that the Roman Catholic Church promulgated the doctrine of the so-called "Immaculate Conception" in 1854, which contradicts the traditional doctrine of the Church concerning Mary.

Fr. Robert Hart said...

It seems to me a fools errand to try and figure this out.

A perfect description of scholastic theology at its worst.

Sean W. Reed said...

J.M.J.

For anyone who might be interested in reading the Apostolic Constitution proclaiming the Immaculate Conception of our Blessed Mother the document may be read at http://www.papalencyclicals.net/Pius09/p9ineff.htm

Of particular interest to some may be the consensus building that went into the issuance of Ineffabilis Deus.

The actual definition is a small part of the document:

"Wherefore, in humility and fasting, we unceasingly offered our private prayers as well as the public prayers of the Church to God the Father through his Son, that he would deign to direct and strengthen our mind by the power of the Holy Spirit. In like manner did we implore the help of the entire heavenly host as we ardently invoked the Paraclete. Accordingly, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, for the honor of the Holy and undivided Trinity, for the glory and adornment of the Virgin Mother of God, for the exaltation of the Catholic Faith, and for the furtherance of the Catholic religion, by the authority of Jesus Christ our Lord, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own: "We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful."[29]

Hence, if anyone shall dare -- which God forbid! -- to think otherwise than as has been defined by us, let him know and understand that he is condemned by his own judgment; that he has suffered shipwreck in the faith; that he has separated from the unity of the Church; and that, furthermore, by his own action he incurs the penalties established by law if he should are to express in words or writing or by any other outward means the errors he think in his heart."

SWR

Fr. Robert Hart said...

Thank you SWR for giving us all pause to thank God that we need not answer to so arrogant and arbitrary a bunch of Italians. Anyone who doubts their opinion goes to Hell? You really think so? Even devout souls who fully believe in Jesus Christ in full accordance with the Creeds? Even saints, such as Thomas Aquinas? Even the entire Orthodox Church, every Protestant and even every honest RC skeptic? They are all "condemned" for not accepting this one completely unnecessary doctrine?

The men who wrote that make the Pharisees of old appear quite humble by comparison.

Colin Chattan said...

And I guess that ecclesiastical non-entity, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who staunchly opposed the IC, is another posthumous heretic - nay apostate.

Jack Miller said...

Amen.

Fr. Robert Hart said...

Yes, these saints are now in Hell for not agreeing with the decision of 19th century self-important Italian prigs. Yep-sure makes me want to swim the Tiber.

Fr. Wells said...

Timothy: Thank you for your quote from a quasi-official (or perhaps official) document of the Greek Orthodox Church. It is a helpful rejoinder to the disinformation commonly bandied about concerning a non-existent "consensus."
As Jeremiah said "Woe to those who cry peace, peace, when there is no peace," we are warned by your contribution against those who natter "Consensus, consensus" when there is no consensus.

Mr JMJ: And thank you for timely reminder of why the majority of Anglicans find the Ordinariate so repulsive.

Jack Miller said...

From the Bishop's email quoted by Fr. Hart:
"You are correct, of course, that the Immaculate Conception is not and cannot be a dogma. It has no Biblical proof or ecumenical consensus."

Is the supposed sinlessness of Mary allowed to be taught from the pulpit in the ACC given that it "cannot be a dogma" and has "no Biblical proof"? If it can be taught, then where and how does the Church draw a line to disallow any number of teachings not supported by Scripture?

From Fr. Kirby:
Jack - Your verses prove nothing against the immaculacy of Our Lady unless they also argue against the immaculacy of Our Lord...

With all due respect, but in no way does the one follow the other. If Scripture were silent on the matter of Jesus' sinless nature then perhaps that kind of argument would hold. But Scripture is not silent and is the only rule in all matters of doctrine for the Church. The Bible clearly teaches "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God"; as well as multiple explicit and implicit teachings regarding the unique sinlessness of Jesus, a necessary and logical requirement if he was to fulfill his redemptive role as the sacrificial lamb who is "propitiation for our sins."

"Forasmuch as ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold, . . . But with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot." (1 Peter 1:18-19)

blessings,
Jack

Fr. Robert Hart said...

Is the supposed sinlessness of Mary allowed to be taught from the pulpit in the ACC given that it "cannot be a dogma" and has "no Biblical proof"?

Some priest somewhere might say that he personally believes in IC, but I can't imagine that anyone would presume to teach it as doctrine.

Anonymous said...

"Some priest somewhere might say that he personally believes in IC, but I can't imagine that anyone would presume to teach it as doctrine".

Indeed, I knew of such a priest, a great man of God, who would often proclam, "I personally believe it, but I can't preach it to you as doctrine, because, it ain't in the Bible"!
DJ+

Jack Miller said...

Thanks, Fr. Hart for your answer. I do hope that is the case.

God's blessings to you,
Jack

St. Nikao said...

Perhaps the word righteous would be a better descriptor for Mary, for she, like Abraham, believed GOD and as Abraham was declared righteous because he believed GOD, she would be likewise.
She would also have received the imputed righteousness from believing in Christ, that He paid the price for our sins and iniquity. Holy is also a good word for we are all called to be holy as Christ/GOD is holy.

Nowhere does Scripture use the say Mary was sinless or 'immaculately' conceived.

Jack Miller said...

St. Nikao said...
Perhaps the word righteous would be a better descriptor for Mary, for she, like Abraham, believed GOD and as Abraham was declared righteous because he believed GOD, she would be likewise.
She would also have received the imputed righteousness from believing in Christ, that He paid the price for our sins and iniquity


Nail meet hammer.... Amen.

Fr. Robert Hart said...

The same bishop who commented earlier, via email, sent this too.

"Some of your readers seem unaware that everyone, including Romans, believe that the grace of the I.C. is a matter of the application of the merits of Christ to our Lady in virtue of God's foreknowledge of Christ's atoning work and of our Lady's role in his incarnation. That is, there is no in anyone's mind of Mary being saved except by and through her Son and the merits and power of his Incarnation, Cross, Passion, and Resurrection."

Jack Miller said...

From the Bishop:
"Some of your readers seem unaware that everyone, including Romans, believe that the grace of the I.C. is a matter of the application of the merits of Christ to our Lady in virtue of God's foreknowledge of Christ's atoning work and of our Lady's role in his incarnation. That is, there is no in anyone's mind of Mary being saved except by and through her Son and the merits and power of his Incarnation, Cross, Passion, and Resurrection."

My only difficulty with this formulation is that the atoning work of Christ... his merit, etc. essentially accomplishes two things for the believer in this life, and thus for Mary... forgiveness of sin and being declared or accounted righteous by God for Christ's sake. In this life we are not made righteous or sinless. The apostle John attests to that in his first epistle.

So on the basis of Christ's work the Virgin Mary through her faith is accounted as righteous or sinless but not made or conceived sinless. This is the crux of why IC more than strains the Biblical teaching of original sin in Adam (i.e. all did sin in him) and the benefits of our justification in Christ (declared righteous by the imputed merit of Christ... not made sinless).

One day we shall see him, and then we shall be like him.

And I might add that in no way am I attempting to remove Mary from her unique and blessed role as God's chosen instrument by which our Savior became man in the likeness of human flesh. She is forever highly favored.

Fr. Wells said...

"the grace of the I.C. is a matter of the application of the merits of Christ to our Lady in virtue of God's foreknowledge of Christ's atoning work and of our Lady's role in his incarnation."

I believe that nuance in Roman theology is fairly well known and we must acknowledge their nod to "Christus solus." This was introduced into Ineffabilis Deus (1854) as a sop to Dominican objections. But it still seems artificial and disingenuous. At best, it brings no relief to the major objection to IC, i.e., its speculative character, its lack of grounding in Scripture or tradition. It is more theosophy than theology. I shudder to think of what its Anglican apologists
will have to say if Rome proceeds to dogmatize the notion of Mary as Co-redemptrix.

(The last possibility actually seems less likely these days. I recently heard Fr Pavone delivering a homily in which he emphatically declared that Jesus Christ is our ONLY Saviour, repeating this insistently.) A strong partisan of "Co-redemptrix" would have been offended by that homily.

Fr. Wells said...

A quotation from the Summa Theologica of St Thomas Aquinas:

"Although the Church of Rome does not celebrate the Conception of the Blessed Virgin, yet it tolerates the custom of certain churches that do keep that feast, wherefore this is not to be entirely reprobated. Nevertheless the celebration of this feast does not give us to understand that she was holy in her conception. But since it is not known when she was sanctified, the feast of her Sanctification, rather than the feast of her Conception, is kept on the day of her conception."

Timothy said...

I too think righteous is a good word, but for some that might have the same kind of baggage. Personally, I like the word "blameless" to describe her. I understand blameless to mean "committing no willful sin". A few people in the bible carry this title explicitly (Job, Mary's parents) and probably many more implicitly (both Josephs, Josiah). This is one of the qualifications for bishop in the New Testament.
This is vastly different from sinless... which I understand to mean no sins of COMMISSION or OMISSION ever, with sin meaning "miss the mark". An act of the will is not necessary for sin... Eve sinned in the garden and received the consequences of the sin, even though the scripture is clear that only Adam sinned willfully. A way to recognize a sin of omission: if someone says, "I really should have done this, but gratefully, God still worked it out". That person missed the mark. "I really should have checked to make sure I didn't leave my kid behind in Jerusalem for 3 days, but gratefully, God still worked it out". That misses the mark! But Christ never thought once "I really should have".

Anonymous said...

Thanks to Sean Reed for the ref. to the (unofficial) site with translation of Ineffabilis Deus! I have now first read the whole document (rather than only the Definition) in that form. One thing that strikes me is “she was redeemed in a manner more sublime.” As the bishop whom Fr. Hart quotes said, this is about the redemption of Mary by her Son and Only and Necessary Saviour. Another striking clause is that saying the Fathers of Trent “clearly signified that nothing could be reasonably cited from the Sacred Scriptures, from Tradition, or from the authority of the Fathers, which would in any way be opposed to so great a prerogative of the Blessed Virgin.” What if we add ‘necessarily’ before “opposed”? Is there any (exegesis of any) Scripture making this “manner more sublime” impossible?

What is peculiar about this “manner” is that (to use language not in the encyclical) “redemption” coincides so completely with conception/coming-into-being , that while it is certainly “redemption” it is not redemption of Mary from a chronologically prior condition of (original) sinfulness. Is this an impossibility? If so, why?

It is noteworthy that there is no explicit suggestion that Mary need be sinless in order for the wonderful conception of our Lord to be sinless.

The whole seems an argument for the exegesis of various Scriptural words as most fitly keeping with not only the actual sinlessness of the BVM, but with her redemption from (ever existing in a state of) original sin at her coming-to-be.

Strangely, I find no argument as to why what is seen as most fitting is equally, or therefore, seen as uniquely necessary. That various prominent theologians (Bettensen, in Documents of the Christian Church (OUP, 1946 3rd impr.) notes St. Anselm, Cur dues homo ii.16, St. Bernard, Ep. clxxiv.58, and St. Thomas, S.T. III. xxvii.1,2) did not so conclude, is nowhere candidly acknowledged, much less discussed.

Nor do any of the refs. to Sixtus IV anticipate Bettensen in noting that the bull Grave nimis (1483) “censured both those who attacked the preacher of the Immaculate Conception and those who accused such attackers of heresy ‘since the matter has not yet been decided by the Roman Church and the Apostolic See”.Nor is there a clear note as to what (if any) decisive additional exegetical insights have led to the words of Alexander VII quoted ,or the encyclical itself.

Semi-Hookerian

Fr. Robert Hart said...

The whole quotation shows that they took an argument for a particular doctrinal theory, and declared it an infallible dogma. The same argument might have been quite acceptable as just that, a defense of a possible interpretation of Scripture that they held. As a declared dogma, and more so, as a dogma to believe as necessary to salvation, it becomes odious. They might have defended their point of view, which remains unproved and unconvincing to many, and remained respectable. What they did instead is not respectable.