Monday, 7 December 2009

The Eve of the Immaculate Conception: “A Spotless Rose”

A Spotless Rose is growing,
Sprung from a tender root,
Of ancient seers' foreshowing,
Of Jesse promised fruit;
Its fairest bud unfolds to light
Amid the cold, cold winter,
And in the dark midnight.

The Rose which I am singing,
Whereof Isaiah said,
Is from its sweet root springing
In Mary, purest Maid;
Through God's great love and might
The Blessed Babe she bare us
In a cold, cold winter's night.

Belief in the Immaculate Conception of Blessed Mary - her preservation and freedom from original sin - is of ancient origin (explicitly present in the writings of  St Ephrem the Syrian & St Ambrose among others) and, interestingly, the historians tell us that it was celebrated as an important Feast in Saxon England, at least from the ninth century. The Normans seem largely to have suppressed its widespread liturgical celebration, but it continued to live on in medieval Britian in popular devotion. It was St. Bonaventure who, teaching at Paris, called it "this foreign doctrine", indicating its long association with England. St Thomas Aquinas also opposed it, but over the centuries the doctrine gained increasing support until its formal definition by Pope Pius IX on December 8th 1854.

Blessed John Duns Scotus defended the doctrine, despite the opposition of most scholarly opinion at the time. Scotus proposed a solution to the theological problems involved with reconciling the doctrine with that of universal redemption in Christ, by arguing that Mary's immaculate conception did not remove her from the need for redemption by Christ, but rather was the result of a more perfect redemption given to her on account of her special role in salvation history: Mary was preserved  from original sin in anticipation of the saving benefits of her Son's passion and death.
Bl John’s defence of the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady was later summed up in this way: “potuit, decuit ergo fecit,” that is, “(God) could do it, it was fitting to do it, and therefore he did it.”

The present Catechism of the Catholic Church states that she was "redeemed in a more exalted fashion, by reason of the merits of her Son" (CCC 492)

Whatever one may say about the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, and, of course, I am aware of , but unconvinced by, the counter arguments both from Protestantism and Eastern Orthodoxy, it is most certainly neither a  foreign "Romish" corruption (if one has to use such language)  nor an ultramontane product of the religious controversies of the nineteenth century. The celebration itself (though without propers) was thought to be significant enough to be retained at least in the in the Prayer Book Calendar as the "Conception of the Virgin Mary."  If Our Lady was believed to have had what we might describe as an "ordinary" human conception, without any "extraordinary" salvific significance, why continue to mark its celebration at all?
Perhaps neither the doctrine itself, nor even its definition as de fide,  should be the stumbling block that some perceive it to be…..?

Blessed John Duns Scotus on the Immaculate Conception
 “Was the Blessed Virgin conceived in sin? The answer is no, for as Augustine writes: "When sin is treated, there can be no inclusion of Mary in the discussion." And Anselm says: "It was fitting that the Virgin should be resplendent with a purity greater than which none under God can be conceived." Purity here is to be taken in the sense of pure innocence under God, such as was in Christ.
The contrary, however, is commonly asserted on two grounds. First, the dignity of Her Son, who, as universal Redeemer, opened the gates of heaven. But if blessed Mary had not contracted original sin, She would not have needed the Redeemer, nor would He have opened the door for Her because it was never closed. For it is only closed because of sin, above all original sin.
     In respect to this first ground, one can argue from the dignity of Her Son qua Redeemer, Reconciler, and Mediator, that She did not contract original sin.
For a most perfect mediator exercises the most perfect mediation possible in regard to some person for whom he mediates. Thus Christ exercised a most perfect act of mediation in regard to some person for whom He was Mediator. In regard to no person did He have a more exalted relationship than to Mary. Such, however, would not have been true had He not preserved Her from original sin.
     The proof is threefold: in terms of God to whom He reconciles; in terms of the evil from which He frees; and in terms of the indebtedness of the person whom He reconciles.
     First, no one absolutely and perfectly placates anyone about to be offended in any way unless he can avert the offense. For to placate only in view of remitting the offense once committed is not to placate most perfectly. But God does not undergo offense because of some experience in Himself, but only because of sin in the soul of a creature. Hence, Christ does not placate the Trinity most perfectly for the sin to be contracted by the sons of Adam if He does not prevent the Trinity from being offended in someone, and if the soul of some child of Adam does not contract such a sin; and thus it is possible that a child of Adam not have such a sin.
     Secondly, a most perfect mediator merits the removal of all punishment from the one whom he reconciles. Original sin, however, is a greater privation than the lack of the vision of God. Hence, if Christ most perfectly reconciles us to God, He merited that this most heavy of punishments be removed from some one person. This would have been His Mother.
    Further, Christ is primarily our Redeemer and Reconciler from original sin rather than actual sin, for the need of the Incarnation and suffering of Christ is commonly ascribed to original sin. But He is also commonly assumed to be the perfect Mediator of at least one person, namely, Mary, whom He preserved from actual sin. Logically one should assume that He preserved Her from original sin as well.
    Thirdly, a person reconciled is not absolutely indebted to his mediator, unless he receives from that mediator the greatest possible good. But this innocence, namely, preservation from the contracted sin or from the sin to be contracted, is available from the Mediator. Thus, no one would be absolutely indebted to Christ as Mediator unless preserved from original sin. It is a greater good to be preserved from evil than to fall into it and afterwards be freed from it. If Christ merited grace and glory for so many souls, who, for these gifts, are indebted to Christ as Mediator, why should no soul be His debtor for the gift of its innocence? And why, since the blessed Angels are innocent, should there be no human soul in heaven (except the human soul of Christ) who is innocent, that is, never in the state of original sin?”


  1. so... are you going to join the Church now that the Pope has accepted Anglican tradition as authentically Christian and worthy of preservation?

  2. Thank you. A very interesting and useful post, which I hope get picked up by others as ammunition against our detractors.


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