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from issue no. 11 - 2004

A hundred and fifty years since the dogma of the Immaculate Conception

The first of the redeemed

«In view of the merits of Jesus Christ, Redeemer of all, Mary was preserved from all stain of original sin». So Pope Pius IX affirmed on 8 December 1854

by René Laurentin

<i>Crucifix with the kneeling and weeping Magdalen</i>, detail, Francesco Hayez, Quadreria Arcivescovile, Milan

Crucifix with the kneeling and weeping Magdalen, detail, Francesco Hayez, Quadreria Arcivescovile, Milan

On 8 December 1854, Pius IX (then in the eight year of a pontificate that was to last almost 32 years) defined the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, after the longest and gravest controversy to ever have lacerated the Church. More than six centuries earlier, Saint Bernard, even though awed by Mary, had harshly reproached the venerable Chapter of the canons of Lyons, the primatial diocese, for adopting the feast of the Conception from the Eastern Church, because it was extraneous to faith and tradition. The great doctors of the Middle Ages were diffident or opposed to that mystery: all of them, up to Duns Scotus (who died in 1308, at the age of forty-two), who dared to react, at the end of the 13th century, but without going so far as to say: original sin never touched her. Indeed, had he sustained it, he would have been condemned by the Sorbonne.
He did not affirm the immaculate conception of Mary and limited himself to establishing that: 1. God could do it; 2. it was proper.
But he didn’t dare add: so He did it.

The ingenious solution of Scotus So why did Scotus come to be considered the doctor of the Immaculate Conception? For very valid reasons. This brilliant theologian, though writing a huge work, had the prudence to avoid condemnation and the intelligence at the same time to renew the argument.
His role was decisive because he overturned what seemed the greatest objection to the doctrine: in fact, according to the Gospel and a Tradition by then more than a thousand years old, Christ is the Redeemer of all. If Mary was exempt from original sin, the new Eve was not ransomed and he is no longer the universal Redeemer. The exception would be an attack on the fundamental dogma of the Redemption.
Scotus began from the objection itself: yes, Christ is the perfect Redeemer. Now, the perfection of his Redemption demands that it be capable not only of cleansing sin, but of preventing it. The very perfection of his Redemption requires that supreme capacity ( the mother who consoles and washes her child who has fallen into the mud is a good mother; but the mother who looks after the child so that it doesn’t fall into the mud is a better mother). Christ had to preserve Mary from sin so that nothing would pollute the Incarnation. God, according to a general law inscribed in Scripture and Tradition, places perfection at the beginning of all his works: creation or re-creation.
<i>The Immaculate Conception</i>, Giambattista Tiepolo (1696-1770), Prado Museum, Madrid

The Immaculate Conception, Giambattista Tiepolo (1696-1770), Prado Museum, Madrid

It is Scotus’s merit also to have found the key word which the preachers of the 150th anniversary should keep in their heads. One day Cardinal Maurice Feltin (1883-1975), Archbishop of Paris, preaching at the Grotto of Lourdes, did not remember this key word, and another word came to his lips: Mary had been purified. Had she been purified, it would mean that she had contracted original sin. He was well aware himself that, a century after the definition of Pius IX, that was not right, but the word “preserved” did not come to his seventy-year-old memory. He couldn’t remember the word and did his best to correct the unhappy expression by multiplying adjectives: a marvelous purification, the most beautiful, the most radical. He corrected and re-corrected with regret without achieving his purpose.
And yet for three centuries the popes had accepted the solution of Scotus: Alexander VII (1661) and then Pius IX (1854) had adopted Scotus’ successful term. Preservation.
The abstract expression “Immaculate Conception” is not to be found in the dogmatic definition. More and better had to be said. Let us look again at the essential words formulating the dogma of the immaculate origin of Mary: «From the first instant of her conception, though a singular grace and privilege of almighty God, in foreknowledge of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, she was preserved intact from every stain of original sin».
Pope Pius IX first of all defined the truth which was the determining objection that had blocked the dogma for nineteen centuries: Mary was ransomed by Jesus Christ. But at the same time he defined that her redemption was in no way purification, but was instead: pre-servation in fore-knowledge of the merits of the Savior of all. These two prefixes indicate the foregoing exception made by Jesus for his mother and integrate into the definition the fundamental truth, always professed by the faith. Thus was the decree of the Holy Office abolished, from the time of Alexander VII, which placed on the Index all the authors who gave her the title of “Immaculate Conception” and which sometimes even led to their imprisonment, as happened to Ippolito Maracci (1604-1675) half way through the 17th century.

The Patriarch of Venice Albino Luciani in Lourdes

The Patriarch of Venice Albino Luciani in Lourdes

The ecumenic problem
This dogma was not accepted by the “separated brethren”. Various Orthodox synods condemned it. A strange fact since it came to us from them. In the 7th or 8th century they introduced the feast of the conception of Mary and celebrated this conception with the great abundance of epithets available in the Greek language: holy, pure, immaculate conception.
It took four or five centuries before the evidence, foreseen by Saint Augustine, succeeded in refuting the major objection that had deprived it of a clear formula at the beginning of the 5th century. Saint Augustine wrote that he wanted no mention of sin when Mary was talked of. «We do not assign Mary to the devil because of the condition of birth, since that very condition is resolved by the grace of rebirth» (Contra Iulianum opus imperfectum IV, 122; Patrologia latina 45, 417). Augustine thus affirmed the redemption of Mary, he freed her from sin and from the devil, but without explaining how (by preservation and foreknowledge). His important declaration remained ambiguous: “maculates” and “immaculates” exploited it for centuries.
Because of a strange historical reversal, from the 11th to the 19th centuries the Orthodox revolted against a truth which they themselves had transmitted to us, in the same measure by which our West, at first contrary, set itself symmetrically in the other direction. Even today debate is often more difficult with the Orthodox than with the Protestants. The Orthodox raise many objections: Mary is distanced from us, her merit is diminished, etc. In the name of their principles the Protestants are of course against the dogma but dialogue is often easier, if one starts from their own principle: she is the most notable illustration of “grace alone” (Luther’s motto).

A fireman placing the coronal of flowers on the statue of the Immaculate Conception in Piazza di Spagna, in Rome, on the feast of 8 December

A fireman placing the coronal of flowers on the statue of the Immaculate Conception in Piazza di Spagna, in Rome, on the feast of 8 December

Biblical revelation
The objection to this dogma (as to the Assumption) shared by Orthodox and Protestants is that it is not revealed in the Bible. Our answer is contained in the first word of the annunciation: «Hail, full of grace» (in Greek: kécharitôménê) (Lk 1. 28).
It’s a very strong word, it is the name of grace of Mary. It speaks the fullness of God’s love for her. But this remains very implicit and the saintly doctors of the 13th century, as well as some Dominicans in the Holy Office, remained contrary until 1854.
It took me years to realize that this truth is luminously written in Revelation, if one reads the Bible as it proceeds, often more significant than its explicit affirmations.
The revelation of this truth is hinted at for the first time in chapter 2 of the prophet Hosea (therefore since the 8th century B.C.). It is a terrible accusation by Jahweh against his people – his «adulterous bride» (2.4), «playing the harlot» (1,2; 2.5; 3.3; cf. chs. 2, 4, 6) – for its cult of false gods (to whom Solomon had also built temples for his idolatrous brides). But after his imprecations for his wounded love, Jahweh, faithful spouse, promises to start everything over again from the beginning: «Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness [the place of the Covenant], and speak tenderly to her» (2.14). «And I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice […], I will betroth you to me in faithfulness» (2.19,20).
God, Bridegroom full of passion for his people – the daughter of Sion, this lost girl whom he had gathered up while she lay in her own blood, adopted and then married, in the age of her splendor (Ez. ch.16) – forgets her sins, according to the marvelous capacity for oblivion proper to the infinite mercy of God celebrated in the Bible. The Song of Songs reveals its meaning, if read according to the biblical tradition, identifying, that is, the Bridegroom with Jahweh and the woman with a people, a city: «Your neck is like the tower of David …» (Song 4.4; cf.7.5). and the betrothed, daughter of Sion, says:«I am a wall [the bastions of Jerusalem] and my breasts are like towers» (8.10 etc.). And to conclude God says to his betrothed : «You are all fair, my love; there is no flaw in you» (Song 4.7; cf. 1.15. 16; 4.1; 5.9; ch.6).
The prostitution denounced by Hoseas are no longer there in the Song of Songs: they are only dreams (nightmares of the most beautiful bride), this is why he repeats: «Do not stir up nor awaken love until it please» (Song 2.7; 3.5; 8.4).
This affirmation is not only implicit, it is clear; but it remains virtual if one does not know how to collocate the ensemble of biblical texts in their progression from Eve to Mary, the last heiress and fulfillment of the chosen people: bride of Jahweh.
Where, how and when was the harlot able to become the betrothed without stain? In Mary, mother of the Lord, full of the love of God: a forgoing love, gratuitous and full, signified by the untranslatable Greek word kécharitôménê: a strong word formed by the root cháris, grace, which the angel explains immediately: «You have found favor with God» (Lk 1.30).
So Mary was carried to the peak of grace and love which permitted her to give birth to the Savior both in the human race and history, at the summit of the People of God. Not only did she conceive and give birth to him as a man but, thanks to her perfect adhesion to God become her son through her alone, she was also the first member of the Mystical Body which she herself created. Founding member of the Church, she was by herself all of the Church through the grace of the Holy Spirit (cf. Lk 1.35), which the visit to her cousin Elisabeth was about to extend to her son John the Baptist, and then to the father Zechariah: all three of them full of the Holy Spirit according to Luke 1.42, 67.

The Immaculate Conception, French holy picture of the middle of the 19th century

The Immaculate Conception, French holy picture of the middle of the 19th century

«Younger than sin»
So Mary is not only the unique founding member of the Church but the only member exempt from all sin, because all the other members are sinners: «The just man sins seven times a day», according to the saying. The Holy Church is composed of sinners, and in each of them love makes sin retrocede through the grace of God. The frontier of sin crosses our hearts. Only Mary did not get bogged down in this mess: she is exempt «from every stain of sin», Pius IX clearly defines. Exempt from that imbalance of desires that Christian Tradition calls concupiscence.
Thus she is the beginning of the “new creation” promised by the prophets: «Younger than sin, younger than the race from which she was born», said Bernanos poetically. Mary is «the new Eve», say the Fathers of the Church.
For years I have been submitting this radiography of the Bible for people’s attention but no matter how pertinent and luminous I get no echo in reply; exegesis and theology are often too shortsighted. They persist in telling us what the Bible has drawn from pagan cultural tradition (and it’s true that it did draw on it), but without showing that the inspiration of the Holy Spirit progressively purified, completed, transcended the best of these noble cultural traditions, of which it made use to produce the honey of biblical Revelation.

Seeing Mary through the eyes of God
By now I may confide a great surprise of mine: there is a great difference between profane scientists and those who explore divine Revelation with the scientific spirit itself.
The former try continually to penetrate the incredible and fascinating mysteries of the cosmos ever more deeply, those which explode human concepts (relativity; the principle of indeterminacy; and finally the sub-atomic world which creates its own space without being in any space that contains it, etc.). We marvel with them, without adequately understanding the dizzying whole that is the cosmos in which we are immersed. The latter, embued with the scientific principle according to which everything must be explained from the basis and only from the basis, attempt to reduce biblical Revelation to its pagan cultural influences, without seeing how the inspired Scripture progressively transcends them, not so much by rational concepts but rather by poetic symbols, through which Revelation fulfils itself, woven of symbols rather than abstractions.
Can one really be a theologian without the force of intuitive and poetic penetration to which the great generation of poets, Péguy, Claudel and Bernanos, still bore witness?
It’s more than half a century that I’ve been studying God and the Virgin Mary, without ever separating or disassociating one from the other, and I go from wonder to wonder; because the coherence, the truth, the suprarational light of this supreme mystery, an integral part of the Incarnation and the Redemption, are packed in the little phrase which is the conclusion, the purpose and the full completion of Revelation: «God is love».
He is nothing but love, he did not create except out of love and teeming abundance.
As far as Mary is concerned, she is the first in love, because she is the most loved by God and at the same time she who has loved him more, in the image of the Son, who receives everything from the Father and returns everything in an eternal and overwhelming recognition.
So this smallest creature, this little girl from the most peripheral town and province, the most despised, Nazareth of Galilee (cf. Jn 1.46), this little rational animal so much inferior to the angels in intelligence and natural power, is set above the angels: Queen of angels, the absolute foremost of creatures. Queen of angels, this little girl! Because only love counts. She could say even better than Teresa of Lisieux, on the threshold of her great consecration: «I shall be Love»; and she could say better than Yvonne-Aimée de Malestroit, (French mystic, 1901-1951) having reached the apex of her mystical union with God: «My Love is the very essence of the infinite» (so much did she feel identified with Love itself which is three-personed God).
The aedicule in Piazza Capo di Ferro in Rome, dedicated to the Immaculate Conception

The aedicule in Piazza Capo di Ferro in Rome, dedicated to the Immaculate Conception

In this fulfillment Mary remained the most humble of creatures «and the greatest, because she is also the smallest», Péguy explained in his writings. She already said in her marvelous thanksgiving: «God… has looked on the lowliness of his handmaiden… he who is mighty has done great things for me… he has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted the lowly», all the lowly, of whom Mary is the most transparent case. Thus she is the most beautiful among creatures: all who have seen her have been stunned. «So beautiful that you would die to see her again», Bernadette said. Another visionary asked her: «How can you be so beautiful?». She replied with two words: «Because I love».
Like all mothers, she would like us to be as beautiful as she is, more beautiful, if possible, through Love itself: divine love, so different from what men mean by that word. Because “I love you” often means: “I want to have you, possess you, dominate you”, as shown by the murderous rapists, of which the French press is full. But “I love you” according to God and according to human truth means: “ I want your well-being and your happiness, I will do everything to serve you. I will give my life for you”: it is what almost all parents are capable of for their children.
The love of God, which has set its most natural image in the family, is like that. It is pure gift. The three divine Persons are nothing but a total gift, the ones to the others, without a shade of egoism, of narcissism, of individualism.
The divine Persons, these supreme persons, our model, are not individuals, Thomas Aquinas says; they are nothing but altruism. Their life is their mutual gift that constitutes their infinite fullness. We are all called to enter into this fullness which is the true name of happiness. Mary draws us in.
The most beautiful image of the Love of God on earth is the love of mothers for their children, to whom they give life as the Father gives it to the Son who is eternally in the bosom of the Father (cf. Jn 1.18).
As their love is pure gift, so the love of Mary for Jesus, so the love of parents who do everything for their children.
Mary generated only Jesus bodily. All other men have another mother. We are therefore her adopted children. This does not mean that she loves us the less. The adoptive parents that I know do not love their adopted children less than those they have had together. Indeed one has to say that they love them more, because the unfortunate children they have snatched from misery and unhappiness are often wounded in body and mind. They need much more love to cure their wounds. So Mary does with us.
In the image of the heavenly Father, who feels more joy for a sinner who repents than for ninety nine just people who have no need of repentance (cf. Lk 15.7), she does not love us less than her Son Jesus, and we cost her more love and sufferings. She must love us more to snatch us from sin, because we are recalcitrant.
Her immaculate origin does not distance her from us, as some object. On the contrary. Because sin is not understood through sin, but through love. Every egoism diminishes love in us and sets sinners against each other. As long as Mary is the true mother of God and mother of men, God has expanded her heart like His own beyond measure. We shall not adequately understand the splendor of this love proved by the pains of her compassion if not in God himself, when we are there, we too identified, in the final revelation.
We shall not understand the dizzying love of Mary, proved in compassion, except with the look and Love of God, beyond this world.

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