July 8, 2016

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

The Church rebounds: Immaculate Conception defined

John F. Fink(Second in a series of columns)

Pius IX was pope for 32 years, from 1846 to 1878. By the end of his reign, the papacy was changed forever. It was stripped of his temporal dominion when King Victor Emmanuel added the Papal States to Italy—as I wrote about in my column in the June 24 issue—but it had widely enhanced spiritual authority.

Pope Pius IX used that authority on Dec. 8, 1854, when he made belief in the Immaculate Conception of Mary a dogma binding on Catholics. The Immaculate Conception means that, from the moment Mary was conceived by her parents, she was preserved from original sin. (Contrary to what many people think, the doctrine has nothing to do with the virginal birth of Christ.)

Original sin is one of the fundamental teachings of the Church. The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells why: It “knows very well that we cannot tamper with the revelation of original sin without undermining the mystery of Christ” (#389).

If original sin didn’t exist, there would have been no need for God to become man and redeem a fallen humanity. But since every person born into this world had original sin on his or her soul, it was necessary for a person who was both God and man to offer himself for the sin of our first parents.

The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is an example of the development of doctrine about which John Henry Newman wrote. It is not explicit anywhere in Scripture and such saints and theologians as Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Albert the Great and Bonaventure did not believe it because it seemed to exempt Mary from being redeemed by Jesus.

It took John Duns Scotus (1266-1308) to explain that Mary was indeed redeemed through the merits of Jesus, but in Mary’s case it happened at the moment of her conception. He thus introduced the idea of “preservative” redemption into theological thinking. Mary’s redemption took place with the infusion of sanctifying grace at the moment when her soul entered her body.

When Pope Pius IX proclaimed the doctrine, he used Duns Scotus’ explanation when he said: “The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.”

This doctrine was also an example of Newman’s idea of consulting the faithful in matters of doctrine—the sensus fidelium. Before making the proclamation, Pope Pius asked his brother bishops to tell him what the faithful believed concerning the Immaculate Conception, and whether they wanted it to be defined as a dogma. The response was overwhelmingly positive.

Besides Mary, only Jesus was conceived without original sin since he was God. Adam and Eve, of course, were created without original sin since they committed it. And John the Baptist was born, but not conceived, without original sin since he was purified at the time of the visitation of Mary to his mother, Elizabeth. †

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