The Immaculate Conception:
A Light Along the Path of Faith
The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, defined by Blessed Pius IX on December 8,1854, is sometimes presented in lofty terms which seem far removed from Christian living and experience. Yet, doctrines are not defined solely to clarify, but also to enlarge the panorama of God's saving revelation to us. "Dogmas are lights along the path of faith; they illuminate it and make it secure" (CCC 88).
After the first Marian Year (1953-54), Karl Rahner explored the meaning of the Immaculate Conception in several essays, notably, "The Immaculate Conception in Our Spiritual Life." Religious dogmas, he noted, are not only true but are addressed to us. The Immaculate Conception tells us something important about Mary, and the more we know about a person, the more we can love and appreciate that person. "Who would not be overjoyed by the blessings granted to a person whom we love?" In other writings, he said that the Immaculate Conception indicates that "God gives the beginning in which the whole is contained," that "God surrounds our life with redemptive love and loving fidelity." God's grace, always and in every case, is the cause of our salvation, and the Immaculate Conception is meant to show us that salvation is God's grace alone.
John Macquarrie explains classical Church doctrines in contemporary and relational terms. He views the Immaculate Conception within the divine election which embraces all of humanity. The Immaculate Conception includes Mary's origin as a person--first in the mind and purpose of God, next in her coming to be in the history of Israel as the people responded to God's call, and lastly in her conception in the loving devotion of her parents, formed by Jewish religious piety. The 1854 definition spoke of Mary's freedom from the "stain of sin"; today we think of sin more as the sense of emptiness, of separation, or alienation. Mary's freedom from sin permits her to be filled with God's love, and to be in "right relation" with God. In Mary, humanity was brought to a moment in history, "focusing upward," fully susceptible to receive the gift of the incarnate divine life.
Through the fullness of grace, Mary has been formed by the Holy Spirit as "the beginning of a new creation" (LG65). The new creation restores the original plan for humanity where there was to be a harmony and union between creation and grace. Within the human heart, there still remains a "divine spark" indicating the human desire for union with the divine. Of that "beginning point," Thomas Merton has written: "At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal .... It is in everybody, and if we could see it, that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish forever...."
The Immaculate Conception expands the narrowness of everyday faith, proclaiming that God is daringly loving, a God who freely and abundantly gives to his creation, who acts neither with reticence nor in cold calculation. God loves Mary for herself. True love is not utilitarian, but daring, because it is sure of itself and sure of the loved one.
It is said that Fyodor Dostoyevski, troubled and often depressed, went to Dresden each year for the sole purpose of sitting for hours on end in front of Raphael's Sistine Madonna. Asked why he did this, he answered: "In order not to despair of humanity!" Mary may be called our sister, but, at the same time, she is our eminent and unreachable model. We need an unattainable model to better grasp the necessity of God's intervention and grace. The Immaculate is such a model; she exorcizes all our attempts to trivialize God's redemptive love. She, whom we call our sister, at the same time embodies the new creation.
The Splendor of the Truth, the pope's 1993 encyclical on moral questions, joins Mary's sinlessness with her compassion. "No human sin can erase the mercy of God, or prevent him from unleashing all his triumphant power .... Mary shares our human condition, but in complete openness to the grace of God. Not having known sin, she is able to have compassion on every kind of weakness."
Beatrice Bruteau, "The Immaculate Conception, Our Original Face," Cross
Currents, Summer 1989.
The Immaculate Conception - Ecumenical Perspectives
The year 2004 marks the 150th anniversary of Blessed Pius IX's solemn definition of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception on December 8,1854, a "day forever memorable in the Church's annals." After centuries of discussion and the pope's consultation with the world's bishops in 1849, he proceeded with the solemn definition that "the Blessed Virgin Mary, at the first instant of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace of God, in consideration of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of mankind, was preserved free from all stain of original sin." This truth was to be accepted by all faithful Christians.
December 8, 1854, was "a day forever memorable" for Catholics, but outside the Church, it was marked with apprehension. In their ecumenical document, Mary in the Plan of God and the Communion of Saints,1 the Dombes Group notes that "On the whole, the new dogma was well received in the Catholic world. Its proclamation served to give Roman Catholicism a more united front. For Orthodoxy and Protestantism, however, the dogma became an added stumbling bock. It would play a part in removing from Protestant piety the remaining traces of the Marian reflection and piety of the Reformers" (93).
In the early ecumenical dialogues after Vatican II, the two Marian doctrines--the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption--seemed to present an "impossible impasse." In their 1973 pastoral letter Behold Your Mother, the American bishops noted that they were a source of "ecumenical friction." The early dialogues with Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists dealt not with the content of dogmas, but rather with their manner of definition, their Scriptural foundation, the absence of consultation with the Orthodox and Protestant churches, and the question of whether their full acceptance would be a prerequisite for continuing the ecumenical journey.
Some progress appears to be have been made in the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC), where the question of authority early surfaced as a critical issue. A recent document from the second round of discussions (ARCICII), The Gift of Authority, recognizes the need for a universal primacy, whose authoritative teaching is to be received as were the solemn definitions of ecumenical councils. "The reception of the primacy of the Bishop of Rome entails the recognition of this specific ministry of the universal primate. We believe that this is a gift to be received by all the churches" (199).
The final, still-awaited document from ARCICII will be Mary: Grace and Hope, now submitted to the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Archbishop of Canterbury. The work is described as an attempt to place "the dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and Assumption of Mary, and how they may relate to any future restoration of Communion, within the broader context of Scriptural and theological reflection on Mary. Following its established methodology, the Commission has sought to go behind entrenched positions, and to articulate a common approach to the subject under discussion."
Whereas many ecumenical dialogues faltered over the question of authority to proclaim the Marian doctrines, the great merit of the Dombes Group's proposal is its effort to strive "toward a better understanding" (262) of the two dogmas and their implications for Christian life. "It is one thing to accept a dogma; it is another to understand its anthropological and theological meaning" (261). The Assumption could shed light on other facets of Christian existence: the 'resurrection of the body' where the flesh that rises signifies "the person in its unity and integrity . . . and everything that carries the mark of the way in which a human being has related to himself, to the world, to others, and to God" (262). Similarly, the Immaculate Conception means that Mary herself was "redeemed" by having been preserved from original sin. This preservation is not due to the personal merits of Mary, but is entirely the work of God who "chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love" (Eph. 1:4). The grace given in the first moment of her existence prepared the way for her total response to the initiative of God. "As the Protestant Reformation legitimately emphasized the qualified initiative of God in the gift of his grace (sola gratia), then the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception must likewise be understood in terms of sola gratia" (270).
Another recent ecumenical document, Communio Sanctorum: The Church as the Communion of Saints,2 from the Catholic Bishops Conference of Germany and the Lutheran Church of Germany, indicates that the Immaculate Conception "points to the power of the grace of God, who in sovereign liberty, calls whom and as he wishes. It is also for us at the same time a Promise, that God will draw us into his protection" (259). The two recent Marian doctrines are "praise of the pure grace of God....the Mother of Christ is the personification of the justification by grace and through grace alone" (267).
The ecumenical agenda for the coming decades must consider the Joint Declaration on Justification, signed October 31, 1999, by the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation, and its implications for the Church. Here, as suggested in two recent documents, the Immaculate Conception might serve as illustrative principle for understanding the grace of justification. Fifty years ago, Louis Bouyer wrote, "If there is any Catholic belief that shows how much the Church believes in the sovereignty of grace, in its most gratuitous form, it is the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception ... .To say that Mary is holy, with a super-eminent holiness, in virtue of a divine intervention previous to the first instant of her existence, is to affirm in her case as absolutely as possible that salvation is a grace, and purely a grace, of God."
1Alain Blancy, Maurice Jourjon and the Dombes Group, Mary in the Plan of God and the Communion of Saints, translated by Matthew J. O'Connell, foreword by Joseph A. Fitzmeyer, S.J. (Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 2002).
2 Communio Sanctorum: Die Kirche als Gemeinshaft der Heiligen Bilaterale Arbeitsgruppe der Deutschen Bishofskonferenz und der Kirchenleitung der Vereinigten Evangelisch-Lutheranischen Kirche Deutschlands (Paderborn: Bonifacius, 2002). Liturgical Press is scheduled to publish the English translation.
3 Louis Bouyer, The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism (Newman Press, 1956), 206.
A significant development in the United States is a coming together of the Evangelicals and Catholics. Evangelicals are usually "non-denominational," devoted solely to the Christ of the Scriptures. Catholics and Evangelicals are united by their common devotion to the Bible and to moral issues, such as the promotion of family and respect for life. Evangelicals are articulate, well-versed in Scripture, and not hesitant to discuss religious issues. Many are entering the Catholic Church: Scott Hahn, Jeff Cavins, Wayne Weible, Markus Grodi, Dwight Longenecker, Patrick Madrid. Their stories can be found in programs and publications - Coming Home International Network, Path to Rome International Convert Series, Envoy, Life on the Rock, EWTN. As Catholics, they are not hesitant to express their gratitude for their new-found home of faith, and their familiarity with Scripture blossoms in the Catholic liturgical and symbolic context. Contrary to the experience of Episcopalians and Lutherans who may have some acquaintance with the Virgin Mary, Evangelicals come with no familiarity with, and, in some cases, an antipathy toward Marian devotion, having been taught that it is the "great heresy" of the Catholic Church. Many say that the single most difficult Catholic teaching to accept was Mary's role in the Church.
Scott and Kimberley Hahn's Rome, Sweet Home: Our Journey to Catholicism records the initial struggle which Evangelicals experience to accept Catholic teachings on Mary. As a bright student of Scripture preparing for ministry in the Presbyterian Church, Scott was horrified by the unbiblical teachings of the Catholic Church concerning Mary. He argued, discussed, and prayed much. Then, "someone mailed me a plastic Rosary . . . Catholics have no idea how hard Marian doctrines and devotions are for Bible Christians." Scott then made the following petition: "Mary, if you are even half of what the Catholic Church says, please take this specific petition--which seems impossible--to the Lord for me through this prayer. I then prayed my first Rosary ... Three years later, I realized that from the day I prayed my first Rosary, that seemingly impossible situation had been completely reversed. My petition had been granted."
Scott preceded his wife, Kimberley, into the Catholic Church. Kimberly, who still had great reservations about Catholic Marian devotions, relates how Scott had to leave the house and go for a walk when he prayed the rosary. Finally, Kimberley, in an effort to understand the biblical basis for the prayer of intercession, reflected on John 19:26-27 ("the disciple took her to his own home"). She concluded: "With this passage as the basis, the Catholic Church taught that Jesus' gift of Mary to the 'beloved disciple' was a prefigurement of his giving her to each of his beloved disciples . ... Instead of seeing Mary as a tremendous obstacle, I was beginning to see her as a precious gift from the Lord,--one who loved, cared for me and prayed for me with a mother's heart. She was no longer just a doctrine to understand; she was a person to embrace with my whole heart."
Another work, Mary, A Catholic-Evangelical Debate, is a lively exchange between Dwight Longenecker and David Gustafson. Both Longnecker and Gustafson are graduates of Bob Jones University. Longenecker then studied in England, was attracted to Anglicanism and ordained an Anglican priest. He later became a Catholic, with a conversion story well worth reading. This book originated as Dwight threw out a "message in a bottle"--an e-mail on the billboard of an electronic religious forum inviting any "Bob Jones graduates out there" to discuss religion. Gustafson, a classmate of Longenecker at Bob Jones, now a trial lawyer working for the United States Department of Justice, took up the challenge.
The work is a well-informed, spirited exchange between Dwight (Catholic) and David (Evangelical). David takes the initiative and poses questions on the Virgin Mary that sharp evangelicals wish to know more about - biblical evidence for the Marian doctrines, and many questions on the Scriptural texts dealing with the "brothers of Jesus." Dwight explains the Catholic position with original insights. The invocation of Mary is comparable to having a "prayer-partner" in heaven: "If you had a prayer partner named Richard and you sent him an email asking him to pray for your father who has had an operation, we wouldn't say you are praying to Richard instead of God." Dwight explains the distinction between worship of God and veneration of Mary, but David then asks how the human heart, in time of need or peril, makes the distinction between worship and veneration. Sometimes the debate is framed in Evangelical terms - the Assumption ("Was Mary Raptured?"), Mary and Evangelicals ("Our Lady or Your Lady"), the Rosary ("Worry Beads").
In the Introduction, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus says, "I sometimes wanted to lean over to Dwight Longenecker and suggest a different way of presenting the Catholic view, and also to urge upon David Gustafson another way of making one point or another." Although both are skilled debaters, this is not so much a book about scoring for one side. Rather, as Dwight says, the conversations are the product of "real evangelical spirit," not interested in winning arguments or making converts, but motivated because we have "something on our side that we really think is wonderful, and that we want to share with our fellow Christians." May the real evangelical spirit be with us all.
1 Kimberly Hahn, Rome Sweet Home (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1993).
2 Dwight Longenecker and David Gustafson, Mary: A Catholic-Evangelical Debate (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos Press, 2003).
3 In The Path to Rome: Modern Journeys to the Catholic Church, edited by Dwight Longenecker (Leominster, Herefordshire: Gracewing, 1999).
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