Faith Matters

Martin Henry: The Immaculate Conception and its significance

Ahead of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception next week, Fr Martin Henry considers the origins of the dogma and how it reflects an essential element of the Catholic faith

The Sistine Chapel was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary by the Franciscan Pope Sixtus IV, under whom the Feast of the Immaculate Conception was officially recognised. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was eventually promulgated in 1854.

ACCORDING to his eminent biographer, Richard Ellmann, James Joyce once remarked to his friend Frank Budgen about the Catholic Church, of which he was a sceptical, hostile but astute observer: "Look, Budgen, in the nineteenth century, in the full tide of rationalistic positivism and equal democratic rights for everybody, it proclaims the dogma of infallibility of the head of the Church and also that of the Immaculate Conception."

As the Feast of the Immaculate Conception approaches again on December 8 it might be worth asking whether there could be more to Joyce's comment on this particular dogma than a sneaking admiration for a contrarian - or 'counter-cultural', to use a more portentous contemporary term - streak, at least among the Church's decision-makers.

However mischievously, or perhaps even whimsically, the comment might have been originally intended, it still highlights an element of Catholic faith that is surely essential to it and to its survival.

Yet, as has often been noted, belief in the Immaculate Conception of Mary, before it was defined in 1854, was for centuries a disputed teaching in the Catholic Church.

It provided a significant bone of contention for the two major mendicant orders in the later Middle Ages, the Franciscans and the Dominicans.

Belief in the Immaculate Conception of Mary, before it was defined in 1854, was for centuries a disputed teaching in the Catholic Church

The Dominicans, even in the teaching of their most distinguished representative, St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), the 'Angelic Doctor', argued against belief in the freedom of the mother of Jesus from the stain of original sin, stressing that Mary had to be born with original sin like all other human beings, otherwise she would be in no need of Redemption, thus rendering Christ redundant.

Even as unambiguous a champion of devotion to Mary as the Cistercian St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) was no defender of Mary's freedom from original sin, whereas the Franciscans were enthusiastic in promoting this doctrine.

In the person of their aptly named 'Subtle Doctor', Duns Scotus (c. 1265/66-1308), the Franciscans came up with an intriguing solution to the problem that had caused such unease to the Dominicans and others, by claiming that, in the case of the Mother of the Redeemer, it was a higher form of redemption to be preserved free from the stain of original sin, rather than to be in need of having it removed, however early, in the first place.

More fundamentally, Duns Scotus's argument turned on the idea that in anticipation of the merits of her Son's salvific act for the human race, Mary was preserved free from original sin from the moment of her conception: hence the emergence of the expression the 'Immaculate Conception', to express the view that Mary was 'conceived without stain' ('sine labe concepta', in a frequently found Latin formulation).

Interestingly, in medieval times, representations of Mary breast-feeding Jesus were encouraged by Dominicans, in line with their stress on Mary's full humanity (and hence human need of Redemption), whereas Franciscan authorities apparently frowned on this artistic development.

The underlying point was that the notion of Mary breast-feeding Jesus would accentuate her full, unexceptional humanity, whereas the Franciscans seemed to have feared that underscoring the humanity of the Blessed Virgin might jeopardise their conviction that she was conceived free from original sin.

The Franciscan view prevailed in the long run. And, as the late John Bossy wryly commented, "the Virgin's milk eventually found refuge in the wine trade" ['Liebfraumilch'].

Under the Franciscan Pope Sixtus IV (pope from 1471to 1484), the Feast of the Immaculate Conception was officially recognised, and the Sistine Chapel dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The doctrine could be seen as emphasising the belief that human existence was basically good and redeemable, and indeed had already been redeemed by the divine revolution enacted by Jesus

Finally, in the official promulgation of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, Pope Pius IX stated in his 1854 Apostolic Constitution Ineffabilis Deus: "The most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instant of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the saviour of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin."

To return to Joyce's observation, it is perhaps not entirely coincidental that the dogma of the Immaculate Conception was proclaimed when it was: namely, after a torrid period for the Catholic Church that had seen its sublime beliefs ridiculed by the Enlightenment and its earthly possessions in many cases devastated by the French Revolution and its aftermath, and then its authority again threatened, at least implicitly, by the European revolutions of 1848.

In such an atmosphere, the doctrine could be seen as emphasising the belief that human existence was basically good and redeemable, and indeed had already been redeemed by the divine revolution enacted by Jesus.

Mutatis mutandis, in the middle of the last century, after two cataclysmic world wars, the proclamation in 1950 of the doctrine of the Assumption of Mary might be seen as the Church's assertion of the value of human life, even in its blighted historical condition, as a reality created for the enjoyment of eternal life with God.

These two Marian doctrines were not mere 'shots in the arm' for a debilitated Christendom, but defiant re-assertions of ancient Christian convictions about the ultimately glorious nature of the world's beginning and end - admittedly a view only discernible to the eyes of faith, but still capable of striking a chord in the minds of even sceptical onlookers.

Martin Henry, former lecturer in theology at St Patrick's College, Maynooth, is a priest of the diocese of Down and Connor

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