HB Hector Berlioz
Mostly Catholic Thoughts
By thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned.
The Immaculate Conception—Why do we believe it?
1—what is it? 2—why do we believe it? 3—what does it mean for us?
—short answer=dogma; not to believe it places one outside the Church, the communion of saints, and the Catholic deposit of faith
—to deny a dogma is, in the strict theological sense, heresy. This is a term that is often thrown about in debates between various Catholic camps, right and left, but there is only one thing that is truly “heretical”: the persistent denial of a dogma
—this is enough for most of us, and it is absolutely sufficient in and of itself as a reason for any Catholic to hold it as true
—but there is a problem with this simple yet accurate answer: it does not help us to explain our reasons for believing it to those in doubt or those outside the Church; in order to explain and defend our Catholic faith, we need to understand it
—ultimately, there is only ONE reason to believe anything: because it’s TRUE
—It has become bad form to talk about things as “true” or “untrue,” and to claim that one idea is superior to another is to invite criticism that one is intolerant. This is true not only in religion—but perhaps especially so in religion. If a math professor were to judge all answers to a particular problem as “valid,” he or she would be deemed a poor teacher at best. If a religion professor does not treat all claims to truth as equally valid, however, he or she is deemed dogmatic or lacking in social niceties.
—Therefore, our explanations of why we as Catholics believe or disbelieve certain ideas and doctrines must be especially sound. We need to explicate sound reasons for what we believe, and there are certainly sound reasons for our belief in the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception.
—THE FIRST of these is that the Immaculate Conception is firmly rooted in the Catholic TRADITION. Chesterton called Tradition “The Democracy of the Dead,” invoking the image that those who have gone before us should not be excluded from our decision-making process. “Democracy protests a man’s being disenfranchised by the accident of birth; Tradition protests a man’s being disenfranchised by the accident of death. We will have the dead at our tables.”
The fact that the Mother of God remained sinless throughout her life is a doctrine taught by the Early Church Fathers. It appears in the writings of Ignatius of Antioch before the year one hundred; in Justin Martyr, Irenaeus and Origen in the second century; in Hippolytus, Ephraim, Ambrose, Gregory, Augustine, etc, etc.
There are fifth century burial inscriptions and artwork that attest to the belief, and there are liturgies of the Immaculate Conception dating from at least the seventh century.
—THE SECOND reason for our belief is that the Immaculate Conception is ultimately CHRISTOCENTRIC. It has at its beginning, middle and end the central figure of Salvation History—Jesus Christ. Mary is granted the singular grace and privilege of being conceived without Original Sin because she was to be the Mother of God. There is no other source of that privilege. The gift is given to her so that she may be worthy to bear the Christ Child and to raise him as only a perfect person could.
The gift allowed Mary to take into her heart her universal declaration to all of us at the Wedding at Cana: “Do whatever he tells you.” Finally, the gift is the supreme reason for the second Marian Dogma: the Assumption. Because of her sinlessness and her eternal “Yes” to the will of God, Mary is granted the gift of being assumed—body and soul—into Heaven to be with her Son. The entire teaching revolves around the role of Christ and Mary’s role in the fulfillment of that mission. In evidence of this, the Church has never granted official approbation to any reported apparition that does not have Christ as the center of its message
—THE THIRD reason for our belief is that the Immaculate Conception is also ultimately ECCLESIOCENTRIC. It emphasizes Mary’s role not as an individual but as the first among the saved—the first and perfect member of the Church. One of the more remarkable features of Vatican II is that the Fathers of the Council chose to speak of Mary not in an individual document, but as a central figure in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church.
As John Paul II writes: “Mary’s motherhood has its beginning in the motherly care for Christ. In Christ, at the foot of the cross, she accepted John, and in John she accepted all of us totally.” She accepts us as her sons and daughters in the Church.
—FINAL reason is what William James called the “pragmatic principle”: If it’s true, it makes a difference; if it doesn’t make a difference, it isn’t true.” Does the dogma of the Immaculate Conception make a difference?
In the Apostolic Constitution Ineffabilis Deus Pope Pius IX expressed his “Hoped for Result” from the proclamation:
We are firm in our confidence that she will obtain pardon for the sinner, health for the sick, strength of heart for the weak, consolation for the afflicted, help for those in danger; that she will remove spiritual blindness from all who are in error, so that they may return to the path of truth and justice, and that here may be one flock and one shepherd.
Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception has indeed been a source of love and strength; and she continues to remind us that there should be nothing in this life that allows the hope of Christ resurrected to be blotted out
Once a year the great Russian novelist Dostoevsky traveled to Dresden to spend hours before Raphael’s Sistine Madonna. When asked why he did so he replied, “In order not to despair of humanity.” [This account comes from the Summer 2004 issue of The Marian Library Newsletter].
Many of us receive great consolation from the message of the Immaculate Conception. If children are God’s way of saying the world must go on in hope, then the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception remains the ultimate call to faith and expectation.
The Immaculate Conception: What is it?
This Wednesday will mark the 150th Anniversary of the Dogmatic definition of the Immaculate Conception. When Pope Pius IX issued the Apostolic Constitution INEFFABILIS DEUS, he put to rest the centuries old discussion on the appropriate wording regarding Mary’s freedom from Original Sin.
The fact that the Mother of God remained sinless throughout her life is a doctrine taught by the Early Church Fathers—East and West. It appears in the writings of Ignatius of Antioch before the year one hundred; in Justin Martyr, Irenaeus and Origen in the second century; in Hippolytus, Ephraim, Ambrose, Gregory, Augustine, etc, etc.
The importance of Pius IX’s definition is that it clearly stated in dogmatic form that Mary was spared from Original sin at the moment of her conception. The actual definition reads:
…that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.
One may rightly ask why the distinction of being spared at CONCEPTION is so important. What would be the difference if Mary were spared from Original Sin while in the womb? Or why did she not simply have Original Sin removed from her at Baptism like the rest of us? Although it might seem inconsequential at first, the distinction is absolutely crucial—especially so for Catholics.
When Sin came into the world, it irreparably changed humankind. Although you and I no longer bear the full burden of Original Sin removed at Baptism, we still bear a debilitating mark of that sin. Medieval theologians called it CONCUPISCENCE: a fancy way of saying that you and I, despite our best efforts, heartfelt repentance and fervent prayer, have a remarkable resiliency against grace. To put it even more bluntly, nothing causes us to sin like sin.
Evidence in support of this belief can be found even outside Christianity. An avowed atheist and critic of Religion [Nietzsche] once wrote that “Original Sin is the one thing about Christianity you don’t have to prove.” In other words, there is something obviously wrong with the way we treat one another, the way we sometimes defend our indefensible actions—our own cruelty toward the weak or the poor or even the unborn. This is the cost of the Fall that remains with us even today.
St. Paul himself addressed this tendency that afflicts all of us in the shadow of Adam:
For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.
Sin begets sin; and it is no small thing that the second sin tends to be easier to rationalize than supthe first
Since Mary was CONCEIVED without Original Sin, however, she is exempt from these residual effects of such sin. Original Sin was never REMOVED from Mary; it simply NEVER EXISTED within her. That’s the point of the dogma itself.
Critics have said and continue to say, “But this makes Mary completely different from the rest of us.” To which the Church replies, “You are quite right.” “But,” the argument continues, “This goes against the biblical doctrine that everyone is saved through grace.” To which the Church replies, “You are quite wrong.”
Mary is NOT outside the realm of Christ’s salvation. On the contrary, she is the FIRST member of the Church saved by Christ. The most crucial theological element of Pius IX’s definition is that Mary’s freedom from Original Sin is God’s GIFT TO MARY—the result of a “singular grace and privilege.” It is the greatest gift ever bestowed upon a human being, but it is a gift nonetheless.
Indeed, what could be more obviously unmerited than that which is given at conception? We cannot even pretend to merit what came to be at the first moment of our existence. It is a matter of grace alone.
As with all Catholic theology, we find ourselves ever returning to the subject of Grace—God’s unmerited gift to us. Luke’s Gospel tells us that the Angel Gabriel addressed Mary as “Full of Grace,” and we repeat the biblical phrase every time we ask her to pray for us. To be full of grace is to be void of sin, so even our prayer teaches us something about the Immaculate Conception.
Mary’s Immaculate Conception reveals to us God’s ORIGINAL plan for humanity, free of sin and open to God’s will. As the patroness of our country, diocese and cathedral, let us too have the courage to say, “Let it be done to us according to your will.”