Thursday, December 08, 2005

Commemorating an Untraditional Tradition

Today is the feast of the Immaculate Conception in Roman Catholicism. Michael Burke has an article on the subject in The Jamaica Observer today. It's now popular for Catholics to claim that the Immaculate Conception is part of apostolic tradition and make vague references to doctrinal development without going into enough detail to justify the claim. They try to maintain an image of having a defense for the doctrine without actually defending it. Some Catholics, though, seem to still think that a case can be made. Michael Burke apparently is one of them. He writes:

"This doctrine is not found in any definitive way in the scriptures, which is not a significant factor to Roman Catholics who believe that divine revelation is both in scripture and sacred oral tradition. The Bible did not come before the church but the Church came before the Bible. Indeed, it was the church that put the Bible together by putting all of its sacred books into one volume. The Bible itself points to sacred oral tradition."

And here's some of what Pope Pius IX wrote in Ineffabilis Deus in 1854:

"The Catholic Church, directed by the Holy Spirit of God, is the pillar and base of truth and has ever held as divinely revealed and as contained in the deposit of heavenly revelation this doctrine concerning the original innocence of the august Virgin -- a doctrine which is so perfectly in harmony with her wonderful sanctity and preeminent dignity as Mother of God -- and thus has never ceased to explain, to teach and to foster this doctrine age after age in many ways and by solemn acts....And indeed, illustrious documents of venerable antiquity, of both the Eastern and the Western Church, very forcibly testify that this doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the most Blessed Virgin, which was daily more and more splendidly explained, stated and confirmed by the highest authority, teaching, zeal, knowledge, and wisdom of the Church, and which was disseminated among all peoples and nations of the Catholic world in a marvelous manner -- this doctrine always existed in the Church as a doctrine that has been received from our ancestors, and that has been stamped with the character of revealed doctrine....this doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mother of God, which, as the Fathers discerned, was recorded in the Divine Scriptures"

Judging from the comments of the Pope and of modern Catholics like Michael Burke, you'd think that the Immaculate Conception could be shown to be an apostolic tradition always held by the church. But more knowledgeable Catholics recognize that no case can be made, so they just make vague references to doctrinal development and try to avoid getting into much detail.

Nobody in the earliest centuries of church history advocated the doctrine. Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, John Chrysostom, and many other church fathers from the East and West either directly or indirectly refer to Mary as a sinner for hundreds of years. Concepts of some sort of post-conception sinlessness of Mary eventually became popular, but her exemption from original sin was still long denied. Commenting on the most influential church father, the patristic scholar J.N.D. Kelly explains:

"he [Augustine] did not hold (as has sometimes been alleged) that she [Mary] was born exempt from all taint of original sin (the later doctrine of the immaculate conception). Julian of Eclanum maintained this as a clinching argument in his onslaught on the whole idea of original sin, but Augustine's rejoinder was that Mary had indeed been born subject to original sin like all other human beings, but had been delivered from its effects 'by the grace of rebirth'." (Early Christian Doctrines [San Francisco, California: HarperCollins Publishers, 1978], p. 497)

Augustine wrote the following about Christ being the only post-Adamic human conceived without original sin. He approvingly quotes another church father, Ambrose. Notice that one of his quotes of Ambrose specifically mentions Mary, so it can't be argued that they didn't have Mary in mind at the time that they wrote. After quoting Ambrose, Augustine comments that Ambrose's view is consistent with "the catholic faith":

"And now that we are about to bring this book to a conclusion, we think it proper to do on this subject of Original Sin what we did before in our treatise On Grace, --adduce in evidence against the injurious talk of these persons that servant of God, the Archbishop Ambrose, whose faith is proclaimed by Pelagius to be the most perfect among the writers of the Latin Church; for grace is more especially honoured in doing away with original sin. In the work which the saintly Ambrose wrote, Concerning the Resurrection, he says: 'I fell in Adam, in Adam was I expelled from Paradise, in Adam I died; and He does not recall me unless He has found me in Adam,--so as that, as I am obnoxious to the guilt of sin in him, and subject to death, I may be also justified in Christ.' Then, again, writing against the Novatians, he says: 'We men are all of us born in sin; our very origin is in sin; as you may read when David says, 'Behold, I was shapen in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.' Hence it is that Paul's flesh is 'a body of death;' even as he says himself, 'Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?' Christ's flesh, however, has condemned sin, which He experienced not by being born, and which byy dying He crucified, that in our flesh there might be justification through grace, where previously there was impurity through sin.' The same holy man also, in his Exposition Isaiah, speaking of Christ, says: 'Therefore as man He was tried in all things, and in the likeness of men He endured all things; but as born of the Spirit, He was free from sin. For every man is a liar, and no one but God alone is without sin. It is therefore an observed and settled fact, that no man born of a man and a woman, that is, by means of their bodily union, is seen to be free from sin. Whosoever, indeed, is free from sin, is free also from a conception and birth of this kind.' Moreover, when expounding the Gospel according to Luke, he says: 'It was no cohabitation with a husband which opened the secrets of the Virgin's womb; rather was it the Holy Ghost which infused immaculate seed into her unviolated womb. For the Lord Jesus alone of those who are born of woman is holy, inasmuch as He experienced not the contact of earthly corruption, by reason of the novelty of His immaculate birth; nay, He repelled it by His heavenly majesty.' These words, however, of the man of God are contradicted by Pelagius, notwithstanding all his commendation of his author, when he himself declares that 'we are procreated, as without virtue, so without vice.' What remains, then, but that Pelagius should condemn and renounce this error of his; or else be sorry that he has quoted Ambrose in the way he has? Inasmuch, however, as the blessed Ambrose, catholic bishop as he is, has expressed himself in the above-quoted passages in accordance with the catholic faith, it follows that Pelagius, along with his disciple Coelestius, was justly condemned by the authority of the catholic Church for having turned aside from the true way of faith, since he repented not for having bestowed commendation on Ambrose, and for having at the same time entertained opinions in opposition to him." (On the Grace of Christ, and on Original Sin, 2:47-48)

The historian Philip Schaff commented:

"The Augustinian view long continued to prevail; but at last Pelagius won the victory on this point in the Roman church." (Historty of the Christian Church, 3:7:81)