The Immaculate Conception in Catholic Apologetics

A Meditation as a Preparation for the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the B.V.M.
March 25, 2004

A lecture by Robert Stackpole, STD, Director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy

Imagine that we could go back in time to the greatest of all the apostles - St. Peter, St. John, and St. Paul - and refer to them all our doctrinal questions and disputes. Suppose we had all three apostles on the same "Doctrinal Commission"; each one would bring to that commission their own specific concerns.

First, there would be St. Peter,the one whom Christ named the "rock," of His Church: the only one to whom Jesus gave the "keys" of the Kingdom, and whom He appointed to be shepherd of His whole flock. The continuing ministry of Peter in the Church in the See of Rome is seen by Catholics the world over as the rock of the Church's unity and the trustworthy reference point of the authentic Catholic faith.

Secondly, there would be St. John, the "beloved disciple," the one who reclined on our Lord's breast at the Last Supper, and who alone among the apostles stood at the foot of His cross. The profound insights of St. John into the deepest mysteries of the Christian Faith have always been seen as the principle reference point for the theology of the Orthodox Churches of the East.

Third in our tribunal would be St. Paul: the apostle of the heart set free by divine grace. St. Paul is the one who taught us that all the Scriptures are "God-breathed" (that is, inspired by the Spirit), and St. Paul is the one who emphasized the absolute gratuity of God's saving grace, bringing that gospel message throughout the world as the great apostle to the Gentiles. As a result, the Protestant Evangelical churches have always looked to St. Paul as their principle guide.

So, there is our triumvirate - St. Peter, St. John, and St. Paul - as the ultimate doctrinal commission: an apostolic ecumenical council!

Now, suppose we were to travel back in time to this tribunal, carrying in our hands a coy of the papal Bull "Ineffabilis Deus" of Bl. Pope Pius IX, the papal document of 1854 which defined as binding upon all Catholics the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. Suppose we read the main section of that document to our tribunal, in order to seek their comments and approval. The document states:

We declare, pronounce and define: the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by the singular grace and privilege of almighty God and in view of the merits of Christ Jesus the Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin, is revealed by God, and therefore, firmly and constantly to be believed by all the faithful.1

My best guess is that after reading this to our apostolic tribunal, there would be a lengthy and uncomfortable silence, finally broken by St. Peter with the words: "what in the world are you talking about?" It would not be the references to Mary that would baffle them at first; St. John would simply want to know what we meant by phrases such as "the merits" of Jesus Christ, or "original sin." And then we might try to explain by saying: "Well, by merits we mean that, since Jesus is the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity who assumed human nature in His incarnation, all His acts and sufferings in the flesh are of infinite value to His eternal Father...," etc. And then, of course, St. Paul would want to know what in the world we meant by Christ's "incarnation," and by phrases such as "the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity."

You see at once the problem. All of these phrases (the "merits" of Christ, "original sin," "incarnation," and "Blessed Trinity") do not occur in the apostolic writings. To be sure, the "ideas" were there from the beginning, and so it would not be too difficult to show how each of these doctrines is contained, at least implicitly if not explicitly, in the teachings of these same apostles. In short, the doctrine of Mary's Immaculate Conception presupposes a long history of the unfolding and clarification of these central doctrines of the apostolic Faith, and it is only after all of these other doctrines were fully developed that the Church could even begin to consider clearly the question of how God prepared Mary for her special vocation as Mother of the Savior.

The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, therefore, is a classic case of what the Church calls the "development of doctrine" - indeed, it is a legitimate development based on other developments. This means that unless your audience already understands and accepts the Catholic doctrine of "development," it is going to be very hard to lead them to the truth of Mary's Immaculate Conception.

The Development of Doctrine
In its "Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation" (section 8), the Second Vatican Council states:

[The doctrinal] tradition, which comes from the apostles, develops in the Church, with the help of the Holy Spirit. For there is growth in the understanding of the realities and the words that have been handed down. This happens through contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts (cf. Luke 2:19,51), through the intimate understanding of spiritual things they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through episcopal succession the sure gift of truth. For, as the centuries succeed one another, the church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her.2

What the Vatican Council meant, of course, is that doctrine properly develops in the Church by the drawing out of what was contained in the apostolic tradition from the beginning. A legitimate doctrinal development, therefore, cannot be an utterly novel addition to the apostolic Faith, nor can it contradict anything in the original apostolic Faith. Thus, what St. Jude calls the truth "once and for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3) was certainly present in the Church, at least in "seed" form, right from the time of the apostles. The essence or substance of the apostolic Faith remains unchanged. It is only the conscious, subjective grasp of the mysteries of the Faith that can grow and develop over time. In short, there is an increase in understanding of the apostolic Faith down through the centuries, as the Holy Spirit guides the prayers, meditations, and cumulative reflections of the whole Body of Christ, and especially of the saints and the magisterium.

Doctrinal understanding properly can be said to "develop" in the Church in two ways: first by clarification of expression, and second, by elaboration of content.

Simple clarification of expression occurred, for example, when the early Church fashioned the distinction between "person" (hypostasis) and nature (physis) so that she articulate more clearly the doctrines of the Incarnation (that Jesus is one person in two natures) and the Trinity (that God is three persons sharing one nature).

By elaboration of content," on the other hand, is meant the drawing out of the implications of what was substantially present from the beginning. Such "elaboration" can take place in at least two ways. First, logically (that is, when the Church draws out the logical implications of apostolic teaching). For example, the full doctrine of original sin may be said to be logically implicit in the story of the Fall in Genesis, and in St. Paul's epistle to the Romans. Another example: the doctrine of the "just war" elaborated in the 17th century by Suarez may be said to be logically implicit in the attitude of Christ to soldiers, of St. Paul to the use of the "sword" by rulers - and also in the prior elaboration of the doctrine of original sin.

Secondly, elaboration can happen mystically (that is, by the Church discerning, and coming to a consensus about, the deeper ramifications of covenanted images, metaphors, even visions and prophecies, passed down to us from the apostles). For example, the doctrine of the Eucharistic Sacrifice may be said to be prophetically foreshadowed in the words of Malachi (1:11) about the "pure" offering to the Lord that will one day be offered all over the world. Or another example: the basic principles of the monastic life may be said to involve the bringing together of several elements of Christ's teaching, and the example of Mary in consecrated virginity.

In short, whether the Church is merely clarifying its verbal expression of apostolic teaching, or unfolding logical and mystical implications of the content of that teaching, either way, the Church grows in her understanding of the original, apostolic witness, and of its wider ramifications for living out the Christian faith in the world.

Unfortunately, the Catholic view of the "development of doctrine," outlined above, has been partially rejected by our Eastern Orthodox brethren. Here is a portion of "The Reply of the Synod of Constantinople to Pope Leo XIII" in 1895, just after the Pope had called for the return of the Eastern Churches to full communion with the Apostolic See:

It is manifest that the universal Church of God, which holds fast in its bosom unique, unadulterated and entire this salutary faith as a divine deposit, just as of old it was delivered and unfolded by the God-bearing Fathers moved by the Spirit, and formulated by them during the first nine centuries, is one and the same forever, and not manifold and varying with the process of time: because the gospel truths are never susceptible to alteration or progress in the course of time, like the various philosophical systems; 'for Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and today, and forever.' Wherefore also the holy Vincent [of Lerins] who was brought up on the milk of piety received from the Fathers in the monastery of Lerins in Gaul, and flourished about the middle of the fifth century, with great wisdom and orthodoxy characterizes the true catholicity of the Faith and of the Church saying 'In the Catholic Church we must especially take heed to hold that which has been believed everywhere, at all times, and by all. For this is truly and properly catholic, as the very force and meaning of the word signifies, which moreover comprehends almost everything universally. And this we shall do, if we walk following universality, antiquity, and content.' But as has been said before, the western Church, from the tenth century onwards, has privily brought into herself through the papacy various and strange and heretical doctrines and innovations, and so she has been torn away and removed far from the true and orthodox Church of Christ. How necessary it is, then, for you to come back and return to the ancient and universal doctrines of the Church..." 3

Presumably the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is one of those "strange innovations" fostered by the papacy that the Synod of Constantinople would find objectionable.

In any case, there are three major problems with this Orthodox rejection of any true "development" or "progress" of doctrine.

1.) First of all, this statement by the Synod of Constantinople is self-contradictory: all doctrinal "progress" is rejected, and yet the ancient Fathers are said to have "unfolded" the truths of the Faith under the guidance of the Spirit. If we are to say that the Spirit guided the patristic Church to "unfold" many of the mysteries of the Faith, why do we not allow that the Holy Spirit can continue that "unfolding" process in the Middle Ages, the early modern era, and even today? And did not that patristic labor of "unfolding" of the Faith result in some "progress" in the Church's apprehension of it?

2.) Secondly, in order to reject all doctrinal "progress," you have to hold that all the beliefs definitively professed by the ancient Church of the early centuries were explicitly held by ecumenical consensus right from the beginning, that is, from the very time of the apostles onward. There may have been clarification of the language in which the Faith was expressed, improved articulation, but there was no elaboration of content, no drawing out over time of the logical/mystical implications of the original deposit of Faith. Now, this is surely an exceedingly difficult position to hold in the light of historical research. For example, do we have any evidence at all for the direct invocation of the saints by the apostolic or sub-apostolic churches (i.e., the first and second generations of Christians)? Does the Church of the first two centuries clearly and explicitly confess the entire sinlessness of the Blessed Virgin Mary? Or the Eucharist as a propitiatory sacrifice? These doctrines may be logically/mystically implicit in the apostolic scriptures and teaching tradition, but it surely took the Church some time - in some cases centuries - to discern and fully appreciate those implications. Again, did the ancient Fathers arrive at any clarity or consensus as to what our Lord and His apostles really meant by His death as a "ransom" for many (Mk. 10:45, I Peter 1:18-19)? Or take two doctrines dear to the hearts of our Orthodox brethren: what evidence is there to show that the apostles and the earliest Christians explicitly believed in an eternal progress of the redeemed soul after death, or in a distinction between the unknowable "essence" and "energies" of God? An Orthodox theologian may want to defend both of these doctrines, but it is surely only possible to do so if one can show that these doctrines were at first hidden, logically/mystically implicit in scripture and apostolic tradition, and only later drawn out into the clear daylight of conscious understanding through the meditations and reflections of the saints and the fathers.

In his essay, "Doing Theology in an Eastern Orthodox Perspective," John Meyendorff explained that the Orthodox "would be reluctant to accept unreservedly the predominant Roman Catholic view about doctrinal development, as found, for instance, in John Henry Newman." In the Orthodox Church," he claims, "formal doctrinal definitions are concerned only with essentials, without which the whole New Testament vision of salvation would not stand. This was certainly the case for the dogmas of the seven ecumenical councils, including the decree of Nicea II (787), on the veneration of icons, which in fact is not so much a decree on religious art as an affirmation of the reality of the incarnation; that is to say, it is a statement that Christ was an historical person - visible, depictable, representable."4

A Catholic following in the footsteps of Newman, however, would say that the decree of Nicea II concerning holy icons is a clear instance of proper doctrinal "development." Nicea II did not define one of the "essentials" of the Faith; rather, it settled a disputed implication of those essentials: namely, the propriety of making and venerating holy images. It is exceedingly doubtful that Christians in the apostolic era venerated icons, although in the sub-apostolic era they began to paint them on the walls of the catacombs. This shows that by the Holy Spirit the earliest generations of Christians had an initial, intuitive appreciation of the connection between their incarnational faith and sacred art long before that connection was theologically articulated and defended by St. John Damascene, and applied to the actual veneration of icons. What Nicea II did was to reaffirm and ratify this proper "development." Thus, the implications of the incarnational faith of the apostles with regard to sacred art were gradually drawn out and lived by later generations of Christians, and finally defined and secured by the magisterium in ecumenical council.

3.) Finally, the rejection of all "progress" or "development" of doctrine by the Synod of Constantinople was really somewhat disingenuous. The synod appealed to the teachings of St. Vincent of Lerins to bolster its case. In the same work that they quote by St. Vincent, however, the saint goes on to say while the ancient Catholic Faith is certainly unchangeable in its essence, this does not preclude "progress" in "understanding" of the Faith (Commonitory, 23, 28):

But perhaps someone is saying: 'will there, then, be no progress of religion in the Church of Christ?' Certainly there is, and the greatest. For who is there so envious toward men and exceedingly hateful toward God that he would try to prohibit progress? But it is truly progress, and not a change of faith. What is meant by progress is that something is brought to an advancement within itself; by change, something is transformed from one thing into another. It is necessary, therefore, that understanding, knowledge, and wisdom grow and advance strongly and mightily as much in individuals as in a group, as much in one man as in the whole Church, and this gradually according to age and the times; and this must take place precisely within its own kind, that is, in the same teaching, in the same meaning, and in the same opinion. The progress of religion in souls is like the growth of bodies, which, in the course of years, evolve and develop, but still remain what they were...

For example: our fathers of old sowed the seeds of the wheat of faith in this field which is the Church. Certainly it were unjust and incongruous if we, their descendants, were to gather instead of the genuine truth of wheat, the noxious error of weeds. On the contrary, it is right and logically proper that there be no discrepancy between what is first and what is last, what we sow and what we reap, and that we reap from the wheat of instruction the fruit also of dogma. And thus, although in the course of time something evolved from those first seeds, and has now expanded under careful cultivation, nothing of the characteristics of the seeds is changed. Granted that appearance, beauty, and distinction have been added, still the same nature of each kind remains.5

Consider also the witness of St. Augustine, who taught that the Catholic Church truly progresses in its understanding of the Faith, especially under the threat posed by heresy (City of God, bk. XVI, c.2, n.1):

When astutely attacked by heretics, many truths concerning the Catholic Faith are considered by Catholics with greater diligence in order to protect them from such attacks, and they are likewise understood more clearly and preached with greater urgency, so that the question raised by the enemy becomes a means of progress in knowledge of the faith.

In this lecture, therefore, I am going to argue that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is a true and legitimate development of doctrine: an unfolding of things hidden and implicit in the apostolic faith. In this sense, the doctrine (as finally defined by the See of Peter) represents genuine "progress" in the Church in the "understanding" of that deposit of faith. I shall argue that the doctrine has its "seeds" in Scripture, and in an intuitive appreciation by the ancient saints and Fathers of the mystery of the Lord's dealings with the Blessed Virgin Mary. The solemn definition 150 years ago by Pius IX was merely the culmination of centuries of meditation, theological debate, and verbal refinement, a slow and gradual drawing up of this mystery from the deep well-springs of Scripture and ancient Tradition into the full light of day.

Finally, I will try to show how the characteristic concerns of Pauline and Johannine Christianity (discussed above), manifest in the Evangelical and Orthodox traditions respectively, are already implicit in this beautiful doctrine. The Immaculate Conception is not just an isolated "privilege" given to Mary; rather, it tells us something about the Church dear to the heart of the Orthodox East, and something about divine grace dear to the heart of the Evangelical West. Far from being an obstacle to ecumenism, therefore, I believe that Mary's Immaculate Conception, properly understood, will one day become a point of convergence. Indeed, as our Lord from His Cross entrusted all His beloved disciples to the motherly care of Mary (Jn. 19:25-27) how could she have any other role and office than to bring the family of her Son together again, in one heart and mind?

1 Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 491.

2 Second Vatican Council, "Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation," Section 8, in Walter Abbott, S.J., Editor, The Documents of Vatican II (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1967), p. 116.

3 The Reply of the Orthodox Church to Roman Catholic overtures on Reunion: Being the Answer of the Great Church of Constantinople To A Papal Encyclical on Reunion, section 24 (New York: Orthodox Christian Movement of St. John the Baptist, 1958), p. 25-27.

4 John Meyendorff, "Doing Theology in an Eastern Orthodox Perspective" in Daniel Clendenin, ed., Eastern Orthodox Theology: A Contemporary Reader (Grand Rapids: Paternoster Press, 2003), p. 90.

5 St. Vincent of Lerins, "The Notebooks," 23.28, in William A. Jurgens, ed. The Faith of the Early Fathers, vol. III (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1979), p. 265.

This is the first in a series of meditations on the Immaculate Conception for the Marian feasts of The Annunciation, Assumption, and Immaculate Conception, 2004.

In honor of the 150th anniversary of the proclamation of the dogma, soon to be published by Marian Press in a book on the Immaculate Conception.