Saturday, December 09, 2006

The Immaculate Conception: An Overlooked Ecumenical Barrier

Last Thursday, Catholics observed the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. The doctrine of the IC, as set forth by Pope Pius IX in 1854, holds that the Blessed Virgin Mary "in the first instance of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace granted by God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race, was preserved exempt from all stain of original sin." To mark the day, Pontifications posted an interesting excerpt from Balthasar, which traces the convoluted and fractious history of the IC doctrine, from the Church Fathers to its elevation to infallibility in 1854. According to Balthasar, the central issue at stake is this: "If Mary is to be the true Mother of the Redeemer, she must genuinely belong to the race of Adam, which stands in need of redemption; at the same time, if she is to be his Mother, she needs to be entirely holy, 'immaculate'." As Balthasar indicates, there has never been real agreement on how to solve this apparent dilemma, and he attributes this to the fact that Mary does not "seem to be really at home" in any theology. Thus, it perhaps isn't surprising that the three branches of Christianity - Orthodox, Protestants, and Catholics - have adopted such radically different attitudes towards Mary.

Pontifications has since posted a lengthy quote from Newman, in which he expresses surprise that "so many learned and devout men stumble at this doctrine [of the Immaculate Conception]." Frankly, I'm surprised that he was so surprised. The IC doctrine causes such great offense among Protestants, not because we have a low opinion of Mary, but because so many of the worst characteristics of Catholic theology are evident in this doctrine. It is the product of rampant theological speculation completely unhinged from Scripture (the cited proof texts, Genesis 3:15 and Luke 1:28, are laughably weak) with its truth simply asserted by papal fiat, and it reveals an obsession with Mary that is tough for Christocentric Protestants to swallow. Moreover, as Balthasar's quote makes quite clear, there has never been a real consensus concerning nature of Mary's conception (in other words, the IC is clearly not something that has been believed by Christians at all times and in all places). Thus, it was somewhat presumptuous of the Catholic Church to raise the IC to the level of infallible doctrine, thereby creating a huge obstacle to future unity with Protestant and Orthodox Christians.

If nothing else, the doctrine of the IC should serve as a reminder to Protestants that several ecumenical barriers have been erected by Catholics since the Reformation, including the doctrine of papal infallibility. This fact is often forgotten by evangelical catholics who point to the (limited) agreement on justification as evidence that the Reformation divisions need no longer apply, as the central issue has been dealt with. Yet, in my estimation, the doctrines of papal infallibility and the IC (as well as the issue of Mary in general) are just as divisive.


Anonymous said...

You're overlooking several things.

First, the DIC had been gathering steam in the Catholic sensus fidelium for centuries before it was defined, and indeed for centuries even by the high Middle Ages, when Thomas Aquinas and others opposed it as impossible given other truths of faith. The "theological speculation" to which you refer, of which Duns Scotus's was the chief example, was devoted not to inventing DIM but chiefly to explaining how it was possible.

Second, nobody, including Pius IX himself, has suggested that "the proof texts" suffice to prove the doctrine. In Catholic theology, Scripture must be read in light of Tradition and the Magisterium, and the sensus fidelium is but one heuristic device for ascertaining their content. Even given all that, there is such a thing as development of doctrine, which consists not in adding to the deposit of faith but in drawing forth from it treasures that had not been duly recognized. All Christian traditions do that sometimes even when they claim not to be. The DIC is a classic illustration of how it all works.

Third, I have explained how the DIC fits perfectly with other doctrines, such as the virginal conception of Jesus and the Assumption, in forming Mariology within the analogia fidei. That sort of move might not make sense for many Protestants, but it does in its own terms and is helpful for all if they would but attend to it.

Thuloid said...

Well, Mike, I think the issue of the Magisterium was hinted at in the original post--this is a point of serious division. But since you move on from that to development of doctrine, let's focus there for a moment.

"not adding to the deposit of faith but... drawing forth from it treasures that had not been duly recognized"? How about "not recognized as there had previously been no good reason to think this to be the case"? That is, not to be too blunt about it, unless one already accepts the authority of Tradition and the Magisterium (and fundamentally the latter), it's hard to even seriously consider this odd corner of doctrine. Nothing, aside from a philosophical system which has no necessary hold on a Christian(again, unless one is previously committed to that authority which has declared this philosophical system normative), points even in its general direction. "Not been duly recognized" implies oversight, but it would be hard to call this a case of overlooking something.

The remark about proof texts was not, as I read it, a suggestion that Roman Catholic theology uses them improperly in this case. Rather, it comes from a recognition that Protestants tend to demand Scriptural evidence for doctrine, and here that's peripheral to the issue-- the doctrine isn't based in Scripture. The lovely way it fits into a given theological system is interesting, but coherence is no guarantor of truth. If I don't take that system neat, I don't need this particular doctrine either.

This leads nicely into what should be a basic point of rhetorical strategy: arguments that presuppose commitments one's partners in conversations do not make will necessarily pass them by.

Lee said...

I'm more open to certain Marian dogmas than many Protestants, but I basically agree with the thrust of this post.

For me it does really come back to the question of authority and why the Roman Catholic church insists on dogmatizing on matters that should properly remain adiaphoria.

Thomas Adams said...

Mike -- I'm willing to allow that doctrines can evolve over time and that the Church has (and should) draw forth theological "treasures" from Scripture. The Trinity, as you know, is a great example of a doctrine that is not explicit in Scripture, but was shown to be the logical outcome of the revelations contained in the New Testament. Lutherans, of course, welcome these types of developments. But with regards to the IC, there is simply nothing in Scripture to suggest that it should be true, as Thuloid points out. Thus, to Protestant sensibilities, the doctrine of the IC looks like another Catholic invention, much like papal infallibility. Moreover, it is an utterly unnecessary doctrine, as evidenced by the fact that the Catholic Church managed reasonably well for ca. 1800 years without it. Despite all of this, what really makes the DIC problematic for ecumenical relations is its status as an infallible doctrine, because now the controversial issues of Mariology and authority intersect to produce a major roadblock. Lee is absolutely right; the IC should have remained an open question.