Among those people who are critical of the Catholic Church it is common practice to point to the doctrinal pronouncements of the modern era, and claim that Catholics are “making up their religion as they go along.” Our critics would claim that the 1950 definition of the Assumption of our Lady, and the 1870 pronouncement on Papal Infallibility, and the 1854 definition of the Immaculate Conception are all examples of “new doctrines” being invented to enhance the prestige of those who run the Catholic Church. Our critics are, of course, incorrect, for all of the doctrines of the Catholic Church were held, at least implicitly, before the close of public revelation with the death of the last Apostle, Saint John.
The most recent of these three definitions, the Assumption, is perhaps the most obvious example of a doctrine held by the Church since its infancy. The Blessed Virgin Mary died while all the apostles remained alive. Early written documents record that they were witnesses to her being taken up into heaven, and that event has been commemorated in the Church’s liturgy ever since, by both the Eastern and Western Churches. It is not recorded in the Bible, but is recorded in the immemorial Tradition of the Church.
The definition of Papal Infallibility is derived from our Lord’s words to Peter in Saint Matthew’s Gospel: “Thou art Peter, and upon this Rock (Peter means “rock”) I will build My Church.... And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven.”[i] The doctrinal authority of Saint Peter and his successors was so great that the Church at Corinth went to Saint Clement, the fourth Pope, to decide a doctrinal matter even while the Apostle John was still alive.
Our third definition, celebrated in today’s feast of the Immaculate Conception, is likewise implicit in divine revelation, the continuous teaching of the Church’s authorities, and in feasts celebrated by the Church for many centuries.
Let me begin by reading what the definition said in 1854. It is very brief:
If we work backwards, we will see that the sixteenth century Council of Trent specifically excluded the Blessed Mother from its discussion of Original Sin, for it was clear that it had no effect on her.[iii] In the fifteenth century, Pope Sixtus IV extended the liturgical feast to the City of Rome and condemned all those who judged the Immaculate Conception to be an erroneous teaching.[iv]
In the fourteenth century John I, King of Aragon named the Immaculate Virgin his own and his country’s protector. The feast of Mary’s Conception was celebrated in Belgium in the twelfth century; in Germany and France in the eleventh, and in England at the time of the Norman Conquest; it was celebrated at the court of Charlemagne in the ninth century with a hymn composed by Paul the Deacon; celebrated at Naples in the ninth century and in Spain in the eighth. In sixth century Palestine the feast appears in liturgical book of Saint Sabas, whose feast fell but a few days ago. Late in the fourth or very early in the fifth century, the “spotless virgin ... triumphing over the poisons of Satan” was the subject of the poet Aurelius Clemens Prudentius (348-405) hymn Ante cibum.[v]
In roughly the same time period, Saint Germain wrote of Mary, the “most pleasing spiritual paradise of God ... that fragrant lily, that unfading rose who heals those who drank the soul-killing bitterness of death ... paradise wherein grows the tree of the knowledge of truth, the tree that gives immortality to those who taste its fruit ... most pure palace of God the supreme King.”[vi]
Saint Jerome, writing at about the same time as Prudentius was characteristically blunt. “The virtue and greatness of the blessed Mary ever Virgin were proclaimed in God’s own words by the Angel when he said, «Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women»... whereas grace is given to others only in part, on Mary it was poured out all at once in all its fullness.... everything about her is wholly the work of purity and simplicity, of grace and truth, of the mercy and justice that look down from heaven.”[vii] Simply put, when the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary to announce her divine Motherhood, it was at a time in history when it was impossible for anyone to be filled with grace unless she had always been that way—from the time of her conception!
Perhaps the best argument in favor of the Immaculate Conception is that of God Himself. As Pope Pius reminded us:
Finally, it is fitting, then, to pray with the Church today to almighty God:
[ii] Ineffabilis Deus, Apostolic Constitution of Pope Pius IX, December 8, 1854.
[iii] Council of Trent, Session V, 17 June 1546, “Decree on Original Sin” para. 6. (Denzinger 792)
[iv] Sixtus IV, “Cum præexcelsa,” 28 February 1476 and “Grave nimis” 4 September 1483. (Denzinger 434 & 435)
[v] Dom Guéranger, The Liturgical Year, book I “Advent,” pp. 383-386, 408-409.
[vi] Lesson vii, Saint Germain, “On the Presentation of the Mother of God.”
[vii] Lessons iv and v at Matins of the Immaculate Conception, Saint Jerome, “On the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.”
[viii] Ibid, Pope Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus.
[ix] Collect of the Immaculate Conception.