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Saturday, September 10, 2016

Aquinas and the Immaculate Conception

It is often said that Aquinas denied the Immaculate Conception, the fact that Mary was conceived without sin. This is incorrect.

Thomas built a theory of sanctification that assumed an underlying scientific understanding of conception and ensoulment that happened to be in error, but was common throughout all the centuries preceding his own.

No one knew that women produced eggs, and this knowledge would not, in fact, be confirmed until the early 1800s. Since all things are created in, by and for Christ, the operations of the natural world are properly a subject of theology. Further, since God took flesh and walked in the natural world, the operations of the natural world are also part of the necessary foundation to Christian theology.

Unfortunately for Thomas, none of the Christian theologians had a detailed or complete understanding of how conception worked. Thomas assumed that conception happened first, and the rational soul was infused at some later point. This was an error. Despite this error he pointed out an incontrovertible fact:
"The sanctification of the Blessed Virgin cannot be understood as having taken place before animation, for two reasons. First, because the sanctification of which we are speaking, is nothing but the cleansing from original sin: for sanctification is a "perfect cleansing," as Dionysius says (Div. Nom. xii). Now sin cannot be taken away except by grace, the subject of which is the rational creature alone. Therefore before the infusion of the rational soul, the Blessed Virgin was not sanctified.
Secondly, because, since the rational creature alone can be the subject of sin; before the infusion of the rational soul, the offspring conceived is not liable to sin. And thus, in whatever manner the Blessed Virgin would have been sanctified before animation, she could never have incurred the stain of original sin..."  (emphasis added)
All he said was, the Blessed Virgin HAD to have been saved from original sin or Christ would not be universal saviour - a perfectly correct statement:
"If the soul of the Blessed Virgin had never incurred the stain of original sin, this would be derogatory to the dignity of Christ, by reason of His being the universal Saviour of all. Consequently after Christ, who, as the universal Saviour of all, needed not to be saved, the purity of the Blessed Virgin holds the highest place."
And he even admitted that celebrating the Feast of the Immaculate Conception was not a problem:
"Although the Church of Rome does not celebrate the Conception of the Blessed Virgin, yet it tolerates the custom of certain churches that do keep that feast, wherefore this is not to be entirely reprobated. Nevertheless the celebration of this feast does not give us to understand that she was holy in her conception. But since it is not known when she was sanctified, the feast of her Sanctification, rather than the feast of her Conception, is kept on the day of her conception." (emphasis added)
So, he essentially admits that if his understanding of how ensoulment works is wrong, then the Immaculate Conception was properly a feast. He even admitted that his theory could be wrong when he agreed that the Feast of the Immaculate Conception could be licitly celebrated, since no one knew exactly when she had been sanctified. The reason no one knew was because no one knew exactly when the rational soul was infused.

He did not deny the Immaculate Conception, he only denied that Mary could have been sanctified before the infusion of her rational soul - a perfectly reasonable theological position. We don't baptize dogs because dogs don't have rational souls. We don't sacramentally anoint chairs or tables because they don't have souls at all.

If Thomas had known the infusion of the rational soul took place at conception - which is what the dogma of the Immaculate Conception implies - he would have instantly agreed that the Immaculate Conception was a reasonable teaching:

Since he merely proposed a theory of sanctification, and since he agreed that the liturgy of the Church was of more importance than his theory, he did not teach error regarding the Immaculate Conception. Instead, he showed the proper humility towards the Magisterium which is so often lacking in Christians today.


Confitebor said...

Unfortunately the great Doctor did deny the Immaculate Conception, as you admit in one breath and then deny in another. The matter is succinctly and correctly explained in the old Catholic Encyclopedia article on the dogma:

"St. Thomas at first pronounced in favour of the doctrine in his treatise on the "Sentences" (in I. Sent. c. 44, q. I ad 3), yet in his "Summa Theologica" he concluded against it. Much discussion has arisen as to whether St. Thomas did or did not deny that the Blessed Virgin was immaculate at the instant of her animation, and learned books have been written to vindicate him from having actually drawn the negative conclusion. Yet it is hard to say that St. Thomas did not require an instant at least, after the animation of Mary, before her sanctification. His great difficulty appears to have arisen from the doubt as to how she could have been redeemed if she had not sinned. This difficulty he raised in no fewer than ten passages in his writings (see, e.g., Summa III:27:2, ad 2). But while St. Thomas thus held back from the essential point of the doctrine, he himself laid down the principles which, after they had been drawn together and worked out, enabled other minds to furnish the true solution of this difficulty from his own premises."

St. Thomas' error didn't stem from the obsolete view on conception and ensoulment, for Dun Scotus, who avoided Thomas' error and provided the solution to the riddle that Thomas couldn't work out, held to the same view on conception and ensoulment. His problem was in seeing how she could have been redeemed if she was sinless from the moment of her conception.

Steve Kellmeyer said...


He affirmed that the practice of liturgically celebrating the Immaculate Conception was acceptable, and admitted that no one knew (including him) exactly when the Virgin was sanctified.

Since he certainly understood lex orandi, lex credendi, his affirmation of the liturgy is an affirmation of the Immaculate Conception, his difficulties to the contrary notwithstanding.

Confitebor said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Confitebor said...

It's true that St. Thomas accepted the liturgical celebration of the Immaculate Conception, and that he confessed his ignorance of when Our Lady was sanctified. But that of itself doesn't change the fact that in several passages of his works he denied the Immaculate Conception as it later was expounded and defined by the Magisterium. For example, this is what he asserted in chapter 224 of his Summa:

"Mary was not only free from actual sin, but she was also, by a special privilege, cleansed from original sin. She had, indeed, to be conceived with original sin, inasmuch as her conception resulted from the commingling of both sexes. For the privilege of conceiving without impairment of virginity was reserved exclusively to her who as a virgin conceived the Son of God. But the commingling of the sexes which, after the sin of our first parent, cannot take place without lust, transmits original sin to the offspring. Likewise, if Mary had been conceived without original sin, she would not have had to be redeemed by Christ, and so Christ would not be the universal redeemer of men, which detracts from His dignity. Accordingly we must hold that she was conceived with original sin, but was cleansed from it in some special way.

Some men are cleansed from original sin after their birth from the womb, as is the case with those who are sanctified in baptism. Others are reported to have been sanctified in the wombs of their mothers, in virtue of an extraordinary privilege of grace. Thus we are told with regard to Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb of you mother I knew you; and before you came forth out of the womb I sanctified you” (Jer. 1:5). And in Luke 1:15 the angel says of John the Baptist: “He shall be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb.” We cannot suppose that the favor granted to the precursor of Christ and to the prophet was denied to Christ’s own mother. Therefore we believe that she was sanctified in her mother’s womb, that is, before she was born.

"Yet such sanctification did not precede the infusion of her soul. In that case she would never have been subject to original sin, and so would have had no need of redemption. For only a rational creature can be the subject of sin. Furthermore, the grace of sanctification is rooted primarily in the soul, and cannot extend to the body except through the soul. Hence we must believe that Mary was sanctified after the infusion of her soul."

He's completely clear: he says Mary was conceived with original sin and then cleansed of her original sin at some point after the infusion of her soul into her body.

That's NOT what happened when God created Mary; that's NOT what the Church believes. No amount of ratiocination and pleading and mental gymnastics can turn his erroneous statements on the Immaculate Conception into a non-denial. And notice that his reasoning is not based, as you claim, on the obsolete ideas on delayed ensoulment commonly held in his day. It's based on his mistaken belief that if Mary had been conceived without original sin (and he held conception took place at the time of the soul's infusion -- delayed ensoulment), she would not have needed a Redeemer.

St. Thomas of course was a humble and docile man, always submitting his reasonings and writings to the judgment of the Church, ever a man of a serene and quiet mind. In this particular matter, the Church's judgment is that his reasoning regarding the Immaculate Conception is faulty. His affirmation of the liturgy is no more an affirmation of the Immaculate Conception than is, say, Urs von Balthasar's affirmation of the liturgy is an affirmation that Judas Iscariot has been damned as the Holy Thursday liturgy says, or Pope Francis' affirmation of the liturgy (in which the pericope of Matthew 19 is read and sung) is an affirmation of Christ's doctrine that people living in a state of adultery may not receive Communion without first amending their lives.

Confitebor said...

It's also clear that St. Thomas' comments on the liturgical celebration of the Immaculate Conception were not intended to signal his readiness to accept that Our Lady never had original sin. Rather, he referred to the liturgy only as an argument for why (as he believed) Our Lady did have original sin at least for a short time (perhaps a very short time) after her conception.

The timing of ensoulment would not have changed Aquinas' arguments in the least. Whether the soul is infused immediately upon the joining of sperm and ovum (something of which everyone was ignorant in those days) or was infused 40 or 80 days later, that moment of infusion, whenever it took place, is what medieval and Renaissance Christians held to be the moment of "conception." And Aquinas clearly maintained that Our Lady was not cleansed of original sin until AFTER ensoulment, that is, after conception. In other words, Aquinas denied the Immaculate Conception.