On Saturday, August 28, 2010, Dr. James White debated Mr. Christopher Ferrara on the topic of Mary’s alleged sinlessness and immaculate conception. While the debate audio/video are not (to my knowledge) yet available for purchase, here are a few points that I’d like to address.
1) Does Ineffabilis Deus lie about the patristic testimony?
During the debate, Dr. White brought up the fact that Ineffabilis Deus lies in claiming that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is something that was passed down from ancient times. Mr. Ferrara alleged that the doctrines that were passed down were simply doctrines that form some kind of alleged basis for the doctrine, such as the view of Mary as “the new Eve.”
However, Ineffabilis Deus itself states:
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.
(Ineffabilis Deus)(emphasis added)
From this, it can be seen that the claim “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” is in direct reference not to the “new Eve” idea or any other pre-requisite doctrine or interpretation, but specifically in reference to “this doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the most Blessed Virgin.”
As Dr. White demonstrated during the debate, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception did not always exist, was not a doctrine that was received from the eary patristic period, and is not rightly to be considered a revealed doctrine (just as it was not considered a revealed doctrine in Aquinas’ time)
2) Thomas Aquinas’ (and Christopher Ferrara’s) Reliance on Pseudo-Augustine
During the debate, Christopher Ferrara raised as allegedly a work by Augustine, the work referenced by Thomas Aquinas in the following sentence: “But as Augustine, in his tractate on the Assumption of the Virgin, argues with reason, since her body was assumed into heaven, and yet Scripture does not relate this; so it may be reasonably argued that she was sanctified in the womb.” (Summa Theologica, 3rd Part, Question 27, Article 1)
The Cambridge University Press 2006 edition (essentially a reprint of the edition released by the English Dominicans in the 1960’s and 1970’s) provides the following footnote for that sentence: “Tract on the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, in the Preface: PL 40, 1141.”
The reference PL 40, 1141 is a reference to column 1141 of volume 40 of Migne’s Latin Patrology (PL). In Migne’s PL, one finds that Migne has designated this work as “incerti auctoris,” meaning that the authorship is uncertain (link to evidence).
Allan Fitzgerald O.S.A., editor of Augustine through the Ages: An Encyclopedia, does not include the work in his list of Augustine’s works, and the work is usually cited as “Pseudo-Augustine” in works that cite it.
For example, internationally renowned Mariologist (and Marianist priest) Luigi Gambero writes:
The text in question is one mistakenly attributed to St. Augustine, published in PL 40, 1140-48. It has been studied by G. Quandrio, Il trattato “De Assumptione B. M. B.” dello Pseudo-Agostino e il suo influsso nella teologia assunzionistica latina, Analecta Gregoriana 7 (Rome, 1951).
– Luigi Gambero, Mary in the Middle Ages, p. 78, footnote 15.
3) Did Augustine Believe in the Immaculate Conception?
Ferrara seemed to assert that Augustine did. Luigi Gambero, however, writes:
There seems no doubt that Augustine considered Mary’s exemption from sin to be a great grace. But what sins does he mean? Undoubtedly he excludes any personal sin from Mary. Is it possible to hypothesize that Augustine also intended to exclude original sin? Some scholars think so and make him a forerunner of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. A full treatment of the question would call for a lengthy discussion. To us it seems safer to adopt the contrary position, which is held by many experts and appears more in accord with numerous Augustinian texts.
– Luigi Gambero, Mary and the Fathers of the Church, p. 226.
Obviously, as noted above, Luigi Gambero is a Mariologist and Marianist priest. I don’t accept everything that Gambero says, and neither should anyone. If, however, a scholar were to have a bias to want to find the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception as anciently as possible, Gambero would be one to have such a bias. Nevertheless, even he is willing to acknowledge that the evidence favors the position that Dr. White took during the debate, namely that while Augustine may have believed that Mary lacked any actual sin, Augustine believed that Mary had original sin.
4) Sanctified in the Womb Does not Equal Immaculate Conception
Although conception takes place in the womb, a child remains in the womb from conception until birth. As Dr. White pointed out during the debate, even among those in the middle ages who thought that Mary did not have personal sins, there were those who believed that Mary was conceived with original sin, but then purified of it.
Thus, for example, Catherine of Sienna asserted:
The eternal Word, therefore, was given to us by the hand of Mary, and of the substance of Mary He put on nature without the blemish of original sin, and this He did, because that conception was not of man, but made by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. This indeed was not so in Mary, because she did not proceed from the mass of Adam by the operation of the Holy Spirit, but of man. And because that whole mass was corrupt, her soul could not be infused but into corrupt nature, nor could she be purified but by the grace of the Holy Spirit, of which grace indeed, a susceptible body is not the subject, but a rational or intellectual spirit, and therefore Mary could not be purified of that blemish, till after her soul was infused into her body, which in truth was so done out of reverence for the Divine treasure, which was destined to be placed in that vessel. For as a furnace consumes a drop of water in a moment of time, so does the Holy Spirit the blemish of original sin: for after her conception she was immediately made clean of that sin by the grace of the Holy Spirit, and was endowed with great grace. Thou knowest, O Lord, that this is the truth.
On the other hand, a woman named Brigitta (known as St. Brigitta among the Roman Catholics) claimed to have a revelation in which Mary said to her:
It is the truth, that I was conceived without original sin, and not in sin.
As we previously observed, Thomas Aquinas agreed with Catherine of Sienna, and against Brigitta (link to first discussion)(link to second discussion). Incidentally, when you go to the link to that first discussion, you will note Aquinas is trying to rely on Augustine again, but his copy of Augustine seems to have some interpolations. As Dr. White pointed out in the debate, this problem of having an inaccurate and distorted view of the patristic period was something that frequently beset Aquinas.
5) John the Baptist – Sanctified in the womb?
Multiple times during the debate Mr. Ferrara asserted that John the Baptist was sanctified in the womb. He insisted that the Bible taught this, and argued – in essence – that if God did that for John the Baptist, wouldn’t have done that for Mary? As a first point, as I’ve discussed before, it’s not clear that John the Baptist is less than Mary (link to some discussion of this issue). Indeed Jesus himself said:
Matthew 11:11 Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist: notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
Luke 7:28 For I say unto you, Among those that are born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist: but he that is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.
But even worse for Mr. Ferrara, the Bible does not say that John the Baptist was sanctified in the womb. What it does say about John the Baptist is this. First, it is prophesied that he will be filled with the Holy Ghost from his mother’s womb:
Luke 1:15 For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink; and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb.
Second, it is explained that when Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, John the Baptist jumped within her womb.
Luke 1:41 And it came to pass, that, when Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost:
Luke 1:44 For, lo, as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in mine ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy.
Nevertheless, although these very unusual comments are made regarding John the Baptist, there is no statement that John the Baptist was sanctified in the womb.
There is one Old Testament prophet who was described that way: the prophet Jeremiah.
Jeremiah 1:5 Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.
And finally, of course, there is no good reason to think that “sanctified” in Jeremiah 1:5 means “cleansed of original sin” or anything like that. It refers to the fact that he was set apart to be holy all along.
Thus, Paul similarly declares:
Galatians 1:15-17 But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s womb, and called me by his grace, to reveal his Son in me, that I might preach him among the heathen; immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood: neither went I up to Jerusalem to them which were apostles before me; but I went into Arabia, and returned again unto Damascus.
Yet it would be foolishness of the worst kind to suppose that Paul was kept sinless from the time he was in his mother’s womb. Paul himself declares:
1 Timothy 1:15 This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.
And Mary herself recognized that she was one of those sinners by acknowledging God as her Savior:
Luke 1:47 And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.