In an authentic example of synodality, the American bishops, gathered at the Council of Baltimore in May 1846, asked that Our Lady be declared the patroness of the United States of America under her title of the Immaculate Conception.
Their petition would bind our republic with an old theological controversy that had divided some of Catholicism’s greatest minds.
St. Bernard of Clairvaux was unsure about the dogma, so was St. Thomas Aquinas. The Dominican Order — including the popes elected from among its friars — didn’t share the enthusiasm that Franciscans, Jesuits, and the Spanish Empire had for the belief in the Immaculate Conception, which had long enjoyed popular devotion despite its unofficial status.
For centuries, elegant works of art celebrated Mary’s privilege, while eloquent sermons praised and defended it. Popes had forbidden debate on the question of Mary’s conception for centuries until Blessed Pope Pius IX, after an extraordinary effort of consultation (or synodality, again?) pronounced it an infallible dogma in a solemn and dramatic ceremony on Dec. 8, 1854.
In his papal bull, “Ineffabilis Deus” (“God Ineffable”), Pius explained that his own personal fasting, as well as both private and public prayer by the whole Church, had led to him to declare: “The doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.”
The dogma of Mary’s Immaculate Conception appeared against a dramatic backdrop.
Almost immediately upon becoming pope, Pius had been confronted with the political turbulence sweeping Europe, then the interruption of the First Vatican Council, and even being taken prisoner in the Vatican.
The Church herself was undergoing a series of controversies involving the legitimacy of new popular devotions like the Miraculous Medal and political upheaval in the papal court.
And yet, as deserving as it is of our celebration and gratitude, appreciation for the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception feels a bit underwhelming in our country.
One reason is that many Catholics do not know what the Immaculate Conception means, being easily confused with Christ’s miraculous conception by the Holy Spirit in the Virgin Mary.
There is a famous poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti that I liked in my wild youth, “Christ Climbed Down.” He contrasts the figure of the Lord with all the fakery and commercialization of Christmas, including the description of Santa Claus as a “fat hand-shaking stranger in a red flannel suit with a fake white beard” who bears “Humble Gifts from Saks Fifth Avenue.”
The poem is acidly satirical about bourgeois Xmas, not leaving out “Midnight Mass matinees.” Its conclusion is heterodox (as can be expected) but still has a power to it, despite a howling theological error:
Christ Climbed Down
from His bare Tree
and softly stole away into
some anonymous Mary’s womb again
where in the darkest night
of everybody’s anonymous soul
He awaits again
the very craziest
of Second Comings.
Of course, my friends at the public high school I attended could not appreciate my problem with the theology of the “Immaculate Reconception.”
But as a priest, unfortunately, I have met many Catholics who did not know that our national patronal feast is about St. Anne’s natural conception of Mary — not Jesus’ conception in the womb of his mother. Ignorance abounds and continues to grow, a sad consequence of a catechetical catastrophe years in the making.
But beyond misunderstandings, the dogma itself is not an easy one to believe. Protestant polemics about the supposed nonscriptural basis of the teaching don’t help, nor does its somewhat abstract nature: You can imagine Mary’s assumption into heaven easier than her preservation from Original Sin.
That is why I was so pleased to recently encounter Father Louis Bouyer’s remarks about how the Immaculate Conception dogma should resonate with the Calvinist tradition of the absolute sovereignty of God and “sola gratia.”
Bouyer, himself a convert, writes that the Protestants “reproach in this one case of Our Lady, something analogous to what strict Calvinists admit for all the elect — a grace that saves us absolutely independently of ourselves not only without any merit of our own but without any possibility of our cooperation.”
The Protestant claim that our “faith and works” discounts God’s grace is completely absurd in the face of the doctrine which asserts that “Mary is holy, with a supereminent holiness, in virtue of a divine intervention previous to the first instant of her existence” and that thus, salvation “is purely a grace of God.”
Mary’s sinless nature, Bouyer continues, is not so much an “unheard of exception” but rather a “masterpiece of grace” and her Immaculate Conception indicates that “the Catholic idea of grace in general, far from depreciating it by affirming that man can attain Christ to sanctity or simply to merit, presupposes behind all this a pure gift of God, unmerited and unable to be merited.” (Bouyer, “The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism,” Ignatius Press, $20).
Reading this insight from Bouyer gave me more appreciation for the passion that Spanish-speaking Catholics have for the Immaculate Conception, especially in countries like Nicaragua, where it is celebrated for days leading up to the Dec. 8 solemnity.
In El Salvador, a distant echo of the centuries of debate among religious orders is found in a popular devotion to St. Anthony of Padua.
The shrine of “San Antonio del Monte” is a church built in honor of the discovery of a painted image of St. Anthony in a tree. Discovery of images is a familiar trope about holy statues and paintings because it emphasizes the divine inspiration of the object that promoted devotion. Very popular with indigenous in El Salvador for centuries, the devotion to San Antonio del Monte included the attestations of many miracles achieved through his intercession.
An Italian Franciscan friar who worked for years in El Salvador, Hilario Contran, of holy memory, explained to me why, in the image, St. Anthony is wearing a blue habit. Such habits were granted to friars in Spain, in its days of glorious empire, who would swear to defend the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary to the point of shedding blood.
San Antonio del Monte is an Immaculist image, therefore, an icon with a history.
Would many Catholics today be able to swear on their lives that Mary was free from all sin, original and otherwise? Perhaps they would be inspired to take a more serious look at the feast if they would attach it to what C.S. Lewis described as the chivalrous attitude of Catholics to Mary, a combination of respect for maternity and the troubadour’s love of his lady.
The French bishop and theologian Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet indicated a tender aspect to the doctrine that might seem so abstract to many. He said that, apart from the articles of the Creed, he did not see anything else that was more assured than Mary’s preservation from sin.
Bossuet asked, “Who could believe that nothing of the supernatural could be discerned in the conception of that princess, that it would be the only element in her life that was not marked by the miraculous?”
The Immaculate Conception deserves a higher place in our personal liturgical pilgrimage in the United States. And the emphasis on the importance of the moment of conception implicit in our national patronal feast can be salutary.
“Ave Maria Purisima,” as the priest traditionally says in Spanish celebrations of confession, “Sin pecado concebida!” replies the penitent. That refrain should echo in our hearts.