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Law, culture, and Catholicism...up in smoke!

Thursday, December 08, 2005

St. Thomas Aquinas And The Immaculate Conception

In Ineffabilis Deus, Pope Pius IX solemnly declared 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." This is the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.

It is generally believed that St. Thomas Aquinas denied that Mary was free from original sin. In the Third Part of the Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas writes:

"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.... But the Blessed Virgin did indeed contract original sin, but was cleansed therefrom before her birth from the womb." Q. 27, A. 2, ad 2.

There is some debate, however, as to whether St. Thomas consistently maintained this position throughout his life, or even as to whether he ever held the position at all. In his Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, written before the Summa, St. Thomas wrote that Mary was "immune from original and actual sin." The Catholic Encyclopedia, citing to numerous treatises dating back to the 1800's, notes:

"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."

Thomas Mullaney, a Dominican, has suggested that St. Thomas, who was born near Naples where the feast of Mary's immaculate conception had been celebrated for generations, initially believed in the Immaculate Conception, but later developed an attitude of caution under the influence of the Church in Rome, which did not celebrate the feast.

I am ignorant of the details of the debate. I only note that if St. Thomas truly denied the truth of the Immaculate Conception, we know from his final words that he, unlike so many modern theologians, would not pertinaciously cling to his error.

"If in this world there be any knowledge of this sacrament stronger than that of faith, I wish now to use it in affirming that I firmly believe and know as certain that Jesus Christ, True God and True man, Son of God and Son of the Virgin Mary, is in this sacrament...I receive Thee, the price of my redemption, for Whose love I have watched, studied and labored. Thee have I preached; Thee have I taught. Never have I said anything against Thee: if anything was not well said, that is to be attributed to my ignorance. Neither do I wish to be obstinate in my opinions, but if I have written anything erroneous concerning this sacrament or other matters, I submit all to the judgment and correction of the Holy Roman Church, in whose obedience I now pass from this life."

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