Thursday, 8 December 2011

By a Singular Grace and Privilege Granted by Almighty God

It is often assumed (no pun intended) that the Immaculate Conception, like the Real Presence (and with it Dr Chartres's bête noire of Transubstantiation), the Assumption and Papal Infallibility are amongst those things that make life difficult for Anglicans who might consider joining the Ordinariate or otherwise becoming Catholics.

That analysis is rather broad, and ignores the very strong catholic teaching that has existed in a not insignificant proportion of the Church of England.  Certainly, there is an even larger proportion of the Church of England that takes a more Sola Scriptura approach, and has no time for dogmatic theology of any kind, but that in no way diminishes the value of catholic teaching that has been undertaken elsewhere.  Indeed, a recent post by William Oddie in the Catholic Herald talks eloquently of this phenomenon.  Furthermore, one of our most popular blogposts (not just on account of its extraordinary footage of Pope Pius XII making his Ex Cathedra declaration) is The Angels rejoice.... and so do the ex-Anglicans, which talks of this shared understanding.

Still, it is not difficult to see why the common perception could be that the Immaculate Conception is not an Anglican belief in general terms. 

Certainly, no-one expects it to be so on the Evangelical wing of the Church of England.  The middle-of-the-road tradition, alone with mainstream Anglican liberal opinion is largely unfussed about it, despite being happy to hear the Duruflé setting of Tota Pulchra Es, Maria sung by its choirs. 

As ever, the analysis is more nuanced in the Anglo-Catholic world.  Some of those we rudely referred to recently as the deniers might denounce the Immaculate Conception as a Roman Innovation, while others would proudly proclaim their total acceptance of it (not worrying too much about what Pope Pius IX might have had to say about some of their other beliefs, particularly on ecclesiology).

Even at the most catholic end of Anglo-Catholicism, there is a complicated picture.  On the one hand we can say quite confidently that the members of the Marylebone Ordinariate Group have not had to change their beliefs on the Immaculate Conception at all in order to be able to accept Catholic teaching.  The Immaculate Conception is and was celebrated "with the full works" at Bourne Street, even if the numbers attending on this particular day in recent years have not been (in my entirely fallible recollection at least) what they were in my first days there in the the mid 1990s.  We send our friends at Bourne St every good wish for their celebrations of this great day.

None of the above is intended to knock or indeed to mock the way in which the Immaculate Conception is viewed in any part of the Church of England.  The dogma of the Immaculate Conception has a long and complex history, and one must acknowledge that the delicacy of the argument contained in it might pass over the heads of many of those who fill Catholic churches each week, as much it might do so over an Anglo-Catholic congregation.  Having said that though, in the Catholic Church the dogma is not seen as something extreme or outlandish, it is not something that one has to make a fuss about as a kind of badge of honour of agreement or disagreement : quite simply, it is the teaching of the Church, and as such there is an general awareness of and belief in, to put it brutally simplistically, ever sinless Mary, that perhaps does not exist elsewhere.

Daring to tread where far better and more informed brains than mine have failed, here is an attempt to describe the Immaculate Conception in one paragraph and in "layman's terms".  Through the saving works of Our Lord, Mary was conceived (in the usual way by her parents Joachim and Anna) without stain of sin, and (going beyond the confines of the Immaculate Conception itself), again through His saving works, she was preserved from sin throughout her life. This is not something she achieved herself, but at every stage depended on God. It does not put her on a par with or above God, but gives her the most special of places amongst mankind.

Simple, isn't it?  So why the complex history, why did the dogma take such a very long time to define?  That is a subject for a doctoral thesis not for a poor blogpost, but even here it is worthwhile noting a small number of the more significant points in the process.  The heart of the matter seems to have been that while people could agree that Mary was, through God's grace, sinless during her life, it was not universally agreed whether this also applied to original sin, ie did Mary become sinless as from her conception, or did this happen later?  The answer may seem obvious to us today, with the benefit of over 150 years of Pope Pius IX's Ineffabilis Deus behind us, but it took some very serious intellectual effort to get us to where we are.

St Augustine said that he would not hear of sin in the context of the Mother of God.  On the face of it, that is not explicit about original sin, but then given how keen Augustine was on the topic of original sin, is it rational to think anything other than that he did mean to include original sin in his sinlessness of the Mother of God? 

There is a view that some of the difficulty in getting to a defined dogma was caused by Thomas Aquinas not accepting the Immaculate Conception.  His views are not that straightforward, as this article explains. 

The lack of a formal definition, binding on the whole Church, carried on for some centuries.  Although some dioceses, with papal permission, celebrated the Immaculate Conception with the full definition we know today, this was not universal.  Even the Council of Trent shied away from a definition. 

We had to wait until 1854 for Pope Pius IX to declare :
We declare, pronounce, and define that 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 Saviour of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.
Today, Catholic teaching is very clearly, indeed dogmatically, defined, and thanks be to God for that. 

Above, we included the well known Duruflé setting of Tota Pulchra Es, Maria.  This text, which is an odd one for non Catholics to be keen on, is also the Alleluia for Mass on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, and is partly built on text from the Song of Songs, text which was set by Palestrina. 

Regular readers of this blog will note that we have a passing interest in what one might call in a politically incorrect way, Spanish Colonial church music.  For example, we have previously included a Cuban setting of a requiem.  Today's great Solemnity provides an excuse to explore some more of the treasures of Latin American sacred music, in the form of an anonymous eighteenth century setting from Bolivia of Tota Pulchra Es, Maria : now that's a sentence few of you will have had cause to read before. 

May Immaculate Mary pray for us.

No comments:

Post a Comment