132. “The Only Creature Without Sin” – Pope Francis on the Immaculate Conception of Mary

January 1st, 2017

On December 8th  each year, the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of Mary is celebrated. On this occasion the Roman Catholic Church contemplates the belief that Mary was preserved from original sin. This view had been part of Roman Catholic teaching and devotional practices for centuries, but it was not until 1854 that the Immaculate Conception was officially  promulgated by Pope Pius as a dogma, i.e. a binding and un-reformable belief of the Church. Here is the precise wording of this dogma:

“We declare, pronounce and define that the doctrine which asserts that the Blessed Virgin Mary, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God, and in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, Saviour of the human race, was preserved free from every stain of original sin is a doctrine revealed by God and, for this reason, must be firmly and constantly believed by all the faithful”.

In spite of the bold and conclusive language (declaring, defining, asserting), Protestants find it difficult to come to terms with this Marian dogma. This is due to not finding even a hint of evidence for this belief in the Bible. “How can such a view be elevated to dogmatic status if the Word of God is at best silent on it?” they ask. So it is always interesting to listen to the way in which Roman Catholic theology argues for the Immaculate Conception of Mary by trying to relate it to Scriptural teaching.

Marian Solemnity

The last occasion for this was given by Pope Francis on December 8th. He spoke twice on the topic. The first was to a public audience in St. Peter’s square. He later spoke at a Marian prayer gathering in Piazza di Spagna, where a lofty statue of Mary towers above the space and where at the climax of the ceremony it is crowned with flowers. The Papal invocations to Mary appealed to her “immaculate heart” to learn how to love, to her “immaculate hands” to learn how to caress, to her “immaculate feet” to learn how to take the first step.

The special Marian day of the Pope also included a visit to the Roman Basilica of St. Mary Major to venerate the ancient “Salus Popoli Romani” (health or salvation of the Roman people) icon of Mary. The Pope travels to the basilica before and after every international trip he takes in order to entrust the voyage to the care and intercession of Mary, typically with flowers in hand. This is to say that we are not confronted with a marginal belief, nor with a peripheral practice. Both the dogma and the devotions attached to it are encapsulated at the very core of the Pope’s spirituality.

No Space For Sin?

In his speech, the Pope argued that “Jesus didn’t come as an adult, already strong and full grown, but decided to follow the exact same path of the human being, doing everything in exactly the same way “except for one thing: sin.” Because of this, “he chose Mary, the only creature without sin, immaculate,” he said, noting that when the angel refers to Mary with the title “Full of Grace,” it means that from the beginning there was “no space for sin” inside of her. “Also we, when we turn to her, we recognize this beauty: we invoke her as ‘full of grace,’ without the shadow of evil.”

It appears that the biblical reference the Pope recalls is Luke 1:28, where Mary is addressed by the angel Gabriel as a “favored” one. The Vulgate, the late fourth-century Latin version of the Bible, translates this expression as “gratia plena” (full of grace), thus opening up all sorts of misconceptions, as if Mary possessed the fullness of grace in herself. This translation has been taken as implying that she was so full of grace that she must have been conceived without original sin. However, there is no hint in the text about the fact that Mary is “full” of grace and therefore “void” of sin. Being “favored” indicates that she is an unworthy recipient of God’s grace, just as the rest of us. This is further reinforced by the fact that Mary calls God her “Savior” (Luke 1:47), indicating that she thinks of herself as needing God’s salvation, just as the rest of us. There is nothing intrinsic in her apart from the divine favor and His presence with her. It seems, therefore, that a strong argument for the Immaculate Conception of Mary is based on a faulty translation of the passage, leading to an implausible doctrine impinging on anthropology and soteriology, i.e. something belonging to the core of the biblical Gospel.

The fact that the Roman Catholic Church is fully committed to the Immaculate Conception of Mary still represents a serious question mark for all those who want to ground their faith in what the Bible teaches. Evidently Rome is not based on Scripture alone but is on a trajectory in which devotions and traditions can have the final say above (and contrary to) the Bible.

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    131. Is Pope Francis Making the Catholic Church Protestant?

    December 1st, 2016

    The recent commemoration of the Reformation (Lund, Sweden, 31 October 2016) is only the tip of the iceberg in Pope Francis’s ecumenical efforts. His relentless activity in meeting with Christian leaders (from the patriarchs of Constantinople and Moscow to mainstream Protestant denominational leaders and several Pentecostal pastors) is a qualifying mark of his pontificate that is beginning to raise concerns inside the Catholic Church. His constant remarks about the need to speed the way towards unity appear to soften, if not downplay, the traditional conditions for such unity according to Rome. Some Catholic critics are worried that the Pope seems to spend more time with non-Catholics than with people of his own church. Especially after his recent appreciation of Martin Luther, in an interview given to the Italian Catholic newspaper Avvenire (summarized in English, too) the blunt question was asked: is the Pope making the Catholic Church Protestant?

    In Step with Vatican II

    Rejecting the view according to which commemorating the Protestant Reformation was an unwarranted “forward flight”, Pope Francis defended his actions by referring to Vatican II as the framework for his ecumenical initiatives. No surprise: Vatican II (1962-1965) sought to re-orientate the ecumenical direction of the Roman Catholic Church by recognizing signs of the true church in other communities and by calling non-Catholics “separated brethren”. One of the goals of the Council was to encourage full unity among Christian churches and communities, all reconciled with the theological outlook and ecclesiastical structures of the Roman church. Nothing new under the sun then. What Francis is doing in the sphere of ecumenism was all prepared by and previewed at Vatican II. Each one in his own way, John XXII, Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI, have tried to implement the ecumenical thrust of the Council. Francis confirms to be the Pope who without necessarily quoting Vatican II at length, perhaps embodies its “spirit” more than his predecessors.

    More specifically, Francis makes reference to the 50 year old dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutherans culminated in the 1999 Joint Declaration on justification signed under John Paul II under the leadership of then Cardinal Ratzinger. For Francis this document settles the main theological issues raised by the Reformation, paving the way for even fuller unity. After this landmark agreement, nothing of significance is left of the Reformation apart from regretful political attachments of self-referential churches that are entrenched in their past.

    Parameters of Unity

    The Pope rejects the idea that he is making his church more Protestant and appeals to Vatican II as the large theological canvas of which the Joint Declaration represents the new ecumenical fruit. He sees himself as standing in a long-term trajectory. Moreover, the fact that he approaches other Christian traditions and communities (e.g. the different bodies of Eastern Orthodoxy) with similar if not more intensive fervor indicates that he is not particularly attracted to Protestantism only. His ecumenical zeal goes even beyond the borders of Christianity and spills over to the world of religions and the secular world. He takes unity, i.e. Christian unity, as part of a larger goal that has to do with the unity of mankind.

    Going back to the question about the Protestantization of the Catholic Church, there is a major argument running through Pope Francis’ assessment of the Reformation in the context of his ardent desire for unity. His interpretation of the history of the Reformation and its on-going significance de facto eliminates theology from the picture and replaces the driving force of unity with doing things together and praying together. In other words, Scripture alone (the Bible has supreme authority over the church), faith alone (salvation is a gift received by believing in Christ and trusting Him), and Christ alone (the whole Christian life is centered on Him) are nothing but relics of a distant past. According to the Pope, the Roman Catholic Church has already absorbed these concerns and those who want to continue to wave the Reformation flag are seen as wanting to continue a power game based on church politics. Is this really the case? Of course, the Reformation had political overtones. However, as the recent statement Is the Reformation Over? – signed by dozens of evangelical theologians and leaders worldwide – argues, “In all its varieties and at times conflicting tendencies, the Protestant Reformation was ultimately a call to (1) recover the authority of the Bible over the church and (2) appreciate afresh the fact that salvation comes to us through faith alone”. These are standing and unresolved issues in the present-day relationship between Roman Catholics and evangelical Christians. Church politics, although inextricably interwoven, was not the main reason and is not the main legacy of the Reformation.

    With Pope Francis the Roman Catholic Church is not becoming Protestant. It is simply becoming more “catholic”, i.e. embracing and absorbing all, without losing its being “Roman”. It is still embedded in the theological and institutional outlook that the Protestant Reformation called to renewal according to the Gospel.

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