Thoughts of a Catholic convert

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Friday, December 06, 2013

Philip Endean SJ on the Immaculate Conception

- Jesus and his mom: Jesus

Coming up ... the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. For those who aren't Catholic, the doctrine asserts that Mary was conceived without original sin.

I must admit that I don't believe or like the doctrine - I instead like the idea that God thought a normal human being with all the attendant frailties was good enough to be Jesus' mother. I'm not alone in disputing the doctrine: as this Wikipedia article states, It was rejected by St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Alexander of Hales, and St. Bonaventure (who, teaching at Paris, called it "this foreign doctrine", indicating its association with England), and by St. Thomas Aquinas who expressed questions about the subject, but said that he would accept the determination of the Church. Aquinas and Bonaventure, for example, believed that Mary was completely free from sin, but that she was not given this grace at the instant of her conception.

More modernly, there was a comment to a past post on the immaculate conception at dotCommonweal by Lisa Fullam, a professor at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, that mirrors some of my own thoughts .....

# Posted by Lisa Fullam
on December 7th, 2008 at 12:34 pm

Thanks, Eric, for a thoughtful post. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception (which my guy Thomas Aquinas did not hold, btw,) is in stark tension (though not a logical contradiction) with the Church’s denial of ordination to women. It never fails to amuse me that the magisterium occasionally feels the need to define (and delimit) women, our nature and vocation, (with or without any substantial input from actual women,) but oddly never feels the need to define (and delimit) the nature and appropriate roles of men, except by counterpoise in the documents on women. Why no masculine counterpart to “Mulieris Dignitatem”?

Of course, when women are contained, constricted and misdefined, so are men. If women are to be passive and receptive, that would seem to imply that men should not be–and anyone in a real relationship knows that such giving and receiving is mutual and reciprocal. When Mary is misread as passive, not the firebrand who shouted the jouful revolutionary anthem of the Magnificat, we downplay (or dismiss) the call for women to be audacious and active also–and the world loses out.

And the issue of women’s ordination remains a third rail in the Church. We’re told the issue is “settled,” so does not require further discussion. Can something so painful for so many be merely defined away? Can vocation be defined away? Justice? And of course we have L’Affaire Bourgeois, demonstrating that the hierarchy will respond with threats of the harshest penalty at its disposal should a priest act up in solidarity with women called to serve as priests in the Church. To put it mildly, the magisterium seems overly defensive on questions relating to women–why? ......

Today I saw an article at Thinking Faith by Philip Endean SJ on the immaculate conception - Theology and Candles: Original Sin and Immaculate Conception - which mentions the methodology of Ignatius' Spiritual Exercises as an alternative way of dealing with the idea of human imperfection. The whole article is worth reading but here's just a bit at the end ...

[...] Our standard formula, ‘Mary conceived without original sin’ presents Mary in logically negative terms, as someone without a problem. It starts from our difficulties, and takes them as a fixed basis from which we can explore holiness as an exceptional absence. There is, of course, a place for such thinking. Equally, Christianity has gone wrong if such thinking is all we have. For Christianity is about nothing if is not about our problematic selves being changed; as we explore the reality of holiness it makes a difference to us. The real conundrum is not one about how God can create a Jesus and Mary who do not share our problematic state, but rather about how God’s goodness can co-exist with a problematic creation, one in which the good is lacking.

There is no theological answer to that question. Some theologians have talked about ‘God respecting creaturely freedom’, but not in any way that really works. St Ignatius’s presentation of sin in Spiritual Exercises centres, not on a good confession, or an experience of forgiveness—still less on any sort of explanation. Instead he tries to lead to a place where we cry out in wonder. How can it be that the world has carried on when there has been so much resistance to God? Why has God not just given up or junked us into Hell already? Christianity does not answer these questions. Instead it attests to a revelation: a revelation of divine goodness keeping these unanswerable questions open, a goodness promising hope, a goodness inviting us not really to understand but rather to join in. The light shines in the darkness, a light which the darkness cannot overpower, a light made manifest in Jesus and Mary without sin. Theologies about how and why fail, but the light—and the candles—remain.


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