Dr. Ronald Thomas: The dogma of the Immaculate Conception
'One woman, "Our tainted nature's solitary boast," has shown what our nature can be in the hands of God.'
In the 19th century, the traditional and Christian understandings of God and of man were crashing down all around. God was no longer in His heaven; the mind of man would not allow it. Man, then, could no longer represent the "imago dei," the image of God. He was represented either as a nasty animal, bent on his own survival at all costs, indistinguishable from the other beasts, or, he was depicted as an angel, past all need of salvation from a source other than himself.
The dogma of the Immaculate Conception rebuffed both horns of the modern dilemma, reinforcing the role of man in the economy of salvation and declaring God's glory in the face of skepticism and atheism.
As depicted in the dogma, man was both the object of salvation history and a participant in it. Christ's sacred humanity, underscored by the purity and holiness of His Mother's nature, united all men to the life of God – by God's own design – revealing the love and concern God has for His creatures, fallen though they be. The "Ineffable God" had shown to the world the splendor of His designs, and His Glory, focused in the God-man and His Mother, who were pure and holy, and who had bequeathed to man the glorious status of the redeemed, surpassing all that he could think or desire.
Into the darkness of the 19th century, the radiance of the Lord and the great Mother of God was shining. The Church, undiminished by the darkness, and seeking even less to be relevant to it, boldly proclaimed a dogma that would be misunderstood by many and scorned by not a few. The Church of that century needed the restatement of the love of Christ and the tender benefactions of Mary to preserve it through the long, dark, hardhearted days ahead. In the proclamation of the dogma, God had vindicated Himself and His creatures from all the calumnies of the age by a true description of saving mysteries.
Pius IX defined the dogma of the Immaculate Conception on Dec. 8, 1854, in the document "Ineffabilis Deus." It was the very time to proclaim anew this truth, even though it had been "settled" at least 400 years earlier at the Council of Basel. The definition reads:
"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 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."
Later in the same century, in 1870, at the First Vatican Council, a dogma of Papal Infallibility would be defined that would complement this earlier dogmatic decree. The dogma of Papal Infallibility wraps the other dogmas in a protective mantel: the shepherd's cloak of Peter.
From this point on, it would be understood that the "ex cathedra" statements of the pope would declare the content of the deposit of faith, dependably and without omission to the body of the faithful. (This pastoral fidelity would show itself again in the year 1950 with Pius XII's definition of the dogma of the Assumption of Mary, body and soul, into heaven.)
As time marched on, the chief complaint against the dogma of the Immaculate Conception would be its supposed irrelevance. In reality, this complaint was a tribute to the doctrine's lastingness and its ability to judge the cold darkness of any age.
People have become unaccustomed to the light of glory, and the scorn of the 19th century has given way to the puzzlement of the 21st century.
But for those initiated into the meaning of the Immaculate Conception, new pathways to the meaning of redemption open and beckon. The burden of proof of meaninglessness is placed on the cynical and despairing age, and the redeemed go free: "the knights of God go gaily in the dark" as Chesterton said.
Mary, the Mother of God, has been preserved from the stain of original sin from the moment of her conception, so glorious is her nature under the grace of her Son. For those who either doubt original sin or those who, like the nihilists, think sin an understatement of the human dilemma, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception poses a difficulty and a corrective. One woman, "Our tainted nature's solitary boast," has shown what our nature can be in the hands of God. She has also shown that God consents to become flesh of our flesh if that is what it takes to redeem us from our dreary corruption.
Indeed, more specifically, Christ consents to become flesh of Mary's flesh and, by a special and proactive operation of His grace, deigns to remake Mary's humanity into a suitable habitation for Himself. This is the heart of what the dogma communicates.
Mary is also understood as implicit in every Eucharist, as the sacred Body and Blood taken and adored was born of Mary's body and blood as Christ's best, first gift to her – and to us. Truly, Mary is Mother of the Eucharist.
So, the Church rejoices in the Immaculate Conception of Mary, Mother of God. God has done marvelous things, "His righteousness has he openly shown in the sight of the nations," as Mary would certainly affirm.
The proclamation of the dogma is but another chapter in the story of His fidelity to His promise to Mary: "From this day all generations will call me blessed." This ascription of praise has not ceased all these long years, nor will it ever.
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus!
Dr. Ronald B. Thomas Jr. is assistant professor of theology at Belmont Abbey College in Belmont, N.C.
Read about the new Immaculate Conception Church in Forest City, and see a photo gallery of its beautiful artwork here.