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Why did the Dominicans oppose the Immaculate Conception? - Simon Francis Gaine OP

Updated: Oct 17, 2021

Fr Simon Gaine OP has kindly provided the CMS website with the paper he delivered on 8th December 2018 at the conference 'Miraculous Conceptions: The Origins of Mary and Jesus in Theology and Story-telling'.

I’ve been asked to speak today on why the Dominican Order was so adamant in its opposition to so Roman Catholic a doctrine as the Immaculate Conception of our Lady. Speaking here at St Mary’s University, of which the Immaculate Mother of God is patroness, I’m very conscious of the task set before me, especially because I am no expert in this area, and have only a standard story to tell.

As you know, the doctrine teaches that, while you and I were conceived and born in original sin, Mary was conceived and born without original sin. It’s not altogether easy to say what there means, because over the centuries there has been confusion about what original sin is. But I am going to take it as Catholic teaching that original sin is a kind of death of the soul, which happened to the entire human race at the time human beings, made in the image and likeness of God, were first in existence. The Church teaches that the first human beings were constituted in a state of familiarity with God, what we call a state of grace. But through an initial turning away from God, this state was lost for the whole human race. I am going to take it that all it takes for a human being to share in this loss of grace is for a new member of this human family to come into existence by human power, by generation within the natural order, one way or another. As soon as any of us was generated by human power, we became a member of a family that had lost grace, and we shared in that loss. This absence of grace, this gap where the grace of the Holy Spirit should have been, is original sin. In all this I am following teaching pretty much common to the Dominican friar, St Thomas Aquinas, and the Franciscan friar, Bl. Duns Scotus, both famous thirteenth century theologians, who are very important to the story I am telling today.

Now, according to traditional Catholic theology, Jesus did not share in this loss of grace, did not inherit original sin, because his conception is not from human power, but from divine power: it is, strictly speaking, a miraculous conception. In the case of Mary, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is saying that, although conceived by human power in the ordinary way, unlike Jesus, Mary also does not share in this loss: she too does not inherit original sin but is filled with grace from the first moment of her existence. While Duns Scotus was a great advocate of the Immaculate Conception at the turn of the fourteenth century, his earlier Dominican confrere, Thomas Aquinas, was not.

Before going in to what the Dominican reasons against the Immaculate Conception were, we should probably say something about what they weren’t. Sometimes I hear it said that Aquinas was against the Immaculate Conception because he thought that, in the normal development of the human embryo, the immaterial soul didn’t arrive until after conception. But you needed a soul in order to have or not have original sin. But this meant that Aquinas wasn’t able to think of an Immaculate Conception because there wasn’t yet a soul at the time of conception that could either receive or not receive original sin. And sometimes Aquinas’s out of date biology is used to excuse him of not endorsing the Immaculate Conception: If only he had known that the soul actually arrived at conception, he could have accepted the Immaculate Conception, I’ve heard it said.

Now it’s good for us to know about Aquinas’s basic biology here, but not because it explains why he didn’t believe in the Immaculate Conception. It’s good for us to know about this, because lots of the theologians during this period held to the same kind of embryology, which is now scientifically out of date. Most of them, I think, thought that the soul arrived some time after the conception of the body, once the body was far enough along in its development. What everyone was really debating about was whether or not Mary had original sin at the time her soul arrived, whenever it arrived. So I want you, for the moment, to forget about the whole question of when the soul arrives, because that it is not what was important here. What was important was whether Mary had original sin, the lack of grace, or was full of grace, at the moment her soul came into existence, whenever that was. Now Aquinas thought that when Mary’s soul came into existence, it contracted original sin, but that was not because he thought the soul came later than conception. That was not the key point.

The real issue for Aquinas, and for everyone else who opposed the Immaculate Conception, was that giving this dignity to Mary seemed to take away from the dignity of Christ. I don’t want you to think, though, that there was a general competition between the dignity of Christ and the dignity of Mary. In general, theologians see Christ as having greater dignity the more he gives gifts to us. So if he gives greater gifts to us, that’s actually good for his dignity as the gracious giver of gifts. So the more gifts he gives to his Mother, the more he himself is dignified as the giver of all good gifts. This means that, the more Mary’s dignity is increased as the recipient of graces, the more Christ’s dignity is increased as the giver of these graces. That’s the general rule. The point is, though, that at some point a boundary might be crossed in our ascribing dignity to Mary, and Mary might be thought of as receiving so much, too much, that Christ’s dignity starts to be undermined rather than affirmed. The question is whether saying Mary too did not inherit original sin crossed this boundary.

Aquinas said it did. Aquinas started from the fact that Jesus is uniquely the Saviour and Redeemer of all other human beings – no one else is the Saviour - and for this redeeming role Jesus is uniquely sinless, including the fact that he alone is without original sin and is the only human who doesn’t need to be saved from sin himself. Aquinas sees the core of this as set out in the Bible, where 1 Timothy 4:10, for example, refers to Jesus as the ‘saviour of all human beings’. The dignity of being Saviour of all other humans means that all other humans need saving, all others need redemption from sin. But you need to have sin, Aquinas thinks, in order to be redeemed from sin. Aquinas doesn’t think Mary ever actually committed a sin, because that would not be fitting for God’s Mother. But she does need some minimal sin to be saved from, and so she inherits original sin, and then, before she is born, God removes that original sin by sanctifying her, by pouring into her the sanctifying grace of the Holy Spirit, while she is still in the womb of her mother.

This presentation satisfies Aquinas that Mary is as pure as possible: she is cleared of original sin before birth, and never actually commits a sin herself. But it also satisfies Aquinas that she really is saved by her Son, just like everyone else, because she had something to be saved from, namely, original sin. If we think of redemption from sin like being healed of a disease or something like that, you actually need to be sick in order to be healed. If you were never ill, you can’t be cured of an illness. And that’s what redemption or salvation is, for Aquinas, a kind of healing. I want to invite you to think in terms of original sin as like a wound caused in someone by, say, a sword. You need to have the wound first in order to be healed of the wound. That’s what Aquinas thinks. Saying Mary never had the wound seems to be saying she was never healed, never saved. But, according to our faith, Christ heals – saves - everyone but himself, and so Mary must be included in that.

Now I want to make the point that there wasn’t anything especially Dominican in all of this at the time. Aquinas wasn’t taking a particularly Dominican stand, although this was the line all the other Dominicans took. The point is that this is pretty much what all theologians thought in the thirteenth century. The Franciscans were against the Immaculate Conception as much as the Dominicans, and they all had pretty much the same arguments against it. Being against the Immaculate Conception wasn’t particularly Dominican back in the thirteenth century. But back to Aquinas.

Now there does seem to be a problem with Aquinas’s argument, a kind of gap in the argument. Like everyone else at the time, Aquinas thinks in terms of Mary undergoing a kind of sanctification at some point in the womb of her mother, a sanctification that brings grace, such that the lack of grace in her, that is, original sin, is now taken away by grace being present. Aquinas’s own question in the Summa Theologiae is whether this sanctification takes place before her soul comes into existence or after her soul comes into existence. I’ll just say a little about these options before pointing out that he seems to miss a third option.

So Aquinas asks how could Mary be healed of original sin before her soul existed, given that sin is something that pertains basically to the soul. For Aquinas it makes no sense to talk about original sin or any sin without there actually being a soul present. So there can be no sanctification in the womb prior to the existence of Mary’s soul. The only other option Aquinas looks at is sanctification after the soul is in place. Here we clearly have a healing of a wound that is already there to be healed. In terms of the image I have used, the sword has already done its work, the wound is there, and then afterwards the wound is healed. But what about a third possibility, namely, that sanctification happens at exactly the same moment as the appearance of the soul, not before, not after, but at exactly the same moment? Aquinas doesn’t seem to consider this, and I’m taking it that he thinks it wouldn’t count as a healing. He certainly thinks that it’s possible for a soul to come into existence with the gift of grace at exactly the same moment. That’s what he thinks happened with Adam and Eve, and he pretty much thinks something similar with the angels: they also had grace at the very moment of their creation. But, of course, in none of these cases did Aquinas think of grace as healing them of a wound. Grace does more things than heal you, on Aquinas’s view, and Adam and Eve and the angels had no need of healing at the very first moment of their existence. Grace was there at the very most moment of their existence, but grace did things other than heal them. I guess Aquinas thought that if Mary’s soul had grace at the first moment of her existence, she wouldn’t have needed healing, and that grace would have been doing another job. But Aquinas doesn’t really spell it out, and I think this leaves a gap in his account.

The gap, however, was filled by Scotus at the very end of the century. In contrast to Aquinas, Scotus explicitly explored the possibility that Mary was sanctified at exactly the same moment that her soul appeared. Now Scotus didn’t want to draw the conclusion from this that Mary wasn’t saved by her Son, because, just like Aquinas, he was convinced that Mary was saved by her Son, just like everyone else. So Scotus suggested that Mary was saved, but in a different – better – way from everyone else, but she was still saved. The idea is that she was saved from original sin not by the healing medicinal treatment that we have from grace, but by a kind of preventative medicine, a grace that prevented her from contracting original sin. We all know that we can prevent disease, prevent injury, as well as be healed of those things after they actually appear: there is such a thing as preventative medicine. Scotus is convinced that Mary would have contracted original sin, just like the rest of us. However, in virtue of the grace of her Son who was to come, what would have otherwise happened, didn’t happen. Mary would have had original sin, but she didn’t, because grace intervened. So there is no before and after in time here, where original sin comes into Mary first, and then afterwards grace removes it, as with Aquinas. There is a kind of before and after, logically speaking, because Scotus recognises that if grace prevents original sin, we have to think logically of original sin on its way first and then grace dealing with it second. But this before and afterwards is not a before and afterwards in time: God gives his grace at the very moment Mary would have received original sin, that is, at the very moment her soul came into existence. This is Scotus’s theory of how the Immaculate Conception was possible as a perfect way for Mary to be redeemed by Christ. In terms of the image I have used of a sword inflicting a wound, on Scotus’s account the sword of original sin is coming down on Mary, but just at the crucial moment it is parried by the sword of grace: the sword of grace prevents the sword of original sin from wounding Mary, and in this higher and better way she really is saved by God from the sword of original sin.

So far, so good. Scotus has filled the gap in Aquinas’s argument by giving us a way Mary can be sanctified not before or after her soul appeared, but at the very moment it appeared, and he has shown that this doesn’t necessarily mean Mary didn’t need saving from original sin: this was a more perfect way of saving her from original sin, as would be appropriate for the Mother of the Saviour. What we see during the fourteenth century is Scotus’s argument gradually becoming known and gradually catching on. But the thing is that it catches on much more quickly with members of his own Franciscan Order than it did with the Dominicans. It does catch on with some Dominicans. For instance, the English Dominican, Simon Bromyard, thought that when Aquinas said that Mary’s sanctification came after her contracting original sin, this before and after could be interpreted in Scotus’s more logical way rather than as a before and after in time. In that way even Aquinas could be interpreted as favouring the Immaculate Conception. However, Dominican approval of Scotus’s argument moved forward at a much slower pace than it did among the Franciscans. This meant that by the end of the fourteenth century, there was now a lot of support for the Immaculate Conception among the Franciscans, but only a bit among the Dominicans. And this meant that from the end of the fourteenth century onwards, it became something of a Dominican thing to oppose the Immaculate Conception, just as it had become something of a Franciscan thing to support it.

The fact that Aquinas, who had just after the time of his death been something of a suspect theologian, was made a saint in 1323 and his theology cleared of any suspicion at the University of Paris in 1325, meant that some Dominicans thought his opinions now had a special theological authority and it would be heresy to go against them. This led to the outbreak of a big theological controversy at Paris in 1387, when a Spanish Dominican called Juan de Monteseno proposed on this basis as part of his work for his doctorate that the Immaculate Conception was heresy. The outcome was that Monteseno lost, and the Immaculate Conception wasn’t heresy, and the general approval given to Aquinas didn’t mean you had to agree with everything he said. Aquinas’s opinion that Mary contracted original sin wasn’t heresy, but nor was the Immaculate Conception. But although Aquinas’s opinion hadn’t been ruled out, the supporters of the Immaculate Conception had been on the winning side here, and it was their position that went from strength to strength. Monteseno was sentenced to imprisonment because he wouldn’t back down. He actually managed to get away before he was imprisoned, but some of his Dominican supporters went to prison instead. Already it was clear that the Dominicans were backing the wrong horse. Antagonism blew up from time to time from the fourteenth right through the seventeenth centuries, with Dominicans having to be restrained from time to time from preaching against the Immaculate Conception and against its Franciscan advocates. In 1482 Pope Sixtus IV forbade the Dominicans from calling their opponents heretics. The pace of Dominican approval of Scotus’s argument would eventually start to pick up in the sixteenth century.

So, as time went on, it did become quite a dangerous thing for brave Dominicans to oppose the Immaculate Conception in public. One example was the trouble stirred up in Seville in 1615, when a Spanish Dominican happened to mention in a sermon in the church of some Dominican nuns that he didn’t agree with the Immaculate Conception. The locals marched on the Dominican priory in order to burn it down, but were prevented from doing so by the authorities. Their protest turned then to composing poems and songs in favour of the Immaculate Conception, together with putting out flags and banners and letting off fireworks. It wasn’t too long after this that the popes moved to confine Dominican opposition to the Immaculate Conception to private theological discussion. In terms of the Church’s liturgy, the doctrine also triumphed. More and more Dominicans were writing in favour of the Immaculate Conception, and it was even claimed that the Dominicans had really been behind the doctrine all along, and that St Thomas himself had actually favoured it!

But before we ask why the Dominicans finally gave in, we need to say something more about what the Dominicans were finding so objectionable about the Immaculate Conception during the period of their opposition. As I’ve said, it was principally that Christ’s dignity of being the Saviour of all was being undermined, if it was being implied that Mary didn’t need salvation because she didn’t have original sin. Of course we’ve seen that Scotus had a solution where Mary’s Immaculate Conception was in fact a higher way of being saved by her Son. However, we need to realise that there were more theologies of the Immaculate Conception becoming articulated from the end of the fourteenth century than just Scotus’s.

One issue was the idea of a ‘debt of sin’. Remember that Scotus said that Mary would have inherited original sin, if Christ’s grace hadn’t intervened. If grace hadn’t come, she would have contracted original sin. But others were saying not just that Mary would have inherited sin, but that she should have done so. On this formulation, Mary should have or ought to have inherited original sin, but grace intervened. This claim sounds much stronger than Scotus’s: she should have or ought to have inherited original sin. It was also expressed by the phrase ‘the debt of sin’. According to some proponents of the Immaculate Conception, Mary had a debt to receive sin, like everyone else, but in her special case her soul received Christ’s grace at the first moment of its existence instead. Some Dominicans, like Juan de Torquemada, uncle of the famous inquisitor, objected to the idea that Mary should have had original sin: they thought no one ought to have sin. But the idea of the ‘debt of sin’ stuck, and even Scotus’s milder formulation that Mary would have inherited sin became seen as just another version of this ‘debt’.

What I want to do now is to look at two different theological theories of the Immaculate Conception, with roots in the late fourteenth, and with which the Dominicans had to deal. The first one tried to soften the idea of the ‘debt of sin’. While some Dominicans had reacted against the idea of a ‘debt of sin’ because they thought it was silly to say that people ever ought to have sin, the Franciscans and other supporters of the Immaculate Conception became nervous of it because it seemed to bring sin too near to our Lady, if you see what I mean. They wanted to keep original sin as far away from her as possible, and so they didn’t just want to say she didn’t have original sin: they wanted to minimise any sense in which she should or would have had it: they wanted to make the debt of sin as remote from her as possible.

Think back to my analogy of the sword. On Aquinas’s view, the sword wounded Mary and grace healed the wound. On Scotus’s view, the sword of grace held off the sword of original sin just at the very moment it was about to cut into her. But, you might think: Why wait so long for the sword to be dealt with just at the moment of wounding? If someone is running towards you with a sword, what about someone disarming them before they even get near you? The sword could be taken away from your enemy while they are still far off, before they even get near you and take a swipe. This scenario is how I roughly represent the theory that the ‘debt of sin’ was dealt with before the debt even got anywhere near Mary: it was a remote debt rather than a near one.

So much for my image. How does this actually work out in a theology of the Immaculate Conception? This depends on separating two things that the Dominicans held together. The Dominicans, following Aquinas, held that, Adam’s sin at the origin of the human race entailed that everyone descended from him by human power would receive original sin. Some supporters of the Immaculate Conception, however, split this into two. Being descended from Adam by human power was one thing, and meant that you only could receive original sin. But a further decree from God declaring that people would or should receive original sin was a second thing. So while being descended from Adam meant that someone could contract original sin, it didn’t mean they actually would receive original sin, unless God put in an extra decree that they would. On this view, Mary could receive original sin because she was descended from Adam, and that would be all her debt of sin amounted to, a remote debt. However, she wouldn’t actually be in line to contract it unless God gave an extra decree that she would, as in fact he did for the rest of us, but not for her.

But what would this mean in practice? Sometimes these theologians brought in a theory of how original sin is transmitted from generation to generation, one that was widely held among Dominicans and Franciscans, but of which Aquinas and Scotus were more suspicious. According to this explanation, your soul received original sin by being infected by your body. It was the body that was first somehow infected in its conception by your parents. When your soul eventually came into existence, it would be immediately affected by this infection in the body, and the soul would contract original sin. If we were to take this idea of a bodily infection seriously, we would be presented with a way that Mary could be sanctified prior to the existence of her soul, just the sort of thing Aquinas ruled out. Just like anyone else, Mary’s body would be infected in the normal way, and that would be the case simply because she was descended by human power from Adam, so that by this infection she could receive original sin. But, whereas everyone else would go on in fact to inherit original sin because of God’s extra decree that they should, with Mary it was different. According to this view, Mary’s body would be purified of infection prior to the arrival of the soul, so that there would be no infection to pass on to her soul when it appeared. You can see here how the debt of sin, expressed in the infection Mary’s body gets, like everyone else’s, is dealt with far off, remotely, before it gets anywhere near Mary’s soul, unlike Scotus’s theory where original sin is dealt more nearly, just at the very moment it is about to strike. Strictly speaking, this new theory involves only a remote debt, because by it Mary only could have had original sin, but she never even would have had it, let alone actually had it. The fact that Mary could have had original sin on this theory often made the Dominicans softer on the theory than the one I am about to expound.

The theory that the Dominicans really, really didn’t like was the third theology of the Immaculate Conception I am going to present, in which there is no debt of sin at all, however remote. This theory is known as Exemptionism. When Monteseno challenged the Immaculate Conception at Paris back at the end of the fourteenth century, it has been argued that his main Fransiscan opponent was already an exemptionist. As time went on, the theory became more and more popular among the Fransiscans and others, until it became even the majority view. It’s not just that it is rejected that Mary would or should have contracted original sin: it is also denied that she even could have had original sin. On this view, it’s not that the sword is parried at the last moment, it’s not that the enemy is disarmed of the sword some way off: it’s the view that there was no sword at all, there was never even was a sword coming at Mary. There was certainly a sword of original sin coming at the rest of us by God’s decree, and all of us were wounded, but there was never even a sword coming at Mary at all: she never even could have been wounded. There was no sword for her to be saved from.

This idea is obviously very different from Scotus’s, but it is put together by disciples of Scotus from various aspects of his theology. One part of Scotus’s theology concerned God’s motive for the incarnation: what was the motive for God to take flesh in Jesus? Aquinas’s answer had been that the motive was our salvation: God came into the world to save sinners. But according to Scotus, God would have become incarnate, whether there had been sin or not. This has an impact on how we might think of God as making his plan for creation and redemption. Now we’re not to suppose that God thinks of one thing in his plan after another. No: God in his eternity conceives his plan all at once. But what God plans has a certain order within it where the different parts of the plan have a logical order among themselves. So in this eternal ordering of his plan by God, one part of the plan comes after another. So when Scotus supposes that God would have become incarnate whether there was sin or not, he is supposing that God plans the incarnation first of all, and that permission for sin comes later: the incarnation is planned as primary, independently of any planning for sin and redemption. Scotus’s disciples lift this order of the divine plan from Scotus.

The next point for these Scotists is where Mary comes in this divine planning. What they want to do is put God’s predestination of Mary before God’s permission of sin. They see Mary’s role as so closely bound up with Christ’s as his Mother, that God’s eternal predestination of Mary has to come right next to God’s predestination of Jesus in the incarnation, they are that close. So God eternally wills first there to be Jesus, then there to be Mary, and only after that allows there to be sin. This means that God’s willing of Mary’s predestination is also independent of, prior to, God’s permitting sin. The Scotists, unlike Scotus himself, didn’t think that Mary would have had original sin at all: it wasn’t even a real possibility with a remote debt. God set things up so that she couldn’t have had original sin at all. So exemptionism doesn’t just mean Mary was exempt from original sin: it also means she was exempt from any idea that she should, would or could have had original sin.

The real problem in this for the Dominicans was that it wasn’t clear how Mary could really be saved on this scenario, because there was no sword, as it were, for her to be saved from, no blow to parry, no sword of which to disarm the enemy. Mary may have grace to fit her to be Jesus’ Mother, but it wouldn’t be a grace to save or redeem her. You can see how this made the Dominicans suspicious of the whole movement in favour of the Immaculate Conception. Where it seemed to be going was to exempt Mary from the very need of redemption, and so undermine Christ’s dignity as the universal Saviour of all human beings other than himself.

However, when the Dominican Cardinal Cajetan was asked by Pope Leo X to prepare a dossier on the Immaculate Conception at the beginning of the sixteenth century, he did distinguish carefully between the different theories of the Immaculate Conception. Thus he was much more against the exemptionist theory than he was against the theory of a remote debt. As far as Scotus’s theory was concerned, he said that it was possible: it might be true that God had done this. However, there was the question of how we know whether Scotus was right or Aquinas was right. Cajetan thought that all we could do was fall back on what the Fathers of the Church, who never distinguished between original sin and a debt of sin, and the saints had to say. Lots of Fathers and saints could be marshalled in favour of Aquinas’s position, but none in favour of Scotus’s. So ultimately it came down to authority. But, as authority in the Church came more and more to favour the Immaculate Conception, so the Dominicans would follow authority and accept it themselves. The fact that Scotus had presented a coherent account of how the Immaculate Conception was possible meant that they didn’t have to feel they were following authority in an irrational way: Scotus had provided reasons that slipped into a gap Aquinas had left. This did not mean of course that the Dominicans in general accepted that every theory of the Immaculate Conception was legitimate. Even today I think you will find that Dominicans will oppose a theory that seems to exempt Mary not just from original sin, but even from being saved. For Dominicans, the Immaculate Conception has to be a real redemption – Mary must really be saved, and not be somehow ‘saved’ in any merely figurative from needing salvation. And all this is because of the dignity of Christ the Redeemer, who has saved every human being, except himself.

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