September 8th, Feast of the Birth of Mary
Some may be surprised to learn that St. Alphonsus, whom the Church recognizes as the most learned and to trustworthy theologian regarding doctrine about the Blessed Virgin Mary, teaches as certain and deserving of pious belief that Our Lady had the perfect use of reason from the first moment of her Immaculate Conception. Mary was no ordinary child in the womb, nor was she a typical infant or young girl.
Rather, according to the Marian Doctor, the Blessed Mary had attained to the use of reason even while in the womb of her mother. Let us consider the reasons for holding this pious belief, and then ponder what it would take for Our Lady to be so exceptionally blessed.
What is being claimed
Firstly, we must make clear what it is we claim when stating that Mary had the use of reason from her conception. We do not intend, of course, that this reason was always or ever made manifest. Unlike St. John the Forerunner, we have no reason to believe that Blessed Mary ever expressed her rationality to the external world through any sudden movement or by any other means.
Further, we certainly do not make Our Lady equal to her Son in his gestation. For, while Mary had the use of reason and, by divine grace, knew many things, we do not propose of her what we hold for Christ, to whose human intellect was given the fullness of knowledge of all created things as well as a certain knowledge of many things that could have been if God had so willed.
However, by comparison to these two (St. John and our Savior), we will be able to come to a much greater understanding of how Mary had the perfect use of reason while in the womb and through her whole infancy.
When stating that she had the use of reason in the womb, we claim that Mary was able to make real acts of faith, hope, and love for God. Further, she loved her neighbor (and all of us) with a great ardor. This use of reason was interior, though it could have been expressed in exterior works, if she had so willed. However, like her divine Son, Mary chose to present herself most of the time after the normal manner expected of a child in her period of growth.
But, her soul! Oh, her immaculate soul! This was an whole world of life! Her soul was always a paradise in which the good God found most delight and sweetest repose. And Mary, having the use of reason, rested there constantly with her Creator.
Argument from authority
The Church presents St. Alphonsus as the “Marian Doctor”, the one theologian who above all others is to be trusted in the doctrine related to the Blessed Virgin Mary. His opinion is of the highest weight, and worthy of serious consideration. Holy Mother Church would have us lightly pass over nothing of what St. Alphonsus says about Mary.
In his classic work “The Glories of Mary”, St. Alphonsus summarizes the consensus of saintly theologians as attested by St. Claude de La Colombiere:
It is not a private opinion only, says a learned author, Father La Colombière (Imm. Conc. s. 2), but it is the opinion of all, that the holy child, when she received sanctifying grace in the womb of St. Anne, received also the perfect use of her reason, and was also divinely enlightened, in a degree corresponding to the grace with which she was enriched. So that we may well believe, that from the first moment that her beautiful soul was united to her most pure body, she, by the light she had received from the wisdom of God, knew well the eternal truths, the beauty of virtue, and above all, the infinite goodness of God; and how much he deserved to be loved by all, and particularly by herself, on account of the singular gifts with which he had adorned and distinguished her above all creatures, by preserving her from the stain of original sin, by bestowing on her so immense grace, and destining her to be the Mother of the Eternal Word, and Queen of the universe. (Glories of Mary, Part II, Discourse II [here])
A reasonable belief
In addition to invoking the authority of St. Alphonsus, we do well to consider the rational argument for this pious belief – rooting ourselves in Sacred Scripture.
It cannot be denied that St. John the Baptist had, for at least a moment, the use of reason while in the womb. This is made clear in the mystery of the Visitation of our Lady.
And it came to pass that when Elizabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the infant leaped in her womb. […] “For behold as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. (Luke 1:41,44)
Now, the plain reading of the text makes it clear that St. John had the use of reason when he leaped in the womb – for it is not a mere natural movement, but a motion of joy which requires rationality. It is contrary to the ordinary sense of Scripture that one who lacks reason could leap for joy. Thus, we do well to claim that St. John had, for at least that moment, the use of reason by which he recognized our Savior’s presence and rejoiced.
Furthermore, this is the interpretation given by the Fathers of the Church and saintly Doctors. Consider the summary given by Fr. Cornelius a Lapide:
“It is a question here of whether the leaping of John for joy was a natural or a rational movement. Calvin thinks that it was only a natural one; but all the Fathers and Orthodox Doctors are of a contrary opinion.
“Origen says, ‘Then first Jesus made his forerunner a prophet,’ and Irenaeus (lib. 3 c. 18) says, ‘He recognized the Lord in the womb, and leaping for joy saluted him.’ And St. Gregory (lib. 3 Moral. C. 5) ‘In his mother’s womb he was filled with the spirit of prophecy.’ So also St. Cyril, St. Ambrose, St. Chrysostom.
“All these maintain that this leaping of John was not only supernatural, but showed an active use of reason, and proceeded from true joyfulness of mind; and this is clear from the words of Elizabeth; The babe leaped in my womb for joy.” (Commentary on Luke)
Thus, we have only the heretic Calvin to support the idea that John had not the use of reason for this moment. On the other hand, we have all the Fathers and Doctors, as well as the plain meaning of the text of Scripture, to claim that John did have the use of reason. We side with the Church, and with the Holy Spirit.
Now, if Mary is full of grace and preeminent in grace, can we possibly suppose that St. John received from her mere salutation a grace greater than she herself had enjoyed? It is impossible! No, if St. John was rational in the womb for a moment, Mary was rational for much more!
When John was filled with the Holy Spirit and cleansed of original sin, he was also given the (at least momentary) gift of reason. How much more must we suppose that, when Mary was filled with the Spirit in her conception and preserved from original sin, she must have likewise been given perfect rationality!
How could Mary be rational while in the womb?
To understand how Mary could have been rational from the moment of her conception, we do well to consider the manner in which Christ was a perfect man when first conceived and had the use of reason. We have written extensively on this [here].
There are three types of human knowledge: Beatific, infused, and acquired. Beatific knowledge comes from the vision of the divine essence, infused from the supernatural gift of intelligible species upon the mind, acquired from sense experience. While, in her first moment of existence, Mary could not have had acquired knowledge, there is no reason to deny her at least some level of infused knowledge – by the influx of grace given in her Immaculate Conception, we may well suppose that many natural and supernatural truths were revealed to her.
When discussing how Christ could be rational in the womb, the Angelic Thomas rightly stresses that the human mind cannot make use of infused knowledge without either acquired knowledge or the beatific vision (cf. ST III, q.11, a.2 [here] and ST III, q.34, a.2 [here]). On account of the fact that the human soul is the form of the body, man cannot ordinarily make use of infused knowledge without turning to knowledge gained through sense experience (specifically, without turning to phantasms).
However, because Christ enjoyed the beatific vision, like the saints in heaven, he was able to know and make use of his reason even without sense knowledge or phantasms.
Thus, it seems, we must claim the same regarding our Lady. In the moment of her conception, she received some passing enjoyment of the beatific vision which enabled her immaculate soul to make use of all the knowledge which had been infused therein, so as to be rational in her conception. From this point, she was further able to make us of this infused knowledge together with some amount of acquired knowledge which could come to the child even in womb.
And, in this manner, we may well suppose that our Lady had the use of reason the whole time she was in her mother’s womb, and obviously after her birth.
O Holy Virgin, Conceived Without Sin! Pray for us who have recourse to thee!