Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Did St. Thomas deny the dogma of the Immaculate Conception?

As we prepare for the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Thomists are forced to face the rather popular criticism: “You know, St. Thomas doesn’t know everything. After all, he denied the Immaculate Conception!”
Beyond the obvious fact that no good Thomist would ever hold that St. Thomas knew literally everything in the first place, and the fact that nearly every person in St. Thomas’ day who held the Immaculate Conception held the dogma in a heretical way (claiming that our Lady did not need a Redeemer), and also the further point that most of the best theologians of the 12th and 13th centuries also seem to have denied the doctrine (including Sts. Bernard, Anselm, Albert the Great, and Bonaventure, as well as Peter Lombard and Hugh of St. Victor); beyond all of that, there is this little point: St. Thomas did not (most probably) deny the Immaculate Conception after all.

St. Thomas’ teaching in the Summa Theologica
In the Summa (ST III, q.27, a.1-2), fighting against the false idea of some who held both that Mary was conceived without sin and also that she did not need to be redeemed by the merits of Christ, St. Thomas refuses to commit himself to the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. It seemed to most theologians (and also to St. Thomas) that, if Mary were conceived without sin, then she would not need a Redeemer – just as Adam would not have needed a Redeemer if he had not sinned. However, we know by faith that Mary was indeed redeemed by Christ, therefore, it seemed to St. Thomas that she could not have been conceived immaculate.
Still, in the Summa, he very clearly states that she was cleansed from sin shortly after conception and while yet in the womb. He holds that her sanctification was preeminent and singular.
While there is certainly some theological confusion in his thought, a good deal of the error in St. Thomas’ consideration of the Immaculate Conception stems from a mistaken understanding of the process of generation and the formation of the child in the womb. St. Thomas (together with others) believed that the body was conceived before the rational soul was created. Hence, his main argument is to prove that our Lady could not have been sanctified before the creation and infusion of her rational soul – and this we can still hold today, Mary was not sanctified before her animation because she was not immaculately conceived before her conception.
However, St. Thomas errs when he goes further and states that Mary was sanctified after her conception – for she was, in fact sanctified in the moment of her conception. Still, even here, St. Thomas' main point is to show that Mary incurred the debt of original sin (which is correct), though he mistakenly also gave her the stain of original sin as well (which is incorrect).
Thus, even in the Summa, St. Thomas is not entirely wrong – and he very clearly wants to place the sanctification of our Lady as close to the very moment of her conception as possible, but he does not yet see how to hold the Immaculate Conception while at the same time holding that our Lady needed to be redeemed by Christ.
Three stages in the Angelic Doctor’s thought
What most people do not know is that St. Thomas’ thought on this issue developed over three stages. The Summa (where he seems to deny the dogma) is the second stage, but in the first and third stages it seems that he believed in the Immaculate Conception.
As a young theologian, St. Thomas commented on the Sentences of Peter Lombard.  In that commentary he wrote: “Purity is increased by withdrawing from its opposite: hence there can be a creature than whom no more pure is possible in creation, if it be free from all contagion of sin: and such was the purity of the Blessed Virgin who was immune from original and actual sin.” (I Sent., d.44, q.1, a.3, ad 3) From this, it is quite clear that St. Thomas affirmed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception when he was first beginning his theological career.
The third stage came in the final period of his life, when St. Thomas commented on the Angelic Salutation (around 1272 or 1273) he wrote: “For she (the Blessed Virgin) was most pure in the matter of fault and incurred neither original nor mental nor venial sin.” There is some textual variance among manuscripts, but sixteen out of the best nineteen manuscripts read as above and show that St. Thomas did indeed end his life holding to the belief in the Immaculate Conception. Further, there are several other places in the later works of the Common Doctor where it seems that he affirms the dogma.
At least this much is certain, St. Thomas ended his life leaning much closer to a belief in the Immaculate Conception and was convinced that our Lady received a singular grace in being free from all sin, both actual and even original sin. Therefore, it is ridiculous and quite unfair (not to mention uncharitable) for people to claim that St. Thomas denied the dogma of the Immaculate Conception.

For a further study of St. Thomas’ view on the Immaculate Conception, consider the excellent book by Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, “The Mother of the Savior” – particularly Part I, Chapter II, Article II: The privilege of the Immaculate Conception (it is here that he discusses St. Thomas’ thought on the matter).


kkollwitz said...

Thanks for this pithy explanation.

A Sinner said...

Of course, Scotus's "solution" implies a "Franciscan" framework in general. I say "implies" and not "requires." I suppose a non-"Incarnationalist" interpretation can still maintain Our Lady's Immaculate Conception, but the theological context in which it was defined implies an "absolute primacy of Christ" in the orders of both Creation and Grace (ie, that even Adam and Eve and the angels DID need Christ, in a foreseen way, for their grace, and that Christ would have incarnated [though not suffered His Passion; a greater good] whether or not man had fallen).

Capreolus said...

Dear Father,
You might be interested to read--if you haven't already, or if you're even able to find a copy--Fr. Norberto Del Prado's exhaustive work: "Divus Thomas et Bulla 'Ineffabilis Deus.'"

He treats of the language and concepts regarding active and passive conception, St. Thomas's variation in language from the Sentences' commentary to the Summa and beyond, and the opinions of the Commentators. Fr. Del Prado, O.P., adheres closely to the dictum that "Divus Thomas semper loquitur formalissime."

All the best regards to you and your fine work here!
Fr. Johnson

Veronica said...

Are you sure about St. Bonaventure, Father, agreeing with his friend, St. Thomas, about this?

Mick Jagger Gathers No Mosque said...

Dear Father. Thank you for that explanation.

Without even looking-up the correct answer, I remember from the acronym WOW that it was William of Ware, not The Angelic Dr. who first got this right, right?

I was in a Trad Study Group back in Portland, Maine and I was really surprised that StThomas didn't know this :)

Really...I thought he knew everything

Anonymous said...

What mistaken notion about human generation? Since St. Augustine until the 19th century the Church taught that the human body began at conception but that the human soul was infused only at a later time - at least 40 to 80 days later. FLAMEN

Anonymous said...

What mistaken idea about human generation? Since St. Augustine until the 19th century the church taught that the human body began at conception and the human soul was infused 40-80 days later.

Alfred said...

What mistaken idea about human generation. From St. Augustine until the 19th century the church taught that the huiman body began at conception and tht the humaan soul was infused 40-880days later.

Alfred said...


Joe @ Defend Us In Battle said...

Thank you for that concise summary of St. Aquinas' thought. This is very helpful!

Nick said...

This reminds me of a theological question... Will development of doctrine continue to the end of time, or will it stop prior to the time of the Antichrist?

Stacy Trasancos said...

Excellent and inspiring, as always. Goodness!

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Alfred (Flamen),
I have no idea what you are trying to say ... perhaps there is a language problem?

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Yes, indeed, even St. Bonaventure had erred on this point ... but (given the time) it is certainly understandable.
The specific citation is: III Sent., dist. 3, q.27.

Blessed Duns Scotus (who followed in the Bonaventurian school) is often credited as the great defender of the Immaculate Conception -- though, I have tried to show that St. Thomas himself sets the theological foundations for the dogma (and also seems to have believed in it by the end of his life).

Peace to you always! +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Thank you for the reference to Del Prado's work!
I will see if I can get a hold of it somehow.

Mick Jagger Gathers No Mosque said...

Dear anonymous re ensoulment. That is the argument of the Josef Mengele Society - abortionists.

While the Angelic Dr wrote about that issue he also firmly maintained the Tradition of an absolute, complete, and total ban on abortion.

No, it is the Church of the Angel of Death, the followers of Mengele (an abortionist in So America) who try and abuse the Angelic Doctor's teachings to make it seem as though he would likely support early abortion.

jeremyschwager said...

Thank you for this explanation. I was not aware of St. Thomas' later thought on the Immaculate Conception.

Josemaria Paulo Jeromino Martin Carvalho-Von Verster said...

Father Ryan

Even if St. Thomas Aquinas was in Error early in his life before believing in the Immaculate Conception,is Thomism still The only valid system of Catholic theology?

mormorador said...

I think that the material in I Sent. does not actually make the point that the author requires; the first give away of this is the fact that the discussion is in 1 Sent D44. I.D.44 is on the power of God to create things/the universe/the humanity of christ etc better. It is NOT focused on issues of the immac. conc. at all; this example just added to the mix of arguments.
Aquinas' response is against the Anselmian challenge as follows:
it was fitting for the virgin which God prepared for his only-begotten son that he make her shine in a degree of purity, which nothing greater that is less than God can be understood. But God can make nothing equal to him in goodness and purity. Thus it seems that he could not make anything better than the virgin. (Anselm Concep. Virg. ch. 18).

The way this issue is framed, note, has no bearing on the question of time, and transiting from sin to being cleansed of sin slightly after conception, or being in permanently in a pure state. Indeed, questions of acquiring a pure state versus having it from the start are just not resolvable, and the concept of purity at issue for the argument doesnt impinge on it.

Aquinas' response is as follows:
To the third videtur, it needs to be said that purity is held out by retreat from a contrary; and therefore something created can be found which nothing more pure can be among created things, if it has not been stained by any contagion of sin; and there was such purity in the blessed Virgin, who was free from original and actual sin. She was, however, below God, in as much as there was in her a potential to sin. But goodness is increased by approach to the term which is infinitely distant [distat in infinitum], namely the highest good. Whence for any finite good anything can be better.

The point about this response is that the past-tenses (perfects and imperfect-pasts) fit with the entire question, which Aquinas asks about what God could have done [potuerit]. It just says that The BV was without orig. sin; there is no implication about process at all.

Note that this reading makes Aquinas more consistent across his works, and removes the 'flipflop'. Given that it also makes better sense of the text (respecting that the immac. concept. timing issue is not in play), but it is instead a broader disquisition on the broader issue of God's power. As a result, I think the early-career view of Aquinas as holding the immac. conc. doctrine you impute to him wont work. It is possible that your argument for doctrinal change still works because of a change from ST to the Angelic Salutation; I havent looked at the text, but frankly Id be dubious, on the interpretive grounds that the prayer just isnt addressing the issue with the refinement our question requires. (Clue again: its a *prayer*).

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

First, please limit the length of your comments ... that last one was way too long and in-depth ... it was more a blog-post than a comment.

In any case, Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange (who was an expert in Thomism if ever there was one) was convinced that in the commentary on the sentences St. Thomas held the Immaculate Conception (though, of course, he did not use those specific words).

The point St. Thomas was making (early on) is that Mary had no sin and never had any sin (not even original sin) -- this is why he said that the only thing that made her less than God was the "potential to sin" (hence, he clearly held what we today call the "Immaculate Conception").

And (truth be told), St. Thomas went too far in his early writings because, in addition to the potential to sin, Mary also had the debt of original sin (even while being immaculately conceived).

I hope it is clearer now!

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

No, Thomism is not the only valid system in Catholic thought ... personally, I am convinced that it is the best system, but it is not the only one.

Catholics are free to be Scotists, or Augustinians, or Bonaventurians ... not to mention the many Eastern schools of thought!

But it is good to know that St. Thomas did not deny the Immaculate Conception after all ... far too many people take this cheep shot, and they are liars.

Josemaria Paulo Jeromino Martin Carvalho-Von Verster said...

Thanks for Clearing This Misconception about Thomism!

mormorador said...

My point was that the 1 Sent. text you cite is compatible with the position (of ST) that
she was cleansed from sin shortly after conception and while yet in the womb, and such a position makes Aquinas consistent across time, and consistent with the Dominicans of his day etc (i.e. a decent contextualised reading). Sorry about the lengthy post, but a matter of evidence, decency and truth was at stake.

Again: in the 1 Sent. text, he only affirms that Mary was cleansed (at some point), it does not deal with whether this happened after conception or at it (embryological issues notwithstanding).
One cannot infer "never had any sin (not even original sin)", as you and GL require from the 1 Sent text, only 'did not have sin (neutral about never/sometimes), such that only below God in potential to sin'. This subtlety kills the inference you must make for your alternating reading of AQ to work.

Remember, as Pope Leo said, whoever hates the distinctions of scholastic philosophy hates the distinction between the true and the false! Get ready to make the distinctions, or admit the argument is a flopper.

The authoritative status of G-L as a Thomism *scholar* has to be in doubt - he was a scholar, but also a Thomas-partisan, trying to make Aquinas congruent with dogma after the 19th c. declarations. This project of bending Aquinas' texts for 19th-20th century purposes is perfectly fine for an ideologue in a continuing tradition, but it ain't expertise in Thomism of the sort of scholarly detachment your appeal to authority requires.

Please respond to my argument seriously this time.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

If Mary had ever had original sin, then she would be less than God in more ways than simply being able to sin.
But, in the Commentary on the Sentences, St. Thomas says that the only respect according to which she is less than God is that she could sin.
Thus, it is clear that St. Thomas believed (early on) that she was conceived without original sin.

Further, if we though of Mary as conceived with sin and then purified later ... we could thing of yet something more pure, namely one conceived without original sin ... but St. Thomas held that Mary was the most pure of all that can be thought among created things ... thus, it is clear that he held that she was immaculately conceived.

Now, will you get serious and show where the flaw in my argument is?

mormorador said...

Dear Fr, I included translations and context of the 1.Sent article to obviate exactly this sort of misreading.

Your comments then mine; your response needs unpicking, and having done so, the failure of the original argument becomes clear.
You write:
If Mary had ever had original sin, then she would be less than God in more ways than simply being able to sin.
**This just isnt in Aquinas' text here.**
But, in the Commentary on the Sentences, St. Thomas says that the only respect according to which she is less than God is that she could sin.
** No, the Latin and my trans. do not say that that was the only way she is less than God is impeccability. It only says that She was, however, below God, in as much as (inquantum) there was in her a potential to sin. Nothing makes this an 'only', and the very context (remember, it is Anselm who wants Mary as maximally-pure-and-only-God-is-purer/better; Aquinas is exactly trying to carve out the possibility of Mary's being possibly betterable (read the whole paragraph again pls, and look at the argument at play - it has nothing directly to do with immaculate conceptions in the timing sense, but degrees of perfection).**

You say:
Thus, it is clear that St. Thomas believed (early on) that she was conceived without original sin.

**This doesnt follow. He only says she was without original sin; and that, in this context of discussion of possible good or better ways of creating the world, does not address conceived-with issues.**

You say:
Further, if we though of Mary as conceived with sin and then purified later ... we could thing of yet something more pure, namely one conceived without original sin ... but St. Thomas held that Mary was the most pure of all that can be thought among created things ... thus, it is clear that he held that she was immaculately conceived.

**This is perhaps an ingenious argument; but (1) it isnt Aquinas' D. 44 arg (2) Aquinas is exactly arguing against a conclusion founded on this sort of 'nothing greater conceivable' sort of move of Anselm. Note (3) that it is *Anselm* that uses the language reminiscient of possible conceivable perfections (again, see my translations). Aquinas quietly sidesteps this ontological-argument style language and doesnt entangle with it, so why impute it to him?
(4) We havent even touched on the Latin, and on Aquinas' response to the whole question, where he makes points on absolute vs comparative perfection and evaluation that undermine this little ingenious argument that you tried to impute to Aquinas 1 Sent.

Further points (again): my reading makes Aquinas maximally consistent across his works, and deals with the context of the article and distinction of the Sent. Comm. It does not impute things to Aq that are not in the Latin. It is written without an agenda to make Aquinas on the right side of debates decided definitively only centuries later (surely a bad scholarly methodology, although, as a partisan, one is welcome to it).

Might I suggest you have gone off half-cocked on the basis of ideology, and would do better to read these snippet-paragraphs of Aquinas in a broader context of his concerns in Sent 1. D.44 - the goodness and changeability of the universe. (Or, better, read D.42-44). In terms of sec. lit, O. Blanchette's book on the perfection of the universe is the best guide to Aquinas' mind on this distinction.

PS I used Parma vol 6, p. 533. I'd be really interested if you used Mandonnet for this and there is a variation in MSS here.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

You need to start your own blog ... that last comment was way too long and involved.

My short reply:
St. Thomas says that Mary was less than God "inquantum" (insofar as) she was able to sin ... rather than inquantum she incurred any sin.
If he intended that she had once had original sin, but then it was washed away -- then, she would not (necessarily) be any more pure than a newly baptized baby ... but St. Thomas doesn't say that a newly baptized baby is less pure than God inquantum he is able to sin ... but inquantum he has had original sin.
This shouldn't be that difficult to grasp.

Further, it is the accepted interpretation of more than simply the great Fr. R. Garrigou-Lagrange ... even the Catholic Encyclopedia affirms that St. Thomas held the Immaculate Conception when he was young!

Finally, while St. Thomas says that a created thing can always be created "more good" (contra Anselm), yet he clearly says that there could be a created thing "which nothing more pure can be among created things" and then he such "there was such purity in the blessed Virgin".
Hence, I don't know why you say that Thomas doesn't make this argument. Clearly he does!

Now, address those two arguments ... I don't care which edition of the Latin you use.

mormorador said...

TO address them slightly out of order -
The GL and Catholic Encycl. of the old days are partisan sources, and my comments about about appeals to authority above hold. Show me a contemporary Aquinas scholar (last 30 years, not a 'Thomist', in serious academic literature) and I'll give it weight.

First point - inquantum erat "she was able to sin"; this 'was' is ambiguous, referring to whole time or at once; there is no reason to think it refers to all time given we know about Aquinas' views later. While a first blush reading of it fits your reading, because we dont attend to such temporal issues when reading simple 'esse' predication, when we realise the question of timing isnt at issue, we reread it and see it is compatible with a later purification, or purification at a time. The 'was' for his argument only has to be true for a time for Aq's argument to work (indeed, note he uses 'inquant erat' for the conditional, then 'fuit' for the assertions about mary - he is actually being more careful about modality and time than you are, or our translations are capturing him as doing. He says She was (fuit) below God, insofar as there was (erat) in her a potency to sin).

to the third: you say:
yet he clearly says that there could be a created thing "which nothing more pure can be among created things" and then he such "there was such purity in the blessed Virgin".
Correct. But again, you are overintepreting the force of 'fuit' (there was). It doesnt imply 'always was' without further argument, given what we know about Aq's views and the views of people at the time.

Note you did a shift from presenting a argument in Thomas' mouth about thinkable/conceivable degrees of perfection (I say, a la Anselm) back to a more fair representation of Aquinas' own expression, which does not secure the conclusion. Does this mean you concede that your earlier argument was NOT Thomas', and is an Anselmianised Thomism?
Please tell me you can at least see the difference between the first version of the argument you imputed to AQ (the conceivable grades one), and this new version (dealing direct with realities). If not, I fear for your competence in reading the subtlety of texts.

It hangs on the 'There was' and temporal properties, basically. You've overinterpreted the text.

Any comment on maximal consistency?
Any comment on the broader D.44 context?

mormorador said...

Additional point: your initial argument about new-born babies, again, might be ingenious, but it isnt in the 1 Sent text. And decontextualised arguments ex silentio about what Thomas did not say are pretty worthless.

Thomas is not addressing the timing issue in immaculate conc. issue in 1 Sent, and his wording is open enough to accomodate what was then an ongoing controversy. The onus is on you to prove he did uphold it definitively to make your change-of-views reading of AQ work. So far you havent.

Sorry about long posts, but distinguishing between the true and the false requires it. I do not think I am 'padding'.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I agree with you that St. Thomas is not explicitly addressing the timing issue in his commentary on the Sentences -- and this is why he never explicitly says "She was preserved from original sin in the moment of her conception".

However, the whole force of the argument shows that St. Thomas did indeed think that Mary was entirely free from original sin -- making her the most pure among created things (and it is obvious that she must then be more pure than John and Jeremiah, who were cleansed in the womb; more pure than a baby who is cleansed by baptism).
Hence, the whole force of the "was immune from original and actual sin" is that she never had either -- your reasoning would lead us to think that St. Thomas would be ok with saying that she once committed an actual sin, but was later on purified from it ... which is ridiculous.

I don't have anything more to say ... the argument seems obvious to me ... it is the received Tradition of both the Thomistis (like Garrigou-Lagrange) and the non-Thomists (like most of the articles in the Catholic Encyclopedia -- the particular one I referenced is by F. Holweck, who is not remembered as a Thomist but as a Church historian).

I have nothing more to say on this point ... I guess we will have to agree to disagree. +

Alan R said...

This coming Easter will be my second in the Church. I have been consuming Catholic theology as fast as I can but have much to learn. I am grateful for the serious approach taken in the comment section. This is the first time I've ever commented on a blog and it is because I felt compelled to say thank you. I am comforted to know the desire for truth lives in the Church without the need to kill the Mystery of Faith.

Strossmayer said...

Dear Father Ryan,

There is an old translation of St. Thomas' Angelic Salutation online here. In it, the above-quoted sentence ("She ... incurred neither original nor mental nor venial sin.") lacks the word "original" – but I understand there is some disagreement in the extant manuscripts on that point.

I'd like to draw your attention to an earlier sentence, under the heading "Full of Grace". Thomas writes:

"Christ excelled the Blessed Virgin in this, that He was conceived and born without original sin, while the Blessed Virgin was conceived in original sin, but was not born in it."

This seems to agree with Thomas' earlier teaching in the Summa.

Grace be with you,


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