Today is the feast day of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
I think the Immaculate Conception is the most misunderstood doctrine of the Catholic Church. Many Catholics think it refers to Mary’s miraculous conception of the child Jesus when she received the visit from the angel at the Annunciation. I think that people are confirmed in their error when the Church assigns the Gospel of the Annunciation to today’s Mass of the Immaculate Conception (Luke 1, 26-38).
The Immaculate Conception refers to Mary’s conception in her mother’s womb, and means that from the first moment of her conception Mary was free from all sin.
It is a fair question to ask why anyone would want to declare that Mary was sinless at the moment of her conception. I think it all goes back to Saint Paul and Saint Augustine, and their interpretation of the Bible story of Adam’s disobedience in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3).
Saint Paul seemed to believe that because Adam sinned, all his descendants are born in a state of sinfulness (Romans 5, 12-18). Saint Augustine called this state Original Sin, and suggested that people contract this sinfulness in the moment of their conception.
But people believed that Mary was different, that God did not allow her to contract the sinful state at her conception. So they said Mary’s conception was sin-free, or immaculate.
I think the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is the theologians’ way of explaining the belief that God preserved Mary from the sinful effects of Adam’s sin. The proponents of the doctrine of Original Sin teach that, because Adam sinned, every human person, with the exception of the Virgin Mary, is born not only free to sin but actually inclined to sin. They teach that Mary is conceived not only free from sin but also with no inclination to sin.
This leaves me with the question of why God would want to create the rest of us sinful by nature. Do the proponents of Original Sin mean to say that God freely decided to create us flawed with an inbuilt inclination to sin? That would seem contrary to God’s goodness. Or do they imply that Adam, by sinning, forced the divine hand so that God had no option?
In 1893 Cardinal John Henry Newman wrote, “Many, many doctrines are far harder than the Immaculate Conception. The doctrine of Original Sin is indefinitely harder. It is no difficulty to believe that a soul is united to the flesh without original sin; the great mystery is that many, that millions on millions are born with it” (Meditations and Devotions p.84).
The earliest text-book that I remember from my first years in school is The Penny Catechism. My recollection is that it was a small book, both in size and in the number of pages. But it compensated for the smallness in size by the quality of the information it offered.
I remember that it dealt with all religious matters from God and Creation to the Four Last Things (Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell) with a clarity and confidence that left no room for doubt. Its layout was a simple Question and Answer style. Even after many decades, some of the Answers come back to me, and I am left wondering, “What was the Question?”
“About four thousand years” is one Answer that kept coming back to me, but I could not succeed in recalling the Question it answered. I suspected it had something to do with the creation of the world, but I just could not be sure.
Recently I made a lucky strike. Browsing the Internet I was able to locate an old copy of The Most Reverend Dr. James Butler’s Catechism (1821) the forerunner of the Penny Catechism of my early schooldays. The copy must have been badly deteriorated, and large portions were so garbled that it was impossible to decipher them.
In spite of the difficulties, I learned that the Catechism had 69 pages, and that the first Question was, “Who made the world?” But then, wonder of wonders, at the top of page 22, I found what I was looking for: Q. How many years after the fall of our first parents did Christ become man? A. About four thousand years.
I remember always having been impressed by that answer. It was so serenely confident, unchallenged even though it gave no explanation of where that number came from.
The Church allowed that Question and Answer to stand and be taught for more than 100 years before replacing it with n.75 in the revised Catechism of 1951: Did God the Son become man soon after the fall of our first parents? God the Son did not become man for thousands of years after the fall of our first parents. In this way a vague but defensible answer replaced a concise but inaccurate one.
Some people may be troubled at this apparent change in Catholic teaching. But the Church is skilled at maintaining the appearance of unchanging teaching while revising her position in response to new scientific knowledge or changed circumstances and conditions.
I remember an important change in the ordination to priesthood introduced by Pope Pius XII in 1947. In his document Sacramentum Ordinis (Sacrament of Orders), Pope Pius decreed that the ordination of the priest is conferred by the bishop’s imposition of hands on the candidate and speaking the words of the Ordination Preface. This overruled what had been declared by the Council of Florence in 1439 that priesthood is conferred by the bishop giving the chalice with wine and the paten with bread to the person being ordained and saying: “Receive power to offer sacrifice in the Church for the living and dead”.
I was a seminarian at the time of the change, and I remember that it gave a new focus to the ordination ceremony. It relieved the ordaining bishop’s assistants of the duty of ensuring that the candidate’s hands actually made contact with the chalice and paten.
To the majority of people in the Church this momentous change passed unnoticed. But it is a reminder that unchanging teaching is not always what it seems. Pope John Paul II wrote in 1994 that the Church has no authority to ordain women. He closed all debate on the subject by declaring it a definitive teaching (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis May 22, 1994).
In 1870 Council Vatican I defined Papal Infallibility as a divinely revealed doctrine. A substantial majority of the bishops had declared in favor of Papal Infallibility. Some, like Cardinal Newman, believed that the declaration was premature, that the doctrine needed further refinement.
When the Council ended, Newman is reported to have counseled worried Catholics, “Let us be patient, let us have faith. There will be another Pope and another Council”. Newman loyally accepted the Council’s decision, but he did not accept that it had said the last word. We know that the Council of Florence erred in thinking it had said the last word. It is wiser not to claim the last word, but to leave that to God.
In the course of an interview with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (published in 1985 as The Ratzinger Report) Vittorio Messori quotes the Cardinal as saying that when he has time he would like to devote himself to the theme of Original Sin, because the inability to understand Original Sin, and to make it understandable, is one of the most difficult problems of present-day theology.
A century earlier another Cardinal expressed concern about the doctrine of Original Sin. Cardinal John Henry Newman was commenting on problems some people had with the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. He wrote, “Many, many doctrines are far harder than the Immaculate Conception. The doctrine of Original Sin is indefinitely harder. Mary just has not this difficulty. It is no difficulty to believe that a soul is united to the flesh without original sin; the great mystery is that many, that millions on millions are born with it”. (Meditations and Devotions 1893 p.84)
The traditional Catholic teaching on Original Sin is found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994) numbers 374-421. In summary it says that for one act of disobedience Adam lost all graces and privileges, and that this same penalty is passed on to all his descendants.
Like Cardinal Newman I find this teaching difficult. It is an attempt to explain why we are born with sinful tendencies and are subject to death, but it fails to explain why those who did not incur the guilt of Adam’s sin still have to pay the penalty.
In actual fact the Genesis story does not say that Adam was created with the gifts of self-mastery and immunity from death, as the Catechism suggests. These privileges seem to arise from Saint Paul’s interpretation of the story (Romans 5, 12-21), as developed by Saint Augustine and other theologians who coined the term “original sin”. They teach that all descendants of Adam and Eve inherit the same penalty as their First Parents.
This interpretation provides an explanation for the universality of sin and death, but it is now being challenged by advances in evolutionary science over the past 30 years. The main challenge comes from the scientific conclusion that the human race as constituted today, with all its mutations and genetic diversity, could not have come from just one pair of humans. Perhaps that is why Cardinal Ratzinger could say that Original Sin is one of the most difficult problems in modern theology.
I consulted the Catechism of the Catholic Church in the hope of finding something about this challenge of modern science, but I found no reference to scientific findings on evolution in the general index or in the section on the Fall and Original Sin. This is surprising considering that Pope John Paul II in his message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (1996) said that Pope Pius XII in his Encyclical Humani Generis (1950) referred to “evolutionism” as “a serious hypothesis worthy of investigation and serious study”. Pope John Paul II added his own comment, saying that new findings have led us to recognize that evolution is “more than a hypothesis”, suggesting he accepted it as scientific fact.
But if the Roman theologians are failing to keep up with modern science, scientists of faith are meeting the challenge. In 2006 Daryl P. Domning, professor of anatomy at Howard University, published a book, Original Selfishness: Original Sin and Evil in the Light of Evolution.
Professor Domning explains that the long-term study of animal behavior reveals that evolution requires selfishness on the part of living things as necessary for their survival and self reproduction. This powerful tendency to act selfishly is shared by pre-humans and humans alike, but with the emergence of human intelligence and free-will it took on a moral character. Domning says that this inborn selfish tendency in all people is what our tradition calls “the stain of original sin”.
So it does not matter if evolutionary science proves conclusively that the human race today has several pairs of “first parents”. We all have inherited the selfish tendency we call “original sin” from a pre-human ancestor we all share.
What does this teaching do to the doctrine of the Incarnation? Enter John Duns Scotus, Franciscan theologian beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1993.
John Duns Scotus (1265-1308) was a respected theologian who taught that the Incarnation was central to God’s plan from the beginning, not some sort of emergency plan God needed because Adam and Eve spoiled the original plan. Scotus saw Jesus Christ as the beginning and end of all Creation, the human expression of divine love, an example for mankind, saving us by enabling us to rise above our inborn sinful selfishness.
This human expression of divine love included submitting to death, because breakdown and dissolution is the inevitable fate of complex material beings. In the case of human beings, God’s plan links physical death with future bodily resurrection into eternal life.
Cardinal Ratzinger’s concern about the doctrine of Original Sin is well-founded. The state of the Curial version of the Catechism of the Catholic Church shows there is a lot of catching up to be done if Church doctrine is to meet the challenge of modern scientific developments. Failure to do so could very well lead to another Galileo situation.
That is precisely what Pope John Paul II was warning about when he spoke about evolution: “With man, we find ourselves facing a different ontological order—an ontological leap, we could say. But in posing such a great ontological discontinuity, are we not breaking up the physical continuity which seems to be the main line of research about evolution in the fields of physics and chemistry? An appreciation for the different methods used in different fields of scholarship allows us to bring together two points of view which at first might seem irreconcilable”. (Message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences 1996 n.6)
Scientists like Daryl Domning are alert to reconciling scientific findings with the teaching of the Church. It is up to theologians to discern if new scientific discoveries call for new formulations in theology so that true faith and true science may be aligned, like two different mirrors reflecting the one eternal Truth.
In the Greek Fathers of the Church there is an ancient homily which tells us what Jesus did between his death on Good Friday and his rising from the dead on Easter Sunday. According to the unknown preacher of this ancient sermon Jesus went to the abode of the dead to tell them that the gates of heaven were now open to them, and they were free to go there.
The abode of the dead was known to theologians as the “limbo of the fathers”, the place where good people who died before Christ had to wait until heaven became open to them. On the basis of this limbo, Christian theologians invented another limbo, the “limbo of the children”. The theologians invented this limbo for those children who, after the time of Christ, died without being baptized.
Limbo means fringe or margin. The limbo of the children was the margin between heaven and hell. The theologians invented it because they thought the unbaptized children did not deserve the joy of heaven for not being baptized, but did not deserve the pains of hell because they had done nothing wrong.
I remember as a student in the seminary I found this teaching hard to accept. I remember putting it aside into an alcove in my mind labelled “with reservations”.
Some years later I changed my reservations into outright rejection, when one of my sisters had a still-born baby, and I saw how she was treated by the Church authorities. She and her husband were exemplary Catholics. They already had seven children, and the little still-born baby girl was their eighth child. They were told the child would never get to heaven, and she could not even be buried in consecrated ground.
I remember years later searching with my sister for the baby’s grave. We failed to find it because the graves in the unconsecrated part of the cemetery were unmarked. It was then I knew that my instincts were correct in rejecting the Church’s teaching on the limbo of the children. I knew the God revealed in Jesus Christ would not approve it, despite Augustine or Aquinas or other brilliant minds that invented or supported it.
It did not help when Pope Benedict XVI in an interview in 2007 stated that he personally would abandon the teaching on the limbo of the children since it was never a defined doctrine of the Faith. If it was never a doctrine of the Church, why did Church authorities allow such cruel rules and heartless teaching to be based upon it?
On May 10, 2009, the Belfast Telegraph reported that the previous day Bishop Noel Treanor, in Belfast Northern Ireland, blessed an unmarked mass grave believed to hold hundreds of unbaptized babies, some buried as recently as the 1980’s. The bishop stated that the Church wanted to honor the memory of the children, to recognize the grief of the parents, and to undo any errors on the part of the Church.
The bishop’s conciliatory words are an important step in helping restore families who felt hurt and alienated by the teaching and rules that made the Church more like a heartless guardian than the loving mother God wants her to be.
In the meantime I still have reservations about some other teachings which I hope the Church will some day revisit to free them from the fantasies of theologians, and reconcile them with the teachings of Jesus Christ in the Gospel.