Thursday, October 13, 2011

Did St. Thomas Aquinas Deny the Immaculate Conception?

In short, yes, but let’s not make more out of this than is really warranted. It is true that in his Summa Theologiae (Third Part, Question 27), Thomas denied that Mary was sanctified from original sin at the moment of her conception. He was wrestling with an apparent conflict: How can Jesus be said to be the Savior of all mankind, including Mary, if Mary had no sin to be saved from? The only way he knew how to resolve this issue was to say that Mary was sanctified not at the moment of her conception, but some time between when she was conceived in the womb of her mother and when she was born.

A Franciscan, John Duns Scotus, was the one who finally resolved this question. He pointed out that there is more than one way to save mankind from sin. In every case but one, God saves a person from sin by pulling him out of the pit of sin once he has fallen in. But, in the singular case of Mary, God saved her in a different way, by preventing her from falling into the pit of sin in the first place. God is still her savior, just in a different and, according to Scotus, more excellent way. Thomas could not have known of this solution, seeing that he died four years after Scotus was born.

But, that is okay. Thomas is the Church’s greatest scholar, but he is still only human. We must also remember that Thomas was only struggling with when Mary was sanctified, not if she was. He still held that Mary was freed from the stain of original sin and that she remained sinless her entire life. Some people take Thomas' denial of sanctification at the moment of conception to mean that he thought Mary was a sinner like the rest of us. But, this is a gross distortion of what Thomas believed.

Ultimately, Thomas was simply doing what all theologians do with matters of the faith that have not been defined by the Church: He was wrestling with the implications of a belief, plumbing the depths of it, ironing out its finer details, seeing how the doctrine in question fits within the larger deposit of the faith. This type of theological work is how dogma develops, and it is a very natural and expected process, as the Holy Spirit leads the Church towards the full knowledge of the truth.

Instead of being scandalized by Thomas’ words in the Summa, we should really be thankful for them. He contributed to the necessary work that brought the Church to a fuller understanding of Mary’s sinlessness. St. Thomas Aquinas, the “Angelic Doctor” … pray for us!

Pax Christi,


Nick said...

I actually understood his words differently. The problem is there is an equivocation between how the term "conception" is used then and now. It's wrong to say he affirmed or denied the doctrine, but as you point out it's very important to point out he taught She was sanctified 'very early on' in St Anne's womb.

QUOTE from St Thomas:
"Now sin cannot be taken away except by grace, the subject of which is the rational creature alone. Therefore before the infusion of the rational soul, the Blessed Virgin was not sanctified.

Secondly, because, since the rational creature alone can be the subject of sin; before the infusion of the rational soul, the offspring conceived is not liable to sin. And thus, in whatever manner the Blessed Virgin would have been sanctified before animation, she could never have incurred the stain of original sin: and thus she would not have needed redemption and salvation which is by Christ, of whom it is written"

So for Thomas, conception was DIFFERENT than today: the body was conceieved, but the soul wasn't infused until some LATER moment. From that LATER moment, the earliest possible moment after he believes She was cleansed. This is different from today where the Church has clarified the soul is created instantly at the moment of conception. So the Formally Defined Dogma was not possible in St Thomas' anthropology.

So really, St Thomas held to 99% of the Dogma, and he basis his argument principally on the fact the Liturgy celebrates the BIRTH of someone which is totally out of character, since most Feasts are about the DEATH of a Saint. Liturgically celebrating the Birth can only signify holiness from the time in the womb.

Nick said...

I hope that made sense

Lee Faber said...

On the other hand, if we were to keep score, that's 1 thesis of Scotus raised to the level of dogma, and 0 for Thomas.

phatcatholic said...

That made perfect sense, thanks Nick! I began to catch one to a possibly different understanding of conception by Thomas when I was preparing this answer, but I write these Q&A's for my column in the Church bulletin so I didn't feel that it would be helpful to dive into such a precise theological point. I realize that my answer is somewhat over-simplified, but I have to write according to my audience.

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