Earlier this month, I responded to a number of objections about Mary’s sinlessness raised by a non-denominational reader. That same reader responded, via e-mail. One of his arguments against the Immaculate Conception goes like this:
Francisco de Zurbarán,
Immaculate Conception (1635)
Does it concern you that your statement was based on a dogma, the Immaculate Conception, a doctrine, incidentally, rejected by Thomas Aquinas and Ansalen, imposed on the Catholic Church in 1854 by Pius IX? Ten years later, the same pope imposed his infamous “Syllabus of Errors”, which condemned virtually every civil liberty, and was rejected by virtually all Catholics Six years after that, he had the last of the papal states ripped out of his grasping hands by the Italian army. Pius also gave the Church the ex-cathedra-infallible pope and canonized Pedro d-Arbus, a fifteenth century inquisitor who presided over the forced baptism of Jews in Spain. If you reject the syllabus, and I would be surprised if you didn’t, how can you justify accepting the Immaculate Conception? Wouldn’t that make you a cafeteria Catholic?
And remember, this is the reader cherry-picking Christians out of history. If even the ones he cherry pick sound like Catholics on the issue of Mary, could it be that it’s because Catholics are the ones who hold the historic view of Mary? The lack of Mary-bashing prior to the Reformation is because all generations of Christians prior to the Reformation, like those in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, considered and called Mary blessed. (And yes, I feel comfortable calling this Mary-bashing: elsewhere in his e-mail, he suggests that Mary may have been an apostate).
|Blessed Pope Pius IX|
Having addressed Aquinas and Anselm, what to make of the rest? The Immaculate Conception isn’t true because Pope Pius IX lost control of the papal states? This line of argumentation, such as it is, strikes me as logically incoherent.
But of course, we don’t believe in the infallibility of the definition of the Immaculate Conception because of Pius’ personal sanctity, any more than we believe in the inspiration of Galatians because of Paul’s personal sanctity. In each case, we’re trusting the Holy Spirit’s ability to work through flawed human instruments.
The “cafeteria Catholic” argument is similarly lame. If the only thing necessary to debunk Catholicism is to show that one of the popes was a sinner, the Church would have been done away with a long time ago. By Her own reckoning, the first pope, St. Peter, denied Christ three times. We don’t sweep this under the rug. We read the account of it every Palm Sunday.
So no, there’s no obligation of Catholics to agree with literally everything that the pope says or does, nor does papal infallibility say anything remotely like that. Since the reader references the definition of papal infallibility (that it consists of ex cathedra statements, which Vatican I defined), I think he knows better. Spreading this mischaracterization of papal infallibility only poisons the waters.
The lynchpin of this argument is in the reader’s claim that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was “imposed on the Catholic Church in 1854” by Pope Pius IX. This is really two claims: (a) that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was imposed, from the top down, upon the Church; and (b) that the doctrine was imposed in 1854. Both of these claims are demonstrably false.
Back in 1661, Pope Alexander VII declared:
Piero di Cosimo, Immaculate Conception (1505)
“Concerning the most Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, ancient indeed is that devotion of the faithful based on the belief that her soul, in the first instant of its creation and in the first instant of the soul’s infusion into the body, was, by a special grace and privilege of God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, her Son and the Redeemer of the human race, preserved free from all stain of original sin. And in this sense have the faithful ever solemnized and celebrated the Feast of the Conception.”
Now, he said that in 1661, and even then, he’s able to refer to belief in the Immaculate Conception as both (a) a devotion of the faithful, and (b) an ancient devotion. If that doesn’t debunk the notion that the dogma was imposed by the papacy in 1854, I don’t know what would.
Such was the situation the doctrine found itself in for countless centuries: it was believed by ordinary Catholics, celebrated throughout the Church as the Feast of the Conception of Mary, periodically nodded at by the papacy, but not formally defined. In the encyclical defining the dogma, Pope Pius IX describes the groundswell of pressure. And rather than it being pressure from the top down, the pressure is from the grassroots of the Church:
Accordingly, from ancient times the bishops of the Church, ecclesiastics, religious orders, and even emperors and kings, have earnestly petitioned this Apostolic See to define a dogma of the Catholic Faith the Immaculate Conception of the most holy Mother of God. These petitions were renewed in these our own times; they were especially brought to the attention of Gregory XVI, our predecessor of happy memory, and to ourselves, not only by bishops, but by the secular clergy and religious orders, by sovereign rulers and by the faithful.
The papacy was hardly in a hurry to solemnly dogmatize this doctrine, and it did so only after extensive entreaties from ordinary Catholics, and from the bishops of the world. To characterize this as some of nineteenth century imposition of papal power is either ignorant or dishonest, and bad history in either case.