Page 6, 5th December 1997

5th December 1997
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Page 6, 5th December 1997 — The Immaculate Conception: how to explain that to a sceptical world?
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The Immaculate Conception: how to explain that to a sceptical world?

BRUCE STEWART looks for a definition for the meaning of this feast which can speak to the people of today

FFR MOST people, the Immaculate Conception

m the Virgin Birth. You can say what you like to try to remove this perverse notion from their minds, but it gets you nowhere. Even some Catholics, who should have been thumped out of the error by nuns long ago, persist in it. Only a year or two back I was coming out of a large London church after the Mass of the December feast, to hear a man in front of me muttering to his companion: "....silly time to have it, really. Should be back in April nine months before Christmas The misapprehension is perhaps inevitable in a puritanical world. Despite all the permissiveness (or perhaps because of it: a piquant thought), sex remains a furtive, messy, and essentially ungodly business. Thus when orthodox Christianity bases itself on a story of a child brought into the world without benefit of sexual congress, that must be an Immaculate Conception. What else could the words mean?

What the words mean, as those of us who have kept a head above the tide know, is that Mary, from the first moment of her personal conception, was free from the taint of Original Sin.

The doctrine is very ancient, and was always accepted at popular level, though Christian scholars had some difficulties about it. St Augustine was particularly po-faced, maintaining that since concupiscence is inherent in sexual intercourse, Mary could not but have incurred Original Sin in being conceived by her parents. St Bernard (surprisingly) agreed with him, and it was left to John Duns Scotus a Franciscan theologian regarded as a nearheretic by his charitable Dominican opponents to come up with the notion that Mary was "pre-redeemed" by Christ, in virtue of the atoning death that he would one day die. Pius IX defined the doctrine for the Church as a whole on 8 December, 1854.

But a further difficulty obtains in clearing away popular confusion. Augustine's ideas are still around, and the very notion "Original Sin" (again for the majority of people) signifies something to do with sex. I was seriously told by an agnostic academic recently that Adam and Eve in the sacred myth "fell" by discovering their sexual difference. That is all that can be meant by eating the fruit of "the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil".

IBECOMES necesssry therefore to explain Original Sin before you can explain the mmaculate Conception. But that is not easy to do. The simplistic explanation is that an historic Adam and Eve committed a mysterious offence against the majesty of God, which had the effect of estranging them and their descendants from grace. Yet there are many perfectly orthodox Christians nowadays who do not accept that an historic Adam and Eve could

have existed, let alone that their indefinable crime was such as to plunge their descendants into a repeating pattern of wars, violent hatreds, ethnic cleansings, rapes and murders.

There is, of course, a perfectly good idea floating about among Christian thinkers these days that the human race did not so much "fall", as "fail to rise". The notion here is that as soon as rational beings had evolved/appeared on the earth, they had a fundamental choice to make, and made the wrong one. They chose to remain earthbound rather than to soar to the spiritual heights of which they were capable. Just as we do to the present day.

Newman in his time wrote of an "aboriginal catastrophe" which a traveller from a distant planet might divine in human history if he happened to beam down and make a study of the race.

Something had gone wrong at a certain point in time. Teillard de Chardin for his part prefers to say that Christ, the promised Messiah, came as a leap forward in evolution.

Jesus offers the means by which we may redress our perverse choice, and so rise from our low estate. This can truly be called a "redemption", because without such help, we would remain abandoned to an earlier stage of our development.

What this does to the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is of course a theologian's nightmare. The odd thing is that I have thought for years anyway that the feast is misnamed. "Inunaculate Conception" is a technical term, straight from the Latin, and a negative concept. It says what Mary is not, rather than what she is. So might you describe the civic and political worth of a man like the late John Smith by saying that he managed to stay out of jail all his life.

What we are really celebrating in the feast of the Immaculate Conception is the holiness of Mary, and I for one would not mind if we actually said so. Is the name the Feast of the Holiness of Our Lady in fact a possibility? The Innocence? (No, No, those sexual overtones again.) The Graciousness? Somehow or other we must get virginal birth and sex generally out of the equation, and show (doubtless to the world's stupefaction) that we Catholics do occasionally have other things on our minds.




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