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VATICAN LETTER Dec-3-2004 (960 words) Backgrounder. With photo posted Nov. 29. xxxi

Immaculate Conception: Church marks anniversary of difficult dogma

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope John Paul II is leading celebrations of the 150th anniversary of the Immaculate Conception, a dogma that many modern Catholics do not fully understand.

The Vatican is hosting a four-day International Mariological Congress to mark the event, attended by Marian experts -- Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant -- from all over the world. Participants were to join the pope for a commemorative liturgy in St. Peter's Basilica Dec. 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception.

The festivities also include a special "Concert for Immaculate Mary" in the Vatican's audience hall, featuring a number of pieces written in her honor.

Whether the fanfare at the Vatican will reverberate in local church communities is another question.

Some Vatican officials said candidly that while Marian devotion remains strong in the church, the Immaculate Conception is a complex concept that has interested theologians more than the ordinary faithful.

"There's been an incredible dumbing-down of Catholics in the last generation or two, so there's probably a fair amount of confusion about this," said Msgr. Arthur Calkins, a Vatican official and a member of the Pontifical International Marian Academy.

For one thing, Msgr. Calkins said, some people wrongly assume the Immaculate Conception refers to the conception of Christ. In fact, it refers to the belief that Mary, by special divine favor, was without sin from the moment she was conceived.

But the main stumbling block for many Catholics is original sin.

"People today simply are less and less aware of original sin. And without that awareness, the Immaculate Conception makes no sense," said one Vatican official.

The late Bishop Fulton Sheen put it another way in 1974, speaking about the loss of the sense of sin: "It used to be that the Catholics were the only ones to believe in the Immaculate Conception. Now everyone believes he is the immaculately conceived."

Pope Pius IX proclaimed the dogma in 1854, but the idea that Mary was born without the stain of sin did not appear out of the blue. It took shape after a long and complicated theological debate that, in some respects, still continues.

Already in the earliest Christian times Mary was held to be an ideal model of holiness, and by the eighth century Eastern Christians were celebrating a feast in honor of Mary's conception.

Medieval theologians took up the question, but they had to overcome their own biases and biological notions. For example, St. Bernard of Clairvaux argued in the 12th century that the Holy Spirit could not have been involved in anything so base as the conception of a child.

Other theologians were hindered by their belief that the human soul was infused into the fetus 40 or 80 days after conception -- and thus Mary as a conceived unborn would have been subject to original sin until that moment.

For centuries, theologians hesitated to say that Mary was completely free from original sin because they thought it would contradict a major tenet of the faith, the universality of redemption.

In the 13th century, the Franciscan Duns Scotus found a new way to look at it, saying that Mary's special role did not free her from the need of redemption -- it simply required a different form of Christ's mediating grace.

When Pope Pius IX proclaimed the dogma, he cited two key biblical sources. The Book of Genesis relates that God told the serpent that he would "put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers. He will crush your head." Pope Pius and others saw this as a prophecy of the Immaculate Conception.

But their understanding was probably influenced by a scriptural translation now considered inaccurate, which rendered the verse: "She will crush your head." That's why there are still so many statues of Mary crushing the head of the serpent with her foot.

The other passage cited by Pope Pius was St. Luke's account of the Annunciation. The angel Gabriel's salutation, "Hail, full of grace," is understood as recognizing that Mary must always have been free from sin -- an idea being developed and strengthened by Msgr. Calkins and other Marian experts.

In published articles, Msgr. Calkins has also contributed to a still-simmering debate in Marian theology: whether Mary should be recognized as "co-redemptrix," or "co-redeemer," with Christ. The idea is to recognize that, albeit in a secondary and dependant way, no other human being collaborated in the work of redemption as Mary did.

But to many nonexperts, the title sounds as if the church were "putting Mary in the Trinity," as one priest remarked. While that is not the intent of the idea's promoters, the inevitable problem of explanation may be one reason why most Marian experts who met at the Vatican in 1997 opposed such a move; others still support it, however.

Some scholars say the fault line on this issue dates back to the Second Vatican Council. On one side were those who emphasized the analogy between Mary and Christ, stressing Mary's active collaboration in the work of redemption; on the other side were experts who saw Mary as analogous to the church, embodying the ideal of the church's response to the Lord.

The latter group, which views Mary more as "woman of faith" than a "mediator," has dominated Marian scholarship since Vatican II. But some Mariologists view that as a minimalist approach and say it is too intellectual to really inspire devotion.

In a recently published article on the Immaculate Conception in the Rome journal "Divinitas," Msgr. Calkins titled a closing section, "The Immaculate Co-redemptrix." That's a term some Marian scholars are still hoping will find greater acceptance.


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