A huge misconception exists concerning how the Holy Catholic Church comes up with its dogma. This is not surprising – the world has its own way of deciding “dogma,” and the world assumes that it uses the only method known to man. The world’s dogmas are decided by popular opinion – witness the 21st-century popular dogma which mandates that a person should be allowed to “marry” whomever he or she feels attracted to, with the expectation that “good-hearted” people will not put roadblocks on the path to said “marriage.” As more and more people have come to embrace this belief, it has been accepted as “dogma,” and no one is allowed to contradict it. The media have taken up the cause, and now routinely paint anyone who refuses to accept the new definition of marriage as a scum-sucking heretic. The world’s dogmas, of course, blow in the wind – 100 years ago this startling proposal that we 21st-century denizens are now required to believe on pain of ostracism would have run afoul of the sodomy laws. But, things change. Who knows what we will be required to believe tomorrow?
The world views Catholic dogma in the same light, assuming that the Church makes up Christianity as it goes along, assuming that dogma is somehow rooted in popular opinion (which is why so many look to Pope Francis to change the teaching of the Church, seeing as how so many Catholics nowadays find Church teaching on the male-only priesthood, contraception and abortion outmoded.) When the Church proudly points to the “consensus of the Fathers” on issues such as the Real Presence of Jesus in the Holy Eucharist, the world hears “passed into law by majority vote.” In other words, the world assumes that the Church proclaims the Real Presence of Christ as dogma BECAUSE the overwhelming majority of the Church Fathers supported that doctrine. It then follows that if a majority of Catholics lobby for same-sex marriage, the Vatican will cave. The Church’s actual position, of course, is that the Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist is TRUE; the fact that we have mountains of evidence from the first centuries of the Christian era that the doctrine was held by everyone everywhere does not make it any truer than it already is. That so many Fathers bear witness to the truth of the dogma is simply icing on the cake, providing a convenient argument in favor of the belief, but in no way affecting the truth one way or the other.
This is an important point to bear in mind when discussing dogma. There are people who actually believe that the issue of the divinity of Christ was decided by a show of hands. Had the vote at the Council of Nicaea gone the other way, they will tell you, Christians would be fervent Arians, espousing the belief that the Father is God, and Jesus is His son – but not divine. It was just sort of the luck of the draw, a toss of the dice that led Christianity to embrace Trinitarianism. The vote could just as easily have gone the other way….
Protestants will disagree with this assessment (good for them!), but for the wrong reasons (sigh). The Protestant response to this line of thinking seeks to point the skeptic back to the only authority Protestants recognize on this earth, Holy Scripture, insisting that the bishops at Nicaea were simply declaring the plain message of the Bible when they affirmed the divinity of Christ. The Bible, they will tell you, states unequivocally that Jesus is God. Just read through the Bible, they will tell you, and you will find verses such as:
Now this is eternal life: that they know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom You have sent. Jn 17:3
I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God. Jn 20:17
But to us there is but one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we in him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we by him. 1 Cor 8:6
Grace, mercy and peace will be with us, from God the Father and from Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father, in truth and love. 2 Jn 1:3
Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb. Rev 7:10
Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Phil 2:5-7
Wait!! Protestants will tell you – not THOSE verses. THOSE verses make it sound as if Jesus ISN’T God!!
Exactly. The Arians weren’t total idiots, and they didn’t invent their heresy out of thin air. There are many verses in the Scriptures which might lead someone to conclude that Jesus isn’t God. There are also many verses that appear to make the case that He is God. Protestants, clinging to their “sola Scriptura” error, are pretty much bound to believe that the bishops simply affirmed the clear teaching of Scripture. The problem is, the teaching of Scripture wasn’t clear – that’s how the Arian heresy got started! And since the teaching of Scripture wasn’t clear, the authoritative Church declared infallibly that the teaching of Arius deviated from the deposit of truth.
That’s something that Protestants won’t hear of, yet we see the same thing happening at the Council of Jerusalem nearly 300 years earlier. The “Judaizers” were insisting that Gentile converts must be circumcised. The controversy was decided by the apostles in council. Good luck coming up with the Bible verses that those apostles supposedly used in deciding the question: the clear teaching of the Old Testament Scriptures (the only Scriptures available at that point in time) was that Gentile converts must be circumcised. The Council, however, announced simply that “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” to proclaim that circumcision was no longer necessary. A sola Scriptura-based decision? Exactly the opposite! Were the apostles right in their decision? Absolutely! How do we know this?
The Church is indefectible.
“Upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.” By this we understand that God will not allow the Church to formally teach error. Were the Church to dogmatize falsehood, the Father of Lies would have prevailed – it’s as simple as that. Jesus promised that this would never happen. Jesus will never leave His Church (Mt 28:20), and His Church will never leave Him by formally teaching error. He Who is faithful has promised this.
The Church Fathers never proposed that anyone take an opinion poll, formal or informal, on the doctrine of the deity of Christ or on any other issue. Rather, they suggested:
Suppose there arise a dispute relative to some important question among us, should we not have recourse to the most ancient churches with which the apostles held constant intercourse, and learn from them what is certain and clear in regard to the present question? For how should it be if the apostles themselves had not left us writings? Would it not be necessary, [in that case] to follow the course of the tradition which they handed down to those to whom they did commit the churches? St. Irenaeus of Lyons, c. 180 A.D.
According to Irenaeus, the bishops (AKA “those to whom [the apostles] did commit the churches”) can instruct us in following “the course of the tradition which [the apostles] handed down.” Tradition? Remember the advice St. Paul gave to the Thessalonians:
So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us. 2 Thess 2:15
St. Paul did not leave instructions behind only in written form, and neither did the other apostles. Many of the apostles penned no Scripture, and yet spent years verbally instructing those they chose to lead the churches they established. The churches were to follow not only the written commands of the apostles, but their verbal instruction, known as the ‘good deposit,’ as well. We see this reflected in the advice St. Paul gives to St. Timothy, the bishop of Ephesus:
By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you. 2 Tim 1:14
Clinging to the ‘good deposit’ means, among other things, being instructed in how to understand the written word of God. When “there should arise a dispute relative to some important question” as St. Irenaeus put it, the bishops meet in council just as the apostles met in the Council of Jerusalem. Their decisions are guided by Holy Tradition and “by the Holy Spirit” – the same Spirit Who guided the decision of the apostles at the Council of Jerusalem when they proclaimed not “The Bible says!” but rather “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” This is not to suggest that the apostles at the Council of Jerusalem or the bishops at the Council of Nicaea were adding new “truths” to the faith revealed to them by Jesus Christ, not at all – they were condemning opinions that strayed from that truth, namely, the heretical notion that baptism does not save us (contrary to 1 Pet 3:21) and the idea that Jesus was a creature (ignoring Jn 20:28). Dogmatic definitions, such as the one pronounced at the Council of Jerusalem, in no wise add to the deposit of faith; they merely affirm the deposit that was originally given to the Church to believe. Therefore, Catholics believe that Gentile converts do not need to be circumcised, and that Jesus is God and is truly physically present in the Holy Eucharist because we believe that the bishops, in union with the bishop of Rome, have been granted the grace of being able to declare doctrinal truth infallibly so that they may proclaim this truth to the world in the name of Jesus Christ upon Whose promises all of this rests.
This is an important point to make to your Protestant friends who find the dogma of Mary’s Immaculate Conception “unbiblical” and who just can’t wait to point out to you that there were certain Church Fathers who believed that Mary had sinned. Not that those Protestants give a flying Fig Newton what the Church Fathers believe – they just think that Catholics determine their theology by tallying up the Fathers, and they’re sure they’ve got you on this one!
Of course there is biblical evidence of Mary’s sinlessness, most especially the theme of Mary as the New Ark of the Covenant so beloved among the Church Fathers:
The ark is verily the holy Virgin, gilded within and without, who received the treasure of universal sanctification. Arise, O Lord, from the Father’s bosom, to raise up again the ruined race of our first parent. St. Gregory Thaumaturgus
As Christ our priest was not chosen by hand of man, so neither was His tabernacle framed by men, but was established by the Holy Ghost; and by the power of God is that tabernacle protected, to be had in everlasting remembrance, Mary, God’s Virgin Mother. St. Dionysus of Alexandria
O noble Virgin, truly you are greater than any other greatness. For who is your equal in greatness, O dwelling place of God the Word? To whom among all creatures shall I compare you, O Virgin? You are greater than them all O (Ark of the) Covenant, clothed with purity instead of gold! You are the Ark in which is found the golden vessel containing the true manna, that is, the flesh in which Divinity resides. St. Athanasius of Alexandria
The prophet David danced before the Ark. Now what else should we say the Ark was but holy Mary? The Ark bore within it the tables of the Testament, but Mary bore the Heir of the same Testament itself. The former contained in it the Law, the latter the Gospel. The one had the voice of God, the other His Word. The Ark, indeed, was radiant within and without with the glitter of gold, but holy Mary shone within and without with the splendor of virginity. The one was adorned with earthly gold, the other with heavenly. St. Ambrose of Milan
Many Fathers wrote specifically concerning the sinlessness of Mary:
Mary was a worthy dwelling for Christ, not because of the qualities of her body, but because of her original grace. St. Maximus of Turin
Come, then, and search out your sheep, not through your servants or hired men, but do it yourself. Lift me up bodily and in the flesh, which is fallen in Adam. Lift me up not from Sarah but from Mary, a virgin not only undefiled, but a virgin whom grace had made inviolate, free of every stain of sin. St. Ambrose of Milan
Having excepted the holy Virgin Mary, concerning whom, on account of the honor of the Lord, I wish to have absolutely no question when treating of sins—for how do we know what abundance of grace for the total overcoming of sin was conferred upon her, who merited to conceive and bear him in whom there was no sin? St. Augustine of Hippo
O admirable womb of Anne, in which developed and formed little by little an infant all-holy! St. John Damascene
My Lady most holy, all-pure, all-immaculate, all-stainless, all-undefiled, all-incorrupt, all-inviolate . . . spotless robe of Him who clothes himself with light as with a garment . . . flower unfading, purple woven by God, alone most immaculate! St. Ephraem the Syrian
Yet some Fathers, notably Sts. Basil and Chrysostom, were of the opinion that Mary sinned (not as many Fathers as online sources would like you to believe – some Fathers disputed the possibility of her immaculate conception, yet believed that she was sanctified after conception while still in the womb, and led a sinless life). Still, we can state that “The Catholic Church, directed by the Holy Spirit of God, is the pillar and base of truth and has ever held as divinely revealed and as contained in the deposit of heavenly revelation this doctrine concerning the original innocence of the august Virgin — a doctrine which is so perfectly in harmony with her wonderful sanctity and preeminent dignity as Mother of God — and thus has never ceased to explain, to teach and to foster this doctrine age after age in many ways and by solemn acts,” (Ineffabilis Deus) in exactly the same manner that the faithful bishops at the Council of Nicaea insisted that the divinity of Christ was believed from the beginning – despite the fact that the bishops deceived by Arius claimed otherwise! The scriptural references to the sinlessness of Mary can be overlooked or discounted – just as the Arians overlooked and discounted the biblical evidence for Christ’s divinity. Other Bible verses can be misunderstood and misused to make the claim that Mary did in fact sin – just as the Arians misunderstood and misused verses to make the claim that there is no such thing as the Holy Trinity. Discount the one dogma, and you must explain why you do not discount the other. Accept the one, and you have only subjective grounds for refusing to accept the other. The Holy Catholic Church infallibly proclaims both dogmas with the help of the Holy Spirit through Jesus Christ Who is with her always.
And so, we Catholics confess that “the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instant of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin.” This is “a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful,” just as is the dogma of the divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ. A dogma, of course, is either true or false. It is not true simply because I believe it. It is not false because I cannot muster up the faith to believe it. The Church, the very pillar and foundation of the Truth (1 Tim 3:15), proclaims these Truths to the world. Believe them, or don’t.
The Truth remains.
On the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Deo omnis gloria!