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Immaculate Conception and the 'Theology of the Body'


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Immaculate Conception and the 'Theology of the Body'

By James H. Dobbins, Ph.D.

Summary: How the Immaculate Conception is the perfect embodiment of the 'Theology of the Body'.

Keywords: Immaculate Conception, Blessed Virgin Mary, 'Theology of the Body'

The feast of the Immaculate Conception was established by Pope Sixtus IV in 1476, but it was not until December 8, 1854, that Pope Pius IX issued his dogmatic declaration on the Immaculate Conception, Ineffabilis Deus. In this document, long before John Paul II provided us with his catechesis on the Theology of the Body, we find the seeds of what would become key points in the major work of John Paul II's pontificate.

In opening his chain of reasoning leading up to his formal definition of this dogma, in which he cites the history of belief in Mary's Immaculate Conception held by leaders throughout the Church and throughout its long history, the Holy Father states, "Therefore, far above all the angels and all the saints so wondrously did God endow her with the abundance of all heavenly gifts poured from the treasury of his divinity that this mother, ever absolutely free of all stain of sin, all fair and perfect, would possess that fullness of holy innocence and sanctity than which, under God, one cannot even imagine anything greater, and which, outside of God, no mind can succeed in comprehending fully."

Pius IX goes on to trace the historical view of the dogma in the Church but also gives his reason why God determined it was necessary to preserve Mary from Original Sin. "And indeed it was wholly fitting that so wonderful a mother should be ever resplendent with the glory of most sublime holiness and so completely free from all taint of original sin that she would triumph utterly over the ancient serpent. To her did the Father will to give his only-begotten Son-the Son whom, equal to the Father and begotten by him, the Father loves from his heart-and to give this Son in such a way that he would be the one and the same common Son of God the Father and of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It was she whom the Son himself chose to make his Mother and it was from her that the Holy Spirit willed and brought it about that he should be conceived and born from whom he himself proceeds....For it was certainly not fitting that this vessel of election should be wounded by the common injuries, since she, differing so much from the others, had only nature in common with them, not sin. In fact, it was quite fitting that, as the Only-Begotten has a Father in heaven, whom the Seraphim extol as thrice holy, so he should have a Mother on earth who would never be without the splendor of holiness." He continues later in the document, "Hence, to demonstrate the original innocence and sanctity of the Mother of God, not only did they [Church Fathers] frequently compare her to Eve while yet a virgin, while yet innocence, while yet incorrupt, while not yet deceived by the deadly snares of the most treacherous serpent; but they have also exalted her above Eve with a wonderful variety of expressions. Eve listened to the serpent with lamentable consequences; she fell from original innocence and became his slave. The most Blessed Virgin, on the contrary, ever increased her original gift, and not only never lent an ear to the serpent, but by divinely given power she utterly destroyed the force and dominion of the evil one."

In his catechesis, Theology of the Body, given as a series of Wednesday audiences over a period of about four years, John Paul II opens with the account in Matthew 19 where Jesus is teaching the Pharisees about the indissolubility of marriage. He explains to them that God's view of what marriage should be is still what it was "in the beginning." The Holy Father continues with an in depth explanation of the true nature of marriage in terms of its indissolubility, unity, exclusivity, fidelity, and all the elements that constitute a true marriage. He then continues in his teaching to introduce the concept of the nuptial meaning of the body, which is a central anchor concept for the rest of the catechesis. He teaches us, in audience number 15, "This freedom lies at the basis of the nuptial meaning of the body. The human body, with its [gender], and its masculinity and femininity seen in the very mystery of creation, is not only a source of fruitfulness and procreation, as in the whole natural order. It includes right from the beginning the nuptial attribute, that is, the capacity of expressing love, that love in which the person becomes a gift and—by means of this gift—fulfills the meaning of his being and existence."

This teaching is essential, because John Paul II will later compare the attributes of Adam and Eve being a gift to each other to the condition of fallen man in Genesis 3 where their shame signifies an awareness of the loss of innocence and the introduction of fear, exemplified by the possibility of one person being an object to be used by the other. The original innocence and original unity, experienced and lived fully by Adam and Eve before the Fall, characterized by their original nakedness which signified the absence of fear and their ability to perceive the other interiorly as well as exteriorly -- unable and unwilling to hide anything from each other and having all faculties in harmony and under control of the spirit, was manifested by the essential desire of each to be a gift. Each was gift to the other without self-interest or reservation. Neither was taken or dominated by the other.

After the Fall, not only did Adam and Eve lose their original innocence, unity and gift of integrity, they were also subject to concupiscence, fundamental interior disharmony, and a diminished intellect, as well as a mortal body subject to disease, pain and injury. The interior harmony they previously enjoyed was replaced by a tendency to sin, especially envy, jealousy, lust, and pride.

As Satan watched Adam and Eve in the garden, he understood what God had commanded them. He understood the nuptial meaning of the body and that for Adam it meant he was to love Eve unconditionally and serve her, as Jesus reminded the Pharisees, "For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and cling to his wife." He knew Adam and Eve were giving themselves to each other as pure gift, totally and completely, without reservation. He knew he had to get to Eve before she and Adam could fulfill God's command to be fruitful and multiply, because he wanted to destroy God's plan for all of mankind, not just Adam and Eve, and he could not do that if she had children first. God, on the other hand, also knew this and knew He had to put Adam and Eve to the test just as He had put the angels to the test, a test Lucifer (Satan) had failed miserably. So God withheld Eve's pregnancy until they were tested. Adam and Eve, like Lucifer, failed the test, but with a difference. They fell from grace but were not condemned for eternity. Hope persisted in the promise given in Genesis 3:15.

All children born to Adam and Eve were born after the Fall, and therefore inherited the nature their parents possessed after the Fall, not the nature they had enjoyed in their original innocence. The ability of all descendants of Adam and Eve to be a true gift to each other was diminished and affected by their fallen nature. Their inner disharmony and self-interest precluded them from being a true gift, precluded them from experiencing the true nuptial meaning of their body in relation to each other. They were deprived of original innocence by the fall of Adam and Eve.

This condition remained, for Adam and Eve, for their children, and continues to affect all of mankind to the present day. But in His encounter with the Pharisees, Jesus is calling us back toward that condition of original innocence, back to that standard for marriage set by God. He is giving us the hope we need for true redemption of the body, calling us to recognize the nuptial meaning of our bodies and to live the meaning it represents. Jesus is telling us to be a true gift to each other. But how close can we really get in our fallen condition?

In audience 29, John Paul II explains, speaking of the condition after the Fall, "But that simple and direct communion with each other, connected with the original experience of reciprocal nakedness, disappeared. Almost unexpectedly, an insuperable threshold appeared in their consciousness. It limited the original giving of oneself to the other, in full confidence in what constituted their own identity and, at the same time, their diversity, female on the one side, male on the other." In spite of this, Jesus gives us hope and calls us to seek to regain, with His help, as much as possible, and to live, the true nuptial meaning of our bodies our first parents enjoyed "in the beginning."

We can now ask what the relationship is between the Immaculate Conception and the Theology of the Body. Much of the discussion on why Mary was immaculately preserved from Original Sin has centered on the fact that she was to be the mother of God, and therefore should be pure and free from sin to be worthy of that role. That is true. But we must keep in mind that before she could become pregnant and bear Our Lord, she had to first be the spouse of the Holy Spirit. She had to be able to give herself to God, and do so freely, exclusively, and without thought of self-interest, just as God would give Himself to her. Her gift had to be a perfect gift fulfilling the true nuptial meaning of the body. This meant the gift of herself to God, to be united to God in such an intimate way, could not be tainted by a sinful, inharmonious and fallen nature, which would have necessitated the limitation of original giving of oneself that John Paul II speaks of in audience 29. If her gift of herself to God was to be pure, disinterested, exclusive, faithful, and complete, she had to be able to give herself to God in a state of original innocence so their union could be one of original unity for the kingdom of heaven in a way so unique that it preserved her virginity while allowing her to become pregnant. She had to participate in this union in a state of purity and grace so profound that it could only happen if she was in a state of original innocence, and that means she had to be in the state of being Adam and Eve were in prior to the Fall. She had to be immaculate, and be so from the moment of her conception. She had to be in a state never touched by Original Sin.

God came to her and offered Himself, as He explained through her encounter with Gabriel at the Annunciation, but He also had to respect her as a person. He could not force her consent or impose Himself upon her. He had to relate to her in total respect for her personal integrity and in such a way that she and God would be pure gift to each other. She, addressed by Gabriel with the title Full of Grace, had to give her consent out of love for God without any self-interest. This required that she, the new Eve, fully participate in the original nuptial meaning of her body. She not only had to be able to participate just as fully as Eve did with Adam before the Fall, she had to be able to do more. Eve was unable to resist the temptation of Satan, but Mary was to be the instrument of the destruction of Satan and therefore could not be in a state of a weakened nature to any degree at all. The force of Satan would be unleashed against her, as is clear from the book of Revelation, just as it was against Jesus when He was tempted during His 40 day fast following His baptism. Only in a state of original innocence could she resist Satan as completely as she must. Just as Jesus withstood His ordeal, so must Mary withstand her ordeal. The redemption of mankind depended on her victory as it did on that of Jesus.

Mary had a three-fold role, which continues today. She was destined to be the spouse of the Holy Spirit, mother of God, and destroyer, with her Son, of Satan. In addition, her motherly role would eventually be extended to all of us as our Mother and protector ("Woman, behold your son." Jn 19:26). She not only had to be able to offer the nuptial gift of herself to God to assume her role as the Theotokos, the God Bearer. She also had to be prepared by God to be the one who would bring Satan down. One might ask why, since God could dispatch Satan so easily. God has not given us His rationale, but we can certainly come to some reasonable conclusions. God will not attack Satan one on one. It would be no match since Satan must obey God even in his fallen state. Satan's sin was rooted in pride, and victory over him, in justice, must strike at the center of his pride. What more complete and just way could Satan be defeated than to have a purely human, supremely humble, woman be the instrument of his total defeat. It is interesting that in the typical post-Vatican II scriptural translations of today, when we read the protoevangelium in Genesis 3:15, it says "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel." But the Jerusalem Bible uses the word "It" instead of He, and the footnote says that in the Greek translation, "It" is rendered as He, but in the Latin translation "It" is rendered as she, and notes that the Latin translation is the prevailing translation in the Church. It certainly was prior to Vatican II and was clearly reflected in the text of Ineffabilis Deus. However, recognizing that with God there are no coincidences, one could say that it is both Jesus and Mary who will crush the head of the Serpent, since whatever Mary does is always done by the will of and through the power given to her by God. She is His supreme instrument of good and dispenser of grace...

To accomplish all this, to fulfill all three of these roles, she was graced to be the epitome of the nuptial gift of her body for the kingdom of God, as well as the epitome of the nuptial mystery of femininity in her maternity as the mother of God. She lived, and lives, the nuptial meaning of the body completely and perfectly, in both of its aspects.

Signature ImageSignature:

James H. Dobbins, Ph.D.

Author of Take My Hand, A Personal Retreat Companion

E-Mail: jhdphd(at)gmail(dot)com


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