Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Saints and Fables, Part II...

We commence thus with part II.

Our Lady of Lourdes, 1858. Marian apparitions are almost as old as Christianity and are invariably legendary. Saragossa in Spain claims the first apparition. St Mary is said to have appeared to St James the Greater in 40 A.D to inspire his missionary work. Other early apparition sites include Le Puy in France, and Rome herself, where St Mary is said to have identified the place on which St Mary Major was to be built by a miraculous fall of snow in August. These legends became popular in the fourth century, concurrent with the growth in devotion to the Mother of God and the edicts passed by the Emperor Theodosius which made Orthodox Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. Since that time there have been many apparitions and many visionaries, not solely limited to St Mary (e.g, Santiago Matamoros), some in good standing with the Church (before the Council of Trent the only discernment criterion for apparitions), others not (e.g, Joan of Arc or Savonarola).

In 1830, Catherine Labouré, a novice in the Daughters of Charity, reputedly had a series of visions of St Mary in the convent chapel in the rue du Bac in Paris. In one of these, St Mary asked that a medal be struck. The "miraculous medal," in keeping with the recent trend in Marian art and devotion that emphasized the spotless virginity of the Θεοτόκος at the expense of the motherood, depicts St Mary with her arms outstretched in gesture of benediction, standing on a globe with light emanating from her. Around the edge of the medal is written: "O Mary conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee." The miraculous medal was very popular and must have been worn by millions who wanted protection from hell fire. How deep this popular devotion penetrated is shewn most clearly in two aspects of Bernadette Soubirous' "aquero;" 1, the fact that the "beautifulest lady" supposedly seen in the grotto looked remarkably like St Mary as depicted on the miraculous medal, and 2, that she called herself "the Immaculate Conception;" a theory that Bernadette would have heard of even if she couldn't possibly understand the meaning. So it is mendacious for people to maintain, in defence of the the legitimacy of the Lourdes apparitions, that Bernadette had never heard of the Immaculate Conception. She, or more likely her parents, probably owned a miraculous medal and used it in their devotions.

I am decidedly not convinced that Bernadette Soubirous' "aquero" is a true Marian apparition, still less a worthwhile devotion and place of pilgrimage. Apparitions and founding legends are de facto historically dubious but they have usually served to make the foundation of a church or abbey more important by having a miraculous origin; e.g, Glastonbury Abbey. I doubt that Bernadette wanted to turn Lourdes, which must once have been a pleasant little provincial town, into the tourist trap of unmitigated tawdriness that it is to-day but what she, or rather her parish priest backed enthusiastically by Rome, bolstered with the hoax was the unscriptural theory of the Immaculate Conception, a theory so repugnant to the Word of God that it was unknown to the Greek and Latin Fathers, was rejected by some of the most distinguished Latin theologians well into the 19th century, most notably St Thomas Aquinas and the entire Dominican order, and at least fifteen popes*. But, as we have seen, it was a popular devotion, like the Sacred Heart, among the simple folk whom the Church should have corrected and rebuked rather than capitulated.

What happened at Lourdes in 1858 was either a childish prank that got out of hand or a sinister plot between the priest and the local bishop who took unfair advantage of a sickly peasant girl whom, after rigorous questioning by the French government, they whisked off to an enclosed religious order (the very same happened to Lúcia Santos, she of the Fatima hoax!). I mean, does the saying: "I am the Immaculate Conception" ("Qué soï era immaculado councepcioũ," in the original Occitan) not sound strange to you? It sounds to me like the kind of gibberish a child might say, having some vague recollection of what Monsieur le Curé had said in a sermon for the new feast and not something St Mary, more glorious beyond compare than the Cherubim, would say; leaving aside questions of whether God would even allow such interaction between the quick and the dead, etc. Perhaps the words were put into Bernadette's mouth by some powerful, opportunist individual? Maybe she did see something. Maybe she was mentally disturbed. That, I think, no one will ever know.

These days, Lourdes attracts thousands of cripples looking for a miracle and I feel genuinely sorry for them; not for their physical disabilities but for their enslavement to this hoax. I do not, however, feel sorry for the many people who go there every year out of habit and make a pretense of piety when they would do better to give the money in secret to someone less well off who has perhaps never been.

As for the Immaculate Deception itself, isn't it strange that a doctrine bethought it so little of sound theology should be binding on all Christians? Does it not enshrine a particularly narrow view of Original Sin? Does it not compromise the consubstantiality of Christ? If, according to the Chalcedonian Definition, Christ is consubstantial with us in respect of the Manhood, how could the sublime instrument of salvation, chosen from before all worlds for this very purpose, from whom He took flesh not have shared fully in our humanity? And since man must be redeemed after a manner consonant with his nature, does the doctrine not render redemption itself superfluous if, by a system of merits, one person is exempted from the Sacrifice of the Cross? Christ alone, according to the Scriptures, is without sin. This doctrine, therefore, undermines the entire end of salvation. And it was by no means universally accepted, throughout the Latin rite, throughout the centuries and even after the definition. Pius V, of the Dominican tradition, forbade the teaching of the doctrine in seminaries lest it become "offensive to devout ears!" Gregory XVI, while he was personally convinced of the doctrine, refused repeated requests from the French and the Spanish to define it de fide on the grounds that it was imprudent. However, in the fatuous definition Ineffabilis Deus, Pius IX said that any who dissented from the doctrine incurred the penalties reserved to the apostolic see; i.e: excommunication. One wonders, then, if, in a manner not dissimilar to the anticipated grace endued upon St Mary at the moment of her conception on account of a system of merits, all faithful Latin Christians who rejected this dogma before 1854 have incurred posthumous excommunication and have therefore been flung by God from heaven into hell since his earthly vicegerent, binding and loosing, has declared that they were in fact in error. In this light, it's telling that the vast majority of modern Roman Catholics do not even understand the doctrine and tend to confuse it with the Annuntiation! Since Ineffabilis Deus was an ex-cathedra, infallible pronouncement one could well ask whether future infallible pronouncements by popes will require an infallible audience so that they
fully understand the pope's meaning!

I think that this series is not quite finished yet. If you can think of any other devotions, saints, etc worth researching, please comment below.

* The fifteen popes were: Innocent I, Zosimus, Boniface I, Leo the Great, Gelasius I, Gregory the Great, Boniface III, John IV, Innocent II and III, Honorius III, Innocent V, Clement VI, Eugenius IV, and Pius V.


  1. Before passing judgment upon the immaculate conception, I would urge you to read Christiaan Kappes' book on the matter. Pius IX's definition is another matter, for the dogma implies an untraditional concept of original sin. Also, the definition, like Pius XII's, doesn't actually de-fine, set limits around, that which was handed down by the saints.

    1. I have never read that book.

      I would say that that we celebrate the Conception of the Mother of God at all indicates that it was something special, like the sanctification of St John the Baptist in the womb. Since we are all born children of wrath it is not fitting for us to commemorate the nativity of the saints; for that matter, our own birthdays too.

  2. Here's the blurb about the book, Immaculate Conception: Why Thomas Aquinas Denied, While Duns Scotus, Gregory Palamas, and Mark Eugenicus Professed Absolute Immaculate Existence of Mary:

    This inquiry exhausts the Mariological description of St. Gregory Nazianzen, who designates Mary as “prokathartheisa (prepurified).” Gregory likely attempted to solve the riddle of the Purification of Jesus and Mary in the Temple.

    Nazianzen's theology is traced to the Palamite Mariological movement. Surprisingly, the Palamite Mariologists gradually applied the term "prepurified" to each image of Mary as she was celebrated in the liturgical calendar. Each celebration from Conception until her First Witness of the Resurrection and Pentecost was a moment of "grace and glory" or prepurification.

    I track this title from the 6th Ecumenical Council, Liturgy (e.g. Synodikon of Orthodoxy), and Fathers (e.g., St. Sophronius and St. John Damascene).

    Next, Palamas' theological notions of Marian (pre)purification are uncovered as the solid basis of Mary's privileged status in Palamite theology (e.g., Theophanes, Bryennius, Cabasilas, Mark of Ephesus). Palamism's patristic exegesis manifests an uninterrupted and consistent theological tradition and a steady metaphysical foundation for Mary's absolutely immaculate existence in every single patristic and Palamite author known to use the term. This is due to Mary's ineffable place in divine thought. After providing indications of Nicholas Cabasilas' arguments against Thomistic rejection of the Byzantine doctrine of the prokathartheisa, Byzantine Mariology culminates in the “Pillar of Orthodoxy,” (St.) Mark Eugenicus (1392-1444/5), the last great representative of this unique Byzantine Mariology before the fall of Constantinople.

    Mark´s theological constitutes the climactic synthesis of Mary's privileges as προκαθαρθεῖσα (praepurgata) in his apologetic treatise: On the Distinction between Essence and Energy: First Antirrhetic against Manuel Kalekas (c. 1437).

    Mark was the unique Father of the Council of Ferrara-Florence (1438-1439) in a position to meet alleged patristic objections to the Immaculate Conception of Latin “maculist” theologians prior to Mark’s arrival in Italy. These Latin debates spilled over into the Byzantine camp during the Council. Byzantines were generally aloof to physico-theological theories of Mary's conception, yet agreed on her unique predestination from the first moment of her divine-mental and natural existence, stemming from her exalted place among the contingent thoughts within of divine mind. Relying on Palamas, Palamites explicitly linked "prepurification" with the Byzantine liturgical calendar with respect to feasts of the Theotokos, prior to the Incarnation.

    Conversely, Latin Scholastics universally erred in their 12-15th century interpretation of Damascene’s designation of Mary as “(pre)purified” at the Annunciation and their "low" Mariologies followed due course. Palamites universally reverenced the prepurified, ergo absolutely immaculate Mary.

    I conclude by synthesizing the web of complementarity amid the “prepurified” Virgin, the Ephesine’s Mariology, Franciscan Mariological 14th-15th century parallels, and avenues of development for immaculist theologians who adopt the metaphysical implications of the Theotokos. Scotistic and Palamite metaphysics too verge at a common point of departure with respect to St. Maximus Confessor (in divine psychology and the theology of the Incarnation) to explain the Marian parallel."

  3. And as a recommendation for further blog posts on "saints and fables," why not tackle the various scapulars?

    1. I agree. If there is anything that deserves this treatment, it's the "magic ticket to heaven" view of the so-called "sabbatine privilege" superstition. And I'm actually someone who supports wearing a scapular if it reminds you to do penance and pray!

      Btw, looked at wikipedia for a list of scapulars. Even with my SSPX background I've never heard of most of these. There's even a Scapular of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary!

    2. Don't forget what we called in German Fuenffach Scapulier, the five-fold scapular! The French called it the Sandwich!