Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Potuit, Decuit ergo Fecit

This week we celebrated the Feast of Our Lady's Immaculate Conception. In his homily on the feast day, our pastor gave an excellent little exegesis on the formula that the Scholastics adopted for explaining the reason behind the Immaculate Conception.

The formula of the Scholastics is potuit, decuit, ergo fecit, which roughly translated means, "He could do it, it was fitting that He do it, therefore, He did it." The phrase of course refers to God and His causing of the Blessed Virgin Mary to be free from the stain of original sin from the first moment of her conception. God had the power to cause Mary to be created sinless; it was fitting that the Mother of God be sinless - and therefore, God did in fact cause her to be so.

Two things are worthy of noting about this formula:

First, the formula does not offer a proof for the Immaculate Conception, but merely an explanation of why God did it, which is different than a proof. A proof is different than an explanation. An explanation of why I went to the store would be that I needed to pick up some eggs and butter. Proof that I went to the store would be the mileage logged on my car, the surveillance cameras showing me in the store at a given time, electronic records of the purchase on my debit card, and the physical presence of the eggs and butter now safely inside my refrigerator. The latter sum of data is proof; the former is just an explanation.

The interesting thing about the Immaculate Conception in Catholic Tradition is that it is so taken for granted in the first millennium and a half that no theologian or father really bothers to write a formal series of proofs on the Immaculate Conception, the way St. Thomas did with his proofs for God's existence. No one disputed the Immaculate Conception. It was taken for granted that Mary was sinless. St. Augustine did not even think the question was worth discussing and refused to speak of it out of "honor for the Lord":

"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?—so, I say, with the exception of the Virgin, if we could have gathered together all those holy men and women, when they were living here, and had asked them whether they were without sin, what do we suppose would have been their answer?" (Nature and Grace 36:42 [A.D. 415]).

St. Ephraim the Syrian took her absolute purity for granted when he composed his famous hymns in her honor. Notice how he classes Mary in the same category with Jesus, indicating that the gracefulness he envisions in her is more than that which is common to the saints:

"You alone and your Mother are more beautiful than any others, for there is no blemish in you nor any stains upon your Mother. Who of my children can compare in beauty to these?" (Nisibene Hymns 27:8 [A.D. 361]).

Going further back, Tertullian and St. Irenaeus both speak of Mary saving the human race and of humanity being "redeemed by virginal obedience" in contrast to the virginal disobedience of Eve. The analogy is clear: the first Eve, through sin, enslaved humanity; the second Eve, without sin, freed it. It would make no sense to use Mary as an anti-type to Eve if Mary shared sin in common with Eve. The reason Mary and Eve are such a perfect type and anti-type is not because of Mary's similarity to Eve, but because of her dissimilarity. However far back we go in Church Tradition, we see that Mary's sinlessness is never really argued about; it is simply taken for granted; that is, the fact and the rationale are offered, but not the proof. Proofs will come later, but not until the late Scholastic period and the era of the Protestant Revolt when men first started really debating the merits of the teaching.

Second point on this formula: Note that it says the rationale is potuit (He was able) and decuit (it was fitting), but not necessarius erat (it was necessary). The Scholastics were careful to avoid making Mary's Immaculate Conception a matter of strict necessity; they did not teach that Mary had to be free from Original Sin, only that it was within God's power to do it and that it was fitting. The reason for the fittingness of her sinlessness is her unique vocation as the incarnate Mother of the Second Person of the Trinity.

Why did they not argue from necessity? The Scholastics, and most other traditional Catholic theologians, have been very hesitant to say that God "had" to do something this or that way in the economy of salvation. It is very true that, based on what we know and what has been revealed to us, we are unaware of any other way God could have redeemed us other than by the sending of His Son to die a redemptive, atoning death on the cross. But the fact that we are unaware of any other way or that any other potentiality was not revealed to us does not mean that, in His omnipotent eternal wisdom, God could not have chosen another method had He wished. Similarly with the Scriptures, we only know of 73 books that are inspired by God; these and only these books are said to be the Sacred Scriptures breathed by the Holy Spirit. But there is no reason, in God's omnipotent power, that He could not have inspired more or less had He so wished. It is necessary that we hold that there are 73 inspired books, not one more, not one less, for the very purpose that God Himself did in fact inspire 73; but we cannot say that on God's side He could not have done things otherwise had He so wished. To assert so would be to subject God's freedom to act to a kind of necessity or fate that would in fact then be higher than God Himself.

This is why the theologians stop short of saying Mary's Immaculate Conception is necessary and instead focus on the fittingness of the dignity. The official definition of 1854 states that the Immaculate Conception was wrought "by a singular privilege and grace of the Omnipotent God"; it is noteworthy that the word privilege is used, as it gives credence to the teaching that Mary's sinlessness is fundamentally an issue of fittingness, not of necessity. Note also in the official definition the absence of "in order that original sin not be transmitted to Christ" or any such language. The Church does not view the Immaculate Conception as "necessary" to preserve Christ Himself from inheriting Original Sin. Rather, it is a privilege that is fitting given Mary's unique status as Mother of God and receptacle of the Incarnate Word of God.

There are some, deviating from Catholic Tradition and no doubt motivated by pious inclinations, who attempt to fabricate some sort of necessity on the Immaculate Conception, sometimes through reflections on the biological details of the Incarnation (see here, for example).  Nevertheless, necessity is not part of the traditional formula, and I do not think Catholics ought to argue from necessity when proposing the Immaculate Conception to our non-Catholic friends. Even St. Thomas Aquinas, when discussing the question of Mary's Immaculate Conception, defaults to the question of "fittingness" or "worthiness" as the rationale for the singular grace. When discussing Mary, Jeremiah and John the Baptist and the concept of sanctification before birth, St. Thomas says:

"Although it is not possible to assign a reason for God's judgments, for instance, why He bestows such a grace on one and not on another, yet there seems to be a certain fittingness in both of these being sanctified in the womb, by their foreshadowing the sanctification which was to be effected through Christ. (STh, III, q. 27, art. 6).

In my experience, Protestants in particular do not understand the argument from fittingness; they want to know why God had to make Mary sinless, and why if so, He didn't also have to make Mary's parents sinless in order to create Mary Immaculate, and so on ad infinitum; and if He can do that to Mary, why not do this with all humanity and dispense with Christ's atoning death altogether? Perhaps Protestantism,  coming from a tradition of ostensibly rejecting all that is "superfluous", "showy" or smacking of "pomp", can no longer appreciate graces bestowed for purposes of adornment, glorification and beautification apart from strict necessity.

It is good to remember that, as St. Thomas said, "why He bestows such a grace on one and not on another" is not ultimately within the purview of our knowledge. Why doesn't God heal all disease, like He did to the people who encountered Christ during the days of His earthly sojourn? He clearly could if He wanted to. Or for that matter, why did He miraculously and infallibly convert St. Paul on the road to Damascus? If He could do that to St. Paul, why not do that to every single human being and save the Church the effort of having to evangelize? God could do that right this second and every human being would be saved. Who doesn't God grant every sinner the grace to immediately and infallibly see the emptiness and futility of worldly pleasure and cause them to repent, as our history tells us happened to St. Francis of Assisi?

The answer of course is that we do not know why God does one thing and not another. When treating of the Immaculate Conception, let us hold fast to traditional formulation. God in His omnipotence was capable of creating Mary sinless, and given the dignity that was to be hers as the Mother of God, it was eminently fitting that she be thus endowed with the grace of sinlessness. God could do it. It was fitting that He do it. Therefore, He did it. Potuit, decuit ergo fecit.


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