For fifty years at least, the easy way to write a column on the Immaculate Conception was to start by explaining what it is: the celebration of Mary’s conception, not Jesus’. Then, explain the doctrine: from the first moment of her existence Mary was free from any stain of sin. Such knowledge has not been widespread.
Then, say something about the history: how the doctrine and feast are rooted in old traditions of the Church; how there were medieval disputes (not many, actually, but made serious by the authority of St. Thomas Aquinas), as to whether the doctrine detracted from Our Lord’s saving work; how over the centuries the voice of the faithful grew stronger and clamored for the pope to define the doctrine; how Pius IX did so in 1854, to general celebrations throughout the world; how Our Lady showed how pleased she was by the definition four years later at Lourdes: “I am the Immaculate Conception.”
And so that history ends. And what I wish to write on is why we are not those Catholics from the 19th century who clamored for this doctrine and celebrated it. Why, instead, do we even need to be told what the doctrine simply is?
Why do we resent, apparently, the “obligation” to attend Mass on December 8th? Why, if the doctrine had not been defined in the 1850s, is it inconceivable that anyone would clamor for it to be defined today? Why, after centuries of Catholics growing in passion for this truth, do we lack, it seems, any passion for it at all?
The passion was strong, centuries ago. Consider what political correctness (as it were) at universities looked like in 1497. That was the year when the University of Paris finally took a stand. It prohibited anyone from being associated with the University who did not profess strongly and passionately the truth of the Immaculate Conception. Universities at Toulouse, Bologna, Naples, Cologne, Vienna, Louvain, Oxford, Cambridge, Salamanca – the list goes on –quickly followed Paris. No trahison des clercs then.
Just how far does the devotion go back? Popes have pointed out that the centrality of the devotion in the Eastern Churches proves that it has its roots well before the Great Schism. But surely the doctrine – as a revealed truth and teaching – had its origins with Mary.
When the angel called her “full of grace” (kecharitomenē), she pondered what sort of greeting it was. Indeed: would the Church in its contemplation have figured that out, but not she who is the model of the Church’s own contemplation? As if the Church had to define the doctrine centuries later for Mary to become certain of it.
Moreover, she had to know that she was without sin, just as every other saint knows that he is with sin. To be mistaken about one’s own sin would seem incompatible with holiness. Or why would God have deprived her of that great thought when she stood at the foot of the Cross: “Through His gift I was rescued from any subjection to sin.”
Now, I think our first reaction upon comparing ourselves with earlier generations should be to feel great sorrow at our own poverty and ask God for the grace to become like them. This is the first place “mimetic desire,” comes in. A mimetic desire is one that we acquire through wanting to be like another, in desiring what he desires.
René Girard constructed an elaborate theory on this idea: when we style ourselves autonomous, Girard observes, we are often just being reactive, copying the desires of others. This copying places us in competition with those others, actually, because we implicitly want to take on the “being” which the other has. But we can’t, which makes us unhappy, unaccountably so. And therefore we need to find a scapegoat – Girard goes on to say.
The theory is doubtful for many reasons. Yet the concept of “mimetic desire” is useful and stands on its own. Catholics practice it all the time. To imitate the Lord, or a saint, is of course to want to desire, too, the same things. Thus, we can say: “I want to love this truth about Mary, dear God, with the love with which my fellow Catholics loved it in the past.”
But then why have Catholics been so passionate about the Immaculate Conception? Why have popes encouraged that passion? Some obvious things: They believed truly in sin. They exulted, therefore, in freedom from sin. They also lived out of themselves more, and could take genuine pleasure in Mary’s freedom from sin.
Of course, they realized, too, that by wanting to want what Mary wanted, they would love the Lord more, as in “Do whatever he tells you.” Here, “mimetic desire” enters a second time.
And yet the deepest longings of the Catholic heart go beyond this kind of “mimetic desire” of Mary. Pius XII puts it this way, in profound reflections, offered on the centenary of the dogmatic definition: “Just as all mothers are deeply affected when they perceive that the countenance of their children reflects a peculiar likeness to their own, so also our Most Sweet Mother wishes for nothing more, never rejoices more than when she sees those whom, under the cross of her Son, she has adopted as children in His stead, portray the lineaments and ornaments of her own soul in thought, word and deed.” (Fulgens corona , n. 22)
It’s not that we want what she wants about something else; it’s rather that we want to become what she wants, concerning our very selves. But this is to say that to be a follower of Christ is to grow into the life of a family.
Is that the clue to our modern neglect of the Immaculate Conception? Is it that we who can barely endure human families are repelled by God’s idea for his divine family?
*Image: Saint Anne Conceiving the Virgin by Jean Bellegambe, c. 1500 [British Museum, London]