A Masterpiece on the Immaculate Conception

Note: TCT Editor-in-Chief Robert Royal will be joining Raymond Arroyo and Fr. Gerald Murray (the Papal Posse) on EWTN’s The World Over tomorrow evening at 8 PM Eastern Time. They will be discussing the pope’s recent trip to Cyprus and Greece, as well as other subjects. The show will also be re-broadcast on EWTN (consult local listings) and usually appears shortly after its first appearance on the EWTN Youtube channel.  

Is it possible for a memorandum to be a masterpiece? A few paragraphs long, dashed off ex tempore, for a friend, not polished?  Various columns in TCT have appreciated masterpieces – a poem, a painting, a musical work.  But could a memorandum ever be accounted a “masterpiece”?

I have in mind Newman’s “Memorandum on the Immaculate Conception” – written off by the Cardinal,” his editor says, “for Mr. R. I. Wilberforce, formerly Archdeacon Wilberforce, to aid him in meeting the objections urged by some Protestant friends against the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.”

That’s it, “written off” – a memorandum is something written off, dashed off, tossed off.

Surely a master can “dash off” a masterpiece: witness the Gettysburg Address, a Shakespeare sonnet, a Scarlatti sonata.  And so we look to Newman’s “Memorandum” without worries as truly a spiritual masterpiece.

Newman begins: “It is so difficult for me to enter into the feelings of a person who understands the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, and yet objects to it, that I am diffident about attempting to speak on the subject.”  He adds, “I was accused of holding it, in one of the first books I wrote, twenty years ago. On the other hand, this very fact may be an argument against an objector – for why should it not have been difficult to me at that time, if there were a real difficulty in receiving it?”

Already, astonishing brilliance. He imagines someone raising difficulties, and his task would be to understand those difficulties and reply to them. But he can’t see any difficulties.  Maybe he’s incompetent even to speak on the subject?

He turns this concern on its head. Many years ago, as a young Anglican minister, long before the pope’s definition, Newman had already come to hold that doctrine, naturally and easily.  But he couldn’t have done if it had involved difficulties.  So he has the requisite competence, which is to speak to the naturalness of the doctrine!

Here is that earlier passage, from the Parochial and Plain Sermons:

Who can estimate the holiness and perfection of her, who was chosen to be the Mother of Christ? If to him that hath, more is given, and holiness and divine favour go together (and this we are expressly told). . . .What must have been her gifts, who was chosen to be the only near earthly relative of the Son of God, the only one whom He was bound by nature to revere and look up to; the one appointed to train and educate Him, to instruct Him day by day, as He grew in wisdom and stature? This contemplation runs to a higher subject, did we dare to follow it; for what, think you, was the sanctified state of that human nature, of which God formed His sinless Son; knowing, as we do, that “that which is born of the flesh is flesh,” and that “none can bring a clean thing out of an unclean?”


Then come a series of devastating arguments as to why there are no difficulties in the doctrine.  If there is no difficulty in saying that Eve was created without sin – if there is no risk of turning her into a deity – what is the great difficulty in saying that Mary was created without sin?  If we hold that John the Baptist was cleansed of original sin in the womb, then why not Mary from an even earlier point in the womb?   If there is no difficulty in saying that you and I are cleansed from original sin at some later point in our lives by baptism – if our saying so in no way detracts from the merits of the Lord – then wouldn’t Mary’s being cleansed even earlier in her life make her even more dependent on the Lord?

We do not say that she did not owe her salvation to the death of her Son. Just the contrary, we say that she, of all mere children of Adam, is in the truest sense the fruit and the purchase of His Passion. He has done for her more than for anyone else. To others He gives grace and regeneration at a point in their earthly existence; to her, from the very beginning.

Newman then considers the antiquity of the doctrine.  Why?  Because “No one can add to revelation. That was given once for all; – but as time goes on, what was given once for all is understood more and more clearly.” You might wish to copy out these lines as proof of what Newman meant by “development of doctrine.”  It did not allow for any new revelation.  What it means, rather, is this: “The greatest Fathers and Saints in this sense have been in error, that, since the matter of which they spoke had not been sifted, and the Church had not spoken, they did not in their expressions do justice to their own real meaning.”

He focuses on the contrast between Mary and Eve in the earliest writings of the Fathers, and especially the proto-evangelion: “See the direct bearing of this upon the Immaculate Conception. . . .There was war between the woman and the Serpent. This is most emphatically fulfilled if she had nothing to do with sin – for, so far as any one sins, he has an alliance with the Evil One.”

Newman’s masterpiece concludes: “I say it distinctly – there may be many excuses at the last day, good and bad, for not being Catholics; one I cannot conceive: ‘O Lord, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was so derogatory to Thy grace, so inconsistent with Thy Passion, so at variance with Thy word in Genesis and the Apocalypse, so unlike the teaching of Thy first Saints and Martyrs, as to give me a right to reject it at all risks, and Thy Church for teaching it. It is a doctrine as to which my private judgment is fully justified in opposing the Church’s judgment. And this is my plea for living and dying a Protestant.’”


*Image: The Immaculate Conception by Diego Velázquez, 1618-19 [National Gallery, London]

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Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a professor in the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children. His acclaimed book on the Gospel of Mark is The Memoirs of St Peter. His most recent book, Mary's Voice in the Gospel of John: A New Translation with Commentary, is now available. His new book, Be Good Bankers: The Divine Economy in the Gospel of Matthew, is forthcoming from Regnery Gateway in the spring. Prof. Pakaluk was appointed to the Pontifical Academy of St Thomas Aquinas by Pope Benedict XVI.