The Immaculate Conception: St. Thomas and St. Bernard

Another point sometimes raised in objection to the Immaculate Conception is the question of why medieval Catholics like Thomas Aquinas and Bernard of Clairvaux did not preach it. The basic answer, as I discovered, is, “Because even Michael Jordan misses layups.” People like Bernard and Thomas were still hashing out the question, “How do we reconcile Mary’s sinlessness with original sin?” And they overlooked a few things in the process. It happens when people do pioneering works of discovery.

Evangelicals may be surprised to learn Sts. Thomas and Bernard believed Mary never sinned. How can they believe that, and yet not believe in an Immaculate Conception? Easy. The problem for Thomas and Bernard, as for virtually all Christians until well into the sixteenth century, was never, “Did Mary sin?” Both men, like all their contemporaries, answered that question with a firm negative. Thomas, for instance, writes:

I answer that, God so prepares and endows those, whom He chooses for some particular office, that they are rendered capable of fulfilling it, according to 2 Cor. 3:6: “(Who) hath made us fit ministers of the New Testament.” Now the Blessed Virgin was chosen by God to be His Mother. Therefore there can be no doubt that God, by His grace, made her worthy of that office, according to the words spoken to her by the angel (Lk. 1:30, 31): “Thou hast found grace with God: behold thou shalt conceive,” etc. But she would not have been worthy to be the Mother of God, if she had ever sinned. First, because the honor of the parents reflects on the child, according to Prov. 17:6: “The glory of children are their fathers”: and consequently, on the other hand, the Mother’s shame would have reflected on her Son. Secondly, because of the singular affinity between her and Christ, who took flesh from her: and it is written (2 Cor. 6:15): “What concord hath Christ with Belial?” Thirdly, because of the singular manner in which the Son of God, who is the “Divine Wisdom” (1 Cor. 1:24) dwelt in her, not only in her soul but in her womb. And it is written (Wis. 1:4): “Wisdom will not enter into a malicious soul, nor dwell in a body subject to sins.”

We must therefore confess simply that the Blessed Virgin committed no actual sin, neither mortal nor venial; so that what is written (Song of Songs 4:7) is fulfilled: “Thou art all fair, O my love, and there is not a spot in thee,” etc.( Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae III:27:4)

The only puzzle for Thomas and others who pondered the matter was how—not whether—Mary was sinless. So we find Bernard of Clairvaux is also cold comfort for Evangelicals, since from an Evangelical perspective, Bernard’s issue is a minor quibble:

If Mary could not be sanctified before her conception itself, on account of the sin (concupiscence) involved therein, it follows she was sanctified in the womb after conception, which, since she was cleansed from sin, made her birth holy and not her conception.(Bernard of Clairvaux, Letter to the Canons of Lyons, 5, 7)

Bernard, like Thomas and the apostolic Tradition of the East and West, takes it for granted that Mary was born sinless and remained that way forever. The only issue for him, as for Thomas, is how she got that way.  Of which more next time.