Saint Maximilian Kolbe is world-renowned as the Catholic priest who asked to take the place of another man, a man with a family, who had been condemned to death, as an example to the other prisoners in the deathcamp at Auschwitz. The Church recognized the Franciscan Friar’s martyrdom as the ‘crimson crown’ he had received from the hands of the Blessed Virgin Mary who had appeared to him when he was a five-year-old child. She offered him two crowns from which to choose and he selected both. The other crown was white; white for purity.
I began this series of posts by identifying the “pregnant Woman with her Son in her womb” (Pope Francis’ description of the wooden statue that was used in the Amazon synod’s opening ceremony in the Vatican Gardens), and suggested that it was the Catholic indigenous people of the Amazon’s cultural expression of the Immaculate Conception, their “Ave Maria, Mother of Life, Our Lady of the Amazon,” and quite possibly an image of the same vision, as told in the Franciscan tradition, of the predestined Incarnation, the ‘Woman’ of Gen. 3:15 and Rev 12:1, that God afforded the angels, pre-Creation of the world, which elicited Lucifer’s scream, “Non serviam.” I ended that first part, and begin this second, with another cry; one that consumed the life of Saint Maximilian Kolbe, “Who art Thou, O Immaculata!”
It was Friar Kolbe’s study of the work of the 13th century Franciscan theologian, Blessed John Duns Scotus, that jettisoned his journey into the mystery of the Immaculate Conception. Mary, in the unique privilege of her Divine Motherhood, had captured his mind and heart.
Pope Pius IX, in declaring ex cathedra the Immaculate Conception, as a de fide doctrine of the Catholic Church, used the precise formula developed by Duns Scotus.
“We declare, pronounce and define that the doctrine which holds that the Blessed Virgin Mary, at the first instant of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace of the Omnipotent God, in virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of mankind, was preserved immaculate from all stain of original sin, has been revealed by God, and therefore should firmly and constantly be believed by all the faithful.” (1)
Pius IX proclaiming the Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, Dec 8, 1854
John Duns Scotus, an esteemed philosopher/theologian, taught at both Oxford and the Sorbonne. Initially at Oxford, he was free (from harassment) to develop his arguments for the raison d’être of the Incarnation which he believed to be predestined in one divine decree together with the creation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. His Oxford colleagues worked harmoniously with him, in developing a ‘Marian theology,’ particularly regarding the predestination of Christ together with that of His mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Paris, on the other hand, proved to be Scotus’ training ground for the future, and now famous, ‘Disputation’ in which he would be called upon to defend his thesis of the ‘how and why’ of the Incarnation against the popularly accepted work of Thomas Aquinas.
‘Disputation of the Immaculate Conception’, F. Podesti, Vatican Museum
John Duns Scotus was only 9 years old when Thomas Aquinas died but they are considered contemporaries as two of the three most important philosopher-theologians to come out of Europe during the Middle Ages, together with William of Ockham.
Aquinas and Scotus had similar beginnings. Both came from strong Catholic families and both had difficulty learning. While Aquinas was nicknamed the ‘Dumb Ox’ by his classmates, Scotus was known to have suffered ‘dullness of mind’ in his studies. Heaven seemed to intervene in the causes of both students, as they would, one day, be called by God to defend His most holy Virgin Mother in her sinlessness. Both would eventually develop ‘acceptable’–though complex and differing–arguments to define it.
In its simplest form, the Thomist argument proposed that Mary had been saved ‘in utero’; sanctified post-conception in her mother Anna’s womb, just as John the Baptist was sanctified in his mother Elizabeth’s womb. Scotus put forth the argument that Mary, from the moment of her conception, was spared completely from the stain of sin and pre-saved at her conception ‘in anticipation’ of her Son’s redeeming act on the cross. The debate between the Scotist and Thomist ‘camps’ got so fierce and fiery, at one point, Pius IX had to admonish both to stop calling the other heretics. In the end, the Scotus argument won out with the proclamation of the Immaculate Conception in 1854, with Pius IX declaring that Mary “was preserved immaculate from all stain of original sin.” Four years later, in 1858, Our Lady would come to Lourdes, France, and not only confirm Pius IX’s declaration that she had been immaculately conceived, but also to declare herself ‘to be’ (the essence of her very being) ‘THE’ Immaculate Conception. “Que soy era Immaculada Concepciou, (I AM the Immaculate Conception),” she announced to Saint Bernadette, echoing her Son’s ‘I AM’ in proclaiming the divine essence of His being. Her appearance at Lourdes, seemingly, was her invitation to the Church to continue its study of this, her singular privilege of divine maternity, in view of consideration of the primacy of her predestination, together with that of Christ’s, being a single divine decree. In short, Christ would have come into the world, born of a woman (the prophesied ‘Woman’), even if Adam had not sinned. This is the ‘the rest of the story’ of Blessed John Duns Scotus’ work, which was in sharp contrast to that of the Thomist school that, to this day, still theorizes that Christ would not have come into the world, except for the sin of Adam, and therefore, Mary would have never existed. To which the Scotist replies, “O inconceivable thought!”
The Immaculata and the Saints
Albert Küchler (Brother Peter of Copenhagen),
Pontifical University Antonianum, Rome (2)
It was not a ‘new’ idea that Duns Scotus had formulated, just one that was in sharp contrast to the Thomist view which had become the prevalent school of thought.
St. Augustine taught, “If man had not sinned, the Son of Man would not have come.” (3)
Aquinas, taking his cue from Augustine, defined in his Summa Theologica,
“the work of the Incarnation was ordained by God as a remedy for sin, so that, if sin had not existed, (viz. if Adam had not sinned), the Incarnation would not have been.” (4)
The Thomist view seems to be proven out by numerous Biblical passages including Isaiah 53, 1 Timothy 1:15, and Hebrews 9:26.
Thomas Aquinas and the Immaculate Conception
Of course, Scripture was written after the fact; after the sin of Adam that effected all generations to come. God had created man in a perfect state of ‘humanness’ and Adam’s sin made us all, in a sense, born in a state of ‘subhumaness’; below the standard of perfection with which had God created our human parents, Adam and Eve. The question that Duns Scotus introduced was: while Scripture is clear that Jesus Christ came to save sinners, was that the only reason for his coming, and more so, was it the primary reason for his coming? There is a plethora of Scripture passages to validate the Scotus thesis that Christ would have come even if there had been no sin. In fact, the Bible, taken as a whole, implies the predestination of Christ and Mary together in God’s primordial plan of Creation, before sin.
“Before the foundation of the world”, St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians in 1:4 of God’s intent; His ‘primary reason,’ ‘before creation’; ‘before time’; ‘before sin,’ to send Christ into the world. And again, Paul tells us,
“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature. For in Him were created all things in the heavens and on the earth… All things have been created through and unto Him. Again, He is the head of His body, the Church; He, who is the beginning, the firstborn of the dead, that in all things He may have the first place” (the primatum tenens). (Col. 1:15-18)
Many Saints and mystics of the Church support the Scotist thesis in their writings including St. Bernadine of Siena, St. Lawrence of Brindisi, St. Francis de Sales, and Mary of Agreda, but the most impressive validation of Scotus’ Franciscan Mariology comes from one of Aquinas’ own teachers, St. Albert the Great, who also, like him, is a Doctor of the Church,
“… to the extent that I can offer my opinion, I believe that the Son of God would have become man even if there had been no sin …” (5)
Duns Scotus and his Franciscan school of theology successfully defended the Absolute Primacy of Christ. God did not send His Son into the world as a consequence of sin but “by reason of His very great love”. (Eph. 2:4)
But what of Scotus’ teaching that the predestination of the Blessed Virgin Mary was one with the predestination of her Son, Jesus Christ? While there are many ancient texts supporting his claim, more recently we have the words of several contemporary Popes:
Pope Pius IX taught that:
“God, by one and the same decree, had established the origin of Mary and the incarnation of Divine Wisdom.” Ineffabilis Deus
And Pius XII proclaimed the same in Munificentissimus Deus:
“The revered Mother of God, from all eternity joined in a hidden way with Jesus Christ, in one and the same decree of predestination.”
The Second Vatican Council addressed the predestination of Mary in its final documents by proclaiming:
“The Blessed Virgin was eternally predestined, in conjunction with the divine Word, to be the Mother of God.” LG 6
And, finally, Pope John Paul II, in the Beatification of Duns Scotus in 1993, said,
“Jesus was willed from all eternity, was the centerpiece; the masterpiece of God’s creative plan, then this means that Jesus Christ, the King of kings, and Lord of lords, the only blessed, that He is the one who has absolute primacy. Sin or no sin, God willed Him first, absolutely, and willed all things in Him.”
If the Incarnation was the execution ‘in the fullness of time’ of God’s ‘intent,’ as Duns Scotus believed, of the single divine decree of the predestination of Christ, together with Mary, then whatever applies to Christ applies to His created Mother through the power of her uncreated Spouse, the Holy Spirit. Thus, Mary, is the model for the first created human woman, whom the first created man, Adam, “called Eve because she was the Mother of the Living” (Mother of Life), and so making Mary the predestined ‘Mother of Life’, and not so much the ‘New Eve’ as she is the ‘Original’ Eve.
Duns Scotus held that the Incarnation is the ‘Summum Opus Dei,’ (the summit of the work of God), and the Incarnation includes both Christ and Mary. The Immaculata “is the ‘quasi-Incarnation’ of the Holy Spirit,” Friar Maximilian Kolbe would exclaim, amidst much controversy, six centuries after the death of his Franciscan spiritual father, John Duns Scotus. He would exclaim it after an ecstasy in which his brother friars would ask him, “Where are you?” and Kolbe responded,
“Immersed in the most sacred heart of my Immaculata.”
To which his brothers pressed, “What do you see?”
“Love. All is Love,” was Kolbe’s reply.
In part three of this series I will take up Kolbe’s assertion that ‘his’ Immaculata is the quasi-Incarnation of her Spouse, the Holy Spirit.
- Ineffablis Deus, Pope Pius IX, December 8, 1854.
- This painting of The Immaculata and the Saints by Albert Küchler shows the history of Scotus’ development of the Immaculate conception beginning with Saint Bonaventure, and including Saint Francis, Saint Anthony, and Blessed John Duns Scotus.
- Serm. 174, 2; PL 38, 940.
- Summa theol. III, q.1, a.3
- In Sent. III, d. 20, a.4; op. omn. ed. Vivès (Paris, 1894) XXVIII, 361.
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Toni Vercillo is a cradle Catholic born and raised before Vatican II. She was educated by the Franciscans in Latin language, literature, music and liturgy. She has a devotion to Franciscan spirituality. In the past, Toni worked as a journalist for the Catholic Northwest Progress. She has been published in Homiletic and Pastoral Review, Catholic Digest, Queen Magazine, and St. Anthony Messenger, among others. Presently, she is a wife, mother, grandmother, and retired Catholic bookstore owner.