St Thomas Aquinas's position on the Immaculate Conception

Contrary to the claims of the Modernists, St Thomas is not held universally to have rejected the Immaculate Conception. In fact, the principles of St Thomas provided the basis for the definition of the dogma, when it finally came. It is indescribably frustrating when otherwise-pious Catholics point to St Thomas's supposed error on this point as a way of reducing his credibility. No doubt they are unaware of his absolutely unique position as a theologian and Doctor of the Universal Church. No doubt they are unaware that Canon Law prescribes that all professors of theology are to hold and teach the "arguments, doctrine, and principles" of St. Thomas. Canon 1366, Section 2 : "The study of philosophy and theology and the teaching of these sciences to their students must be accurately carried out by Professors (in seminaries etc.) according to the arguments, doctrine, and principles of St. Thomas which they are inviolately to hold." Canon 589 prescribes that religious are to do likewise. No other doctor holds this place in Catholic theology.

But ignorance of these facts does not explain the astonishing ease with which many today will throw out the one-liner; "Oh, St Thomas was wrong on the Immaculate Conception." Really? And I suppose they've studied the question well enough to have an opinion? Possibly the briefest way to deal with such nonsense is to ask the armchair expert if they could kindly explain what St Thomas DID teach on this doctrine. Embarrassing silence is the usual response. This short note is intended to answer that question, albeit not in great detail, but at least by presenting the scholarly views of those learned enough to hold an opinion on the matter.

Catholic Encyclopedia: "St. Thomas at first pronounced in favour of the doctrine in his treatise on the "Sentences" (inI. Sent. c. 44, q. I ad 3), yet in his "Summa Theologica" he concluded against it. Much discussion has arisen as to whether St. Thomas did or did not deny that the Blessed Virgin was immaculate at the instant of her animation, and learned books have been written to vindicate him from having actually drawn the negative conclusion. For this controversy see: Cornoldi, "Sententia S. Thomae etc.", (2nd ed., Naples, 1870); Ronard de Card, "L'ordre des Freres-precheurs et l'immaculee Conception" (Brussels, 1864), Pesch, "Prael. dogm." III (Freiburg, 1895), 170; Heinrich-Gutberlet, "Dogmat. Theol.", VII (Mainz, 1896), 436; Tobbe, "Die Stellung des hl. Thomas zu der unbefl. Empfangnis" (Munster, 1892); C. M. Schneider, "Die unbefl. Empfangnis und die Erbsunde" (Ratisbon, 1892); Pohle, "Lehrbuch d. Dogmatik", II (Paderborn, 1903), 254. Yet it is hard to say that St. Thomas did not require an instant at least, after the animation of Mary, before her sanctification. His great difficulty appears to have arisen from the doubt as to how she could have been redeemed if she had not sinned. This difficulty he raised in no fewer than ten passages in his writings (see, e.g., "Summa Theol.", III, Q. xxvii, a. 2, ad Sum). But while St. Thomas thus held back from the essential point of the doctrine, he himself laid down the principles which, after they had been drawn together and worked out, enabled other minds to furnish the true solution of this difficulty from his own premises."

In other words, the author of this article thinks that St. Thomas decided against the Immaculate Conception, at least early in his career, but admits that many others have held that St. Thomas did no such thing. The key isue to grasp is that St. Thomas was very concerned to ensure that a dogma was not denied by those seeking to emphasise Mary's sinlessness - and that dogma was the Redemption. Our Lord redeemed all men, without exception. St. Thomas's emphasis that Mary too was redeemed is what has led to the controversy.

Further proof that it is not a "given" that St Thomas Aquinas denied the Immaculate Conception, is found in the following survey of the opinions of theologians on this question, from Volume VI, "Mariology", of Pohle-Preuss, Dogmatic Theology (12 volumes) Herder 1953, page 67:

"5. The Teaching of St Thomas --- Theologians are divided in their opinion as to what was the mind of St Thomas in regard to the Immaculate Conception. Some frankly admit that he opposed what in his day was not yet a defined dogma, but insist that he virtually admitted what he formally denied. Others claim that the Angelic Doctor expressly defended the Immaculate Conception and that the (about fifteen) adverse passages quoted from his writings must be regarded as later interpolations. Between these two extremes stand two other groups of theologians, one of which holds that St Thomas was undecided in his attitude towards the Immaculate Conception, while the other merely maintains the impossibility of proving that he opposed it."

Pohle gives examples of each type of theologian - about four or five names for each group. So, we see from this that the 'worst case' we can assert is that St Thomas proved the Immaculate Conception with his principles, and yet failed to clearly formulate the conclusion, which of course later theologians did. Indeed the definition of 1854 was based entirely on his principles.

Any layman then, who says blankly that "St Thomas denied the Immaculate Conception," is not only rash, but demonstrates his ignorance of the opinions of theologians, the majority of whom cannot assert this but indeed at a minimum say that he was uncommitted.

Personally I'd like to see all of the arguments of those who insist that he defended it, for my love of St Thomas is such that I would easily fall in with these "extremists" and look forward in the hope of his gratitude in Heaven! One such argument is this : St Thomas cannot have denied that which was not yet formulated. What he denied was that the Blessed Virgin was not redeemed, which assertion is indeed a heresy which he was right to oppose.

An example of his teaching is the following : "Purity is constituted by a recession from impurity, and therefore it is possible to find some creature purer than all the rest, namely one not contaminated by any taint of sin; such was the purity of the Blessed Virgin, who was immune from original and actual sin, yet under God, inasmuch as there was in her the potentiality of sin." From the Commentary on the Book of Sentences.

I submit that the average layman, if presented with this, would assert that it was a perfect summation of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. If nothing else it proves that we should hold our unfounded opinions in check, knowing that far greater men have puzzled over this question and not succeeded it solving it. The very fact that theologians debate what the mind of St Thomas was on this question shows as well as anything his unique position in theology.

John Lane

August 2nd, 1998

Feast of St. Alphonsus Liguori