I’ve written on this subject before, but the article on the Immaculate Conception at Wikipedia keeps changing. And a review of these errors will help clarify the dogma of the Immaculate Conception.
One of the general problems with Wikipedia, is that the footnotes don’t necessarily support what is stated in the text. For example, the article states:
“Catholic theology maintains that since Jesus became incarnate of the Virgin Mary, it was fitting that she be completely free of sin for expressing her fiat.”
When I read that sentence, I realize that it is contrary to Catholic teaching on salvation. Mary was not freed from all sin, original and personal, as a reward for expressing her fiat (‘Let it be done’, saying ‘Yes’ to God at the Annunciation). No one is saved because they merited salvation, not even the Blessed Virgin Mary. Salvation is essentially a free unmerited gift. Although we may participate in our salvation by cooperating with subsequent grace, the grace of justification (which for Mary was at her conception) is unmerited and prevenient — God operating without our cooperation, before any cooperation on our part is even possible.
Another problem with the sentence is that it asserts two different causes for her freedom from original sin. The first is correct, that Jesus was to become incarnate of the Virgin Mary. But then the assertion is added that the cause was her fiat. So the sentence contradicts itself. Poorly written theology is common in Wikipedia articles on Catholicism.
But the footnote claims that this teaching is found in Ludwig Ott’s excellent book, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma. I have that book. I looked up the reference and read the entire section cited. Nothing remotely like that claim is found in that reference; Mary’s fiat is not mentioned at all in that section. Ott does not say that Mary was freed from sin due to her fiat. Why doesn’t he say that? Because he writes theology competently.
People assume that if there is a footnote, then it is true. Some of the footnotes are bogus — the cited source contains no such assertion. Some of the footnotes are genuine, in that the cited source contains the assertion, but this does not imply that the source expresses Catholic teaching accurately or even correctly. One can find a book on Catholicism asserting almost any idea, any doctrinal error, any heresy, along with the claim that it is Catholic teaching.
Wikipedia makes this claim:
“Catholics do not believe that Mary, herself, was the product of a Virgin Birth from Saint Anne and Saint Joachim.”
Again, the sentence is poorly worded. In what sense would a virgin birth possibly be of Joachim? The sentence seems to refer to Mary’s conception, correctly asserting that Catholics do not believe Mary was conceived solely of St. Ann; we believe that she was conceived of both Ann and Joachim. But it says Virgin Birth.
Now while there is no magisterial teaching that Mary was born by a process that was miraculous and virginal, there is also no magisterial teaching to the contrary. It is an open question. Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich in ‘The Life of the Blessed Virgin Mary’ and in ‘The Life of Jesus Christ and Biblical Revelations’, describes the birth of the Virgin Mary as occurring in a wholly miraculous manner, with no part of the usual process of delivery. These books, in several different editions, have the imprimatur of several different Bishops. And the books have been well-accepted by the sensus fidelium. So the phrase ‘Catholics do not believe’ is not accurate. Some Catholics do believe it, and, what is more important, the idea is not contrary to any magisterial teaching.
Wikipedia also makes this claim:
“Mary was not the product of a Virgin Birth herself; Christian tradition identifies her parents as Saints Joachim and Anne. In fact, both Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy have condemned the belief that Mary was the product of a virgin birth.”
Again, her birth is confused with her conception. Yes, Tradition identifies her parents as both Joachim and Anne. Sacred Scripture also gives Joachim (called Heli) a place in the genealogy of the Gospel of Luke, which seems to be the genealogy of Jesus through Mary (though she is not mentioned). So this interpretation of Scripture supports the idea that Joachim, as well as Ann, were the real biological parents of Mary.
On the question, more or less implied by these Wikipedia assertions, as to whether or not Mary was conceived in a manner that was virginal and miraculous, my theological position is that she was. But this does not imply that Joachim is not the biological father; by a miracle of God, Joachim and Ann are her real biological parents, but conception was accomplished virginally and miraculously. This idea is asserted by Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich in the book ‘The Life of Jesus Christ and Biblical Revelations’. Again, I point out that this book has the imprimatur of a number of different Bishops in its various editions in various languages.
The claim that the Magisterium has condemned the virgin birth of Mary is partly true. What was condemned was the idea that Saint Ann was a virgin. This idea is obviously not true, since according to Sacred Scripture, the Virgin Mary had a sister (John 19:25). And according to Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich, the sister of Mary was conceived by Joachim and Ann, in the usual manner of conception, years before the Immaculate Conception of Mary. So Ann was not a virgin. But this does not imply that the manner of conception of Mary could not be virginal and miraculous, as Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich asserts that it was. And the Magisterium has never condemned the idea that the conception of Mary was accomplished in a virginal and miraculous manner.
More on this topic on my website.
There is a more important error, though, in the Wikipedia article on the Immaculate Conception.
“The papal definition of the dogma declares with absolute certainty and authority that Mary possessed sanctifying grace from the first instant of her existence and was free from the lack of grace caused by the original sin at the beginning of human history.”
The article claims that the meaning of the Immaculate Conception is that Mary was preserved from original sin by being given sanctifying grace from conception. True, but the dogma infallibly teaches that she “was preserved immaculate from all stain of original sin”. And the Council of Trent infallibly teaches that original sin affects body and soul. These infallible teachings necessarily imply that, in the Immaculate Conception, the Blessed Virgin Mary was not only filled with grace, but that her body was preserved from being in a fallen state. She was preserved from all the effects of original sin in both soul and body. The concept of the preservation of her body from original sin is entirely absent from the article. This error of omission is essentially an heretical error.
And there are still other errors.
“It is one of the four dogmata in Roman Catholic Mariology.”
It is not actually true that there are only four Marian dogmas. See my articles on this point: Not Fifth, Not Final, Not Yet A Dogma, and see the Partial List of Marian Dogmas here. If one uses the term dogma narrowly, then there are three Marian dogmas. If one uses the term broadly, as the Church generally does, then there are many more than four Marian dogmas. The idea that there are four Marian dogmas comes from the false private revelations of Ida Peerdeman, not from Sacred Tradition, nor Sacred Scripture, nor the Magisterium.
“The University of Paris supported the decision of the (schismatic) Council of Basel in this matter.”
“Popular opinion remained firmly behind the celebration of Mary’s conception. The doctrine itself had been endorsed by the Council of Basel (1431-1449)….”
“However, the Council of Basel was later held not to have been a true General (or Ecumenical) Council with authority to proclaim dogma”
The Council of Basel, as it is called, moved from city to city: from Basel to Ferrara to Florence to Rome. There was a schism of some Bishops from the newly elected Pope at the start of the Council, in Basel, but thereafter the Council proceeded with the full approval of the Pope, and he was even present for many of the decisions. The entire council is not schismatic. It is certainly accepted by the Church as one of the 21 General Councils; this is a dogmatic fact. The claim that any of the 21 Ecumenical Councils is not a valid Council is the grave sin of schism. So this Wikipedia article teaches both heretical and schismatic errors.
Also, aside from using the term ‘immaculate womb’ of the Virgin Mary, there seems to be nothing said by this Council that would support the claim of the article that the Council taught on the subject of the Immaculate Conception. See the acts of the Council here.
Still more errors:
“In this sense the dogma of the Immaculate Conception defined by Pope Pius IX is also viewed as a key example of the use of sensus fidelium shared by believers and the Magisterium rather than pure reliance on Scripture and Tradition.”
The online article cited in footnote 33 actually does make the same claim as in the Wikipedia article. However, such a claim is at least a distortion of doctrine, if not an outright rejection of magisterial teaching. The First and the Second Vatican Councils both taught that the Magisterium teaches from Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture. The Catechism of the Catholic Church quotes the Second Vatican Council (DV, n. 10) on this point:
“Yet this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it. At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this devotedly, guards it with dedication and expounds it faithfully. All that it proposes for belief as being divinely revealed is drawn from this single deposit of faith.” (CCC, n. 86)
The single deposit of faith is Tradition and Scripture. The Magisterium does not teach from the sensus fidelium. There is a certain sense in which the sensus fidelium assists the Magisterium in teaching from Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture. But the claim that the dogma of the Immaculate Conception was based on the sensus fidelium, and not so much on Tradition and Scripture is false.
One more error to discuss:
“Catholics believe Mary ‘was free from any personal or hereditary sin’.”
Yes, we believe that Mary was always entirely free from all sin, personal or original. However, her freedom from personal sin is not part of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. No statement on that topic is found in that dogmatic sentence. The freedom of Mary from all personal sin is a dogma, but it is not the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. Also, the two footnotes for that quote cite three references: The first is The Council of Trent; but the Council of Trent said no such thing. All that was said by Trent on original sin as it pertains to the Blessed Virgin Mary is:
“This same holy Synod doth nevertheless declare, that it is not its intention to include in this decree, where original sin is treated of, the blessed and immaculate Virgin Mary, the mother of God; but that the constitutions of Pope Sixtus IV., of happy memory, are to be observed, under the pains contained in the said constitutions, which it renews.”
So they avoided deciding the question of her Immaculate Conception. The second, found within the same reference labeled , is Pius XII, Encyclical Mystici Corporis, 1943, to whom is attributed the quote ‘was free from any personal or hereditary sin’. Denzinger is given as the source of the quote, but it actually says: “free from sin either personal or original” so someone rephrased the quote. But again, the topic of personal sin does not apply to the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. The third, is a book which appears not to contain that quote, nor any similar phrasing.
There are perhaps some additional, but lesser criticisms that I could make about this Wikipedia article. But the above is more than sufficient.
Why don’t I correct the above errors? I used to try to correct theological errors in Wikipedia, but it is a waste of time and effort. Any correction is likely to be changed back to the prior error, because anyone at all can edit the article. Or a correction will be changed to a new error. The articles on Catholicism are continually changing, and continually being edited by poorly catechized Catholics, by non-Catholics, and in some cases by non-Christians.
Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and Bible translator