Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Immaculate Confusion

On Tuesday they celebrated Immaculate Conception. Bells rang, some went to church. Good Catholics should go. Immaculate Conception is an event in the church calendar which carries a certain obligation.

There is, to put it mildly, some confusion as to what 8 December is all about, especially among those with limited or zero knowledge of Catholic doctrine. The first point to make is that this is not the conception of Jesus (which should in fact be obvious given the proximity of Christmas), it was the conception of his mother. Consequently, there is, as some might be aware, a feast day on 8 September. Simple maths and a simple knowledge of human biology (lacking when it comes to drawing the mistaken Jesus connection) will allow you to figure out what that's all about.

There is, however, far more to this confused story, one that goes back to before mediaeval times but which really sparked into life some 750 or so years ago. The debate as to the Immaculate Conception was, in no small part, a battle of philosophical and theological wills between Dominicans and Franciscans. And as such, into the whole argument stepped our old friend Ramon Llull.

The Mallorcan man of mystery and general know-all was in the Franciscan camp, and it was this Franciscan faction, within the Catalan Catholic tradition, which was to lead to the suggestion that lands which were associated with the Crown of Aragon, as was the case with Mallorca, were ones from which arose a fundamentalism.

The point to make is that mostly all religious debate of the time was of a fundamental nature. Rationality and logic had yet to be subject to the earth-shattering influences of the scientific revolution which were to draw into question whole bodies of religious work. The scholars of that era, therefore, grappled with the issue of Mary's conception purely from the perspective of notions such as original sin and preparation for the arrival of the Son of God. Most didn't veer away too drastically from such fundamental concepts. To do so was rarely a wise move, as being denounced as a heretic and ending up on the wrong end of a burning stake were not uncommon consequences.

Nevertheless, the debate was fierce, Llull and many others setting about trying to explain how Mary was conceived and why. Neither was as simple as it might have seemed. Essentially, what Llull believed was that Mary was destined to be the Mother of the Son of God. Given this, and so given the fact that the Son of God would eventually, as they liked to put it, "take flesh from her", she could not have been corrupted - at time of conception - by actual or original sin. Had she been, then the Son of God would not have ultimately been able to derive flesh from her, for the simple (?) reason that God and sin cannot co-exist in one person.

In other words, Mary was conceived without sin, and to reinforce this, according to Llull, when Anne and Joachim, Jesus's maternal grandparents, set about conceiving, they did so because their desire was so pure that God bestowed upon them the grace to be able to conceive the Mother of the Son of God, thus guaranteeing the purity of Mary.

Which was all pretty mind-blowing stuff back in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, but the idea that Mary was conceived without sin was to cause a schism. Enter, therefore, the Dominicans, and in particular Saint Thomas Aquinas. Though his views have been scrutinised, analysed and revised over centuries, Aquinas seemingly denied the immaculate nature of the conception (as other Dominicans were to). For Aquinas, the Blessed Virgin contracted original sin.

While this whole argument was to rage for years, centuries and still does rage, the fundamental fundamentalism of Llull became a given in Aragon and associated lands at the time. Mallorca, therefore, was driven by the philosophy of the "Immaculists". So this philosophy, despite an outbreak of the burning of Llullian texts for a while (Dominicans who considered the doctrine heretical), dominated political as well as religious thinking and was to transfer, through marriage, to Castile. When Ferdinand of Aragon married Isabel of Castile in the fifteenth century and produced the quasi-unification of Spain, Isabel grabbed hold of the Immaculate Conception and La Immaculada big time. And it was here that the story became distinctly odd, as the Franciscan advisors to the Catholic Kings were able to use the without-sin narrative to arrive at an explanation of the purity of Spain. The country itself had been born "free of stain". To say the least, it was a somewhat racist idea.

So there you have it. A brief story of a very long one. The Immaculate Conception probably better known as The Immaculate Confusion.

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