The Immaculate Conception of Mary, according to the thought of Pope Benedict XVI, takes form in relation to the espousals of Christ and the Church. The Church becomes holy and immaculate to the degree that it is an extension of Mary, its pre-eminent member. This is accomplished, according to the teaching of St. Maximilian M. Kolbe, through the incorporation of the mystery of the Immaculate Conception into the life of the Church.
The distinctive features of the Christology and Mariology of Blessed John Duns Scotus are generally regarded as a theological explanation for the basis of St. Francis of Assisi’s spirituality and have come to be known as the Franciscan thesis. The key features of that theological rationale are 1) the absolute primacy of the Incarnate Word; and 2) the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mother of God. The absolute primacy of Christ is more popularly known in Franciscan circles as the universal kingship of Christ, for the sake of which the rest of creation was brought into being and to which all creatures, visible and invisible, are ordained. The absolute primacy, or “firstness,” of Christ, means that the Incarnation, in relation to all other creatures, was first willed by the Creator as an end in itself. Instead, all other creatures (and the Redemption as well) were ordained in a certain order, in view of the glory of the Man-God. The Incarnation was not willed for the sake of perfecting creation or for the sake of redeeming mankind as a kind of afterthought to them. The created universe and its Redemption were both willed for the sake of the Word Incarnate. Another traditional aspect of the “Franciscan thesis” is the mystery of the Immaculate Conception. Once we understand how the absolute primacy of Christ, viz., His predestination to be Incarnate as an end itself, includes the Virgin Mother—what Bl. Pope Pius IX calls the “joint predestination of Jesus and Mary in the same decree” in the bull of definition of the Immaculate Conception—then it becomes clear every aspect of that primacy is Marian. That is, it possesses what is called a “Marian coefficient.” In the case of the absolute primacy or Kingship of Jesus, this is the Immaculate Conception of Mary. Hence, when we discuss, defend and expound upon the practical aspects of the absolute primacy as the central point of reference for all of creation and for the work of Redemption, we must necessarily admit into that discussion the unique role of the stainless Virgin in the plan of salvation for mankind. Many over the centuries have objected: there is no basis for the “Franciscan thesis” in Scripture or Tradition. But with the dogmatic definition of the Immaculate Conception in 1854, more and more scholars have come to recognize that this thesis is well grounded in Scripture and Tradition, and, as a matter of fact, in quite striking fashion in the letters of St. Paul. Among the most striking of these Pauline passages, cited by Bl. Duns Scotus and his disciples over the centuries, is his prayer introducing the letter to the Ephesians (1:3-14). In a recent catechesis given on December 5, 2012, Pope Benedict XVI said that this prayer, pregnant with Scotistic overtones, “introduces us to live the season of Advent, in the context of faith.” To live the season of Advent thus is to acknowledge our lives as wholly and absolutely for Christ, to believe that we exist for no other reason except to share the glory of Christ in His humanity. This glory is naught else but the fullest sharing of divine life by a man, the glory for which, on the night before He died, Christ prayed for Himself and for those who believe in Him (cf. Jn 17:1ff). Although the Holy Father does not cite either Duns Scotus or St. Francis even once, the fact is that his catechesis on the Incarnation as an end in itself, as Grace par excellence, is a practical affirmation of what absolute primacy means.
Part I. Living the Season of Advent in the context of Faith
We begin our exposition with a commentary on the Holy Father’s catechesis of December 5, 2012. It is organized around five points. The first four illustrate in what way the prayer of Ephesians 1:3-14 is an introduction to living the season of Advent, based on this thesis of the absolute primacy. The fifth and final point is an explanation of doctrinal-saving faith as a response on our part, modeled on the faith of the Immaculate Mother of God at the Annunciation. The paragraph numbers of the commentary correspond to the paragraph numbers I have added to the text of the catechesis included here. 1. The hymn of praise opening the letter of St. Paul to the Ephesians has as its theme God’s plan for man, defined in terms full of joy, wonder and thanksgiving, as a “benevolent purpose” of mercy and love. The Holy Father then calls our attention to the reason for this heartfelt praise of the Apostle. That reason rests in St. Paul’s vision of the history of salvation, whereby he realizes how the Heavenly Father has chosen us even before the creation of the world to be his sons in his only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ (cf. Rom 8:14ff, Gal 4:4ff, Jn 17:5). Prior to any consideration of creation, we are included in that first decree of the Father concerning the Incarnation, for the sake of which the rest of creation was willed. This is precisely what Scotus understands by the absolute primacy of the Incarnate Word, in the context of which we are able to contemplate the Father as does the only-begotten Son in His manhood. We exist, then, in some way in God’s mind in a great plan that God cherished within him and decided to implement and to reveal in “the fullness of time.” (cf. Eph 1:10; Gal 4:4). The Pope makes allusion to an old theological axiom—“first in intention, last in execution.” Before we can understand the work of creation, as with any intelligible work, we must first know what order or “reason” links all the parts of that work to a “first” irreducible central point of reference, without which no work is intelligible and which, in the context of actual implementation, is the final goal to be realized. The Holy Father then observes that creation—in particular man and woman—is not the result of chance, but of a loving plan corresponding to the “eternal reason,” centering on the Incarnation. Our vocation is not simply to exist in the world, in history or even as a creature of God. All this is subordinated to something greater: pure Grace, that of being chosen by God in the choice of his Son, Jesus Christ, to be Incarnate. This “benevolent purpose” is qualified by St. Paul as loving (v. 5) and as a mystery of the once-hidden divine will, now revealed (v. 9). It is the divine initiative preceding any loving human response (cf. 1 Jn 4:10), the “free gift of His love that surrounds us and transforms us.” This is exactly the inspiration of Scotus’ teaching on absolute primacy. 2. Pope Benedict’s second consideration is the ultimate goal of this mysterious plan, the center of God’s will. It is not, as modern thinkers might suppose, the perfection of creation, or of this or that creature, but “to unite all things in Christ, the Head” (v. 10). This is exactly the thought of Scotus in discussing the Headship of Christ in His humanity, what St. Francis understands by the universal Kingship of Jesus, and on which rests the mystery of Christ as one Mediator of God and man. Further, our predestination with Christ is the basis of our sharing in various ways in the work of mediation, of filling up in the Church what is lacking of the sufferings of Christ (cf. Col 1:24ff). In the first instance, it is His Immaculate Mother who shares in His one mediation; through her, all others redeemed by Christ share in this work. In his interpretation of this Pauline axiom—to unite all things in Christ, the Head—the Pope cites the theory of recirculation and recapitulation, first articulated by St. Irenaeus, an early Father of the Church. The sense here is not merely a restoration of what was lost by original sin, but also, and more importantly, a realization of what these gifts of grace before the fall prefigured, the final restoration of the universe in Christ, who is first willed by the Father before the foundation of the world, the structural support of all things [who] attracts to himself the entire reality in order to overcome dispersion and limitation and lead all things to the fullness desired by God. The Incarnation, then, is not an afterthought of God occasioned by the sin of Adam and Eve. It is, rather, a decision prior to any consideration of Redemption, but which makes that same Redemption a possibility. It is realized in the context of the Incarnation, via the cooperation of the Virgin Mother, the daughter of Adam preserved free from even a taint of original sin, so that the Church and its members might share this divine-like sanctity “under the Headship of Christ.” 3. A third important point in the explanation of the divine plan is its revelation. God has made the plan known by engaging with man, to whom he did not reveal just something, but indeed himself: He has not merely communicated an array of truths, but he has communicated himself to us, even to the point of becoming one of us, of taking flesh. Pope Benedict calls our attention to a very profound reflection of Vatican II in its Dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum (n. 2) where this very point is affirmed: In His goodness and wisdom God chose to reveal Himself and to make known to us the hidden purpose of His will (cf. Eph 1:9) by which through Christ, the Word made flesh, man might in the Holy Spirit have access to the Father and come to share in the divine nature. Thus, God not only says something, he communicates with us, [drawing] us into his divine nature so that we may be integrated into it or divinized. The heart of this insight is contained in the expression Man-God (rather than God-Man) expressed by Scotus and by St. Maximilian M. Kolbe. In speaking thus of the goal of the Incarnation, the primary and ultimate question is not why God became man (certainly a valid question), but why man became God! In this scenario, God became man because only in such wise would such deification be the highest and absolutely supreme Grace—first in the Incarnation in virtue of the hypostatic union; second in the Mother of God and the rest of her offspring through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. In tradition, this is what “deification” of man connotes: the participation by a creature in divine or holy life without becoming by nature infinite or divine. Such “deification” permits the eternal Father to see in his adopted children what he sees in his Only-begotten Son. Finally, the Holy Father notes that with their own intelligence and abilities alone human beings would not have been able to achieve this most enlightening revelation of God’s love; it is God who has opened his heaven and lowered himself in order to guide men and women in his ineffable love. Needless to say, God might have made man without elevating him to so high a bliss. As St. John Chrysostom reflects (quoted by the Holy Father): You are made immortal, you are made free, you are made a son, you are made righteous, you are made a brother, you are made a joint heir, you reign with Christ, you are glorified with Christ. 4. To balance the transcendence of grace in relation to nature, Pope Benedict observes that this communion in Christ through the action of the Holy Spirit is the fulfillment of our deepest aspirations, of that longing for the infinite and for fullness, which dwells in the depths of the human being and opens him or her to a happiness that is not fleeting or limited but eternal. Although it is not due us, but only a gift, grace also perfects nature from within, because as St. Augustine says in his Confessions: “Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee, O Lord.” The Holy Father quotes St. Bonaventure on this point:
Sacred Scripture is… the book in which the words of eternal life are written so that not only we believe, but may also possess eternal life, in which we shall see, we shall love and all our wishes shall be realized (Breviloquium, Prologue; Opera Omnia V, 201f).
He also quotes the Encyclical Fides et Ratio of Bl. John Paul II (n. 14), where revelation is easily understood in the context of absolute primacy, where the Incarnation, as the end of history, is already found at the very center of history before its consummation in the final glorification of the Church and her members:
Revelation has set within history a point of reference which cannot be ignored if the mystery of human life is to be known. Yet this knowledge refers back constantly to the mystery of God which the human mind cannot exhaust but can only receive and embrace in faith (Fides et Ratio, n. 12).
5. This brings us to a consideration of faith seen within the context of living the season of Advent—of living one’s life as a preparation for the final coming of Jesus in glory, to fully glorify His elect. The act of faith, the Pope tells us, is a kind of leap beyond the range of finite reason, in response to the revelation of God’s “reason” in the unveiling of his loving plan of salvation for mankind. It is a way of allowing ourselves, as St. Augustine says, to be grasped by the Truth that is God, a Truth that is Love. St. Paul stresses this very point when he underscores how we owe God the “obedience of faith” (cf. Rom 16:26; 1:5; 2 Cor 10:5-6). Such obedience is not an act of coercion; it is a letting go, a surrendering to the ocean of God’s goodness. The Pope goes on: All this leads to a fundamental change in the way of relating to reality as a whole; everything appears in a new light so it is a true “conversion,” faith is a “change of mentality.” This is because God revealed himself in Christ and made his plan of love known, he takes hold of us, he draws us to him, he becomes the meaning that sustains life, the rock on which to find stability. This new light is the mystery of the Incarnation, for the sake of which all else exists. God speaks through the prophet Isaiah to King Ahaz (Is 7:9): “If you will not believe, surely you shall not be established.” There is, then, a link between being and understanding that expresses how faith is a welcoming of God’s vision of reality into our lives, letting God guide us through his Word and Sacraments to understand what we must do, the path we must take, how to live. God’s vision of reality is centered on Jesus Christ, without whom we will not understand what we must do, or recognize the path we must take, or how we must live.
For those desirous of reading more about the “Franciscan Thesis” according to Scotus, we recommend the following titles, all published by the Academy of the Immaculate, New Bedford MA:
Maximilian M. Dean, A Primer on the Primacy of Christ. Blessed John Duns Scotus and the Franciscan Thesis (2006) (2006).
Ruggero Rosini, The Mariology of Blessed John Duns Scotus (2008).
Peter M. Fehlner, Ed., Blessed John Duns Scotus and His Mariology. Commemoration of the Seventh Centenary of His Death (2009).