Dear Father Angelo,
On several Orthodox apologetics websites I have repeatedly found the claim that Saint Catherine of Siena would have received at least one heavenly revelation that denied the Immaculate Conception of the Most Holy Mary. I tried to search the internet, but I didn’t find any references about it.
Could you confirm if the above statement is true?
Thank you in advance
Answer of the priest
1. The assertion you read on Orthodox websites is completely unfounded.
It would have been appropriate that whoever stated what you wrote to me had presented the documentation.
I have read many writings of Saint Catherine, but such a statement is nowhere to be found.
Certainly, if Saint Catherine had known by divine revelation that Our Lady was conceived with original sin, many scholars and theologians would have paid due attention to it.
2. It is true, on the other hand, that Saint Catherine in a prayer, and precisely in the sixteenth (XVI), explicitly speaks of the original sin in the Blessed Virgin, from which she was soon freed.
3. Saint Catherine’s reasoning starts from Christ: she states that He did not have original sin because he was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Virgin Mary instead contracted it because she was conceived by a man.
Here evidently is felt the affect of the mentality of the time (at whose head there was Saint Augustine), according to which original sin was transmitted through the generative act.
Here are the words of St. Catherine: “The eternal Word was given to us by the hands of Mary, and in Mary’s womb he clothed himself with our nature, without stain of original sin, because that conception was not by the power of man, but by the power of the Holy Spirit; something that did not happen in Mary because she was conceived by the descendants of Adam not by the power of the Holy Spirit, but by that of man”.
4. The Church teaches that original sin is transmitted by propagation and not by means of the generative act.
5. Saint Catherine continues: “Therefore Mary could not be purified from that stain until after the soul was infused into her body, and this was done out of reverence for the divine Word who was to enter that vessel.
Since as the furnace in a short time consumes the drop of water, so did the Holy Spirit of the stain of original sin in Mary: in fact after her conception she was immediately cleansed from that sin and was given an abundance of grace”.
6. We know that St. Thomas Aquinas initially stated that Our Lady was free from original sin.
In the Commentary on Psalm 14 he says that “no blemish at all arose in Christ and the Virgin Mary”.
In Psalm 18 he repeats: “(Christ) has placed his body in the sun, that is, in the Blessed Virgin, who had no darkness of sin”.
In the Commentary on the Sentences, which is his early work, we read these very clear words: “Purity increases with the removal of the opposite (…) Such was the purity of the Blessed Virgin, who was immune from original and actual sin” (In I Sent., d. 44, q. 1, a. 3, ad 3).
At the end of his life, in the commentary on the Hail Mary, he says: “She was most pure in regard to fault; for this Virgin incurred neither original, nor mortal, nor venial sin“.
7. But in the Summa Theologiae, since some had deduced that if Our Lady had not contracted original sin then she was not redeemed by Christ, which is contrary to Scripture, St. Thomas says that the Virgin Mary was sanctified before birth because “the Church celebrates the feast of our Lady’s Nativity. Now the Church does not celebrate feasts except of those who are holy. Therefore even in her birth the Blessed Virgin was holy. Therefore she was sanctified in the womb” (S. th., III, 27, 1, sed contra).
And he writes: ”Nothing is handed down in the canonical Scriptures concerning the sanctification of the Blessed Mary as to her being sanctified in the womb; indeed, they do not even mention her birth. But as Augustine, in his tractate on the Assumption of the Virgin, argues with reason, since her body was assumed into heaven, and yet Scripture does not relate this; so it may be reasonably argued that she was sanctified in the womb. For it is reasonable to believe that she, who brought forth «the Only-Begotten of the Father full of grace and truth» (Jn 1:14), received greater privileges of grace than all others: hence we read (Lk 1:28) that the angel addressed her in the words: «Hail full of grace!»
Moreover, it is to be observed that it was granted, by way of privilege, to others, to be sanctified in the womb; for instance, to Jeremias, to whom it was said (Jer 1:5): «Before thou camest forth out of the womb, I sanctified thee»; and again, to John the Baptist, of whom it is written (Lk 1:15): «He shall be filled with the Holy Ghost even from his mother’s womb». It is therefore with reason that we believe the Blessed Virgin to have been sanctified before her birth from the womb” (Ib., III, 27, 1).
8. But regarding her immaculate conception he remains in the line of his teacher Saint Albert, of Saint Bernard and others: ”If the soul of the Blessed Virgin had never incurred the stain of original sin, this would be derogatory to the dignity of Christ, by reason of His being the universal Saviour of all. Consequently after Christ, who, as the universal Saviour of all, needed not to be saved, the purity of the Blessed Virgin holds the highest place.
For Christ did not contract original sin in any way whatever, but was holy in His very Conception, according to the Gospel (Lk 1:35): «The Holy which shall be born of thee, shall be called the Son of God». But the Blessed Virgin did indeed contract original sin, but was cleansed therefrom before her birth from the womb” (Ib., III, 27, 2, ad 2).
9. It should be remembered that the dogma, which put an end to all discussion, was proclaimed by Pius IX on 8 December 1854.
At the time of St. Catherine, the thought of St. Thomas and other great doctors of the Church was quite common. Even the Franciscan St. Bonaventure, who is contemporary with St. Thomas, is of the same opinion: “We, therefore, for the honor of Jesus Christ, who does not prejudice in any way the honor of the Mother of God, we believe, as is commonly believed, that the Virgin was sanctified only after having contracted the original sin” (Commentary on the Book of Sentences, lib. III, dist. 3, p. 1, art. 1, q. 11).
10. Later, however, the Franciscans with Duns Scotus, who was born eight years before the death of St. Thomas, preached the thought that later became common: Our Lady was redeemed by Christ in an extraordinary way.
Here is the reasoning: just as someone is called a savior because he helps someone who has been injured in the street by stumbling on a stone, so equally the one who frees the road from the stone is a savior because he has seen that a person is coming there and because he would certainly stumble. So it happened with the Blessed Virgin.
The Virgin Mary was therefore pre-redeemed by virtue of the merits of Christ.
And this for a singular privilege because she had to become the Most Holy Mother of God.
I thank you for the question that gave me the opportunity to also report the thought of St. Thomas and of the Church.
I wish you well, I remember you to the Lord and I bless you
Translated by Chiara P.