Today is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, possibly the most misunderstood feast in the Roman Catholic calendar. It celebrates the conception of Mary (the conception of Jesus is the feast of the Annunciation, celebrated on the 25th March.) Why “Immaculate”? In 1854 Pope Pius IX pronounced that Mary “in the first instance of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace granted by God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race, was preserved exempt from all stain of original sin”1.
This dogma was debated long before the 19th century. Irish involvement in the debate means that this is also a highly appropriate day to look at the group of scholars who disprove the theory that Ireland produced no influential religious thinkers2. (James Ussher can be cited as another 17th century counter-example.)
In the early 17th century, Florence Conroy (Flaithrí Ó Maolchonaire) left Salamanca to establish a new college in Leuvan. This was the first of a network of Irish Franciscan colleges in continental Europe. Unlike the colleges under Jesuit control, they focused on the Irish language as well as English, and on study as well as training priests for the Irish mission. The College in Leuvan initiated the project that resulted in the Annals of the Four Masters, collected material about Irish saints and with Thomas Messingham fought off the claims of Thomas Dempster 3
Scotism was the key philosophical focus of the Irish Franciscans in Leuvan. Conroy was primarily influenced by and expert in the philosophy of Augustine, but he fostered the study of John Duns Scotus’ work in Leuvan. Every single thesis defended by Franciscan students at Leuvan for more than a century from its foundation concerned the work of Scotus 4. This was no marginal research interest: in the early 17th century the school of Scotus was said to be “more numerous than all the other schools taken together.”5
Leuvan’s intellectual roots lay in Salamanca, home to an influential chair of Scotism, and where both Conroy and Hugh MacCaughwell (Aodh Mac Aingil) were educated. A Downman, MacCaughwell effectively founded the tradition of Irish Scotism, being “the first really bright star shining in the Irish theological sky for more than a hundred years, since the death of Maurice O’Fihely [the only previous Irish Scotist] in 1513’ 6. As well as writing ten volumes on Scotus in his life7, MacCaughwell joined other Irish writers in defending Scotus’ Irishness and his origins in Down8:
“to this tradition, all the Irish, especially the inhabitants of the Down area, witness as something completely certain […] I can recall also practically from my infancy the tradition regarding that disputation which Scotus held in the Parisian schools concerning the Immaculate Conception, which I will mention later, at which a certain Doctor, to who Scotus was known up to that point only by reputation, and who admired the profundity of his doctrine and the subtlety of his arguments, exclaimed […] “You are,” he said, “one of three things: an angel from heaven, a devil from hell or Scotus from Down.”
As this quote suggests, Scotus was a key figure in forming the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. The concept of the Immaculate Conception dates back to at least the 11th century: the Feast of the Conception of Mary is recorded as being celebrated in England in the early half of the century and latter suppressed by the Normans after 1066. It may have arrived there from Ireland where it was also celebrated, possibly originating in the East. The feast was restored in England in 1128. Circa 1140 some tried to introduce the feast in Lyons. It was denounced by Bernard of Clairvaux as an innovation without foundation, and that it should only be introduced by the Apostolic See. William Ware teaching in Oxford took note in the late 13th century of the “pious opinion” that Mary “did not contract original [sin]”. Ware taught Duns Scotus: whether the pupil influenced the teacher or the teacher the pupil as regards the Immaculate Conception remains an open question9
In the 17th century the “pious opinion” had become contentious. In general the Franciscans favoured the doctrine while the Dominicans did not (following Aquinas who argued Mary was sanctified in her mothers’s womb)10 It was favoured too by the Spanish crown, who made numerous approaches to the papacy to have the doctrine confirmed as dogma. In 1618, amid growing theological controversy in Spain the Franciscan vicar general and Bishop of Cartagena Antonio de Trejo had travelled to Rome to petition Paul V to define the teaching of the Immaculate Conception as a dogma. He brought the young, Salamanca-educated Luke Wadding with him as theologian 11
This attempt to make the Immaculate Conception a dogma failed and Luke Wadding stayed in Rome, establishing Irish Colleges there. He is most famous for the full edition of Scotus’ works that he edited along with other scholars including (Leuvan educated) John Punch and Antony Hickey. He also wrote the first history of the Franciscan order. However he stayed involved in the Immaculate Conception debate, publishing a revised version of his arguments made in 1618, known as the Legatio. In this work Wadding gives a commentary on the long debate over the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. He also attempts to defuse the tension between the Thomists and the Scotists, arguing that Aquinas’ authority would not be impugned if Scotus’ views on the Immaculate Conception were favoured. It would not mean that Aquinas’ opinions would be condemned, merely that one of his theses would be rejected. Wadding also wrote on the death, redemption and baptism of Mary, and his works on mariology (the theological study of Mary) are significant in the early modern period 12.
Before moving from Leuvan to Rome in 1623, MacCaughwell published Rosarium Beatae Mariae Virginis, arguing that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was not created by Scotus, but he was merely its most important proponent. His one-time pupil at Leuvan Antony Hickey wrote on the Immaculate Conception (De Conceptione Immaculata B. Mariæ Virginis) and was also involved in debate over the doctrine 13.
The Irish Franciscans did not just debate the merits of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. Luke Wadding argued that images of the Immaculate Conception allowed ordinary people to contemplate the mystery, and that they were as important as words14. In St. Isidores, the room depicting the Irish Franciscans (including all those mentioned above) is centred on an image of the Virgo Immaculata. And the Irish College opened in Prague by Patrick Fleming from Leuvan was called the College of the Immaculate Conception.
Stone summarises the theological efforts of the Irish Franciscans as follows15:
[they] considered and then rejected the controversial moral doctrine of probablism; hounded the minutiae of vexed issues concerning grace and human nature […] flirted with and then cooled in their attitudes toward Jansenism; and most importantly of all, defended with great alacrity and acumen the cause of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary.
Such a defence, particularly that of Luke Wadding, played its part in Alexander VII’s papal bull Sollicitudo omnium ecclesiarum (1661), a reply to Philip IV of Spain which heralded the Holy See’s public acceptance of the doctrine and permitting the celebration of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Opposition to the concept died away and it was finally accepted as dogma in the Roman Catholic Church in 1854 16.
John McCafferty (2014) “Leuvan as a centre for Irish religious, academic and political thought” in Éamonn MacAoda & Aileen Murray (eds) Ireland and Belgium: Past Connections and Continuing Ties Embassy of Ireland to the Kingdom of Belgium (Research Repository UCD)
Thomas O’Connor (2008) “Luke Wadding’s networks at home and abroad” in Dáire Keogh and Albert McDonnell (eds), The Irish College, Rome and its world Dublin: Four Courts Press, pp. 14-23. (online at IrishCollege.org)
Edel Bhreathnach (2007) “Luke Wadding (1588–1657): the only Irishman to receive votes in a papal conclave” in History Ireland, Vol. 15, Issue 4 (online).
— John McCafferty (@jdmccafferty) December 8, 2021
- F. Holweck (1910). “Immaculate Conception” in The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. (online) ↩
- Fr Martin Henry (2016) “Why is there no intellectual tradition in Irish Christianity?” Irish Times 26 July 2016 (online). A subsequent letter dealing with 20th century theology and listing current theological thinkers is worth reading: Gina Menzies (2016) “Ireland does have theologians – but not many” Irish Times 28 July 2016 (online). ↩
- John McCafferty (2014) “Leuvan as a centre for Irish religious, academic and political thought” in Éamonn MacAoda & Aileen Murray (eds) Ireland and Belgium: Past Connections and Continuing Ties Embassy of Ireland to the Kingdom of Belgium (Research Repository UCD), p. 4 and pp. 7-9 of pdf. ↩
- McCaffrey (2014), p. 9 ↩
- The Cistercian polymath Juan Caramuel y Lobkowitz quoted on p. 145 W. M. F Stone (2009a) “Punch’s Ripose: the Irish Contribution to early modern Scotism from Maurice O’Fihely OFMConv to Anthony Rourke OFMObs” in James McEvoy & Michael Stone (eds) The Irish contribution to European Scholastic Thought, Dublin: Four Courts Press, pp. 137-191. ↩
- Benignus Millet (1991) ‘Irish literature in Latin, 1550–1700’ in T. W. Moody, F. X. Martin, F. J. Byrne (eds) A new history of Ireland Vol. III: Early Modern Ireland 1534-1691, Oxford University Press, p. 576. ↩
- M. W. F. Stone (2009b) “The theological and philosophical accomplishments of the Irish Franciscans” in Edel Bhreathnach, Joseph MacMahon OFM & John McCafferty (eds) The Irish Franciscans 1534-1990, Dublin: Four Courts Press, pp.201-220, see pp. 213-4 ↩
- MacCaughwell quoted by McCaffrey (2014), p. 10 of pdf) ↩
- Thanks to Dr Anne D’arcy for the information about the early history of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception and the link to Bernard of Clairvaux (twitter). Bernard of Clairvaux (1904) “LETTER XLV (circa A.D. 1140) – To the Canons of Lyons, on the Conception of S. Mary.” in Samuel J. Eales (trans.) and Francis Aidan Gasquet (ed.) Some Letters of Saint Bernard, Abbot of Clairvaux London: John Hodges. (Christian Classics Ethereal Library). Michael O’Carroll (2000) “William of Ware (d. c. 1305)” in Theotokos: A Theological Encyclopedia of the Blessed Virgin Mary Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, p. 367. Quote from p. 367. ↩
- Michael O’Carroll (2000), p. 181. ↩
- Thomas O’Connor (2008) “Luke Wadding’s networks at home and abroad” in Dáire Keogh and Albert McDonnell (eds), The Irish College, Rome and its world Dublin: Four Courts Press, pp. 14-23. (online at IrishCollege.org) ↩
- Stone (2009b), p. 216. Stone (2009a), p. 160 ↩
- Stone (2009b), pp. 213-5. G. Cleary (1910). “Antony Hickey, O.F.M.” in The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. (online) ↩
- Matgorzata Krasnodebska-D’Aughton (2009) “Franciscan chalices, 1600-50” in Edel Bhreathnach, Joseph MacMahon OFM & John McCafferty (eds) The Irish Franciscans 1534-1990, Dublin: Four Courts Press, pp.287-304. See pp. 296-7 ↩
- Stone (2009b), p. 202 ↩
- O’Carroll (2000), pp. 182, 389. ↩