Ineffabilis Deus

My initial draft for this article was rather less respectful of Pius IX, principally because I was working from the standard translation of Ineffabilis Deus. Editorial queries, for which I was very grateful, made me think again.

Here is a parallel text version of the first paragraph and my attempt at a very literal translation.


Ineffabilis Deus, cuius viae misericordia et veritas, cuius voluntas omnipotentia, et cuius sapientia attingit a fine usque ad finem fortiter et disponit omnia suaviter, cum ab omni aeternitate praeviderit luctuosissimam totius humani generis ruinam ex Adami trasgressione derivandam, atque in mysterio a saeculis abscondito primum suae bonitatis opus decreverit per Verbi incarnationem sacramento occultiore complere, ut contra misericors suum propositum homo diabolicae iniquitatis versutia actus in culpam non periret, et quod in primo Adamo casurum erat, in secundo felicius erigeretur, ab initio et ante saecula Unigenito Filio suo matrem, ex qua caro factus in beata temporum plenitudine nasceretur, elegit atque ordinavit, tantoque prae creaturis universis est prosequutus amore, ut in illa una sibi propensissima voluntate complacuerit. God ineffable, whose ways are mercy and truth, whose will is omnipotence, and whose wisdom ‘reaches from end to end mightily and disposes all things gently’—since from all eternity He foresaw the lamentable fall of the whole human race that would flow from Adam’s transgression, and in a mystery hidden from all ages decreed to complete the first work of His goodness by the Incarnation (in a more obscure sacrament) of the Word, in order that humanity, drawn as it had been by the cunning of the devil’s wickedness into offence against His purpose of mercy, might not perish, and in order that what was to fall in the first Adam would be more happily established in the second—given all this, He chose and ordained from the beginning and before the ages a mother for His only begotten Son, who, having taken flesh from her, would be born in the blessed fullness of time; and He honoured her with so great a love above all creatures that He delighted in that one will that was most pleasing to himself.

The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, speaking as it does of a grace of creation not tainted by original sin, puts under pressure the idea of an order of creation thwarted by the sin of Adam. Pius seems to be recognising this reality. His grandiloquence, besides generally conveying an impression of the sublime, also enables him to finesse certain problems.

  • The complex cum (since) clause, beginning at line 5, prevents Pius from having to commit himself on whether the Incarnation would have occurred had there been no sin.
  • The use of the gerundive derivandam leaves it open whether the Fall actually happened, or whether the doctrine describes a ‘what would have been’ had the Incarnation not occurred.

Subsequent theology has moved in the direction of seeing the reality of grace in the creation from the beginning—a line which my own argument follows. The history we inherit is not just a history of Adam but also a history of Christ (Schoonenberg, Rahner, even Barth). This development is part of a more general trend stressing the true humanity of Christ in a way that was not common among Catholic theologians until a couple of generations ago–and indeed leaving Catholic Mariology rather high and dry.

Look however, at the last lines of this paragraph. Whose is ‘that one will’? It could be Mary’s; it could be God’s own. The use of complaceo echoes the Vulgate for both Isaiah 62.4 (used in the liturgy for Mary), and for Isaiah 42.1, quoted in Matthew 17.5 and Luke 3.22 (the Transfiguration and the Baptism of Jesus), suggesting the Father’s relationship to the Son. The sibi could further be hinting at a reality within the Godhead.

I suggest that Pius, recognising how his distinction would destabilize a standard way of thinking about sin, was using phrases that could later be taken to support, not only the view that has now largely prevailed, but also an alternative, according to which Mary’s specialness arose from her personifying a divine reality. For an Alexandrian Christology, Jesus Christ is a divine person; his human nature is ‘anhypostatic’, not itself a logical subject; Jesus Christ is a divine person united to a human nature. Before Vatican II, this was the Christology very much in possession. Pius may be leaving open the way for something similar to be said about Mary. Hence his studious avoidance of any direct statement that Mary was a woman. Given where Marian devotion was in the mid-19th century, such a line of reflection was less eccentric than it would now seem. And Leonardo Boff, in Trinity and Society, has ventured the hypothesis that Mary was in some special way ‘pneumatized’, united to the Spirit, just as Jesus of Nazareth was united to the Logos or Son.

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