The Immaculate Conception is a Roman Catholic dogma which asserts that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was preserved by God from the transmission of original sin at the time of her own conception. Specifically the doctrine says she was not afflicted by the privation of sanctifying grace which afflicts mankind, but was instead filled with grace by God, and furthermore lived a life completely free from sin. It is commonly confused with the doctrine of the virgin birth, though the two doctrines deal with separate subjects.
History and background
The Immaculate Conception was solemnly defined as a dogma by Pope Pius IX in his constitution Ineffabilis Deus, published December 8, 1854 (the Latins' Feast of the Immaculate Conception). From 1483, Pope Sixtus IV had left Roman Catholics free to believe that Mary was subject to original sin or not, after having introduced the celebration; this freedom had been reiterated by the Council of Trent.
The Roman Catholic Church believes the dogma is supported by scripture and by the writings of many of the Church Fathers, either directly or indirectly. Roman Catholic theology maintains that since Jesus became incarnate of the Virgin Mary, she needed to be completely free of sin to bear the Son of God, and that Mary is "redeemed 'by the grace of Christ' but in a more perfect manner than other human beings" (Ott, Fund., Bk 3, Pt. 3, Ch. 2, §3.1.e).
The doctrine is generally not shared by either Eastern Orthodoxy or by Protestantism. Protestantism rejects the doctrine because it is not explicitly spelled out in the Bible. Protestants and Eastern Orthodox often say that the immaculate conception of the Theotokos would contradict the doctrine of the redemption of humanity, as the Virgin Mary would have been cleansed before Christ's own incarnation, making his function superfluous. Orthodox Christians say that St. Augustine (d. 430), whose works were not well known in Eastern Christianity until perhaps the 17th and 18th centuries, has influenced the theology of sin that has generally taken root in the West. Many Orthodox consider unnecessary the doctrine that Mary would require purification prior to the Incarnation. Eastern Orthodox theologians believe that the references among the Greek and Syrian Fathers to Mary's purity and sinlessness may refer not to an a priori state but to her conduct after birth.
Roman Catholics counter with Scripture (e.g., Romans 5, Wisdom of Solomon 2:24, I Corinthians 15:21, the experience of St. John the Baptizer in his mother's womb, etc.) and the writings of Church Fathers prior to St. Augustine.
History of the doctrine
Aside from the acceptability of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, and its necessity or lack thereof, is the history of its development within the Roman Catholic Church. The Conception of Mary was celebrated in England from the ninth century. Eadmer was influential in its spread. The Normans suppressed the celebration but it lived on in the popular mind. It was rejected by Bernard of Clairvaux, Alexander of Hales, and Bonaventure (who, teaching at Paris, called it "this foreign doctrine," indicating its association with England). Thomas Aquinas expressed questions about the subject but said that he would accept the determination of the Church (his difficulty was in seeing how Mary could be redeemed if she had not sinned).
The Oxford Franciscans William of Ware and especially John Duns Scotus defended the doctrine despite the opposition of most scholarly opinion at the time. Scotus proposed a solution to the theological problems involved with reconciling the doctrine with the doctrine of universal redemption in Christ by arguing that Mary's immaculate conception did not remove her from redemption by Christ but rather was the result of a more perfect redemption given to her on account of her special role in salvation history. Scotus' defence of the immaculist thesis was summed up by one of his followers potuit, decuit ergo fecit (God could do it, it was fitting that he did it, and so he did it). Following his defence of the thesis, students at Paris swore to defend the thesis and the tradition grew of swearing to defend the doctrine with one's blood. Arguments ensued between the immaculist Scotists and the maculist Thomists, and the former tried to link this doctrine with that of the primacy of Christ (which says that Christ would have become man even if Adam had not sinned) since both groups reject the idea that God's plans were determined by human sin.
Popular opinion was firmly behind accepting this privilege for Mary, but such was the sensitivity of the issue and the authority of Aquinas that it was not until 1854 that Pius IX, with the support of the overwhelming majority of Catholic bishops, felt safe enough to pronounce the doctrine infallible.
The contemporary statement of the teaching can be found here in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The actual text of the doctrinal declaration is: "We declare . . . that the most Blessed Virgin Mary in the first moment of her conception was, by the unique grace and privilege of God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ the Saviour of the human race, preserved intact from all stain of original sin."
The Orthodox Church and the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception
- St. Augustine & Original Sin - a typical Orthodox perspective, by Fr. John Matusiak
- The Immaculate Conception: The Holiness of the Mother of God in East and West - Dr. Alexander Roman (Ukrainian Orthodox Church)
- The Immaculate Conception: A Question - response by Dr. Roman
- What do the Orthodox believe about the "Immaculate Conception"?
From modern Orthodox theologians
- "I do not see any irresoluble conflict between the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception and the full humanity and freedom of Mary as of the same race as Eve." - Vladimir Lossky (citation?)
Relevant quotations from the Fathers
- "...being Himself at once God and man, His flesh and soul were and are holy - and beyond holy. God is holy, just as He was and is and shall be, and the Virgin is immaculate, without spot or stain, and so, too, was that rib which was taken from Adam. However the rest of humanity, even though they are His brothers and kin according to the flesh, yet remained even as they were, of dust, and did not immediately become holy and sons of God."
For Further Background
- Catholic Encyclopedia entry on the Immaculate Conception
- Catholic Encyclopedia entry on Original Sin
- Summary of Roman Catholic doctrines about Mary
- The Immaculate Conception - A Lutheran Perspective
- My Belief in the Immaculate Conception Doctrine - by Daniel Joseph Barton (Byzantine Catholic)
- Orthodoxy and the the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Theotokos - Unique to the modern Roman Church or ancient Eastern tradition? - by Dave Brown (Catholic Information Network)