The Immaculate Conception

The Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is hugely misunderstood. The first thing to point out is that it is about Mary’s sinlessness. Here's a brief excerpt from an essay I wrote on the subject a while back.

Tota pulchra es, Maria,
et macula originalis non est in te. 
Vestimentum tuum candidum quasi nix, et facies tua sicut sol. 
Tota pulchra es, Maria, 
et macula originalis non est in te. 
Tu gloria Jerusalem, tu laetitia Israel, tu honorificentia populi nostri. 
Tota pulchra es, Maria.

From even a perfunctory look at the doctrine of the New Eve, it is possible to see how a consciousness of Mary’s role in the work of salvation began to be realised and develop. It is from a growing consciousness of the unique role and status of Mary in the work of salvation that, beginning in the early patristic period, the Church began to develop the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, which was dogmatically defined by Pope Pius IX in the Bull Ineffabilis Deus (8th December 1854). 

It was here that Pius IX raised to a dogma of faith the doctrine which had been a part of the faith of the Church since the earliest times. St. Ambrose (339-397) speaks of Mary as the first beneficiary of the redemption; an incorrupt virgin free, through grace, from every stain of sin.

Working from the doctrine of Mary as the new Eve, Ambrose sees her role in salvation clearly:
She was alone when the Holy Spirit came upon her and the power of the Most High over shadowed her. She was alone and she wrought the salvation of the world and conceived the redemption of all.
The first explicit testimony is found in the writings of St. Ephraem of Syria (c. 306-373) who writes in the Nisibene Hymns
“Thou alone and thy Mother are in all things fair; for there is no flaw in thee and no stain in thy Mother. Of these two fair ones, to whom are my children similar?”
Other important comments come from St. Epiphanius (c. 315-403), who extols her who is ‘all beautiful, holy and worthy of honour’, and St. Gregory Nazianzen who speaks of Mary’s pre-purification, because she is going to be the Mother of God. In addition to the Patristic sources cited, it should be mentioned that in the seventh century a feast of the passive conception of Mary was celebrated in the Greek Eastern Church. This later spread to southern Italy, then to Ireland and England, under the title Conceptio Beatae Mariae Virginis.

St. Augustine is a more controversial figure on the matter, on the one hand testifying to Mary’s personal sinlessness, yet O’Carroll asserts that his theology of original sin transmitted via conjugal relationships blocks his thought on the Immaculate Conception.

In discourse with Julian of Eclana, Julian makes a powerful argument against the universality of the doctrine of original sin, concerned that it goes against the popular piety which considers Mary never to have been touched by sin.

St. Augustine’s ambiguous reply to Julian’s straight forward query has given rise to many interpretations of Augustine’s thought on this matter.

The result was that the underlying thought (that in order to be redeemed one needs to have shared in the sin of Adam) was to become the main argument against the Immaculate Conception. In fact, there is noticeable resistance to the doctrine from some of history’s greatest theologians; St. Anselm, St. Bernard, Peter Lombard, St. Albert the Great, St. Bonaventure and St. Thomas Aquinas. This is not because of a lack of Marian devotion, indeed, the teaching seems to be referred to in all their writing, St. Thomas, St. Bonaventure and St. Albert seem to go as far as possible towards endorsing the doctrine short of actual acceptance.

Ultimately, it was the Franciscan theologians, William of Ware and Duns Scotus, towards the end of the 13th century, who solved the dilemma about safeguarding the universality of the redemption won by Christ. The Franciscans recognised that preservation from contracting a state of prior sin is not merely just as much of an act of redemption as liberation from the state already contracted, but a more perfect act of redemption.

It was Christ Himself who merited that His Mother should be preserved from original sin...the Blessed Virgin has not just been sanctified from the very first instant of her conception in view of the future Redeemer: this has come about through the merits of the Redemption. She is the outcome of the Redeemer’s infinite perfection. She is not an exception to the Redeemer: she is the most perfectly redeemed person; her exemption from original sin is not mere exemption: she has been redeemed by a redemption which prevented her from contracting original sin.

By 1439, the Council of Basle decreed the validity of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.
Although this decree has no ecumenical status, it does demonstrate contemporary theological opinion was with the doctrine.

Once Mary’s divine motherhood and the unique place which it confers upon her in God’s plan of salvation had been understood and clearly stated, the implications of this for Mary herself had to be properly understood. This woman was to be at the service of God in the act through which He wrought the salvation of humankind and the conquest of sin, thus she could not, herself, be subject to sin. Thus we see a growing acceptance of the doctrine once the Franciscan solution was in place. In 1483, Pope Sixtus IV, himself a Franciscan, approved the feast of the Immaculate Conception.

The Council of Trent makes a brief mention of Mary’s “special privilege” in the avoidance of sin,
and finally, Pius IX decrees the doctrine a dogma of faith having received numerous petitions requesting a definition.

The doctrine’s significance is with regard to the general impression of Mary conveyed in Sacred Scripture and her dignity as a result of the nature of that role, especially as Theotokos. This title conveys a special election by God which is undeniable, it also states the derivation of Christ’s humanity. Awareness of these facts, all demonstrable from the New Testament, result in a realisation of a holiness appropriate to the dignity of her condition.

Initially, theologians considered the holiness of Mary’s life, but as the idea and understanding of original sin developed, the faithful’s conviction regarding Mary’s personal holiness caused the question to be asked in relation to it. It is this trajectory which inevitably led to the dogmatic definition of the Immaculate Conception.

Happy Feast Day!

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