Marty O'Bryan is currently enrolled at Aquinas Institute. She is studying towards a Master of Arts - Catechesis of the Good Shepherd degree.
The most Blessed Virgin Mary, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God, and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, was preserved immune from all stain of original sin. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 124, #491)
In the entire history of the Roman Catholic Church, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, Ineffabilis Deus, was the most protracted and controversial of all the questions ever posed for its consideration. Formally introduced around the year 1100, the question was not settled until 750 years later when, on December 8, 1854, Pope Pius IX promulgated its doctrine. Two factors had slowed its acceptance: there was no clear evidence for it either in scripture or in the patristic writings. Regarding the former, the greatest scriptural evidence against the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception lay in the writings of St. Paul where it is stated that all have sinned in Adam (Romans 5:12) and “all have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) (O’Connor, vi). By the time the Church began to actively consider Mary’s sanctity, it was universally accepted that she had committed no sin during her lifetime. Thus, the dilemma: in light of her purity, how could Mary have been exempt from the universal need for redemption?
From the early charges of heresy by some of the most illustrious Doctors of the Church (Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure) (Balic, 188-191), to the full and loving embrace by others with minds equally astute, theologians argued the truth of is claim, employing the theological practices of their respective moments in time. Throughout its long history, many came within its reach, some holding the treasure of its revelation in their hands, only to let go when faced with its paradox. Their tools of human thought and language developed with its history, beginning with effusively wrapped language of logic and followed by systematic analysis to dissect and articulate the argument. In the decades after its promulgation, the new lens of anthropology was employed to deepen the understanding of its truth; and today, the hermeneutic of the psychology of being is furthering the conversation.
This paper will present a brief history of the development of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, pointing out along the way how near to it so many came before its official promulgation. The paper will also present its current meaning for the Church and new vistas for its interpretation that have opened in the light of faith.
In addressing the history of the doctrine of Mary’s preservation from original sin, it is necessary to present the Church’s understanding of this sin. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), original sin is not an individual’s “personal fault.” It is the “deprivation of original holiness” in humankind’s nature, a deprivation that inclines human beings to sin (CCC, 102, #405), sin being the lack of the fullness of love for God and neighbor caused by a persistent attachment to certain goods (CCC, 453, #1849). This deprivation of original holiness that marks “the whole of human history” is due to “a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man . . . by the original fault freely committed by our first parents [Adam and Eve] (CCC, 98, #390).” This is frequently referred to as “the sin of Adam.” The Catholic Church, therefore, distinguishes between personal sin and original sin, the latter a term coined by St. Augustine (350-430).
Early Christian writings do not offer evidence of the belief that Mary was free from personal sin. In the Eastern Church, Origen (185-254), when interpreting Simeon’s statement to Mary, “ . . . (and you yourself a sword will pierce) . . .” (Luke 2:35) as referring to the presence of sin, claimed that it was at the foot of the cross where Mary had sinned by doubting her son’s divinity and mission (Joussard, 55-57). Tertullian (c.160-220) held a similar teaching in the West (O’Connor, xi). A light, however, began to shine on the Church’s thought regarding Mary when St. Ambrose (340-397) spoke and wrote only of her sanctity and her “Divine Maternity.” St. Jerome (347-420) maintained the same and even more so (Joussard, 68). By the time of the Council of Ephesus in 431, the Church, moving further toward the doctrine, was now in agreement regarding Mary’s sanctity (her never having sinned); and it was at this council that she was given the title theotokos, God-bearer, “Mother of God” (Journet, 43).
Prior to the Council of Ephesus, St. Augustine had articulated the doctrine of original sin. He held that original sin is transmitted in the marriage act, through which a person first comes into existence, and that all persons inherit it (McBrien, 187). A contemporary of his, the ascetic Pelagius, taught that all sin was personal sin and that one could overcome it through the strict exercise of one’s will (a heresy that was officially rejected at the Council of Ephesus). He also maintained that Mary was all holy and completely free from even the slightest stain of sin (Journet, 40). Augustine, completely agreeing with him regarding Mary’s personal sanctity, yet, finding it impossible to deny the teachings of Paul, declared in response to Pelagius that “pure grace” had exempted Mary from this universal principle. Here it was, the gem of truth; yet, he was unable to articulate how this had happened. Consequently, a few years before his death, Augustine, again faced with the question of Mary’s exemption from original sin, responded in the negative, writing that Mary was born with original sin and that only later was she sanctified by grace (Joussard, 69-74). For centuries, through the end of the patristic era, this opinion remained uncountered in the writings and preaching of the Fathers of the Church. There was one exception, however—the Venerable Bede (672-735). Reflecting on John the Baptist being filled with the Holy Spirit in the womb of Elizabeth, his mother, Bede preached that this was John’s purification from original sin (Journet, 77-78). That neither he nor others applied this insight to Mary is remarkable. Hence, fertile ground lay fallow.
The Council of Ephesus in 431 had fueled the veneration of Mary, and it was in the Byzantine East that Mary’s sanctity was first celebrated liturgically (Dvornik, 90). By the end of the 7th century, the Feast of Mary’s conception, known as the Feast of the Conception of St. Anne, Mother of the Theotokos, had been added to other liturgies celebrating her sanctity (Dvornik, 90). The feast expanded to Byzantine southern Italy, possibly as early as the first half of the 9th century. Its celebration spread to Ireland; and, in less than two centuries, it was being celebrated in the monasteries of southern England (Bouman, 123-125). The veneration of the Blessed Mother’s conception and its liturgical celebration spread throughout Western Catholicism. While there yet had been no approbation from Rome, the dictum, “lex orandi, lex credendi,” (the law of prayer is the law of belief) was being borne out (Bevans, 97), thus opening the door more widely to official consideration.
At the beginning of the Scholastic period in the Western Church (11th – 15th century), the schism with the East prevented any further nourishment of the West with the teachings from the Eastern Fathers on the Conception of Mary (Balic, 162). In addition, Augustine’s doctrine of the universality of original sin ruled absolute in the halls of theology (Balic, 162). Two beliefs prevailed. One was that the Holy Spirit had sanctified Mary at the moment of the Annunciation (Balic, 163). The other was held by St. Bernard (1090-1153). In a break from Augustine’s doctrine that sanctification from original sin occurred only after birth, Bernard claimed that Mary was purified while still within her mother’s womb. Almost 500 years after Bede, St. Bernard continued the conversation by moving the moment of her sanctification further back, closer to the very moment of her conception. The idea of her immaculate conception was very much in his mind, for Bernard wrote that her exemption from original sin would have lessened the redemptive act of Christ (Balic, 183-184), the thought of which he could not bear to embrace. St. Anselm (1033-1109), the father of Scholasticism, wrote that he was open to a “higher explanation,” believing that Mary “was brought into existence from Adam, in the same way as all others,” but that she “was one of those who were cleansed from their sins by Him [Jesus] before He was born” (Balic, 168). While not indicating at what moment in her existence she was cleansed, he nevertheless was also intimating an immaculate conception.
Bernard’s and Anselm’s instincts could have flung open the gates to epiphanies for the next generations; however, the great theologians of the golden age of Scholasticism (approximately 1230-1340)—St. Bonaventure, St. Albert the Great, and St. Thomas Aquinas—dispensing with the effusive and mystical language of their predecessors, employed the analytic systematic, and didactic method of their day. Overlooking the writings of St. Anselm, they clung to Augustine’s teaching of the universality of original sin. Yet championing St. Bernard’s claim of Mary’s sanctification while still in her mother’s womb, they each wrote that, while without sin during her life, the Mother of God nevertheless required purification from the sin she had inherited (Balic, 186-192).
It was the Franciscan and Scottish priest, John Duns (1266-1308), known as Duns Scotus, who solved the dilemma and reconciled the contradicting doctrines of original sin, of Christ as universal Redeemer, and of Mary’s preservation from original sin. He reasoned innovatively that Mary’s preservation from original sin would not have lessened Christ’s redemptive action at all and that, in fact, it would have made Christ’s redeeming act “more excellent,” writing that it would be “a more excellent benefit to preserve a person from evil than to permit him to fall into it and then deliver him from it (Balic, 207). With regard to Augustine’s doctrine of Original Sin, Scotus was delightfully perceptive, writing that, since “everything is possible to God that is not manifestly contradictory in itself” (Balic, 204), and because of the merits of Christ, her Redeemer (Balic, 207), “God could have conferred as much grace on her in the first moment of her soul’s existence as He does on another soul at . . . baptism” (Balic, 205). With this insight, the brilliant and “Subtle Doctor” became known as the Doctor of the Immaculate Conception (Balic, 204), synthesizing and reconciling nearly 1000 years of argumentation and opening wide the path to its promulgation by Rome. This, however, would not occur for at least another 500 years.
In spite of Scotus’ brilliant and synthesized articulation of the schools of Augustine and Anselm, their followers argued in opposition to one another, “maculists” against “immaculists.” The latter were led by the Franciscans with their allegiance to Scotus, their brother. The maculists were led by the Dominicans whose beloved Angelic Doctor, Thomas Aquinas, had argued with Augustine (Sebastian, 214). Aquinas’ canonization in 1323 fueled their vigor, as they saw it as an official sanction from Rome (Sebastian, 214). In 1477, Franciscan Pope Sixtus IV approved two offices and a Mass in honor of Mary’s Conception, which served as a catalyst for renewal of the argument. The argumentation and animosity rose to such fever pitch, each camp denouncing the other as heretics, that in 1482, and again a year later, Sixtus IV issued a Bull vehemently threatening with excommunication anyone who denounced another as being a heretic (Sebastian, 238).
Beneath the raging battle of theological argumentation and name-calling, another sentiment was welling up. Encouraged by Sixtus IV’s approval of the offices and Mass in honor of the Virgin, universities began requiring students to take an oath to defend the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception; and by the end of the 17th century, nearly 150 universities in Europe had expressed support of the doctrine, approximately 50 of them requiring the oath (Sebastian, 239-241). Theologians and saints of religious orders became known for their support of the doctrine—Carmelites, Jesuits, Augustinians, Sts. Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Joseph Cupertino (Sebastian, 241). The establishment of ecclesiastical congregations and confraternities throughout Europe dedicated to the Immaculate Conception and the widespread embrace of the doctrine by the faithful proved another doctrine at work, sensus fidelium, which states that the entire body of the faithful has a “deep instinct within the bosom of the mystical body of Christ” on matters of faith and morals (Bevans, 78-79). And so, the doctrine was advanced.
Throughout this long period, provincial generals and heads of State were increasingly petitioning Rome to grant special privileges in observance of the Conception of Mary. While granting the status of “feast,” accompanied by days of obligation and dates of is celebration on the calendar, the magisterium remained silent regarding the feast’s status as dogma (Laurentin, 274-278). Over those 500 years, what appeared to be delay and uncertainty on the part of the magisterium was, instead, a prudence that encouraged deeper study and clearer articulation of the subject (Laurentin, 270). Finally, after consulting the bishops of the entire Church, Pope Pius IX, on December 8, 1954, read the decree of the bull, Ineffabilis Deus, “revealed by God” and therefore, to “firmly and constantly be believed by all the faithful” (Laurentin, 312).
Since that day in 1854, theologians have continued to reflect on the meaning of the Immaculate Conception, deepening and widening its implications for all. French Cardinal Charles Journet (1891-1957) saw in her immaculate purity “the Woman” who is united to Christ and whose history is the history of the Church itself—1) the Church before Christ, in her struggle with the serpent that continues to her glorification at the end of the age; 2) the Church in the time of Christ when, bound together, they battle the serpent with the shared weapons of purity and exemption from sin; and 3) the Church after Christ, when at the foot of the cross the Lord Jesus entrusts to her the members of his mystical body to stand with them in the victory over death, the “last enemy” (Journet, 34). In this perspective, the Immaculate Conception serves as the icon for hope and faithful perseverance until the triumphant return of Christ. German dogmatic theologian, Karl Rahner (1904-1984) sought the nucleus of Marian doctrine, aware of their historical and cultural contexts and examining them for what was eternally valid (Vorgrimler, 91). Through his anthropological lens of human freedom and responsibility and self-determination, Rahner saw in the Immaculate Conception Mary’s sign to the world of the graced human person with an inner orientation toward the divine and with the human capacity for the self-communication of God (Dallavalle, 265). In her book, Christianity & Feminism in Conversation, Regina Coll cites Sr. Carol Frances Jagen, B.V.M., who reflects on Mary as patron of the United States of America and on the popular image of Mary as the woman of Genesis, Chapter 3, who crushes the head of the serpent with her heel. Expanding the personal image to a societal one, Jagen asks if the image of the Immaculate Conception could be our symbol of freedom unbound by sin and calling us to the struggle for justice and peace (Coll, 96). American philosopher, Beatrice Bruteau, using the images from Lourdes—the Lady and the spring—sees the Immaculate Conception as the archetype for the revelation that each person possesses a true and unblemished nature (as opposed to the nature of original sin). For her, the Immaculate Conception is the archetype of the eternally “free-flowing” grace of God and the sharing of divine life that forms one’s personhood, transcending sin and upholding one’s human dignity (Bruteau, 181-195).
Rahner emphasized keeping in mind historical and cultural contexts when mining Marian doctrine for its eternal validity. When the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was announced in 1854, the Western world had entered the “Age of Enlightenment.” It had left the medieval era where religion informed every aspect of life and was now rejecting God’s influence in people’s lives and religion’s hold on humankind’s view of the world. God had become secondary to science and reason. Narcissism reigned and awareness of sin waned (Streeter). Thus, the Immaculate Conception and her partnership with Christ in overcoming evil was a call to the world to recognize the true source of strength and wisdom. While its truth is being mined today with the new tools of psychology, the light of its initial interpretation still shines on the 21st century. The fact that its development spanned the longest time in the history of the Church suggest that it may be the most profound dogma ever proclaimed by the magisterium and that it holds centuries more of deposits yet to be discovered by the hearts and minds of the faithful.
(All scripture quotations are from the New American Bible, Oxford University Press, 1990.)
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