Understanding the Immaculate Conception
Today the Church celebrates the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a holy day of obligation. Many Christians, including a large number of Catholics, mistakenly believe that this feast is in reference to the conception of Jesus Christ in the womb of the Virgin Mary. This is incorrect; the feast honors rather the conception of Mary in the womb of her mother St. Anne. Belief in the Immaculate Conception of Mary is a dogma of the Church proclaimed infallibly by Pope Pius IX in the papal bull Ineffabilis Deus on December 8, 1854. The bull states:
“We declare, pronounce and define that the doctrine which holds that the Blessed Virgin Mary, at the first instant of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace of the Omnipotent God, in virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of mankind, was preserved immaculate from all stain of original sin, has been revealed by God, and therefore should firmly and constantly be believed by all the faithful.”
Working with teenagers in youth ministry, I am often asked by an astute young person: “If this is a dogma of the Church, why did they wait 1800 years to say so?” It is a question confusing to many Catholics and disturbing to many of our Protestant brothers and sisters as well. Revealed Truth Public Revelation refers to the truths revealed by God that are necessary for our sanctification and eternal salvation. This is distinguished from Private Revelations such as those made by Our Lady of Guadalupe to St. Juan Diego or by Jesus Christ to St. Faustina. Private Revelations, when authentic, may never add anything new to the Public Revelation (Deposit of Faith), but only recall elements being neglected at an important moment in human history. The Church teaches that the Public Revelation of Jesus Christ ended with the death of the last apostle, St. John. From that moment forward, there will be no new Public Revelation. Therefore, every truth God wished to reveal to us has already been revealed! If this is true, why is there no mention of the term “Immaculate Conception” in the entire Bible? Why is the term not referred to in any of the writings of the earliest Church Fathers? The Development of Doctrine Just prior to his Ascension into Heaven, Jesus made the following promise to his apostles: “I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now. But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth” (John 16: 12-13). With this promise, Jesus assured his apostles and their descendants that the Holy Spirit would guide them into a fuller understanding of the truths already revealed by God. History has borne this promise out. Through prayer, reflection, discussion – and often intense arguments – the Church has come to a richer understanding of God's revealed truth and given more descriptive and exact language to its wording. This process of growing in understanding of truth over time is referred to by Blessed John Henry Newman as the “Development of Doctrine.” In his 1845 book, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, Newman states that later explicit teachings of the Church are actually elaborations on what is implicitly present in Revelation – both in Sacred Scripture and Tradition – which were present from the beginnings of the Church. Newman uses the analogy of an acorn blossoming into the fullness of an oak tree to elucidate the meaning. Someone looking at an oak tree could easily conclude that is has nothing in common with an acorn. Yet, the mature oak tree is the logical development of the acorn. Over time, an acorn grows roots, bursts forth from the soil, begins to soar toward the sun, develops branches and grows leaves. Each step along the way is a logical development of the previous step. So it is also with the authentic development of doctrine as well. The Immaculate Conception, Scripture and the Early Church Fathers Catholic Theologians point out that the doctrine of Mary's Immaculate Conception is contained in the teaching of the Fathers of the Church, but in an implicit manner. Their frequent expressions on the subject of the “sinlessness of Mary” are so ample and absolute that they may be taken to include original sin as well. Throughout the first five centuries of the Church, theologians referred to Mary using such epithets as “in every respect holy,” “in all things unstained,” “super-innocent,” and “singularly holy.” They make repeated comparisons to Mary with Eve prior to the fall, as ancestress of a redeemed people. St. Augustine goes so far as to say: “As regards the Mother of God, I will not allow any question whatever of sin.”
Mary as the New Eve
Theologians point likewise to the implicit affirmations of the Immaculate Conception in Scripture. Two passages in particular contain the seeds of the doctrine. In Genesis 3:15, after the fall of Adam and Eve, the Lord says to the serpent who tempted them, "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he shall crush your head, and you strike at his heel.” This Old Testament passage is a prophesy of the Gospel (thus it is often referred to as the Protoevangelium, 'first gospel'). The prophesy states that the “seed” of the woman will crush the “serpent's” head. This can only refer to Jesus Christ, who is to crush Satan victoriously by his work of redemption. It follows, therefore, that “the woman” must be the Mother of Jesus. In Genesis 3, both Jesus and Mary are said to be in a state of "enmity" against the serpent, which in the Hebrew original means "complete and radical opposition" to him. It is for this reason that it is not likely that God would have permitted Mary to inherit the condition of "original sin" from Adam and Eve. Any participation by her in the disorder and corruption of the soul that the rest of us inherit from Adam and Eve would place the Mother of Jesus at least partially under the sway of Satan and evil, and thereby contradict the complete "enmity" between Mary and Satan prophesied in Genesis 3. The second Bible passage that points to the implicit truth of the Immaculate Conception is Luke 1:28, the words of the angel Gabriel to Mary at the Annunciation, "Hail, full of grace." In the original Greek of the New Testament, the phrase "full of grace" is translated from the word kecharitomene. In this passage, "full of grace" is used as a name or title for Mary, and she is the only one addressed in this fashion in the entire Bible, so it must indicate something special and distinctive about her. The Celebration of the Immaculate Conception The celebration of an actual liturgical feast of the Immaculate Conception was kept in the Eastern Church long before its appearance in the West and was largely the achievement of the monastic communities. The first authentic record of this celebration is found in the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, written at the close of the seventh century. The monks selected the date, December 9, for the celebration of the feast, which was then retained in the calendars of the Eastern Churches. Gradually it emerged from the cloister, and eventually, before the close of the ninth century, it was already a universal feast of obligation in the Byzantine Empire. From the East this devotion spread to the Western Church. It is in Naples that we find the first authentic testimony, a calendar engraved upon marble, on which is found the inscription under the date of December 9: “The Conception of Saint Mary Virgin.” Scholars fix the date of this marble calendar between 840 and 850. The first definite and authentic knowledge of the feast in the Western Church is found in England in the eleventh century. Here the feast was commemorated on December 8. At the close of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the feast spread throughout Western Europe and began to be celebrated in numerous dioceses. The Theological Controversy The Medieval Scholastics are held up by the Church as some of the greatest theologians in history. Among the many giants of this time are St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Albert the Great, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Anselm and St. Bonaventure. The problematic question is why such medieval theological giants like St. Thomas and St. Bernard did not preach or teach the Immaculate Conception of Mary. The answer is relatively simple. Although they firmly believed in the sinlessness of the Virgin Mary, they were unable to construct a theological defense of her Immaculate Conception. The puzzle for Thomas and others was hownot whether – Mary was sinless. St. Bernard stated the problem as such: “If Mary could not be sanctified before her conception itself, on account of the sin involved therein, it follows she was sanctified in the womb after her conception, which, since she was cleansed from sin, made her birth holy and not her conception” St. Bernard, like St. Thomas and the apostolic Tradition of both East and West took for granted the sinlessness of Mary. The issue they struggled with was how she got that way! The Franciscan Influence The entire theological debate boiled down to two opinions: some argued that Mary was purified of sin before her soul was infused into her body; others (like St. Bernard, St. Thomas, etc.) insisted that she was purified of sin only after her soul was infused into the body (but still before her birth).
Bl. John Duns Scotus
The Franciscan Blessed John Duns Scotus ultimately provided the answer. He resolved the problem by addressing two questions: 1) Why would God preserve Mary from original sin? 2) How did God do this? In answering the first question, Scotus says that, since Jesus Christ is a perfect savior, there needs be at least one person who is perfectly saved by Him – saved from beginning to end, saved so perfectly that they were not pulled from sin, but preserved from sin. In Scotus' own words: “He who is the most perfect mediator must have a most perfect act of mediation in regard to some person on whose behalf he exercises the mediatorial office. Now Christ is the most perfect . . . and he had no more exalted relation to any person than to the Blessed Virgin Mary . . . This could not be if he had not merited for her preservation from original sin.” In regards to the second question, how God preserved Mary from sin, Scotus solved the problem of the scholastic theologians by distinguishing between the “order of nature” and the “order of time.” In the order of nature, Mary was a child of Adam before she was justified by sanctifying grace; but in the order of time, she was sanctified at the very moment her soul was created. How was this special favor achieved? God granted her the grace won by Christ on the Cross in anticipation of his sacrifice and not apart from it. This occurred in the first moment of her conception, neither before she came into existence nor at some later time. Although Scotus' explanation was bitterly contested, especially by the Dominicans, it found official theological approval by the Church. In 1483, Pope Sixtus IV addressed the controversy surrounding the Immaculate Conception and gave Dun Scotus's conclusion in favor of the papal approval. From this point forward, most people devoutly celebrated the Feast of the Immaculate Conception and the theological controversy was put to rest. Four centuries later, Pope Pius IX would proclaim Dun Scotus's explanation ex cathedra (from the “Chair of Peter”) as an infallible truth, that the Blessed Virgin Mary, from the first moment of her conception, was preserved from any stain of original sin in virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ. As we celebrate this beautiful truth of our Catholic faith, let us pray together the prayer of St. Francis to the Blessed Virgin Mary, Queen of the Friars Minor.... Hail, holy Lady, Most holy Queen, Mary, Mother of God, Virgin made Church; Chosen by the most holy Father in heaven, consecrated by him, with his most holy beloved Son and the Holy Spirit, the Comforter. On you descended and in you still remains all the fulness of grace and every good. Hail, his Palace. his Tabernacle. Hail, his Robe. Hail, his Handmaid. Hail, his Mother. And Hail, all holy Virtues who, by the grace and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, are poured forth into the hearts of the faithful so that, faithless no longer, they may be made faithful servants of God through you. Amen.