The term "Immaculate Conception" designates the belief that the Virgin Mary was free from original sin from the very beginning of her life, i.e., from her conception. The rest of mankind inherits a human nature infected with sin, because of the Fall of adam, from whom the human race takes its origin. Each person is delivered from this original sin only by his adherence to Christ, the Redeemer. But Mary was, by a unique grace, preserved from ever contracting original sin; she inherited human nature in an untainted condition and hence is said to have been conceived immaculate. This privilege, designed to make her a suitable mother for Christ, was given her in view of His future merits.
The Church holds that the Immaculate Conception was included in the body of doctrine originally entrusted to the Apostles and transmitted by them to the Church (see deposit of faith); otherwise it could not now be made a matter of faith. But this does not imply that the Apostles received an explicit instruction on the matter. If the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was, in the beginning, only a hidden implication contained in other more express teachings, and destined to be perceived and brought out into the open only after the gospel had germinated in the Christian mind and brought forth fruit through centuries of meditation, this would suffice to make the Immaculate Conception part of the Apostolic teaching in the sense required by the Church.
Scriptural and Apostolic Teaching. Historical research indicates that such was, in fact, the case. For, in the first place, Scripture makes no direct reference to Mary's conception. Some hold that her absolute sinlessness is referred to in Gn 3.15: "I will put enmity between you and the woman, between your seed and her seed: he shall crush your head, and you shall lie in wait for his heel." Pope Pius IX cited this text as a prophecy of the Immaculate Conception (Ineffabilis Deus, Acta Pii IX 1.1:607). This text by itself, however, would hardly suffice to make the doctrine known. The Immaculate Conception needs to be established on some other basis, and then may be seen as included in the broad reference of Gn 3.15.
Much confusion has resulted from the fact that the second half of this verse was inaccurately translated in the Vulgate to read, "She shall crush your head." This translation, which has strongly affected the traditional representations of the Blessed Virgin, is today generally recognized to be a mistake for "it [or 'he,' i.e., the seed of the woman] shall crush," and consequently can no longer be cited in favor of the Immaculate Conception. (see proto-evangelium.)
The words of Gabriel, "Hail, full of grace" (Lk1.28), have also been appealed to as a revelation of the Immaculate Conception, on the grounds that to be truly full of grace, Mary must have had it always. This interpretation, however, overlooks the fact that the Greek term κεχαριτωμένη is not nearly so explicit as the translation "full of grace" might suggest. It implies only that God's favor has been lavished on Mary, without defining the degree of grace.
But even though the Immaculate Conception is not taught explicitly in Scripture, the question must be considered whether it may not have belonged to the oral teaching of the Apostles and been recorded only later on. Historical evidence, however, is against such a supposition, as will be clear from the discussion that follows.
Explicit belief in the Immaculate Conception seems to have arisen in the Church as an application or specification of the general doctrine of Mary's holiness. Chapters 1 and 2 of Luke (confirmed by ch. 1 of Mt) represent Mary as an exceptionally holy person. They also seem to
relate her holiness to her being chosen as Christ's Mother: "thou hast found grace with God. And behold, thou shalt conceive" (Lk 1.30–31). It is clear that only a flawless holiness would be in any way proportionate to the sacredness of her office. To determine just how far such considerations can take one is a delicate task. They must be considered against the background of God's universal demand for holiness on the part of those who draw near to Him (see 1 Pt 1.16) and the thoroughly biblical doctrine that it is God who calls and fashions His saints according to His good pleasure (Rom ch. 8, 9). Mary's virginity, which must be viewed in a Christian perspective, and the miracle by which God preserved it, even when calling her to motherhood, are signs of the extraordinary way in which divine grace fitted her for her vocation. That these indications, taken together, imply an incomparable holiness in Mary that was not only actual at the moment of the annunciation, but extended back to the very beginning of her life, is a judgment that the Church has made—but only after the way had been prepared by centuries of reflection, clarification, and discussion. There were two phases to the historical process: first, development of an adequate appreciation of the immensity of Mary's holiness in general; second, realization that this holiness included her initial preservation from all taint of sin.
Early Development. The earliest Church Fathers regarded Mary as holy but not as absolutely sinless. Origen and some of his followers assumed that she had been imperfect like other human beings. But as time went on, the thought of her became more and more characterized in the mind of the Church by the note of holiness—a tendency that was powerfully stimulated in the East by the Council of ephesus (431), when it ratified her title moth er of god. By the 8th century, belief that her holiness was both flawless and immense was firmly established throughout the Byzantine world. In the Latin West, the same development took place more slowly; but by 1099 St. Anselm was writing, "it was fitting that she be clothed with a purity so splendid that none greater under God could be conceived" (De conceptu virginali 18).
Such affirmations arose, not from a clear concept or definite thesis about the degree of her grace, but from an obscure yet powerful impulse of Christian hearts to attribute to her the greatest holiness and glory compatible with her status as a creature. This was not mere pious wishfulness, but the germination of the Gospel teaching in souls that had incarnated the truths of faith in their own lives, and now experienced the inherent demands of these truths in their own inclinations.
The further specification that Mary had never been tainted by sin, not even at the first moment of her existence, came to be affirmed quite spontaneously, as a natural part of this same development. The affirmation appears first in the East, without emphasis, in the course of general eulogies of the holiness of the Mother of God. Usually it is expressed only by vague and sometimes indirect references. There seems to have been little reflection upon the difficulty of reconciling such a teaching with the doctrine of original sin, and no great issue was ever made of the point. It is impossible to give a precise date when the belief was held as a matter of faith, but by the 8th or 9th century it seems to have been generally admitted. After the separation of the Eastern Church from Rome, the belief gradually languished (although it appeared as late as the 15th century, in George Scholarios [Gennadius II], d. c. 1472) and finally disappeared altogether from the Byzantine tradition, so that to the Greek Orthodox theologians of the 19th century, the doctrine of Pius IX appeared as an innovation.
Theological Objections in Medieval West. Meanwhile, however, the belief had been transplanted to the Western Church by means of a feast in honor of Mary's conception. This feast had originated before 700 (probably in the monasteries of Syria) and had since spread throughout the Byzantine world. It reached England—no one knows exactly how—around 1050, but was suppressed during the reform of the Anglo-Saxon Church under William the Conqueror (reign 1066–87). When it was revived in spite of some protests a few decades later (about 1125), an argument ensued, in which, for the first time, the character of Our Lady's conception became the direct subject of critical discussion. It was through this discussion that the idea of Mary's Immaculate Conception was gradually brought to general attention, clarified, and eventually accepted in the Church.
In the beginning, the argument bore directly on the question whether it was right to celebrate the new feast, and only incidentally on the question of Mary's sinlessness. (It must be kept in mind that the feast itself did not represent Mary's conception precisely as immaculate, but merely honored the event.) Gradually, however, the argument came to focus on the issue of an Immaculate Conception. The earliest extant defense of the feast, and also of belief in a sinless conception for Mary, is a charming and naive, yet substantial little treatise, De conceptione B. Virginis Mariae, composed (1123?, 1139?) by the English monk Eadmer (Patrologia Latina, ed. J. P. Migne, 271 v., indexes 4 v. [Paris 1878–90] 159:301–318; critical ed. H. Thurston and T. Slater [Freiburg im Breisgau 1904]). The classic condemnation of the feast (and of the belief) is a letter from St. Bernard of Clairvaux to the canons of the Cathedral at Lyons in 1140 or thereabouts (Letter 174, Patrologia Latina 182:332–336). Bernard argues that the Holy Spirit could not have been involved in anything so inherently evil as the conception of a child.
The scholastic theologians began to interest themselves seriously in the question at Paris about a third of the way through the 13th century. Their discussions were complicated by the biological notion, then prevalent, that the human soul is not infused into the fetus until 40 or 80 days after its conception. They were handicapped also by a lingering tendency to imagine original sin as a quality infecting the body even prior to the soul's advent. Hence, they posed the question in terms of three possibilities: whether the Blessed Virgin had been sanctified (and hence made free from original sin) before, after, or at the very instant of the infusion of the soul into her body.
At first, the theologians were practically unanimous in declaring that Mary could not have been sanctified until after the infusion of the soul into her body; hence they held that she must have been subject to original sin prior to that moment. The reasons for rejecting the possibility of an earlier sanctification were various, but the crucial one was thus formulated by St. Thomas: "If the soul of the Blessed Virgin had never been stained with the contagion of original sin, this would have detracted from Christ's dignity as the savior of all men" (Summa theologiae 3a, 27.2 ad 2). For she would not have needed the Redemption that Christ brings; hence He would not be, as Scripture says He is, the savior of all men (cf. 1 Tm 4.10). St. Thomas concludes: "The Blessed Virgin indeed contracted original sin, but was cleansed from it before her birth" (ibid. ). For the view that St. Thomas did not intend to deny the Immaculate Conception as the Church defines it, see N. Del Prado, Divus Thomas et bulla dogmatica "Ineffabilis Deus" (Fribourg 1919); P. Lumbreras, "St. Thomas and the Immaculate Conception," Homiletic and Pastoral Review 24 (1924) 253–263.
The Paris theologians were not insensitive to the general inclination of Christendom to credit Mary with the greatest possible sanctity. On the contrary, they testified to it. St. Thomas declared that she enjoyed a fullness of grace surpassing any other under Christ (Summa theologiae 3a, 27.5), and others expressed similar views. All these theologians tended to reduce to the minimum the length of time during which they supposed Mary had been under the stain of original sin. But they hesitated to say that she had been completely exempted from sin for fear of jeopardizing another doctrine of the faith, the universality of the redemption.
Scotus's Solution, Spread of Explicit Acceptance. Acceptance of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception in the Church came about, not as the result of any decisive demonstration, but in consequence of the elimination of the obstacle that was holding back the natural inclination of Christians to believe it. That is to say, the doctrine was shown not to be in contradiction with the doctrine of the universal Redemption. John duns scotus (c. 1264–1308), a Franciscan from Oxford, was chiefly responsible for this. He argued that if Mary had been preserved from original sin, this would not have freed her from dependence on Christ's redemptive work; on the contrary, "Mary more than anyone else would have needed Christ as her Redeemer, since she would have contracted original sin … if the grace of the Mediator had not prevented this. Thus, as others needed Christ so that the sin already contracted should be remitted for them through His merit, so Mary had even greater need of a prevenient Mediator lest there be sin to be contracted and lest she contract it" (In 3 sentences 3.1, "Per illud patet" [Vivès 14:171]; cf. C. Balič, I. D. Scoti theologiae marianae elementa [Sibenik 1933] 35).
The intervention of Duns Scotus seems to have been the factor that turned the tide of theological opinion in favor of the belief. Not, of course, at once; a controversy was to rage for centuries over the matter, embittered by the fact that those who opposed the Immaculate Conception felt that the faith itself was at stake, while its defenders regarded it as a matter of loyal devotion to the Mother of God. But as generations reflected prayerfully on the question, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception steadily gained adherents, as the position more in accord with the profound exigencies of the Christian faith. By the end of the 17th century, scarcely any question was raised about it anymore.
Meanwhile, the great Thomistic commentator, Cajetan (1469–1534), gave the discussion a new direction by asserting that the Immaculate Conception could be reconciled with the universal Redemption only on condition that one acknowledge in Mary a debitum peccati, that is, an inherent tendency toward original sin, although not its actuality. This would explain why she would have contracted original sin had it not been for the intervention of grace (De conceptione B. Mariae Virginis ad Leonem X [Opuscula omnia, Venice 1580, 2.1:71–73]). This notion of a debitum in Mary has been variously interpreted and bitterly debated. Cajetan himself modified his first notion in his commentary on Summa theologiae 3a, 27.2, no. 7. The question whether a debitum peccati should be postulated in Our Lady remains today one of the principal points of theological controversy on the subject of the Immaculate Conception. See J. Bonnefoy, OFM, "La negacion del debitum peccati en Maria. Sintesis historica," Verdad y Vita 12 (1954) 103–171.
Popes and Dogmatic Definition. The popes at first, and for a long time, left the question of the Immaculate Conception, like so many other theological disagreements, open for free discussion. From time to time, however, the heat of the controversy obliged them to intervene in order to protect the peace of the Church. When this occurred, they tended to assume more and more decidedly the role of defenders of the belief against its attackers. Thus Sixtus IV, in 1482 and 1483, forbade the accusation of heresy to be used by either side in the dispute when it was being used chiefly by the opponents of the belief; he had given permission for a liturgical office of the Conception (1477 and 1480). This had the effect of reassuring proponents of the belief, and led to an outburst of artistic representations, above all in Spain, where the classical iconography of the Immaculate Conception became fixed during the 17th century (murillo [1617–82]).
During the 17th century, numerous requests for a favorable definition of the belief were firmly declined by the popes. Gregory XV declared, "The Holy Spirit, although besought by the most constant prayers, has not yet opened to His Church the secrets of this mystery" (see O'Connor, 306). After a peaceful 18th century, the 19th began with a new campaign of requests, as devotion to the belief continued to grow. This devotion was further stimulated by the miraculous medal apparitions in Paris in 1830. The Sixth Provincial Council of Baltimore made the Immaculate Conception the patronal feast of the United States, 1846. pope pius ix (1846–78), almost immediately after his election, undertook a series of acts in favor of the belief, and in 1854, after consultation with all the bishops of the Church as well as several theological committees, defined the dogma of faith: "the doctrine," he said, "which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary was preserved from all stain of original sin in the first instant of her Conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God, in consideration of the merits of Jesus Christ, savior of the human race, has been revealed by God and must, therefore, firmly and constantly be believed by all the faithful" (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum, ed. A. Schönmetzer [32d ed. Freiburg 1963] 2803). The text of the definition was published and explained in the encyclical letter of that same year, Ineffabilis Deus (Acta Pii IX 1.1:616).
See Also: doctrine, development of; mary, blessed virgin, articles on.
Bibliography: a. michel, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., 15 v. (Paris; Tables générales 1951–) 2:2193–2214. "Unbefleckte Emfängnis Mariä," Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 1957–65) v. 10. k. h. schelkle and o. semmelroth, h. fries, ed., Handbuch theologischer Grundbegriffe, 2 v. (Munich 1962–63) 2:111–122. congresso mariologico internationale, Virgo Immaculata: acta congressus mariologicimariani Romae anno 1954 celebrati, ed. c. baliČ, 18 v. (Rome 1955–56). m. jugie, L'Immaculée conception dans l'Écriture Sainte et dans la tradition orientale (Rome 1952). e. d. o'connor, ed., The Dogma of the Immaculate Conception (Notre Dame, Ind.1958). j. b. carol, A History of the Controversy over the "debitum peccati" (St. Bonaventure, N.Y. 1978).
[e. d. o'connor]
The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception—the belief that the Virgin Mary was conceived without original sin—was promulgated by Pope Pius IX (r. 1846–1878) in 1854, in the constitution Ineffabilis Deus. The declaration states that, "The Most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace granted by God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved exempt from all stain of original sin." This statement affirms that Mary, as with all human beings, was redeemed by Christ. It is sometimes said that she was more perfectly redeemed, or that she was preredeemed, insofar as the effects of redemption were active in her from conception, whereas for other Christians, this is believed to occur at baptism. Moreover, whereas Christians continue to sin after baptism, Catholics believe that Mary never sinned.
Belief in Mary's sinlessness has been a common theme since the patristic era, although some early theologians such as Irenaeus (died c. 202), Tertullian (c. 160–c. 220), and John Chrysostom (c. 345–407) did attribute fault to her. A feast of the conception of Mary was celebrated in the Eastern Church in the seventh century, spreading to the West in the eighth century and becoming particularly popular in England. The Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, celebrated on December 8, was established by Pope Sixtus IV (r. 1471–1484), but until the nineteenth century, it was not an official doctrine of the Catholic Church and it had long been a topic of theological debate. In the Middle Ages, it was questioned by Thomas Aquinas (1224–1274) and rejected by Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153) and St. Bonaventure (1221–1274), whereas it was defended by Franciscans such as William of Ware (fl. 1270–1300) and John Duns Scotus (c. 1266–1308). Both Protestants and Orthodox Christians reject the doctrine.
Protestants argue that, as with other Catholic beliefs about Mary, the Immaculate Conception lacks scriptural justification and denies the unique sinlessness of Christ. The Orthodox Church affirms the sinlessness of Mary but generally does not accept the doctrine of original sin—the belief that sin is an inherited condition of the human race as a consequence of the fall. Thus Mary is not exceptional in being conceived without original sin, although as Mother of God she is uniquely holy and remains sinless throughout her life.
The idea that every human except Mary (and of course Christ) is conceived in a state of sin has been questioned by many modern Christians, although its themes of primal alienation and conflict resonate with Freudian psychoanalytic theory in positing a fundamental malaise at the heart of the human psyche. However, the Orthodox Church offers a more positive anthropology, with redemption constituting not so much rescue from a state of sin as the bringing to perfection of the human condition, so that Mary is the human in whom this perfection is fully realized.
From the perspective of the Christian understanding of woman, there are different ways of interpreting the Immaculate Conception. When John Henry Newman (1801–1890) wrote in defense of the Immaculate Conception, he argued that Eve, as had Mary, had been created without original sin. This might invite an interpretation of the Immaculate Conception as the restoration of womankind in Mary to the state of perfection intended by God in the beginning (Beattie 2002, pp. 170-172). However, the idea that Mary is free from the "stain" of original sin could be seen as reinforcing a sense that the natural condition of women is one of sinfulness and pollution (Daly 1984, pp. 102-116).
The Immaculate Conception is often confused with the Virgin Birth, but in fact, the Catholic Church has always taught that Mary was sexually conceived. Although medieval writers were sometimes at pains to suggest that this was a religious duty undertaken by her parents, in the early twenty-first century it might invite a more positive interpretation as the sanctification of sexual love. In the changing iconography of the Immaculate Conception, Mary's parents, Anne and Joachim, were portrayed in the Middle Ages in an image known as the Embrace at the Golden Gate, depicting an exquisite scene of marital love. It is sometimes argued that the Marian tradition offers no positive symbol of female sexuality, but St. Anne might potentially be seen as an image of female sexual sanctity.
In the work of seventeenth-century Spanish artists such as Diego Velazquez (1599–1660) and Bartoleme Esteban Murillo (1617–1682), the emergence of the idealized young woman more familiar to modern viewers is seen (Stratton 1994). In 1858, four years after the promulgation of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, Bernadette Soubirous (1844–1879) claimed to witness an apparition of a young woman who declared herself to be the Immaculate Conception at Lourdes, France. Since then Lourdes has been a major site of Marian pilgrimage, and Bernadette's vision of a beautiful young woman in a white dress with a blue sash has become the dominant image of Mary in modern Catholic art and devotion.
Feminist writers have tended to be critical of the Immaculate Conception, but as in all areas of Marian theology, this is a doctrine that is likely to acquire new interpretative possibilities as it becomes the focus of reflection for those informed by insights from contemporary theology and gender theory. The Marian theologian Sarah Jane Boss has suggested an interpretation that identifies the Immaculate Conception with the primal Chaos, bringing a new environmental and feminist consciousness to bear on the ancient belief that sees Mary as the beginning of a new creation (Boss 2004). The doctrine of the Assumption, promulgated by Pope Pius XII (r. 1939–1958) in 1950, signifies the culmination of Mary's earthly life when she is bodily incorporated into the resurrection alongside Christ. At a time when the Roman Catholic Church is increasingly divided about the symbolic significance of the female body, these two papal doctrines might well be a potent resource for those who want to argue that the female body is created, redeemed, and sanctified by God in a way that makes its sacramental significance equal to that of the male body in all aspects of the Church's life.
Beattie, Tina. 2002. God's Mother, Eve's Advocate: A Marian Narrative of Women's Salvation. London: Continuum.
Boss, Sarah Jane. 2004. Mary. London: Continuum.
Boyce, Philip, ed. 2001. Mary: The Virgin Mary in the Life and Writings of John Henry Newman. Leominster: Gracewing.
Daly, Mary. 1984. Pure Lust: Elemental Feminist Philosophy. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Graef, Hilda. 1994. Mary: A History of Doctrine and Devotion. London: Sheed & Ward. (Orig. pub. 1963–1965.)
Stratton, Suzanne L. 1994. The Immaculate Conception in Spanish Art. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
There is little scriptural basis for this doctrine because scripture does not speak explicitly about Mary's conception, and theological opposition to the doctrine might be found in the claim, in Romans 5, that all humans have shared in original sin. Nevertheless, the doctrine was important in the East, as theologians such as John of Damascus made it central to the idea of Mary as Theotokos, or God-bearer. Devotion to Mary spread to the West and the immaculate conception was increasingly debated in the later Middle Ages; some theologians, notably Aquinas, opposed it on the grounds that through natural (human) conception, original sin is transmitted, and therefore Mary cannot be exempt from the law of original sin, but the Council of Basle (1439) declared it in accordance with the Catholic faith, reason, and scripture.
The doctrine was increasingly depicted in woodcuts, paintings, and sculpture from the fifteenth century onwards, and was very popular with seventeenth-century Spanish painters such as El Greco. One popular image was that of the tiny Mary, visible in her mother Anne's womb, with rays of divine grace descending from God onto her. Another, frequently depicted, was of Christ and Mary trampling the serpent: this became especially popular with seventeenth- and eighteenth-century artists, and a variation on that theme, with Christ plunging a pointed cross into the mouth of the serpent, was much propagated by Franciscans and Jesuits.
The Roman Catholic Church continued to cultivate the doctrine, not least through its various religious orders. In 1476 Sixtus IV approved the feast with its own Mass and Office, and in 1708 Clement XI extended it to the Universal Church and made it a feast day of obligation (December 8). In 1854, Pius IX declared that the doctrine ‘has been revealed by God and is therefore to be believed by all the faithful’. He thus exhibited the authority of the church's Magisterium, and that of himself as Pope, in interpreting divine revelation, in the case of a doctrine for which there was little evidence in the Scriptures, or even patristic evidence.