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immaculate conception

immaculate conception The doctrine of the immaculate conception holds that Mary is the one fully human being preserved from original sin because she is the Mother of God. Grace intervened at the very instant in which her life began, preventing sin from touching her in any way, and so making her holy and immaculate from the moment of her conception. This made her worthy, and suggests that she was divinely chosen, to be the Mother of God. Christ preserved Mary from sin because she was his Mother; as Ambrose taught, ‘Christ chose this vessel into which he was about to descend, not of earth, but of heaven; and he consecrated it a temple of purity.’

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.

Jane Shaw

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Immaculate Conception

Im·mac·u·late Con·cep·tion • n. the doctrine that God preserved the Virgin Mary from the taint of original sin from the moment she was conceived; it was defined as a dogma of the Roman Catholic Church in 1854. ∎  the feast commemorating the Immaculate Conception on December 8.

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Immaculate Conception

Immaculate Conception. The dogma that the Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her being conceived, free from all stain of original sin. It and the feast of the conception of the Virgin Mary were a matter of controversy in the West from the 12th cent. The Feast of the Immaculate Conception is kept on 8 Dec.

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Immaculate Conception

Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic belief that the Blessed Virgin Mary was free of all Original Sin from the moment of her conception. It was defined as a dogma by Pope Pius IX in 1854.

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