The Immaculate Conception: From Doctrine to Dogma

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

The Immaculate Conception is a principally Catholic Doctrine that is greatly misunderstood.  As per the Encyclical Ineffabilis Deus of Pope Pius IX, Roman Catholic dogma states “that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege Granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race, was Preserved free from all stain of Original Sin.”  The doctrinal belief is that from her conception, Mary (a.s.) received sanctifying grace that would normally come with baptism after birth.

Whilst the doctrinal definition makes no declaration about the Church’s belief that Mary (a.s.) was free from personal sin, the Church actually holds that Mary (a.s.) was also sinless personally, “free from all sin, original or personal,” as recorded in Encyclical Mystici Corporis.

In effect, the Council of Trent decreed, “If anyone shall say that a man once justified can sin no more, nor lose grace, and that therefore, he who falls and sins was never truly justified; or, on the contrary, that throughout his whole life he can avoid all sins even venial sins, except by a special privilege of God, as the Church holds in regard to the Blessed Virgin: let him be anathema.”  Whilst addressing a different issue, the implication here is the accepted consensus that Mary (a.s.) us sinless.

The main conflation, even amongst Catholics, is that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary (a.s.) is confused with the Virginal Conception of her son, Jesus (a.s.).  The Catholic Church believes that Mary (a.s.) herself was not the product of a virginal conception, but was the daughter of a human father and mother.  Traditionally, they are known as Saint Joachim (r.a.) and Saint Anne (r.a.).  In fact, the belief in the virginal conception of Mary (a.s.) is a condemnable heresy.  In 1677, the Holy See condemned this belief that Mary (a.s.) was virginally conceived, a heresy from the 4th century.

The Feast of the Immaculate Conception is celebrated on the 08th December, exactly nine months before the celebration of the Nativity of Mary, the feast celebrating her birth.  The feast of the Annunciation, commemorating the virginal conception and the Incarnation of Jesus (a.s.) is celebrated on the 25th March, nine months before Christmas.  This is very much part of the integral doctrine, the belief that great people died on the day they were born.  This is also found in Islam, in the sirah of the Prophet (s.a.w.).

From a Catholic perspective, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception has been infallibly defined by the Church, making it required belief for Catholics. For a Catholic to deliberately reject such belief would fulfill the conditions for mortal sin.  This is significant, since while the belief in this doctrine is not explicitly soteriological, it relates to the discrepancy between the Virginal Conception of Jesus (a.s.), and the Doctrine of Original Sin: how can the inheritors of Original Sin produce a Saviour?

Another misunderstanding that arose because of this doctrine, is the idea that, by her immaculate conception, Mary (a.s.) did not need a Saviour, thus making Jesus (a.s.), as Saviour, superfluous to her.  If this were accepted by the Church, the next question to arise would be, if God could make an exception for one woman, why could He not make an exception for all humanity?  To sidestep this, when defining the dogma in Ineffabilis Deus, Pope Pius IX explicitly affirmed that Mary (a.s.) was redeemed in a manner “more sublime”.  He stated that Mary (a.s.) was completely prevented from contracting Original Sin in view of the “merits” of Jesus Christ (a.s.), rather than being cleansed after sin.

After the Second Synod of Orange, which affirmed the doctrines of Augustine of Hippo against Semi-Pelagianism, the Catholic Church decreed that even had man never sinned in the Garden of Eden and was, therefore, free of Original Sin, he would still require God’s Grace to remain sinless.  Semi-Pelagianism was an early Christian theological and soteriological school of thought on Salvation.

Pelagianism is the teaching that people have the capacity to seek God in and of themselves, apart from any movement of God or the Holy Spirit, and therefore that Salvation is effected by their own efforts.  In effect, God could be found by reason alone, without the need for scripture, and Salvation effected solely by good works, making the need for a Saviour redundant, and denying Original Sin.  It was named are Pelagius, a British monk who.  Augustine of Hippo was the chief opponent of this doctrine and was Pelagianism was declared a heresy by Pope Zosimus in 418 CE.

Semi-Pelagian thought, in its original form, was a compromise between Pelagianism and the Catholic Church.  It held that man does not have such an unrestrained capacity to effect his own Salvation, but man and God could cooperate to a certain degree in this Salvic effort, that man can, unaided by Grace, make the first move toward God, and God nurtures that faith, completing Salvation.  This teaching is still distinct from the traditional patristic doctrine, synergeia, where the process of Salvation is a cooperation between God and man the entire way.  Regardless, it was also labeled heresy by the Western Church at the Second Council of Orange in 529 CE.  Catholicism states that while the beginning of faith involves an act of free will, the initiative still comes from God, but it requires free collaboration on the part of man.  Thus, there arose a need to understand the dichotomy between Jesus’s (a.s.) Virginal Conception and Mary’s (a.s.) Immaculate Conception, in a manner that did not fall into Pelangianism or Semi-Pelagianism.

The doctrine of Mary’s (a.s.) complete sinlessness and exemption from any taint from her conception was a doctrine considered by Byzantine theologians as well.  Bishop Gregory of Nazianzus, designated Mary (a.s.) as “prokathartheisa,” “pre-purified.”   This was subsequently adopted by all theologians interested in his mariology to justify the Byzantine equivalent of the Immaculate Conception.  So, long before the doctrine of Mary’s (a.s.) Immaculate Conception appeared in the Western Church, particularly among Frankish theologians, it was manifest among Byzantine theologians reliant on Bishop Gregory of Nazianzus’ mariology.  As a result, Eastern Orthodox scholars were accustomed to calling Mary (a.s.) “pre-purified” in their poetic and credal statements.

Now, we do know that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception as defined by the encyclical of Pope Pius IX was not explicitly mentioned before the 12th century.  And it is a fact that there is no direct proof of the dogma which can be brought forward from Scripture.  However, it is claimed that the doctrine is implicitly contained in the teaching of the Church Fathers.  The Church contends that their writings on Mary’s (a.s.) sinlessness are so absolute and prevalent that they can only be understood to include Original Sin.  Augustine of Hippo wrote, “As regards the Mother of God, I will not allow any question whatever of sin.”  The thing is, he does not actually specify whether he is speaking of actual or personal sin.  His argument is that all men are sinners; that they are so through original depravity; that this original depravity may be overcome by the Grace of God, and then he added that while he could not know, that Mary (a.s.) may have had “sufficient grace” to overcome sin “of every sort”.

The first major point of contention, a departure from Gregory of Nazianzus’ position, came from Sophronius of Jerusalem.  Sophronius explained that the Theotokos, the Mother of God, was already immaculate, when she was “purified” at the Annunciation.  In fact, Sophronius went as far as to state that Mary (a.s.) was holier than even John the Baptist (a.s.) after his sanctification in utero.  These ideas of Sophronius were incorporated by John Damascene.  He took the hyperbole even further and said Mary (a.s.) purified the waters of baptism by touching them.  This was first attributed to Jesus (a.s.) by Gregory of Nazianzus.  As such, Gregory of Nazianzus’ belief of parallel holiness between the pre-purified Mary (a.s.) and purified Jesus (a.s.) is made explicit by John Damascene’s discourse on Mary’s (a.s.) holiness.

It could have been Bernard of Clairvaux who explicitly raised the question of the Immaculate Conception in the 12th century.  A feast of the Conception of the Blessed Virgin had already begun to be celebrated in some churches of the West.  Bernard blamed the canons of the metropolitan church of Lyon for instituting such a festival without the permission of the Holy See.  He took the occasion to repudiate altogether the view that the conception of Mary (a.s.) was sinless.

Thomas Aquinas, on the other hand, refused to concede the Immaculate Conception, on the grounds that unless Mary (a.s.) had, at one time or another, been sinful, she could not justly be said to have been redeemed by Christ (a.s.).  It was a non-question to him, but it remained problematic for the Church to define the Immaculate Conception ex cathedra without outright seeming to contradict him.

Bishop Bonaventure hesitated to accept it for a similar reason.  And he was second only to Thomas Aquinas in his influence on the Western Church in his time.  He simply believed that Mary (a.s.) was completely free from sin, but denied she was given this grace at the instant of her conception.

Duns Scotus, however, another theological giant of the age, argued, on the contrary, that from a rational perspective, it was derogatory to the merits of Christ (a.s.) to assert that Mary (a.s.) first contracted sin, and then was delivered.  His argument was complex.  He argued that Mary’s (a.s.) immaculate conception did not remove her from redemption by Christ (a.s.); rather it was the result of a more perfect redemption granted her because of her special role in Salvation.  Duns Scotus’ position prevailed over Bishop Bonaventure, and in 1387, the University of Paris strongly condemned the contrary position.

In 1439, the Council of Basel, which is discounted as an ecumenical council, stated that belief in the Immaculate Conception of Mary (a.s.) is in accord with the Catholic faith.  By the end of the 15th century, this doctrine was widely professed and taught in many theological faculties.  However, the influence of the Dominicans, and the weight of the arguments of Thomas Aquinas and Bishop Bonaventure precluded the Council of Trent, which met from 1545 to 1563 from taking a doctrinal position.  Instead, they declined to take a position, and the doctrine was unresolved.

From above, we see that both Gregory of Nazianzus and John Damascene are the source for subsequent promotion of Mary’s (a.s.) complete holiness from her conception, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.  During the reign of Pope Gregory XVI, the bishops in various countries began to press for a definition of this Immaculate Conception as dogma.  This was problematic since this seemed to contradict other Church Fathers, especially Thomas Aquinas.  Then, in 1839, Dr. Mariano Spada, professor of theology at the Roman College of Saint Thomas, published Esame Critico sulla Dottrina dell’ Angelico Dottore S. Tommaso di Aquino circa il Peccato Originale, relativamente alla Beatissima Vergine Maria, “A Critical Examination of the Doctrine of the Angelic Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas, regarding Original Sin with Respect to the Most Blessed Virgin Mary”.  This is an important paper since it asserted that Thomas Aquinas did not actually address the question of the Immaculate Conception but, rather, the sanctification of the fetus within Mary’s (a.s.) womb.

Since Dr. Spada provided an apologetic an interpretation whereby Pope Pius IX was relieved of the problem of seeming to foster a doctrine contrary to Thomas Aquinas, Pope Pius IX, would later appoint him Master of the Sacred Palace in 1867, essentially the Pope’s preferred theologian.  And this provided the basis of the famous papal bull, Ineffabilis Deus, mentioned at the beginning of this article.

When Pope Pius IX began his pontificate, he appointed commissions to investigate the subject, and he was advised that the doctrine was one which could be defined and that the time for a definition was opportune.  However, it was not until 08th December, 1854, that Pope Pius IX had the support of the overwhelming majority of Roman Catholic bishops to promulgate Ineffabilis Deus, the bull which defined, ex cathedra, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception as follow: “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.”  The doctrine became dogma.

Outside of Catholicism, for a variety of reasons, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception is not part of the official doctrines of the Eastern Orthodox, the Oriental Orthodox, the Anglican and the various other Protestant churches.

Eastern Orthodoxy objects to the dogmatic declaration of Mary’s (a.s.) Immaculate Conception as an unnecessary “overelaboration” of the faith; they see it as connected far too closely with a particular interpretation of the doctrine of ancestral sin.

Ancestral sin is a doctrine taught by the Orthodox Church and other Eastern Christians, identified as “inclination towards sin”, or a heritage from the sin of progenitors.  It is mostly distinguished from this tendency that remains even in the baptised, since ancestral sin is considered removed through the Sacrament of Baptism.  Archbishop Gregory Palamas taught that, as a result of ancestral sin, man’s image was “tarnished, disfigured, as a consequence of Adam's disobedience”.  This is better known as Original Sin in the Western Church.

Aside from the positions of Sophronius, John Damascene and Gregory of Nazianzus, the most famous Eastern Orthodox theologian to imply Mary’s (a.s.) Immaculate Conception was Gregory Palamas.  However, though he extolled Mary’s (a.s.) holiness in her human nature, he did not explicitly endorse such doctrine.  Neither did he cite Gregory of Nazianzus’ position.  Rather, Gregory Palamas took the position of Orthodox theologians such as Joseph Bryennius, Theophanes the Branded, and Patriarch Gennadius Scholarius; who all explicitly placed Mary’s (a.s.) conception as the moment of her interaction with the “Divine Energies”, such that she was always completely filled with Divine Grace.  These are all fine lines here.  Essentially, Mary (a.s.) was pre-purified.  Even Bishop Mark of Ephesus defended Mary’s (a.s.) position as pre-purified against Manuel Kalekas.  Manuel Kalekas was thought to have held the Thomist mariology that denied Mary’s (a.s.) holiness from the first moment of her existence.

The Protestant churches are not known for their strength in doctrine.  Most Protestants do not consider the development of dogmatic theology to be authoritative apart from biblical exegesis.  Many of them adhere to a literalist understanding of the Bible and their belief in sola scriptura precludes a nuanced understanding of any aspect of doctrine.  However, Martin Luther himself said, “Mother Mary, like us, was born in sin of sinful parents, but the Holy Spirit covered her, sanctified and purified her so that this child was born of flesh and blood, but not with sinful flesh and blood.  The Holy Spirit permitted the Virgin Mary to remain a true, natural human being of flesh and blood, just as we.  However, he warded off sin from her flesh and blood so that she became the mother of a pure child, not poisoned by sin as we are.  For in that moment when she conceived, she was a holy mother filled with the Holy Spirit and her fruit is a holy pure fruit, at once God and truly man, in one person.”  So, while the majority of Protestants did not believe in this doctrine, the initiator of the Reformation himself subscribed to some version of this belief.


Popular posts from this blog

In Saudi Arabia, Mawlid is Bid'ah, the King's Birthday is Fine

Singapore Bans Ismail Menk from Entry

Some Depictions of the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) in Art