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Tomorrow, Catholics throughout the world celebrate the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, and the belief that—because of her unique place in salvation history and through the merits of her son, Jesus—Mary was conceived without original sin.

In 1854, Pope Pius IX defined this belief dogmatically when he promulgated the decree Ineffabilis Deus:

We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.

The dogma of the Immaculate Conception developed slowly and with considerable dispute. Mary was revered and given a special position (as the New Eve) by several of the Fathers of the Church. Later thinkers, including St. Thomas Aquinas, acknowledged that there is no creature holier than the Blessed Virgin but added that she, like all human beings, inherited original sin from Adam. Only later was she purified for her unique mission in the plan of salvation.

Aquinas and many others were reticent because they could not reconcile the sinlessness of Mary with the universal salvific mission of Christ. If Mary were sinless, would she need salvation and redemption? Here is St. Thomas’s reasoning on the matter: 

If the soul of the Blessed Virgin had not incurred the stain of original sin, this would diminish the dignity of Christ, by reason of His being the universal Savior of all. Consequently, after Christ, who did not need to be saved, the purity of the Blessed Virgin holds the highest place. For Christ did not contract original sin in any way whatever, but was holy in His very Conception. But the Blessed Virgin did indeed contract original sin, but was cleansed from it before her birth from the womb (ST III, q. 27, a. 2, ad 2).

Aquinas clearly holds that Mary was purified by God’s grace prior to her birth (in a manner similar to John the Baptist, relying on Lk. 1:15)—but not at the first moment of her conception. Thomas is attempting to affirm two propositions—the purity of the Blessed Mother and humanity’s universal need for redemption in Christ Jesus, and he does not see how the Immaculate Conception accomplishes this goal.  

That task was left to John Duns Scotus. Early in the fourteenth century, Blessed Duns taught that Christ, out of love for his mother and with a desire to reveal his complete victory over evil, brought salvation to Mary by preserving her from sin from the first moment of her existence. Scotus knew well the arguments adduced by St. Thomas and other theologians against Mary’s sinless conception, but he boldly disagreed with his esteemed predecessors, arguing that Mary was preserved from original sin by the foreseen and anticipated merits of her Son. Scotus was thereby able to reconcile the universal redemptive mission of Jesus Christ with the complete freedom of Mary from Original Sin. The Mother of God was preserved free from the stain of sin not because of her own merits, but because God had extended this unique privilege to her in view of Christ’s future life, death, and resurrection. 

In 1854, Pius IX ended a centuries-long tradition of debate and theological reflection on the issue by formally defining Mary’s Immaculate Conception. The Mother of God is sinless because of the saving work and merits of Jesus Christ alone. There is great beauty in this dogma, and it drives home important theological truths about God’s sovereign and unmerited grace. So why do non-Catholic Christians oppose it?

The separated Protestant brethren think this teaching is both unnecessary and unbiblical. They affirm that Mary is an extraordinary model of discipleship, one who, as Scripture attests, should be called “blessed” in all places and by all generations. But, they add, Christ alone was perfectly holy, blameless, unstained, and separated from sinners. As St. Paul teaches: “All men have sinned and all fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23), and “Death spread to all men because all men sinned” (Rom. 5:12). Furthermore, the Immaculate Conception was rejected by a princely list of theologians and saints: St. Albert the Great, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Bonaventure, and St. Thomas Aquinas. How, Protestants argue, can Catholicism ignore these great teachers of the Church?

Despite these arguments, I wonder if the separated brethren hear clearly what the dogma affirms—that Mary's privileged status is due to Christ alone, Christus solus. Without Christ’s grace, without his foreseen merits, Mary would indeed have sinned and fallen far short of the glory of God. Is this dogma, then, not eminently theological?

One hopeful sign of ecumenical agreement is the 2004 statement issued by Anglicans and Catholics entitled, Mary, Grace and Hope in Christ:

The teaching about Mary in the two definitions of 1854 [Immaculate Conception] and 1950 [Assumption], understood within the biblical pattern of the economy of grace and hope…, can be said to be consonant with the teaching of the Scriptures and the ancient common traditions.

This joint statement is important because it holds that, according to some Protestants, the Immaculate Conception is not against biblical teaching. 

But of course, it is not only Protestant Christians who challenge the dogma of the Immaculate Conception—Orthodox Christians do as well. Not long ago, Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople explained the Orthodox position:

Mary the All-Holy Mother of God, was not conceived exempt from the corruption of original sin, but loved God above all things and obeyed his commandments, and thus was sanctified by God through Jesus Christ who incarnated himself of her…..   Her [Mary’s] reinstatement in the condition prior to the Fall did not necessarily take place at the moment of her conception. We believe that it happened afterwards, as consequence of the progress in her of the action of the uncreated divine grace through the visit of the Holy Spirit [at the Annunciation], which brought about the conception of the Lord within her, purifying her from every stain.

Orthodox objections to a dogmatic definition issued solely by the bishop of Rome are well known. Similarly apparent are the different understandings of Original Sin that developed in East and West. But is the dogma of the Immaculate Conception entirely foreign to Orthodox devotion and belief? Or can Catholics and Orthodox unite in the belief that the mother of the eternal Son of God was never a prisoner of corruption? Bishop Kallistos Ware has written that although the great majority of Orthodox theologians reject the Immaculate Conception, some have made statements that “approach close to it.” Perhaps with further thought and discussion, future rapprochement remains possible.  

Notably, the sixteenth-century council of Trent, in its decree on the universality of Original Sin, stipulated that the conciliar decree did not include the Blessed Mother. Trent did not define the Immaculate Conception, but made clear that it was eminently definable. In fact, most of the bishops at Trent wanted to define the teaching. But the council was well aware that some theologians still opposed it—and one of Trent’s guiding principles was that it would define only those matters on which there was virtually unanimous agreement among Catholics.

By the nineteenth century, pressure for the definition had been gathering steam, but some hesitated: Could one justify the dogma of the Immaculate Conception without injury to the notion of a constant tradition and an immutable deposit of faith? To answer this concern, Pius IX’s bull, Ineffabilis Deus, invokes the work of St. Vincent of Lérins. A resident of the monastery at Lérins in Southern France, St. Vincent wrote his major work, the Commonitorium, in AD 434 and had before his eyes the council of Nicaea (AD 325) and the council of Ephesus (AD 431). Both councils had used non-biblical words, homoousios and Theotokos, to explain the Christian faith. Vincent argued that though these terms were new, they were acceptable because they reflected foundational biblical teaching—that Jesus was truly divine and that Mary was, indeed, the Mother of God.

Vincent is the only ancient Christian thinker to write at length about doctrinal development. No other Father of the Church is so concerned with how the truth of divine revelation “unfolds” over time. Vincent argues that there are two kinds of change: progress and corruption. Authentic progress can be illustrated with biological metaphors: Just as a seed grows into a plant, so the Church’s understanding of the gospel grows over time. Change occurs, but proper change is always harmonious with that which preceded it. Vincent concludes his reflection by saying that development is certainly possible, and indeed necessary, in the life of the Church; but it must always be growth in eodem sensu eademque sententia (according to the same meaning and the same judgment).

Pius IX invoked St. Vincent’s famous phrase (in eodem sensu) in the bull of 1854. The Immaculate Conception of the Mother of God must be understood as an organic and architectonic unfolding of the meaning of Scripture. As the decree reads:

For the Church of Christ, guardian that she is, and defender of the dogmas deposited with her, never changes anything, never diminishes anything, never adds anything [to the deposit of faith]; but with all diligence the Church treats the ancient documents faithfully and wisely; she strives to investigate and explain them in such a way that the ancient dogmas of heavenly doctrine will be made evident and clear, but will retain their full, integral, and proper nature, and will grow only within their own meaning — that is, within the same dogma, in the same meaning and the same judgment.

There were eight drafts prior to the final text of Ineffabilis Deus, none of which included the citation from St. Vincent. The inclusion of this reference can likely be traced to the meeting of bishops convened from November 20-24, 1854, to discuss the proposed definition. Several bishops wondered if the notion of “growth” sanctioned by the decree undermined the idea of an ancient consensus of Fathers and of an unchanging tradition over time.

In response, the theological consultor at the meeting, the Jesuit Giovanni Perrone, invoked the traditional argument: The deposit of faith remains immutable but the Church’s understanding of it, assisted by the Holy Spirit, progresses through the centuries. St. Vincent’s work on development was pressed into service to answer the episcopal concerns. The faith has been “once and for all delivered to the saints” but the understanding of it progresses, in eodem sensu eademque sententia, over the course of ages.

The teaching of Ineffabilis Deus reminds us first and foremost of God’s action in salvation history—and of what God has accomplished for us in Jesus Christ. Mary was, through God’s providential action, established as the sinless vessel for the Incarnation of the eternal Son. Her holiness, faith, and eagerness to do God’s will make her an exemplary model of discipleship for all Christians. Another theme of the Immaculate Conception is the grace of God’s sovereign election. By election, God called Israel from among the nations. By election, Christ chose fishermen as his apostles and witnesses. And by the grace of election, God chose a simple Jewish girl to be the mother of his eternal Word. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception teaches us that Mary, redeemed by Christ from the first instant of her conception, did not merit this extraordinary privilege; it was bestowed on her as pure divine gift—sola gratia. God’s unmerited grace surrounded Mary’s life from beginning to end. 

The feast of the Immaculate Conception, then, speaks to us powerfully of the priority and potency of God’s grace. Every day Catholics pray to the Blessed Mother as “full of grace” (Lk. 1:28)—to the one saint untouched by sin, to the one saint who has never been a prisoner of Satan. So, too, Christians should remember that even in our weaknesses, we are, by grace and faith, the beneficiaries of Christ’s unmerited favor. We too have been saved by Christ’s grace and have been taken up into the story of salvation history, a journey that will continue until we, with Mary, are granted the fullness of life in the New Jerusalem. 

Fr. Thomas G. Guarino is professor of systematic theology at Seton Hall University and author of The Disputed Teachings of Vatican II.  

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