Original Sin and the Immaculate Conception
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Towards Orthodox-Catholic Reconciliation
And behold, thou shalt conceive" Lk 1. 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.
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.
The Feast of the Immaculate Conception
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 , 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 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 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.
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.
Was Mary born without sin? (Immaculate Conception)
This feast had originated before probably in the monasteries of Syria and had since spread throughout the Byzantine world. It reached England — no one knows exactly how — around , but was suppressed during the reform of the Anglo-Saxon Church under William the Conqueror reign — When it was revived in spite of some protests a few decades later about , 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.
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Virginis Mariae, composed ? Migne, v. Thurston and T. Slater [Freiburg im Breisgau ]. 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 or thereabouts Letter , Patrologia Latina — 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, 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.
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. Lumbreras, "St. 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. Thomas declared that she enjoyed a fullness of grace surpassing any other under Christ Summa theologiae 3a, 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. This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets CSS enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience.
Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets CSS if you are able to do so. This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving. Immaculate Conception Last updated Misconceptions Mistakes There are two mistakes that people often make about the Immaculate Conception: Many people confuse the Immaculate Conception with the "virgin birth"; the belief that Mary gave birth to Jesus while remaining a virgin.
They are not the same thing. A less common mistake is to think that the Immaculate Conception means that Mary was conceived without sexual intercourse. In fact Mary had ordinary human parents who conceived her in the usual manner. Catholic doctrine In detail Mary received God's grace from the first moment of her existence, and was totally and completely redeemed by this grace.
What the Immaculate Conception is and isn't
God did this so that Mary would be worthy to be the mother of God. Pope Pius X, Catholic and Protestant views Divergent approaches This is an ancient teaching, but it remains controversial to some Protestants because it is not explicitly referred to in the Bible. The idea that Mary was presented in the Temple as a young girl is making the same point: Mary always belonged to God. She was always full of grace.
FYI: ‘Immaculate Conception’ Does Not Mean What You Think It Means
If we wish to reflect deeper on the Immaculate Conception, the obvious place to go is the Mass text for the feast. In particular we should read the Preface, that is the opening part of the Eucharistic Prayer that comes before the Holy Holy. It may be for a great feast like Easter or Christmas; it may be for a penitential season like Lent; it may be the occasion of a funeral or a wedding.
All of these have their own prefaces which invite us to praise and thank God for the mystery we are celebrating on a particular day. There are also more general prefaces in use for weekdays or when there is no special occasion, feast or season. When we look at the preface of the Immaculate Conception we find two themes interwoven: this feast of Mary is related to both to her Son and to the Church. It reads:. Father all powerful and ever-living God,. Full of grace she was to be a worthy mother of your Son,. Purest of virgins, she was to bring forth your Son,. You chose her from all women. In our joy we sing to your glory wit all the choirs of angels, Holy, holy….