The Immaculate Conception and the development of doctrine

The Immaculate Conception and the development of doctrine

Bishop Peter J. Elliott

Immaculate - sinless, so we describe Jesus Christ, and his human mother, Mary. It is part of the defined faith of the Catholic Church that God created Mary without original sin so that she would worthily and truly be the mother of his sinless Son.

This truth has unfolded within a process that Blessed John Henry Newman called the "development of Christian doctrine". As Newman insisted, that development, guided by the Spirit of Truth, must be organic, consistent, continuous and vigorous.

A feast of the Conception of Mary by St Anne began to be celebrated in Palestine in the sixth century, indicating belief that there had been divine intervention at the beginning of Mary's life. Legends were current at that time about her parents Joachim and Anne, about her birth and her service in the Temple.

Early Eastern liturgies

In the East the emphasis would be on her sanctification in the womb because there was as yet no systematic belief in original sin. But perfect holiness in Mary implies freedom of sin, inherited sin or actual sin.

In the East the Greek title panhagia ("the all holy one") has been ascribed to Our Lady since these early Christian centuries and recurs in various liturgies. Because perfect holiness excludes sinfulness, the vivid Marian poetry of St Ephrem the Syrian praised Mary as perfectly pure, all holy and sinless. We also find here the deeper understanding of Mary as the Angel greeted her, "full of grace", most highly favoured by God, kekaritomene.

In the West a more formal doctrine of original sin was developed by St Augustine. He insisted that all human beings are sinners, "except the Holy Virgin Mary, whom I desire, for the sake of the honour of the Lord, to leave entirely out of the question, when the talk is of sin" ( De natura et gratia, 36.42).

Augustine is a key to what many Catholics assumed about Mary in the fourth and fifth centuries. How could the mother of Christ ever come under the dominion of Satan? Satan's dominion is the opposite of the Kingdom of Heaven, another understanding of original sin, which explains why we speak of being "freed from original sin" in Baptism, that is, freed from the kingdom of Satan.

St Jerome's slightly inaccurate translation of the prophecy in Genesis 3:15 also fuelled this conviction: "I will put emnity between you and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed. She will crush thy head, and thou will crush his heel." It should read: "He will crush thy head". The accurate version we use today still contrasts the children of the second Eve with those of Satan. The early Fathers saw Mary as the second virtuous Eve who reverses the disobedience of the first Eve.

In the East interest in the perfection of Mary seems to have waned, even as her splendid titles like panhagia were still used in liturgy. But the feast of the conception of the Virgin spread to the West. Here the influence of St Augustine was pervasive, yet theologians who favoured the sinlessness of Mary debated how she could have been freed from original sin before her birth, that is, well before Christ died on the cross for our salvation and hers.

Most scholastic theologians rejected her Immaculate Conception. They thought it diminished the universal redeeming work of Christ. Some of them also were uncomfortable with the sexual dimension of conception, perhaps harbouring Manichaean views that St Augustine himself did not hold.

We also need to remember their inadequate understanding of conception and pregnancy, influenced by the ideas of Aristotle. Many therefore took the position of St Bernard that Mary was purified in the womb like St John the Baptist, perhaps when she "quickened".

St Bernard had a fervent devotion to our Lady, but like St Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, he did not accept the doctrine of her Immaculate Conception.

Early champions

Early in the twelfth century, Anselm's disciple, Eadmer, wrote a simple treatise in favour of Mary being conceived without original sin. Then great champions of the sinless Virgin emerged, the Franciscan theologians, William of Ware, an Englishman, and his brilliant pupil Duns Scotus, a Scotsman, as we see from his name. The Franciscans promoted the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception and its liturgical celebration became popular among the people.

In 1467 Pope Sixtus IV raised the local feast to the level of an indulgenced celebration on the universal calendar of the Church. In the universal Roman Missal of 1570 it was reduced to the level of a memorial.

England was, in a sense, the cradle of belief in the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin. This might explain why 8 December is designated as "the conception of the Virgin Mary" in the calendar in the 1662 Anglican Book of Common Prayer.

By the time of the Council of Trent the Immaculate Conception was a well-established belief even if it was still not a defined dogma. The Council Fathers of Trent, in their teaching on Original Sin, cited St Augustine's words exempting Mary from sin, but they did not define the dogma, having much else to attend to at that time.

The definition of the dogma was inevitable, carried forward on a wave of popular devotion across the later Middle Ages and the Counter Reformation era. Prayers, litanies, hymns were composed in honour of the Immaculate Virgin.

Images of the Immaculate Virgin depicted her standing on the moon, with the serpent crushed beneath her feet. In the baroque age St John Eudes' devotion to the immaculate heart of Mary and then the Marian spirituality of St Louis Grignon de Montfort reinforced belief in the Immaculate Conception.

Private revelations played a significant part in these developments, particularly the Miraculous Medal revealed to St Catherine Labouré in 1830, with its inscription "O Mary, conceived without original sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee."

Solemn definition

In 1854, after consulting the bishops and theologians, Blessed Pius IX solemnly defined the dogma in the Bull Ineffabilis. What did the Pope teach? That from the first instant she existed, Mary was preserved from Original Sin. But did that mean that she did not need to be redeemed?

Jesus Christ is Mary's Saviour just as much as he is ours, which was the concern of those scholastic theologians who rejected the Immaculate Conception.

In no way is Mary exempted from the need to be redeemed, as Blessed Pope Pius IX taught when defining the dogma. She is redeemed in anticipation of the saving work Christ accomplished for us on the cross. His work is timeless, cosmic. The saving power of his merits can reach backwards as well as forwards, as we see in the Mass, the eternal sacrifice of the altar.

Throughout the Church in 1854 there was universal jubilation. The intense 19th century devotion to the Immaculate Conception was echoed in the oft-quoted poetic description of Mary by Wordsworth: "Our tainted nature's solitary boast". Blessed John Henry Newman had a deep devotion to the Immaculate Conception.

The apparitions at Lourdes in 1858 seemed to set a seal on the dogma. The mysterious lady appearing to St Bernadette simply identified herself with the words, "I am the Immaculate Conception".

As we contemplate this truth of salvation history, we are confronted with the reality of Original Sin, the flawed nature of the human person, the great loss of grace that we all bear before baptism. We are confronted by the effects of Original Sin, which members of this Movement know so well in terms of the constant struggle against totalitarianism, old and new. But the fashionable ideologies that slide into tyranny of the mind do not find the fault within us, rather it is always blamed on others, on race or class, on the opposite sex, on what has bearing on us from the outside. Yet it remains within us, and only a supernatural remedy can heal it. Only grace can heal it.

In the light of the mystery of grace, we rejoice in the Year of Grace which begins next Pentecost, a project of the Bishops of Australia to draw us back to Christian essentials, back to the Lord Jesus. We need a Saviour, we need one of our flesh who is yet divine, and he is the One we awaited in Advent.

Therefore, above all, let us never forget that the Immaculate Conception focuses more on the Saviour, more on Jesus Christ than Mary his Mother. She is conceived immaculate for one purpose, to be his worthy human mother, the Mother of God, sinless so as to be truly his mother in every respect.

The human nature he takes from her in the Incarnation is that of the Second Eve, the innocent, faithful and unfallen One, just as he is the second Adam whose atoning work reverses our disobedience and settles the aching moral and spiritual debt fallen humanity owes to the just God. The Immaculate Virgin brings forth the Immaculate Lamb of God.

Let us place the work and mission of members of the National Civic Council under the patronage of the Immaculate Virgin. In Australia we face new challenges to decency, morality, the family, and now even to the essential nature of marriage. Let us place all projects to advance freedom in a just society in the hands of Mary Immaculate. In the glory of her purity is strength for all of us, the triumph of grace.

This is the text of Bishop Peter J. Elliott's homily at the National Civic Council's annual Mass of Thanksgiving, for the Vigil of the Immaculate Conception, at St Brigid's Church, North Fitzroy, on 7 December 2011. Bishop Elliott is an auxiliary bishop in the Melbourne Archdiocese.

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