The Immaculate Conception
"In the Constitution Ineffabilis Deus of 8 December, 1854, Pius IX pronounced and defined that the Blessed Virgin Mary "in the first instance of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace granted by God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race, was preserved exempt from all stain of original sin."
"'The Blessed Virgin Mary . . .' The subject of this immunity from original sin is the person of Mary at the moment of the creation of her soul and its infusion into her body."
"'. . .in the first instance of her conception . . .' The term conception does not mean the active or generative conception by her parents. Her body was formed in the womb of the mother, and the father had the usual share in its formation. The question does not concern the immaculateness of the generative activity of her parents. Neither does it concern the passive conception absolutely and simply (conceptio seminis carnis, inchoata), which, according to the order of nature, precedes the infusion of the rational soul. The person is truly conceived when the soul is created and infused into the body. Mary was preserved exempt from all stain of original sin at the first moment of her animation, and sanctifying grace was given to her before sin could have taken effect in her soul."
"'. . .was preserved exempt from all stain of original sin . . .' The formal active essence of original sin was not removed from her soul, as it is removed from others by baptism; it was excluded, it never was simultaneously with the exclusion of sin. The state of original sanctity, innocence, and justice, as opposed to original sin, was conferred upon her, by which gift every stain and fault, all depraved emotions, passions, and debilities, essentially pertaining in her soul to original sin, were excluded. But she was not made exempt from the temporal penalties of Adam -- from sorrow, bodily infirmities, and death."
"'. . .by a singular privilege and grace granted by God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race.' The immunity from original sin was given to Mary by a singular exemption from a universal law through the same merits of Christ, by which other men are cleansed from sin by baptism. Mary needed the redeeming Saviour to obtain this exemption, and to be delivered from the universal necessity and debt (debitum) of being subject to original sin. The person of Mary, in consequence of her origin from Adam, should have been subject to sin, but, being the new Eve who was to be the mother of the new Adam, she was, by the eternal counsel of God and by the merits of Christ, withdrawn from the general law of original sin. Her redemption was the very masterpiece of Christ's redeeming wisdom. He is a greater redeemer who pays the debt that it may not be incurred than he who pays after it has fallen on the debtor."
"Such is the meaning of the term 'Immaculate Conception.'"
PROOF FROM SCRIPTURE
No direct or categorical and stringent proof of the dogma can be brought forward from Scripture. But the first scriptural passage which contains the promise of the redemption, mentions also the Mother of the Redeemer. The sentence against the first parents was accompanied by the Earliest Gospel (Proto-evangelium), which put enmity between the serpent and the woman: "and I will put enmity between thee and the woman and her seed; she (he) shall crush thy head and thou shalt lie in wait for her (his) heel" (Genesis 3:15). The translation "she" of the Vulgate is interpretative; it originated after the fourth century, and cannot be defended critically. The conqueror from the seed of the woman, who should crush the serpent's head, is Christ; the woman at enmity with the serpent is Mary. God puts enmity between her and Satan in the same manner and measure, as there is enmity between Christ and the seed of the serpent. Mary was ever to be in that exalted state of soul which the serpent had destroyed in man, i.e. in sanctifying grace. Only the continual union of Mary with grace explains sufficiently the enmity between her and Satan. The Proto-evangelium, therefore, in the original text contains a direct promise of the Redeemer. and in conjunction therewith the manifestation of the masterpiece of His Redemption, the perfect preservation of His virginal Mother from original sin.
The salutation of the angel Gabriel -- chaire kecharitomene, Hail, full of grace (Luke 1:28) indicates a unique abundance of grace, a supernatural, godlike state of soul, which finds its explanation only in the Immaculate Conception of Mary. But the term kecharitomene (full of grace) serves only as an illustration, not as a proof of the dogma.
From the texts Proverbs 8 and Ecclesiasticus 24 (which exalt the Wisdom of God and which in the liturgy are applied to Mary, the most beautiful work of God's Wisdom), or from the Canticle of Canticles (4:7, "Thou art all fair, O my love, and there is not a spot in thee"), no theological conclusion can be drawn. These passages, applied to the Mother of God, may be readily understood by those who know the privilege of Mary, but do not avail to prove the doctrine dogmatically, and are therefore omitted from the Constitution "Ineffabilis Deus". For the theologian it is a matter of conscience not to take an extreme position by applying to a creature texts which might imply the prerogatives of God.
PROOF FROM TRADITION
In regard to the sinlessness of Mary the older Fathers are very cautious: some of them even seem to have been in error on this matter.
- Origen, although he ascribed to Mary high spiritual prerogatives, thought that, at the time of Christ's passion, the sword of disbelief pierced Mary's soul; that she was struck by the poniard of doubt; and that for her sins also Christ died (Origen, "In Luc. hom. xvii").
- In the same manner St. Basil writes in the fourth century: he sees in the sword, of which Simeon speaks, the doubt which pierced Mary's soul (Epistle 259).
- St. Chrysostom accuses her of ambition, and of putting herself forward unduly when she sought to speak to Jesus at Capharnaum (Matthew 11:46; Chrysostom, Hom. xliv; cf. also "In Matt.", hom. iv).
But these stray private opinions merely serve to show that theology is a progressive science. If we were to attempt to set forth the full doctrine of the Fathers on the sanctity of the Blessed Virgin, which includes particularly the implicit belief in the immaculateness of her conception, we should be forced to transcribe a multitude of passages. In the testimony of the Fathers two points are insisted upon: her absolute purity and her position as the second Eve (cf. I Cor. 15:22).
Mary as the second Eve
This celebrated comparison between Eve, while yet immaculate and incorrupt -- that is to say, not subject to original sin -- and the Blessed Virgin is developed by:
- Justin (Dialog. cum Tryphone, 100),
- Irenaeus (Contra Haereses, III, xxii, 4),
- Tertullian (De carne Christi, xvii),
- Julius Firm cus Maternus (De errore profan. relig xxvi),
- Cyril of Jerusalem (Catecheses, xii, 29),
- Epiphanius (Hæres., lxxviii, 18),
- Theodotus of Ancyra (Or. in S. Deip n. 11), and
- Sedulius (Carmen paschale, II, 28).
The absolute purity of Mary
Patristic writings on Mary's purity abound.
- The Fathers call Mary the tabernacle exempt from defilement and corruption (Hippolytus, "Ontt. in illud, Dominus pascit me");
- Origen calls her worthy of God, immaculate of the immaculate, most complete sanctity, perfect justice, neither deceived by the persuasion of the serpent, nor infected with his poisonous breathings ("Hom. i in diversa");
- Ambrose says she is incorrupt, a virgin immune through grace from every stain of sin ("Sermo xxii in Ps. cxviii);
- Maximum of Turin calls her a dwelling fit for Christ, not because of her habit of body, but because of original grace ("Nom. viii de Natali Domini");
- Theodotus of Ancyra terms her a virgin innocent, without spot, void of culpability, holy in body and in soul, a lily springing among thorns, untaught the ills of Eve nor was there any communion in her of light with darkness, and, when not yet born, she was consecrated to God ("Orat. in S. Dei Genitr.").
- In refuting Pelagius St. Augustine declares that all the just have truly known of sin "except the Holy Virgin Mary, of whom, for the honour of the Lord, I will have no question whatever where sin is concerned" (De naturâ et gratiâ 36).
- Mary was pledged to Christ (Peter Chrysologus, "Sermo cxl de Annunt. B.M.V.");
- it is evident and notorious notorious that she was pure from eternity, exempt from every defect (Typicon S. Sabae);
- she was formed without any stain (St. Proclus, "Laudatio in S. Dei Gen. ort.", I, 3);
- she was created in a condition more sublime and glorious than all other natures (Theodorus of Jerusalem in Mansi, XII, 1140);
- when the Virgin Mother of God was to be born of Anne, nature did not dare to anticipate the germ of grace, but remained devoid of fruit (John Damascene, "Hom. i in B. V. Nativ.", ii).
- The Syrian Fathers never tire of extolling the sinlessness of Mary. St. Ephraem considers no terms of eulogy too high to describe the excellence of Mary's grace and sanctity: "Most holy Lady, Mother of God, alone most pure in soul and body, alone exceeding all perfection of purity ...., alone made in thy entirety the home of all the graces of the Most Holy Spirit, and hence exceeding beyond all compare even the angelic virtues in purity and sanctity of soul and body . . . . my Lady most holy, all-pure, all-immaculate, all-stainless, all-undefiled, all-incorrupt, all-inviolate spotless robe of Him Who clothes Himself with light as with a garment . ... flower unfading, purple woven by God, alone most immaculate" ("Precationes ad Deiparam" in Opp. Graec. Lat., III, 524-37).
- To St. Ephraem she was as innocent as Eve before her fall, a virgin most estranged from every stain of sin, more holy than the Seraphim, the sealed fountain of the Holy Ghost, the pure seed of God, ever in body and in mind intact and immaculate ("Carmina Nisibena").
- Jacob of Sarug says that "the very fact that God has elected her proves that none was ever holier than Mary; if any stain had disfigured her soul, if any other virgin had been purer and holier, God would have selected her and rejected Mary". It seems, however, that Jacob of Sarug, if he had any clear idea of the doctrine of sin, held that Mary was perfectly pure from original sin ("the sentence against Adam and Eve") at the Annunciation.
St. John Damascene (Or. i Nativ. Deip., n. 2) esteems the supernatural influence of God at the generation of Mary to be so comprehensive that he extends it also to her parents. He says of them that, during the generation, they were filled and purified by the Holy Ghost, and freed from sexual concupiscence. Consequently according to the Damascene, even the human element of her origin, the material of which she was formed, was pure and holy. This opinion of an immaculate active generation and the sanctity of the "conceptio carnis" was taken up by some Western authors; it was put forward by Petrus Comestor in his treatise against St. Bernard and by others. Some writers even taught that Mary was born of a virgin and that she was conceived in a miraculous manner when Joachim and Anne met at the golden gate of the temple (Trombelli, "Mari SS. Vita", Sect. V, ii, 8; Summa aurea, II, 948. Cf. also the "Revelationsn" of Catherine Emmerich which contain the entire apocryphal legend of the miraculous conception of Mary.
From this summary it appears that the belief in Mary's immunity from sin in her conception was prevalent amongst the Fathers, especially those of the Greek Church. The rhetorical character, however, of many of these and similar passages prevents us from laying too much stress on them, and interpreting them in a strictly literal sense. The Greek Fathers never formally or explicitly discussed the question of the Immaculate Conception.
The Conception of St. John the Baptist
A comparison with the conception of Christ and that of St. John may serve to light both on the dogma and on the reasons which led the Greeks to celebrate at an early date the Feast of the Conception of Mary.
- The conception of the Mother of God was beyond all comparison more noble than that of St. John the Baptist, whilst it was immeasurably beneath that of her Divine Son.
- The soul of the precursor was not preserved immaculate at its union with the body, but was sanctified either shortly after conception from a previous state of sin, or through the presence of Jesus at the Visitation.
- Our Lord, being conceived by the Holy Ghost, was, by virtue of his miraculous conception, ipso facto free from the taint of original sin.
Of these three conceptions the Church celebrates feasts. The Orientals have a Feast of the Conception of St. John the Baptist (23 September), which dates back to the fifth century, is thus older than the Feast of the Conception of Mary, and, during the Middle Ages, was kept also by many Western dioceses on 24 September. The Conception of Mary is celebrated by the Latins on 8 December; by the Orientals on 9 December; the Conception of Christ has its feast in the universal calendar on 25 March. In celebrating the feast of Mary's Conception the Greeks of old did not consider the theological distinction of the active and the passive conceptions, which was indeed unknown to them. They did not think it absurd to celebrate a conception which was not immaculate, as we see from the Feast of the Conception of St. John. They solemnized the Conception of Mary, perhaps because, according to the "Proto-evangelium" of St. James, it was preceded by miraculous events (the apparition of an angel to Joachim, etc.), similar to those which preceded the conception of St. John, and that of our Lord Himself. Their object was less the purity of the conception than the holiness and heavenly mission of the person conceived. In the Office of 9 December, however, Mary, from the time of her conception, is called beautiful, pure, holy, just, etc., terms never used in the Office of 23 September (sc. of St. John the Baptist). The analogy of St. John s sanctification may have given rise to the Feast of the Conception of Mary. If it was necessary that the precursor of the Lord should be so pure and "filled with the Holy Ghost" even from his mother's womb, such a purity was assuredly not less befitting His Mother. The moment of St. John's sanctification is by later writers thought to be the Visitation ("the infant leaped in her womb"), but the angel's words (Luke, i, 15) seem to indicate a sanctification at the conception. This would render the origin of Mary more similar to that of John. And if the Conception of John had its feast, why not that of Mary?
PROOF FROM REASON
There is an incongruity in the supposition that the flesh, from which the flesh of the Son of God was to be formed, should ever have belonged to one who was the slave of that arch-enemy, whose power He came on earth to destroy. Hence the axiom of Pseudo-Anselmus (Eadmer) developed by Duns Scotus, Decuit, potuit, ergo fecit, it was becoming that the Mother of the Redeemer should have been free from the power of sin and from the first moment of her existence; God could give her this privilege, therefore He gave it to her. Again it is remarked that a peculiar privilege was granted to the prophet Jeremiah and to St. John the Baptist. They were sanctified in their mother's womb, because by their preaching they had a special share in the work of preparing the way for Christ. Consequently some much higher prerogative is due to Mary. (A treatise of P. Marchant, claiming for St. Joseph also the privilege of St. John, was placed on the Index in 1833.) Scotus says that "the perfect Mediator must, in some one case, have done the work of mediation most perfectly, which would not be unless there was some one person at least, in whose regard the wrath of God was anticipated and not merely appeased."
The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume VII
Nihil Obstat, June 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor
Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York