Kieran Fenn fms
5 April, 2013
The feast of the Immaculate Conception made its first appearance towards the end of the seventh century, influenced by popular apocryphal accounts of Mary’s own miraculous birth.
A little background
A vision seen by the abbot of a monastery in Kent during a life-threatening storm led to the choice of 8 December as the feast day for promotion of devotion to the conception of the Virgin.
By the 12th century, theological opinion was divided – even that devoted champion of Mary, St Bernard, opposed her liturgical commemoration on the basis that only holy events can be so celebrated. And, he said, since Mary, like everyone else, was conceived with Original Sin, one cannot say her conception was holy.
In addition, the influence of Augustine’s belief that Original Sin is transmitted by sexual desire plays its unfortunate part.
The Middle Ages never reached a consensus on the question of Mary’s conception or the legitimacy of a liturgical feast in its honour. At issue was the question of how the Virgin could have been conceived without sin when the redemption had not yet taken place. Ss Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas both supported Bernard.
It was the Franciscan John Duns Scotus who devised an acceptable explanation: if the Virgin was sanctified in the womb, this must have been through an anticipated application of the merits of her son.
This could have applied from the moment of her conception, preventing her from contracting Original Sin.
What it means
The term is not about the virginal conception of Jesus, still a popular misunderstanding among many Catholics. Nor is it teaching the manner of Mary’s own physical conception. Rather, the basis for the dogma is that Mary, from the first moment of her conception, was preserved from Original Sin.
‘Immaculate conception’ is quite alien to the thought patterns and world view of first century Judaism. For Jews of the time, any conception and birth was a cause for rejoicing – a sign of God’s favour.
There is no scriptural basis for the Immaculate Conception for Mary, as there is for her motherhood and virginity. It reflects a strong Christian belief and devotion despite the opposion of theologians and bishops.
Interest in the doctrine waned until the early 19th century when Catherine Labouré claimed to have had a vision of the Immaculate Conception: Mary standing on a globe with rays of light shining from her hands towards the earth.
The vision was in an oval frame on which appeared the words: ‘O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.’ This stimulated renewed interest in the doctrine as well as demands for its definition.
Pope Gregory XVI (d 1846) would not accede to these demands, but Pius IX immediately began proceedings to define the apparition, consulting 603 bishops of whom 56, including the Bishop of Paris, were opposed. The definition was promulgated in his bull Ineffabilis Deus on 8 December 1854.
Catherine Labouré’s vision was followed by other Marian apparitions; in 1858 there was a series of appearances near Lourdes to 14-year-old peasant girl Bernadette Soubirous who was given the message ‘I am the Immaculate Conception’.
Another occurred at Fatima in Portugal in 1917. Pius XII was particularly devoted to Our Lady of Fatima and consecrated the whole world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary in 1942, defining her bodily assumption in 1950, perhaps the logical conclusion to a life begun free from Original Sin and lived free from its effects.
The dogma defined
Pius IX’s bull marked a turning point that also made possible the formal definition of the dogma of the Assumption. Both these latter dogmas were defined within the context of the papal infallibility definition of Vatican I – both reflect personal papal devotion within a wider context of a believing Catholic Christianity.
Four considerations are made in Ineffabilis Deus.
First, ‘the doctrine of Mary’s all-holiness is an ancient one’. But the Immaculate Conception was not part of the thinking of the Church Fathers for whom the belief that Mary was all-holy did not extend to exemption from Original Sin.
Second, the testimony of history – ‘the Catholic Church … has ever held as divinely revealed and contained in the deposit of heavenly revelation this doctrine concerning the original innocence of the august Virgin…’ Again, a problem is evident in ‘ever held’.
Third, ‘this doctrine always existed in the Church as a doctrine that has been received from our ancestors, and that has been stamped with the character of revealed doctrine’.
While the appeal might be made that ‘because Mary was Mother of God the Immaculate Conception flows from this’, the development of doctrine is a question on which there is no unanimity.
Fourth, there is an argument from hope for the Church’s welfare: ‘All our hope do we repose in the most blessed Virgin – in the all fair and immaculate one who … has brought salvation to the world … in her who, with her only-begotten Son, is the most powerful Mediatrix and Conciliatrix in the whole world…’
The hope is that Mary will use her power to ensure that ‘Our Holy Mother the Catholic Church may flourish daily more and more throughout all the nations and countries’.
While this is a comforting and pious hope, the theological virtue of hope has God alone as its basis, as do faith and love.
A revealed truth?
‘We declare and pronounce and define that the doctrine which holds that the BVM, in the first instant of her conception, has been, by a special grace and privilege of almighty God and in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race, preserved and exempted from every stain of Original Sin, is revealed by God and consequently is to be believed firmly and inviolably by all the faithful.’ (Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus).
In proclaiming the Immaculate Conception as a ‘revealed truth’, Pius IX left it to theologians to show the harmony of this revelation with scripture on Mary.
It is impossible to link this proclamation to a particular text; it is Mary’s exceptional holiness that the dogma shows from the moment of conception. She always enjoyed God’s favour and was the most blessed of women.
Where are we at?
My concern in these articles is to do justice to the fullness of the tradition regarding Mary.
What is this doctrine trying to say to people today?Ineffabilis Deus itself is in serious need of rewriting. As well as expressing the concerns of the pontificate of Pius IX, it appeared in an era of rationalism and secularism.
My intuition is that its unintended effect makes Mary unapproachable rather than one of us and one with us, Mother of the Church and Mother within the Church.
Add to that a dogma that removes her from us in the Assumption, our topic for next month, and we are faced with the crisis that Vatican II attempted to address: bring Mary back to the Church in a manner that speaks to people today.
Reference: Tavard, GH The Thousand Faces of the Virgin Mary, Michael Glazier, 1996.