Mary, Most Holy

A Brief History of the Immaculate Conception

When Catholics attend Mass on December 8th, we, as a Church, will celebrate the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, a holy day of obligation.  As an official dogma of the Catholic Church, the Immaculate Conception is an integral component of the Catholic faith, one that the faithful must believe in order to be in full communion with the Church. This teaching, however, sharply divides Protestants and Catholics. Most Protestants disagree on with this belief, claiming instead that this dogma was generated as little more than a way for Pope Pius IX to demonstrate his newfound power of papal infallibility. As this debate is still very active, it is important that Catholics should understand the history behind this controversial dogma.

Pope Pius IX formally pronounced on December 8, 1854 in his apostolic constitution, Ineffabilis Deus, that “[w]e declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance 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.” Although finalized under Pope Pius IX, this dogma was believed long before 1854, hearkening back to the early centuries of the church and slowly taking shape as the current teaching.

The first recorded instance of belief in the Immaculate Conception dates to around the early fifth century. During this time, the Eastern church in Syria started celebrating the feast of the Conception of the Most Holy and All Pure Mother of God on December 9. Even though this belief continued more or less unchallenged for hundreds of years, during the height of Scholasticism, many theologians struggled with this unofficial belief of the church. Many argued that Mary must have been subject to original sin in order to be redeemed. In answer to this troubling objection, the great theologian Venerable John Duns Scotus stated that “either God was able to do this, and did not will to do it, or He willed to preserve her, and was unable to do so. If able to and yet unwilling to perform this for her, God was miserly towards her. And if He willed to do it but was unable to accomplish it, He was weak, for no one who is able to honor his mother would fail to do so.” His argument largely silenced any additional criticism.

As a result, in 1567 Pope St. Pius V formally condemned as heresy the belief that any taint of original sin stained Mary. Soon after, Pope Alexander VII detailed the Church’s position on the teaching, quite similar to Pope Pius XI’s declaration 200 years later. And in 1708, Pope Clement XI instituted December 8 as the feast day of the Immaculate Conception for the whole Church, declaring it to be a holy day of obligation.

Therefore, the Catholic faithful had long since known and believed this dogma, even though it was not formally defined in 1854 by Pope Pius IX. Since then, this teaching has been celebrated as an extremely important tenet of the Catholic faith. For example, just four years later, on the Feast of the Annunciation in 1858, the Blessed Virgin herself appeared to Saint Bernadette, saying, “I am the Immaculate Conception.”

Likewise, 20th century Marian scholars, particularly St. Maximilian Kolbe, continued to study and promulgate this doctrine. His work and insight on this dogma is truly profound he even founded a movement known as the Militia of the Immaculata to spread his Marian devotions. The Catholic position on the Immaculate Conception is not, as many Christians think, an unfounded new belief, but rather an ancient one, grounded in theology. Therefore, the Catechism states and all Catholics must believe, “the most Blessed Virgin Mary was from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Saviour of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.”

Therese Douglass is a freshman hoping to study in the Program of Liberal Studies and living in Flaherty. She loves Christmas time so much. To share her joy contact her at tdougla4@nd.edu.

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