The Immaculate Conception is a Roman Catholic dogma that asserts that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was preserved by God from the stain of original sin at the time of her own conception. Specifically, this doctrine says she was not afflicted by the lack of sanctifying grace that afflicts humankind, but was instead filled with grace by God, and furthermore lived a life completely free from sin. It is commonly confused with the doctrine of the incarnation and virgin birth, though the two deal with separate subjects. According to the dogma, Mary was conceived by normal biological means, but her soul was acted upon by God (kept "immaculate") at the time of her conception.
The Immaculate Conception was solemnly defined as a dogma by Pope Pius IX in his constitution, Ineffabilis Deus, on December 8, 1854, and consecrated by Pope Pius XII in 1942.
The Catholic Church maintains that the dogma is supported by scripture (for example, her being greeted by Angel Gabriel as "full of Grace"), as well as the writings of many Church Fathers. Catholic theology also maintains that since Jesus became incarnate of the Virgin Mary, she needed to be completely free of sin to bear the Son of God, and that Mary is "redeemed 'by the grace of Christ' but in a more perfect manner than other human beings" (Ott, Fund, Bk 3, Pt. 3, Ch. 2, §3.1.e).
The Conception of Mary was celebrated in England from the ninth century. Eadmer (c. 1060–c. 1124) was influential in its spread. The Normans suppressed the celebration, but it lived on in the popular mind. It was rejected by St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Alexander of Hales, and St. Bonaventure (who, teaching at Paris, called it "this foreign doctrine," indicating its association with England). St. Thomas Aquinas expressed questions about the subject, but said that he would accept the determination of the Church. These famous churchmen had problems with the doctrine due to their understanding of human conception. They did not believe that the soul was placed in the body at the moment of implantation in the womb. Aquinas and Bonaventure, for example, believed that Mary was completely free from sin, but that she was not given this grace at the instant of her conception.
The Oxford Franciscans William of Ware and John Duns Scotus defended the doctrine, despite the opposition of most scholarly opinion at the time. Scotus proposed a solution to the theological problems involved with reconciling the doctrine with that of universal redemption in Christ, by arguing that Mary's immaculate conception did not remove her from redemption by Christ, but rather was the result of a more perfect redemption given to her on account of her special role in history. Furthermore, Scotus said that Mary was redeemed in anticipation of Christ's death on the cross. This was similar to the way that the Church explained the Last Supper (since Catholic theology teaches that the Mass is the sacrifice of Calvary made present on the altar, and Christ did not die before the Last Supper). Scotus' defense of the immaculist thesis was summed up by one of his followers as potuit, decuit ergo fecit ("God could do it, it was fitting that he did it, and so he did it"). Following his defense of the thesis, students at Paris swore to defend the thesis, and the tradition grew of swearing to defend the doctrine with one's blood. The University of Paris supported the decision of the (schismatic) Council of Basel in this matter.
In 1476, Pope Sixtus IV decreed "The Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception" to be celebrated each year on December 8. However, he stopped short of defining the doctrine as a dogma of the faith, thus giving Catholics freedom to believe in this or not without heresy; this freedom had been reiterated by the Council of Trent. The existence of the feast was a strong indication of the Church's belief in the Immaculate Conception, even before its nineteenth century definition as a dogma. In the Catholic Church, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception is a Holy Day of Obligation, although some countries may be dispensed from the obligation, and a public holiday in countries where Catholicism is predominant. Prior to the spread of this doctrine, December 8 was celebrated as the Conception of Mary, since September 8 is the Feast of the Nativity of Mary.
Popular opinion was firmly behind accepting the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception for Mary, but such was the sensitivity of the issue and the authority of Aquinas, that it was not until 1854 that Pius IX, with the support of the overwhelming majority of Catholic Bishops, proclaimed the doctrine in accordance with the conditions of papal infallibility that would be defined in 1870 by the First Vatican Council.
In his Apostolic Constitution "Ineffabilis Deus" (December 8, 1854), which officially defined the Immaculate Conception as dogma for the Catholic Church, Pope Pius IX primarily appealed to the text of Genesis 3:15, where the serpent was told by God, "I will put enmity between you and the woman, between your seed and her seed." According to the Catholic understanding, this was a prophecy that foretold of a "woman" who would always be at enmity with the serpent—that is, a woman who would never be under the power of sin, nor in bondage to the serpent.
Some Catholic theologians have also found Scriptural evidence for the Immaculate Conception in the angel Gabriel's greeting to Mary at the Annunciation, (Luke 1:28). The English translation, "Hail, Full of Grace," or "Hail, Favored One," is based on the Greek of Gospel of Luke 1:28, "Χαίρε, Κεχαριτωμένη", Chaire kecharitomene, a phrase which can most literally be translated: "Rejoice, you who have been graced." The latter word, kecharitomene, is the passive voice, present perfect participle of the verb "to grace" in the feminine gender, vocative case; therefore the Greek syntax indicates that the action of the verb has been fully completed in the past, with results continuing into the future. Put another way, it means that the subject (Mary) was graced fully and completely at some time in the past, and continued in that fully graced state. The angel's salutation does not refer to the incarnation of Christ in Mary's womb, as he proceeds to say: "thou shalt conceive in thy womb…" (Luke 1:31).
The Church Fathers, almost from the beginning of Church History, found further Scriptural evidence by comparing the figure of Eve to the figure of Mary. St. Justin Martyr said that Mary was a kind of New Eve, "in order that the disobedience which proceeded from the serpent might receive its destruction in the same manner in which it derived its origin" (Dialogue with Trypho, 100). Tertullian argued in the same manner, saying, "As Eve had believed the serpent, so Mary believed the angel. The delinquency which the one occasioned by believing, the other by believing effaced" (On the Flesh of Christ, 17). St. Irenaeus declared that Mary became "the cause of salvation, both to herself and the whole human race," because "what the virgin Eve had bound fast through unbelief, this did the virgin Mary set free through faith" (Against Heresies, Book III, cap. 22, 4). St. Jerome coined the phrase, "Death came through Eve, but life has come through Mary" (Letter XXII, To Eustochium, 21), though it does contradict Scripture, which points to death through Adam and salvation through Christ (Genesis 3:17-19; Romans 5:11,12).
The Catholic Encyclopedia, however, states that these scriptures merely serve as corroborative evidence assuming that the dogma is already well established, and that there is insufficient evidence to prove the dogma to someone basing their beliefs solely on biblical interpretation.
No direct or categorical and stringent proof of the dogma can be brought forward from Scripture. …The salutation of the angel Gabriel—chaire kecharitomene, Hail, full of grace (Luke 1:28) indicates a unique abundance of grace… but the term kecharitomene (full of grace) serves only as an illustration, not as a proof of the dogma.
There is a widespread misunderstanding of the term immaculate conception. Many people, even many Catholics, believe this refers to the conception of Jesus by Mary. Nearly every time this term is used in the mass media, it is in reference to the conception of Jesus by Mary. Because of this, the immaculate conception is sometimes jokingly referred to as "the immaculate misconception." The conception of Jesus by Mary is more properly called the Incarnation of Christ. The phrase "Immaculate Conception," by Catholic interpretation, is not directly connected to the concept of the "Virgin Birth." The Catholic Church celebrates the Immaculate Conception on December 8, exactly nine months before the official birthday of Mary. The Incarnation of Christ, also known as The Annunciation, is celebrated on March 25, nine months before Christmas Day.
Another misunderstanding is that with her immaculate conception, Mary did not need a savior. On the contrary, when defining the dogma in Ineffabilis Deus, Pope Pius IX represented Catholic tradition by affirming that Mary was redeemed in a manner more sublime. He stated that Mary, rather than being cleansed after sin, was completely prevented from contracting original sin in view of the foreseen merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race. In Luke 1:47, Mary proclaims, "My spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior." This is referred to as Mary's pre-redemption by Christ.
Protestants generally reject the doctrine because they do not consider the development of dogmatic theology to be authoritative apart from Biblical exegesis, and that Mariology in general, including the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, is not taught explicitly in the Bible. It is accepted by some Anglo-Catholics, but is rejected by most in the Anglican Communion (and also by the Old Catholic Churches). In the Book of Common Prayer, December 8—the "Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary"—is a "lesser commemoration," whose observance is optional. However, members of the Society of Mary are required to attend mass that day.
In arguing against this doctrine, many Protestants point to what they claim is an apparent logical absurdity. According to the doctrine, Mary is made free from the taint of original sin in order that she be without sin and therefore a most perfect mother for the Christ. It is argued that God could simply have caused the same effect at Jesus' conception without needing the Immaculate Conception of Mary. Indeed Protestants argue that if this were not possible then God would need to intervene in the conception of Mary's mother, and her mother, and so on down the ages.
A further argument put forward by Protestants is from Mark 10:18 and the parallel Luke 18:9. When Jesus is addressed as "Good teacher" (NIV Mk 10:17), Jesus is quoted as replying "No one is good—except God alone" (NIV). It is posited that in doing so he clearly teaches that no people are without sin whilst also leaving room for the conclusion that he is in fact God.
Orthodox Christians do believe that Mary was without sin for her entire life, but they do not share the Catholic Church's views on original sin. They note that St. Augustine (d. 430), whose works were not well known in Eastern Christianity until after the seventeenth century, has exerted considerable influence over the theology of sin that has generally taken root through the Holy See, and since Eastern Orthodoxy does not share Rome's (or most Protestants') view of original sin, it considers unnecessary the doctrine that Mary would require purification prior to the Incarnation. Instead, Eastern Orthodox theologians suggest that the references among the Greek and Syrian Fathers to Mary's purity and sinlessness may refer not to an a priori state, but to her conduct after birth. Although this is not a dogma in the Orthodox Church, there is the universal belief that there was a pre-sanctification of Mary at the time of her conception, similar to the conception of Saint John the Baptist. However, there was no cleansing of original sin, since Orthodox Christians believe that one cannot inherit original sin, or any sin for that matter; instead, "original sin" in Orthodoxy refers to the general tendency towards sin and pain in the world, caused by the fall of Adam.
Amongst Eastern Catholics, the Orthodox belief is also held. However, many, especially Ukrainian Catholics, Maronite Catholics, and Ruthenian Catholics are very Latinized, and have come to share the Latin Rite view of the Immaculate Conception. This has led to the derogatory nickname of the "Immaculate Deception" in some Eastern Churches who see themselves as forced to accept a theological dogma that makes no sense in their vocabulary of sin. The Vatican has in recent years understood this, and little conflict arises, unlike when it was declared, when it was a major point of contention, especially amongst the Melkite Catholics and the Latin Rite.
In Islam, the prophet Muhammad is considered the sinless bearer of the kalam of Allah (speech of God), just as in definitive Catholic formulation, Mary is the sinless bearer of Christ, the Word of God. By divine favor, Muhammad remained sinless before and after his ministry. Similarly, Islam teaches that Miriam (Mary) and Isa (Jesus) were both sinless by divine favor.
Anahita (or Nahid in Modern Persian), whose name means "unstained" or "immaculate," was an ancient Persian deity, the mother of Mithra. Her cult was strongest in Western Iran, and had parallels with that of the Semitic Near Eastern "Queen of Heaven," deification of the planet Venus. The largest temple with a Mithraic connection is the Seleucid temple at Kangavar in western Iran (c. 200 B.C.E.), dedicated to "Anahita, the Immaculate Virgin Mother of the Lord Mithras."
Isis was also sometimes described as immaculate. "Immaculate is our Lady Isis," is the legend around an engraving of Serapis and Isis, described by C.W. King, in The Gnostics and their Remains.
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