The Immaculate Conception

In 1854, when Pope Pius IX took the bold step of raising belief in the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary to the status of a formal doctrine in the Church, it was sure to spark controversy. Seen from the perspective of history it was, at the time, a daring move, which the Pontiff made to signal his determined opposition to the antireligious spirit that was sweeping across Europe at the time.

While it was a bold act, there were those who questioned the pronouncement then - and there are those who continue to question whether or not it was a wise one.

Since the mood of the time was already secular and anti-clerical, would not the promulgation of new dogma prove to be just another burden for the Church to overcome in its attempt to communicate with the world? And if it might prove to be a burden in relation to the world, might it not also become a barrier between Rome and the other Christian communities as well? How would Eastern Orthodoxy respond? And what about the Anglicans and the many Protestant groups?

Was Pope Pius IX only a reactionary autocrat determined to fight the spirit of his age, or is there a wisdom in the dogma of the Immaculate Conception which transcends the boundaries of the particular age in which it was born?

To be sure, the doctrine Pope Pius IX set forth was not some universally accepted tenet of Christian faith, clearly founded on Scripture and ancient tradition (although some argument may be made on this) and agreed on by all Christians, particularly the great theologians.

The Immaculate Conception was a teaching with which even the prince of theologians, St. Thomas Aquinas, had problems. Aquinas did not deny the sanctification of Mary while she was still in the womb of St. Anne before her birth, but he did express some dif- ficulty extending this sanctification back to the first moment of conception. It was more of what one might call a technical question than a denial of the spirit of the teaching for him. It was the type of question with which we continue to struggle today regarding the "moment" (if indeed it can be defined) when a person comes into being. Is it, for example, the moment of ovum and spermatozoan union or some other moment of what biologists and anthropologists often refer to as "animation"?

For St. Thomas Aquinas and other theologians, most of the objections to the doctrine lay with those technical questions of biology and anthropology and not with a denial that Mary was sanctified at or near the beginning of her life. While debate continued among Catholic theologians, the Eastern Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky stated, "I do not see any irresoluble conflict between the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception and the full humanity and freedom of Mary as of the same race as Eve."

Response from the Anglican community has been less enthusiastic. In the agreed-upon statement regarding "Authority in the Church," produced by the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, we read:

"Special difficulties are created by the recent Marian dogmas because Anglicans doubt the appropriateness or even the possibility of defining them as essential to believers."
Somewhat predictably, Protestant critics have been even less supportive. Karl Barth, in his "Church Dogmatics," had many positive things to say about Mary, but he rejected Mariological dogmas on the basis that he considered them to be arbitrary innovations not justified by Scripture and also that, for him, seemed to contradict the principle of sola gratia ("grace alone").

All this has led to the suggestion in some quarters that some Christian doctrines, including those of a Mariological nature, be regarded as inessential, thus allowing for a variety of interpretations of belief. Ludwig Ott's work, "Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma," admits that the Immaculate Conception is not explicitly taught in Scripture, and he freely acknowledges that neither the Greek nor Latin Fathers teach this doctrine. But he claims it is implicit in their teachings about the holiness and purity of Mary, and in the contrast which the Fathers developed between the figures of Mary and of Eve.

But if the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is to be recognized as a legitimate item in Christian theology, this will be accomplished by showing that it is implicative of all other Christian truths. It must be shown that Mariological dogma is not merely a superfluous embellishment, but that it is integral to our understanding of anthropology, Christology and soteriology.

The words of the dogma read:

"We declare . . . that the most Blessed Virgin Mary in the first moment of her conception was, by the unique grace and privilege of God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ the Saviour of the human race, preserved intact from all stain of original sin."
What is important for understanding the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is that we move away from any merely biological understanding of conception. The doctrine is not focused on the biological event and is not tied to any particular theory of conception. There is no implication that Mary was conceived without intercourse between her parents, Joachim and Anne - that is, there is no indication of a teaching of a virginal birth or conception of Mary. The conception of a child is not only a physiological happening, but the personal commitment in love of the parents. Such a perception throws an entirely different light on the meaning of conception.

If the term "conception" needs to be re-examined in the ongoing theological dialogue of the various Christian communions, so does the term "immaculate." So often "immaculate" is expressed in terms of being without sin, thus focusing on avoidance of the negative. What proponents of this viewpoint fail to consider is that the Immaculate Conception of Mary, like the sinlessness of Jesus Christ, are not negative ideas, but thoroughly positive and affirmative ones. Instead of stating the dogma in the negative form by saying Mary was preserved from the stain of original sin, we may put it in the affirmative way and say she was preserved in a right relationship with God. Another way to express this is to say she was always a recipient of grace.

Given these ways of perceiving the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, there are some significant points that need to be made. As in all Mariological dogma, we need to see the Immaculate Conception as implicative of Christology and other central doctrines of the Christian Faith. Consider these points:

  1. We need to deal with objections that this doctrine may encroach on the position of Jesus Christ. One might assume such at first thought, until he remembers a fuller view of childbearing and motherhood in their total personal sense, not simply as biological relationships. As William P. DuBose wrote, "Christ was born not merely out of the womb, but of the faith and obedience of His Virgin Mother." So the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, far from detracting from the unique position of Jesus Christ, actually serves to strengthen it.
  2. In answer to those who object to this dogma, the official formulation states quite explicitly that Mary's unique grace and privilege in this matter were granted "in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race."
  3. Mary's righteousness is in faithful obedience to God. Jesus fulfilled the same righteousness, but He is not just the Righteous One, He is also the Redeemer.
  4. And in response to criticism that Mariological dogmas infringe on the principle of sola gratia, these dogmas do not deflect from the position of Christ. Rather, they consistently point out that Mary's place is due, not to her own merit, but to the gracious election and calling that look toward the Incarnation of her Son.
In summary, we can establish some reasonable arguments that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, far from diluting the centrality of Christ's redemptive work, actually serves to emphasize fundamental doctrines that are acceptable to all Christians.

To appreciate Mariology in proper perspective is to recognize that it is vitally related to our understanding of anthropology, Christology and soteriology. Scripture, Tradition and reason are compelling arguments for the entire Christian community to revisit our thinking on this controversy and to recognize the importance, for all Christians, of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. In opening, or reopening, our minds as the case may be, we may well be establishing new avenues of communication in the quest for a greater and more meaningful Christian unity.

By: Rev Charles Dickson
Dr. Dickson is a Lutheran pastor and has been one for 30 years
Published in the November/December '96 issue of The Catholic Answer
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