By Clara Gerdes, Yale University
On December 8, 1854, Pope Pius IX pronounced Mary’s Immaculate Conception to be dogma. That Mary’s soul was freed from original sin by Christ in advance of her conception—something which Catholics already held to be true—was now a firm and indisputable article of faith for the universal Church, enshrined in the bull Ineffabilis Deus. I’ve always wondered why the Magisterium seems to have “waited around” until so recently in its 2000-year history to make this pronouncement: if it was so important, why couldn’t they have gotten to it sooner?
Understanding what a “dogma” really is helps clarify this. Dogmas, says Catholic Answers, serve to “emphasize some already-existing belief to the faithful” or “clear up a controversy” about some particular topic. They aren’t propaganda—they don’t impose a belief on anyone, but imply that it is widespread already, serving only as a strong affirmation or assurance. Scripture and the Patristic writings affirm Mary’s special role time and time again, showing us—contrary to Protestant opinion—what an important and cherished belief this has always been to Christians. The Church Fathers’ highly different writing styles, as well as the context and priorities of their works, can create a bit of a quagmire, making it difficult to draw a conclusion. For the sake of curiosity, in this article I’ll briefly dive into the Scriptures and a few of the key Patristic writings in an attempt to come to a more informed conclusion about this important belief.
Many places in Scripture allude to Mary’s special role in salvation history. Our Lady receives the title of “Blessed” in Luke 1:41-42, an unusual honor rarely given to other persons in Scripture; she prompts Jesus’ first miracle in John 2:5 and occupies a unique mediator-like role between the Savior and the disciples in telling them to “do whatever He [Jesus] tells you”; Jesus establishes her spiritual motherhood of the Apostle John in John 19:26-27. Of course, one can interpret all of these instances in a host of different ways, and members of other religions often try to undermine the Catholic point with other citations, particularly Matthew 12:46, when Jesus says that “he who hears my word is my mother and brother and sisters.” This verse neither demeans or diminishes Mary’s status at all; it just reinforces our role as adopted children of God, a role which also—when you think about it—applies to Mary. Of all New Testament references to Our Lady, I found Luke 1:28 to be the most compelling in the way it implies that Mary was immaculate from the beginning. We may be used to saying “full of grace,” but its Greek equivalent, kecharitomene, is much more rich and descriptive in meaning. It is a type of perfect passive participle that indicates “action done in the past whose effects are felt in the present.” This unique word, which appears nowhere else in the New Testament is even more meaningful given that it serves as a name, not just a description, for Mary. (Incidentally, St. Stephen is also described as being “full of grace” Acts 6:8, but the original Greek is a completely different word. We see throughout the Bible that God bestows names on His people at crucial moments in salvation history, and these names are always rich in meaning: Abram becomes Abraham; Isaac and John the Baptist are named by angelic command, to list a few. Other examples abound. For instance, Genesis 3:15 is a little unclear but seems to bookend nicely with Revelation 12:25.
The writings of dozens of the early Church Fathers also show an ever-increasing interest in Mary’s immaculate status. This is especially impressive given that their physical disparity (spread all across the empire), the constant presence of heresy and Gnosticism, and Christianity’s generally new, doctrinally nebulous state at that time (we take for granted that we have the Nicene Creed and the entire Bible at our fingertips whenever we want it!). At least a half dozen writers in the second and third centuries including Justin Martyr (100-165), Tertullian (155-220), and Irenaeus (125-202) compare and contrast Eve and Mary in their writings, the opposition between sin’s gateway and salvation’s gateway. By a century later, we start to see an emphasis on Mary’s purity and sinlessness: St. Athanasius (293-376) refers to Our Lady as “pure and unstained” in his treatise “On the incarnation of the word.” Origen of Alexandria (184-256) refers to Mary as “Immaculate of the immaculate…perfect sanctity.” Ephraim of Edessa and his fellow Syrian fathers refer to Mary as being “without guilt.” Ambrose says that Mary is “immune through grace.” St Clement of Alexandria says in Stromata, book 7, that Mary was “free from the puerperal state [ramifications/pains of childbirth].” And finally, St. Augustine proclaims in his famous discourse against the Pelagians that “[all men have known sin] except the Holy Virgin Mary…].” It is remarkable how unified the Fathers’ writings are on this topic, given the political turmoil and theological uncertainty of the times; for context, the Trinity was only formally defined in 325 (Council of Nicaea) and the Arian controversy fully resolved in 381 (First Council of Constantinople). The Church only continues to affirm Mary’s status after this point, defining her as Theotokos, the Mother of God, at Ephesus in 431 and further writings by St. Gregory Nazianzen, St. Bernard and others. We have to take a moment to look at the skeptics, though. St. Augustine refers to Mary’s “sin” in his work “on the grace of Christ and on original sin,” but we can remember that he is a fallible human being when writing this, especially since he appears to self-contradict. A number of other writers, including Clement, refer to “all men sinning,” with Jesus the only exception, but the form of “all” that they use may be “distributive” or inexact rather than categorical or inclusive.
A discussion of Mariology in the middle ages is beyond the scope of this article, but one only has to look at any Medieval sacred art to see instantly how beloved the Virgin was during that era, and indeed ever since then! One only has to look at examples of Medieval sacred artwork to see how strong belief in the Immaculate Conception remained throughout the end of the first millennium and into the second. During the middle ages, there was some controversy among the educated elite (small) portion of Christians, sparked by the brilliant but incomplete logic of St. Thomas, but this was an age of much confusion that requires further and careful study!
Finally, let’s take a look at the circumstances surrounding the 1854 declaration. Tumultuous national politics and a rapidly modernizing, often hostile and anticlerical society were only a sliver of the issues which challenged Pope Pius IX during his pontificate. Through Ineffabilis Deus, Pius publicly and officially clarified an important truth, but on a deeper level, this document also illustrates Pius’ deep love for Mary and his sense of connection to the body of magisterial teaching that had come before him. As 21st century Catholics, we have the privilege of continuing this tradition by loving, honoring and defending the immaculate conception of the Mother of God.
Works Cited/Further Reading
Holy Bible (RSV)
Catholic Answers Forums
Clement of Alexandria: Stromata, v. 7
Evangelical Catholic Apologetics: The Meaning of Kecharitomene
New Advent: Immaculate Conception, Clement of Alexandria, Augustine
Reasons to Believe, Scott Hahn
The Marian Writings of Augustine, Tom Perna
Edited By: Ariel Hobbs