Today, December 8th, the Church would observe the feast of the Immaculate Conception. This year the feast is transferred to Monday the 9th, giving precedence to the Second Sunday of Advent. In my experience, the Immaculate Conception is one of the most misunderstood teachings of the Church. Today, I’d like to address three common misconceptions on the Immaculate Conception.
The Immaculate Conception was Jesus’ conception in the womb of Mary
This is, in my opinion, the greatest misconception regarding the Immaculate Conception. I think back to my December 8th World History class in high school, when the teacher, a Catholic with a master’s degree in theology from a Catholic college, announced to our class the Church was celebrating the feast of the Immaculate Conception explaining that it was the celebration of Jesus’ conception in the womb of Mary. He went on to say that he never understood this feast day because in less than 20 days, Jesus would be born on Christmas Day. He concluded this is what the Church meant by the virgin birth.
I hope the reader of this article does not espouse these beliefs. I can, however, understand why some people would think the feast celebrates the conception of Jesus for two reasons:
a) The Church celebrates the feast of the Immaculate Conception during the season of Advent, a season of waiting and expectation for the birth of the Christ child.
b) The gospel for the feast of the Immaculate Conception is Luke 1:26-38–the Annunciation of Jesus’ birth.
Proper Catechesis: The feast of the Annunciation, celebrated on March 25, is the commemoration of Jesus’ conception. If one counts the months from March 25 to December 25, one will discover the normal amount of time for gestation—nine months. Rest assured the miraculous nature of Jesus birth does not involve only 17 days in the womb! The Immaculate Conception refers to the conception of Mary in the womb of St. Anne and her preservation from the taint of original sin. The dogma declares that Mary was free of original sin because she received pre-redemption from the merits of the cross on which her son would die upon.
The Church Made Up the Immaculate Conception
While the Immaculate Conception only was proclaimed a dogma in 1854, the Church did not wake up one morning and think it was a good idea to tell people the Spirit moved them to declare Mary was immaculately conceived. The Apostolic Constitution which proclaimed the dogma, Ineffabilis Deus, provides an extensive overview of the tradition. Belief in the Immaculate Conception dates back to the early Church and was the subject of reflection on the part of some of the Patristics. It saw a heightened development from the twelfth century onward.
St. Anselm laid the groundwork for the dogma and influenced the English Eadmer, who wrote in defense of the Immaculate Conception and proposed the notion of passive conception. It was Duns Scotus who refined the arguments for the Immaculate Conception, earning him the title Defender of the Immaculate Conception. Many of the Roman Pontiffs (e.g. Alexander VII) and the Council of Trent proposed the immaculate conception of Mary.
Given the longstanding tradition and belief of the Church, Pius IX declared the Immaculate Conception as a dogma of the Church, thus binding in Heaven what was bound on earth. And as many know, it was only four years later that Our Lady confirmed this title herself in her manifestations to St. Bernadette Soubirous in Lourdes, France.
Some Doctors of the Church denied the Immaculate Conception
St. Bernard of Clairvaux is one of my favorite saints. He wrote extensively on the Blessed Virgin Mary, so much so that the antiphon for vespers on his feast day salutes him as an eminent preacher of the Virgin’s glory. One aspect of his Mariology that some may be aware of is his “denial” of the Immaculate Conception in a letter to the canons in Lyons who introduced the feast of Mary’s conception.
Augustine, who viewed sex as sinful, highly influenced Bernard. This raised the question whether or not the Holy Spirit could be associated with a sinful act. Bernard did hold that Mary was sanctified in the womb and that she never committed a sin during her life.
Another prominent doctor, cited as a denier of the Immaculate Conception, is Thomas Aquinas. You can read Aquinas’ Summa question here. Similar to Bernard, Aquinas held that Mary was conceived with original sin, but she was sanctified in the womb of St. Anne before her birth. One hold-up in accepting the Immaculate Conception was if this was the case Mary would not have needed a redeemer.
Since I describe myself more as a resourcement theologian rather than a Thomist, I refer the reader to other articles discussing Thomas Aquinas’ belief: New Theological Movement; Patheos.
For Bernard and Aquinas, Mary was sanctified in the womb which is different from denying the overall sinlessness of Mary. It is important to keep in mind these Fathers of the Church, along with the other “deniers” of the Immaculate Conception, were not subject to the Church’s 1854 teaching as it was only a theological opinion. With Pius IX’s dogmatic declaration, all Catholics are now obliged to hold this belief:
Hence, if anyone shall dare — which God forbid! — to think otherwise than as has been defined by us, let him know and understand that he is condemned by his own judgment; that he has suffered shipwreck in the faith; that he has separated from the unity of the Church; and that, furthermore, by his own action he incurs the penalties established by law if he should are to express in words or writing or by any other outward means the errors he think in his heart.
The Immaculate Conception has been held as a pious belief for centuries before the dogmatic declaration. Religious congregations like the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception founded in the 1600’s. This day as we contemplate the conception of the Virgin Mary may her sinlessness inspire us on our sojourn to the heavenly Jerusalem. Through her prayers, now and at the hour of our death, may we become worthy of the promises of Christ.
Hilda Graef, Mary: A History of Doctrine and Devotion
Juniper Carol. Fundamentals of Mariology. New York: Benzinger Brothers, 1956.