The Dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary
A Dogma is “a truth appertaining to faith or morals, revealed by God, transmitted from the Apostles in the Scriptures or by tradition, and proposed by the Church for the acceptance of the faithful.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains dogma in this way,
“The Church’s Magisterium exercises the authority it holds from Christ to the fullest extent when it defines dogmas, that is, when it proposes, in a form obliging the Christian people to an irrevocable adherence of faith, truths contained in divine Revelation or also when it proposes, in a definitive way, truths having a necessary connection with these” (CCC 88).
Dogmas are truths of the Catholic faith that are objectively true, finding their ultimate source in God’s revelation. They are doctrines of the Catholic faith that the faithful are exhorted to believe and assent to, such as the dogma that Christ is the head of the Church or that God is a unity of three persons. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is a book that contains all of the dogmas of the Catholic Church.
These truths form the foundation of the Catholic faith and
“are lights along the path of faith; they illuminate it and make it secure. Conversely, if our life is upright, our intellect and heart will be open to welcome the light shed by the dogmas of faith” (CCC 88).
On December 8, 1854, Pope Pius IX defined the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception in the document Ineffabilis Deus:
“… the Blessed Virgin Mary, at the first instant of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace of the Omnipotent God, in virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of mankind, was preserved immaculate from all stain of original sin …”
Belief in this doctrine had evolved gradually in Catholicism. St. Augustine (d. 430) was one of the first to stress the concept of original sin, defined by the Catechism of the Catholic Church like this: “Adam and Eve transmitted to their descendants human nature wounded by their own first sin and hence deprived of original holiness and justice; this deprivation is called ‘original sin.’ … By Baptism all sins are forgiven, original sin and all personal sins …” As faith in Mary’s power and goodness increased in the middle ages, it became increasingly difficult to imagine that God would have sent his Son into the womb of a woman deprived of holiness. Since before Christ there was no Christian baptism to remove the stain of original sin, the belief evolved that God, having chosen Mary for her role before she was even conceived, exempted her from that deprivation from the beginning, a unique blessing among all humanity.
HISTORY OF THE FEAST
It seems that in Palestine a liturgical commemoration of the conception of the Madonna was observed, but the expression “Conception of Mary” did not refer to that celebration: it was adopted to signify the conception of Our Lord with the power of the Holy Spirit, and the conception of the Madonna itself was called “conception of St. Anne”. The feast has preserved this name in the East, and the Eastern Catholics officially calls it “Conception of St. Anne, mother of the Mother of God”.
The idea that Mary was the “new Eve”, free from sin, is present in the works of some Fathers of the church, in particular of St. Justin Martyr, St. Irenaeus and St. John Damascene. It seems that the feast was brought into Italy from Constantinople in the ninth century, under the title of “conception of St. Anne”.
The first clear evidence of the existence of a feast of the conception of our Lady, under this name in the West, comes from England, namely from Winchester, Canterbury and Exeter just before the Norman conquest, and celebrate on the date December 8th. Since December 9 was the day assigned to this feast in Jerusalem, Constantinople and Naples, it is likely that the feast came from the East. In England, as well as in the East, this festival was begun in monasteries: the first two testimonies are found among the documents of the Abbey of New Minster in Winchester of which raised some protests for this innovation.
Edmaro of Canterbury wrote an important treatise on the conception of our Lady when St. Anselm was archbishop of Canterbury. The archbishop’s nephew, also called Anselm, introduced the celebration of the conception in his abbey in Bury St. Edmunds, soon also observed by that of St. Alan, Reading, Gloucester and other monastic abbeys. The prior Osberto di Clare, who was in favor of the feast, was accused by some monks of Westminster of not respecting the law, but the commemoration was eventually approved at a synod in London in 1129. At the same time, this celebration began to expand into Normandy, but it is not clear whether it came from the Norman kingdom of Sicily or from England. The adoption of the feast in the cathedral church of Lyons, around 1140, caused the protests of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, initiating a dispute lasting three hundred years between theologians; also St. Thomas Aquinas and the Dominicans did not agree with this feast, but the whole Order of Friars Minor adopted it in 1263. The question in particular was related to what moment did the the sanctification of Mary occur. But in spite of the controversy the feast of the conception of the Madonna continued to be celebrated more and more.
In 1476 Pope Sixtus IV approved the feast with its own liturgy: Mass and Office, although it was still a celebration of the “conception of the Immaculate Virgin Mary” rather than the Immaculate Conception as it is now understood. Alonso de Villegas, cardinal of Segovia, pronounced himself in defense of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception in 1623, stating that there were good reasons why it had not been revealed to the primitive Church:
[…] to say that the mother of God was conceived without sin was a secret hidden for many years, and there was a valid reason. The reason may be that the people were so devoted to it, that if the secret had been made public and revealed earlier when the facts were not yet clear, and when those who wandered could not be educated and informed […] it would happen that the Blessed Virgin would have been worshiped in God’s place. To avoid this inconvenience, and it seems a good reason and it was necessary to keep this secret hidden for the moment. At the present time, the Church has revealed it to inform us that the glorious Virgin was conceived without sin.
At the Council of Trent (1545-1563) it explicitly declared that a decree on original sin could not be applied in the case of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In 1661 Pope Alexander VII declared that the feast celebrated the immunity of Our Lady from original sin in the first instant of the creation of Her soul and of its infusion into the body. In 1708 Pope Clement XI imposed the obligatory observance of the feast throughout the Western Church; at that time, it was observed not only by the Franciscans but also by Carmelites, Jesuits and different Dominicans. The acceptance of a dogma can therefore be considered as the culmination of a long development of the doctrine.
After the solemn definition of 1854, the name of the feast was changed to the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and nine years later a proper Mass and Office were prescribed; from that moment the feast had increasingly made popular the particular aspect of this Marian devotion. Out of eighteen dioceses of England and Wales, ten accepted that Our Lady was conceived as immune from sin, choosing Her as their principal patroness; She was also declared patron of the United States of America by the Baltimore Council, eight years before that definition. Hundreds of churches carry this title. The object of devotion of the Church is the Blessed Virgin rather than, as the medieval scholars intended, the precise date of Her sanctification.
The date of the feast was set nine months before the Nativity of the Madonna, as observed on September 8th, but the criterion of this choice is not known. The Anglican Church preserves the Feast of the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary on December 8th according to the Book of Common Prayer, but it is omitted in the calendar provided for the Alternative Service Book. Eastern Catholics still observe the feast on December 9th, while the Eastern Orthodox Churches have no formal and common teaching regarding this doctrine: some Orthidox theologians have rejected it, others have accepted it. It seems that the original Russian sect of the Ancient Believers officially professed it.
(Author and Source: Alban Butler)
PRAYER TO THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION
O most holy Virgin who found favor in God’s sight that you became His Mother;
O Virgin, immaculate in body and soul, in your faith and in your love, look down with pity on us miserable sinners, who in our need seek your powerful protection.
The evil serpent on whom was cast the ancient curse continues, alas, to attack and ensnare the poor children of Eve. But you, our Blessed Mother, our Queen and our Advocate, you who from the first instant of your conception had crushed the head of this cruel enemy, receive our prayers. United to you with one heart, we implore you to present them before the throne of God.
May we never be caught in the snares around us of the evil one, but rather may we all reach the harbor of salvation. Despite the awesome perils which threaten, may God’s Church and all Christian society sing out once again the hymn of deliverance, of victory and of peace. Amen.
(by St. Pius X)
VIDEO ON THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION