Catholic Culture News
Catholic Culture News

Historical Development of the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception

by Rev. Francis J. Connell, C.SS.R.


This 1946 article by Francis J. Connell provides a deeper understanding of the doctrine of the Blessed Virgin's sinless conception by examining the three stages of historical development of the dogma.

Larger Work

The American Ecclesiastical Review


340 – 346

Publisher & Date

The Catholic University of America Press, Washington, D.C., May 1946

On May 10, 1846, the Sixth Provincial Council of Baltimore decreed that Mary Immaculate should be venerated as Patroness of the United States, and in February, 1847, this decree was approved by the Holy See. In connection with the centenary of this event, a brief account of the historical development of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception will be helpful to our clerical readers. It would furnish an appropriate topic for discussion at study club gatherings and in high school classes of religion, since it serves not only to throw light on the particular doctrine of Our Lady's sinless conception but also to illustrate that type of doctrinal development which is acknowledged by the Catholic Church — development which implies no addition to the deposit of divine Revelation but only a deeper understanding on the part of the Church of the truths revealed by God for all mankind.

Theologians are wont to distinguish three stages in the normal development of a dogma which was not contained explicitly in the sources of Revelation. First, there is the period of implicit but uncontroverted acceptance, when the doctrine in question is believed by the faithful only in the sense that they hold a more general doctrine in which it is logically contained, or in the sense that they are accustomed to perform some liturgical or devotional act which presupposes this particular doctrine. The second is the period of discussion and controversy, in which scholars inquire into the validity of the arguments for and against the admission of the doctrine as a truth of Revelation, and study its precise sense and its relation to other doctrines of Christian faith. Naturally, in this stage there are divergences of opinion among theologians. In the third stage the doctrine is accepted by the universal Church and taught unanimously by the authoritative magisterium, or even made the subject of a solemn definition.1 There is perhaps no truth of Catholic faith that exemplifies this threefold stage more definitely than the dogma of Mary's Immaculate Conception.

It is by no means certain that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is contained, even implicitly, in Sacred Scripture. It is true, the great majority of Catholic exegetes and theologians agree that the words of the Almighty to the serpent after the fall of our first parents — "I will put enmities between thee and woman, and thy seed and her seed"2 — in their literal sense refer to Mary, attributing to her an unqualified state of hostility to the spirit of evil, which necessarily implies her freedom from all sin, original as well as actual. Yet, there have been Catholic scholars who interpreted the "woman" as Eve.3 Such an interpretation is not in harmony with the more common traditional exegesis of the text, unmistakably approved by Pope Pius IX, when he asserted that the Fathers and ecclesiastical writers taught that in this text "was clearly and evidently pointed out the merciful Redeemer of the human race, the only begotten Son of God, Jesus Christ, and was designated His most blessed Virgin Mother Mary, and at the same time was expressed in a noteworthy fashion the enmity of both toward the devil."4 However, it was not the intention of the Sovereign Pontiff to give an authentic interpretation of the text, so that those who refuse to admit in the "protoevangelium" any direct and literal reference to Mary cannot be branded with any censure from the standpoint of the Church's teachings. It should be remembered, too, that some of these scholars believe that this prophecy refers to Our Lady in the typical or spiritual sense, by the intention of the Holy Spirit.5

A similar judgment could be passed on the value of the angel's greeting: "Hail, full of grace"6 as an argument for the Immaculate Conception. Pope Pius IX incorporated it into the Bull proclaiming the doctrine, but laid the primary emphasis on the interpretation given to this text by the Fathers and ecclesiastical writers.7

It is therefore in divine tradition, the unwritten word of God, that we must seek the basic and unquestionable source of the dogma that the Mother of God was preserved from original sin in the first moment of her existence. In the words of Pope Pius IX: "The illustrious monuments of tradition, of both the Eastern and Western Church, most convincingly testify that this doctrine of the immaculate conception of the most Blessed Virgin . . . always existed in the Church, as received from those who lived before and as marked with the character of a revealed doctrine."8

In the first three centuries of Christianity nothing approaching an explicit mention to Mary's immunity from original sin can be found in ecclesiastical writings. However, a significant parallelism was employed by several of the early writers — the Eve-Mary comparison. As an extension of the Pauline contrast between Adam and Christ,9 they developed an antithesis between the woman who shared in the fall of our first parent and the woman who shared in the reparation of that fall. St. Justin (100-167) was the first to develop this comparison: "While still a virgin and without corruption, Eve received into her heart the word of the serpent and conceived thereby disobedience and death; but Mary the Virgin, her soul full of faith and joy, replied to the angel Gabriel who brought her the happy message: 'Be it done to me according to thy word.' To her was born He of whom so many things are said in the Scriptures . . ."10 Other writers who make use of the same comparison are St. Irenaeus (130-202) and Tertullian (160-240).11

The pertinent element of the comparison, as far as the Immaculate Conception is concerned, is the statement that Eve was free from corruption when she was addressed by the serpent; and by freedom from corruption is meant something more than virginity. By implication it would seem to follow that Mary too was free from all corruption when she was greeted by the angel, and if this be understood in an unqualified sense, it includes freedom from original sin. Evidently the argument is not conclusive, but it justifies the assertion that vestiges of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception can be found in the writings of the first three centuries.

Beginning with the fourth century, more numerous and more definite testimonies are discovered. The writers emphasize the holiness of Mary, a holiness commensurate with her great dignity as Mother of God. Thus, St. Augustine (354-430), writing against Pelagius who had adduced a number of persons presumably sinless (in support of his contention that human nature was not corrupted by original sin) pointed out that these persons were actually not without fault, but he added the qualification "except the holy Virgin Mary, of whom, for the honor of the Lord, I wish to raise no question when discussing sin."12 Apparently, the holy Doctor was referring to actual, rather than original, sin; yet the basis of his argument for Mary's holiness, the divine maternity, would logically lead to the conclusion that she was free from original sin also.

However, it was chiefly because of St. Augustine's insistence on the universality of original sin that the testimony of the Western writers, accepted literally, would, as a general rule, exclude Mary from the privilege of a sinless conception. They insisted that only Jesus Christ was free from original sin, because He alone was conceived without the stain of carnal concupiscence.13 This tendency to link the "deordination" of active conception with the transmission of original sin greatly influenced post-Augustinian Western writers and prevented them from drawing the completely logical conclusion of their general doctrine that Mary received from the Most High a degree of sanctity in accordance with her dignity. Yet, occasionally one finds a statement by one of the Western writers which closely approaches a recognition of Mary's Immaculate Conception. Thus, St. Maximus of Turin (380-465) stated: "Mary was a worthy dwelling for Christ, not because of the qualities of her body, but because of her original grace."14

Among the writers of the Eastern church, who were not so intimately affected by the Pelagian controversy on original sin, a less restrained attitude toward Mary's perfect sinlessness can be perceived. An example of this is the fervent apostrophe of St. Ephrem (306-373) to the Mother of God: "Full of grace . . . all pure, all immaculate, wholly without sin, wholly without stain, wholly without reproach . . . virgin in soul, in body, in spirit."15 St. Andrew of Crete (650-740) even uses the expression "holy conception" in reference to Our Lady.16 St. John Damascene (676-749) exclaimed: "O admirable womb of Anne, in which developed and formed little by little an infant all-holy."17 Such passages as these have led Fr. M. Jugie, A.A., the outstanding authority in Oriental theology, to declare that the Byzantine writers explicitly acknowledged Mary's Immaculate Conception.18 And, although not all would admit this claim, it is very evident that the writers of the East were nearer to the truth than those of the West in the patristic period. A feast in honor of the conception of St. Anne was in existence in the East as early as the eighth century; and although the primary purpose of this feast seems to have been to commemorate a legendary announcement to St. Anne that she was to bear a daughter, the idea that the very conception of this child was in some way holy seems also to have been intended.

The second period in the development of this doctrine, the period of discussion and of controversy, began in the twelfth century. In the year 1138 St. Bernard (1091-1153) wrote a letter to the canons of Lyons, protesting against the celebration of a feast they had begun to observe in honor of Mary's conception.19 Only the Word Incarnate was free from original sin, he asserts, though Mary was sanctified before birth. Attempts have been made to explain the words of St. Bernard as not actually denying the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception as it is proclaimed today; but such interpretations must necessarily do a certain amount of violence to the literal meaning of his words.

Similarly, if the words of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) be taken at their face value, he was an opponent of the doctrine of Mary's sinless conception, although there have been capable scholars who believed that the Angelic Doctor in reality held the doctrine. At any rate, if St. Thomas denied this privilege to Our Lady, it was not through any failure on his part to recognize the dignity and the holiness of the Mother of God; it was simply because he deemed it derogatory to the universal mediatorship of Christ that any mere creature should not be redeemed by Him from the stain of original sin, actually contracted.20

In any event, the opinion denying to Mary the prerogative of a sinless conception was more common among the scholastics of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Even the great Franciscan writers of that period, Alexander of Hales (1185?-1245) and St. Bonaventure (1221-74), held to this more common doctrine.21 But toward the end of the thirteenth century the theological attitude toward the question became more favorable to the doctrine of Mary's sinless conception. Credit for the inauguration of this movement is usually ascribed to Scotus (1266-1308), and the Doctor subtilis undoubtedly was the most influential leader of this trend; but it should be noted that before him the Franciscan, William of Ware (+ c. 1300), and Blessed Raymond Lull (12321315), a Franciscan tertiary, also defended the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception,22 and it would seem that Scotus was influenced, at least by the former, in the stand he took in defence of Our Lady's complete immunity from sin.23

In a comparatively short time, the balance of theological thought came to favor the doctrine. Pope Sixtus IV, on Feb. 28, 1476 and again on Sept. 4, 1483, in pontifical pronouncements gave approval to the belief in Mary's Immaculate Conception, to the extent of referring to her conception as "wonderful," and of vigorously condemning those who claimed that this belief was heresy.24 The Fathers of the Council of Trent in 1546 stated that in their declaration on original sin they did not intend to comprehend Our Lady.25 Pope Pius V in 1567 condemned the proposition of Baius which asserted that no one save Christ was free from original sin.26 Pope Paul V in 1617 and Gregory XV in 1622 (at the instance of the Spanish kings, Philip III and Philip IV) forbade the denial of the Immaculate Conception in public sermons and writings,27 and Pope Alexander VII in 1661 relegated to the Index writings which would call into doubt this pious belief or the feast or the cult, and also stated explicitly that the object of the feast is to celebrate the sanctification of Mary's soul in the first instant of its creation and infusion into the body. At the same time the Pope forbade anyone to condemn those holding the opposite opinion as guilty of heresy or mortal sin.28

We can regard the third period of the development of the doctrine as beginning with the constitution of Alexander VII, for although the Immaculate Conception was not yet a matter of faith, it was well-nigh the unanimous belief and preaching of the Church. And so, the ground was well prepared for the culminating act, the solemn definition of the dogma proclaimed by Pope Pius IX.29 It should be noted that, in order to avoid even the least shadow of imprudence, the Pope had written five years previously to all the bishops of the Catholic world, asking their views on the definability of the doctrine. According to a printed report of 1854, of 603 bishops who replied, only 56 or 57 were opposed to the definition, and the opposition of about a half of these was based on grounds of expediency rather than on doctrinal reasons. Only four or five frankly declared themselves definitely opposed to the definability of the doctrine, among whom was Msgr. Sibour, Archbishop of Paris.30 And so, as the most glorious deed of his long pontificate, Pius IX, on Dec. 8, 1854, solemnly pronounced it an article of divine-Catholic faith that the most blessed Virgin Mary in the first instant of her conception was preserved immune from all stain of original sin, by virtue of the merits of our Saviour, Jesus Christ. Four years later the seal of heaven's approval of this declaration came in the form of the apparitions of Lourdes, when Mary identified herself to a little peasant girl, Bernadette Soubirous, under the name of this glorious prerogative: "I am the Immaculate Conception."

End Notes

  1. Cf. Van Noort, G., Tractatus de fontibus revelationis (Bussum, Holland, 1920), n. 230.
  2. Gen. 3:15.
  3. Cf. Le Bachelet, X., "Immaculee conception," DTC, VII, 851.
  4. Analecta juris pontificii, I (Rome, 1855), 1214.
  5. Cf. Le Bachelet, DTC, VII, 852.
  6. Luke 1:28.
  7. Analecta juris pontificii, I, 1215.
  8. Ibid., 1214.
  9. Cf., for example, Rom. 5:19.
  10. Dial. cum Tryphone, 100 (MPG, VI, 710).
  11. St. Irenaeus, Contra haereses, V. 2, 1 (MPG, VII, 1179); Tertullian, De carne Christi, 17 (MPL, II, 782).
  12. De natura et gratia, c. 36 (MPL, XLIV, 267).
  13. Cf., for example, St. Leo, Sermo XXV in nativitate Domini, V, 5 (MPL, LIV, 211).
  14. Homilia V (MPL, LVII, 235): "Idoneum plane Maria Christo habitaculum, non pro habitu corporis, sed pro gratia originali."
  15. Oratio ad Deiparam, Opera graece et latine, III, 528, 529.
  16. Canon pro festo Conceptionis S. Annae (MPG, XCVII, 1309).
  17. Hom. in nativ. Deiparae (MPG, XCVI, 672).
  18. DTC, VII, 935.
  19. Ad canonicos lugdunenses Ep. 174 (MPL, CLXXXII, 332).
  20. Sum. theol., III, q. 27, a. 2, ad 2.
  21. Alexander of Hales, Summa theologiae, III, q. 9, m. 2; St. Bonaventure, In IV sent., L.III, dist. 3, p. 1, a. 1, q. 2.
  22. Cf. Le Bachelet, DTC, VII, 1060 ff.
  23. In IV sent., L. III, dist. 3, q. 1.
  24. Cf. DB, 734, 735.
  25. Cf. Ibid., 792.
  26. Cf. Ibid., 1073.
  27. Cf. Le Bachelet, DTC, VII, 1172.
  28. Cf. Ibid., 1175; DB, 1100.
  29. Cf. DB, 1641.
  30. Cf. Le Bachelet, DTC, 1198.

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