THE Meaning of the Doctrine. _ Benedict XIV. ("De Fest." clxxxvii. seq.), quoting Frassen, a Scotist theologian, distinguishes between active and passive conception. The former consists in the act of the parents which causes the body of the child to be formed and organized, and so prepared for the reception of the rational soul which is infused _ by God. The latter takes place at the moment when the rational soul is actually infused into the body by God. It is the passive, not the active, conception which Catholics have in view when they speak of the Immaculate Conception. For there was nothing miraculous in Mary's generation. She was begotten like other children. The body, while still inanimate, could not be sanctified or preserved from original sin, for it is the soul, not the body, which is capable of receiving either the gifts of grace or the stain of sin. Moreover, from the fact that Mary sprang in the common way from Adam our first father, it follows that she was the daughter of a fallen race and incurred the "debt" or liability to contract original sin. Adam was the representative of the human race: he was put on his trial, and when he fell all his descendants fell with him, and must, unless some special mercy of God interposed, receive souls destitute of that grace in which Adam himself was created. In Mary's case, however, God's mercy did interpose. For the sake of Him who was to be born of her and for His merits foreseen, grace was poured into her soul at the first instant of its being. Christian children are sanctified at the font: St. John the Baptist was sanctified while still unborn. Mary was sanctified earlier still _ viz. in the first moment of her conception. She received a gift like that of Eve, who was made from the first without sin, only the immaculate conception is rightly called a privilege, and a privilege altogether singular, because in the ordinary course of things the Blessed Virgin would have been conceived and born in original sin. We beg the reader to remember that what we have written up to this point is the universal teaching of theologians, and we have carefully abstained from entering on scholastic disputes (e.g. as to the remote and proximate debt of sin), because we believe that the mere statement of the doctrine is enough to remove many prejudices from the minds of candid Protestants. So far from derogating from, the Catholic doctrine exalts, the merits of Christ. He who redeemed us redeemed her. He who sanctified us in baptism sanctified her in her conception. Nor could any Catholic dream of comparing Mary's exemption from sin, we do not say with the sinlessness of the Divine nature, for such a comparison would be insane as well as blasphemous, but with the sinlessness of Christ as man: Sin was a physical impossibility in the human soul of Christ, because it was hypostatically united to the Divinity. Mary, on the other hand, was sinless by the grace of God. "Thou art innocent," says Bossuet, addressing Christ, "by nature, Mary only by grace; Thou by excellence, she only by privilege; Thou as Redeemer, she as the first of those whom Thy precious blood has purified" ("Sermon pour la fete de la Conception de la Sainte Vierge"). No better summary could be given of the Church's doctrine.

2. History of the Controversy on the Doctrine _ The controversy, so far as we know, began in the twelfth century. The church of Lyons had adopted the custom, which already prevailed elsewhere of celebrating the feast of Mary's conception. St. Bernard (d 1153) remonstrated sharply with them, in great measure because the feast had not been approved at Rome. The authenticity of this letter has been disputed, but on grounds, as Benedict XIV. implies, absolutely insufficient. Besides, little would be gained even if the letter were spurious, for Petavius ("De Incarnat." xiv. 2) has proved, from other passages in his works, Bernard's opinion to have been that the Blessed Virgin was not conceived immaculate, but was sanctified in the womb like Jeremias and St. John the Baptist. Benedict XIV., following Mabillon declines to accept the theory that St. Bernard had the active, not the passive, conception in his mind. At the same time it must be remembered that the saint refers the whole matter of his dispute with the canons of Lyons to the judgment of the Roman Church. The quotations in Petavius from St. Peter Damian, St. Anselm, Peter Lombard, and others, abundantly prove that St. Bernard's opinion was the prevalent one before and during his own age. In the following century St. Thomas (iii. 27, 2) held that Mary was only sanctified in the womb after her body was already informed by the soul (post ejus animationem), and he argues that if the Virgin "had not incurred the stain of original guilt," she would have stood in no need of being saved and redeemed by Christ, whereas Christ, as the Apostle declares, is the savior of all men.1 But the strongest evidence to the prevalence of the belief that the Virgin was not conceived without sin is supplied by Scotus ("In Lib. III. Sentent." d. iii. qu. I, n. 4). He gives his own opinion in favor of the immaculate conception with a timidity which clearly betrays his consciousness that the general opinion was on the other side. After maintaining that God might, had He so chosen, have exempted the Blessed Virgin from original sin, and might on the other hand have allowed her to remain under it for a time and then purified her, he adds that "God knows" which of these possible ways was actually taken; "but, if it is not contrary to the authority of the Church or of the saints, it seems commendable (probabile) to attribute that which is more excellent to Mary."

Scotus, however, farther on in the same work (d. 18, qu. I, n. 4), expresses a more decided view, and he inaugurated a new state of opinion, though the change did not come at once, and the story told by Cavellus, an author of the fourteenth century whom Benedict XIV. quotes, is probably a mere legend. According to this story, Scotus defended the doctrine of the immaculate conception at Cologne and Paris, and a disputation which he held in the latter place induced the Paris University to adopt the doctrine, and won for Scotus himself the title of the "Subtle Doctor." Scotus died in 1308, and events which happened in 1387 show how rapidly the Scotist opinion had spread and how deeply it had struck root at least in France. A Dominican doctor, John Montesono, had publicly denied the immaculate conception, whereupon he was condemned by the University and by the Bishop of Paris; and though he appealed to the Pope (or antiPope) Clement VII., he did not dare to appear, and was condemned for contumacy. The Fathers of the Council of Basle begged Cardinal Torquemada (Turrecremata) to prepare a treatise on the question, and so he did; but circumstances prevented him from laying it before the council, and his treatise, which was adverse to the doctrine, was practically unknown till it was published by the Master of the Sacred Palace with the consent of Paul III., then Pope. The decree of Basle, which defined that the doctrine asserting Mary's immunity from original sin was "to be approved, held, and embraced by all Catholics, as being pious and consonant to the worship of the Church, the Catholic faith, right reason, and Holy Scripture," was passed in 1439, when the council had become schismatical, so that it in no way bound the consciences of Catholics. It serves, however, to mark the general feeling of the time; and other signs of the hold the doctrine had obtained are not wanting. It was asserted at a provincial synod in Avignon in 1457. Forty years later the University of Paris required an oath to defend the doctrine from all who proceeded to the doctor's degree, and the tenet was embraced with ardor by the Carmelites, the different branches of the Franciscan order, and by men of the highest distinction among the secular clergy.

The matter gave rise to keen discussion at Trent, and although most of the bishops held the doctrine, the council contented itself with a declaration that in defining the truth that the whole human race fell under original sin it did not intend to include in the decree "the blessed and immaculate Virgin Mary," but desired that the Constitutions of Sixtus IV. should be observed. These Constitutions had been issued in 1476 and in 1483. In the former the Pope granted indulgences to those who said the Mass and office which he had approved for the feast of the Conception. In the latter he condemned those who accused persons who celebrated the feast of mortal sin, or those who maintained that the doctrine itself was heretical. Pius V., in 1570, forbade all discussion of the doctrine in sermons, permitting, however, the question to be handled in assemblies of the learned. Paul V., in 1617, prohibited attacks on the doctrine in public assemblies of any kind, while Gregory XV., in 1622, strictly forbade anyone to maintain, even in private discussions, that the Blessed Virgin was conceived in original sin. He made an exception, however, in favor of the Dominicans, to whom he granted leave to maintain their own opinion in discussions held within their own order, and he was careful to add that he in no way meant to decide the theological question, but, on the contrary, forbade anyone to accuse those who denied the immaculate conception of heresy or mortal sin. Benedict XIV., writing about the middle of the last century, sums up the whole state of the question in his day thus: "The Church inclines to the opinion of the immaculate conception; but the Apostolic See has not yet defined it as an article of faith."

So matters stood, when on February 1, 1849, Pius IX. wrote from Gaeta to the bishops of the Catholic world. He asked them for an account of their own opinion and of the feeling entertained in the churches subject to them on the expediency of defining the doctrine that the Blessed Virgin was immaculate in her conception. The Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese bishops, about 490 in number, were nearly unanimous in their wish for the definition. On the other hand, there were bishops of great eminence in France, Germany, and Switzerland who were of a different mind. Some of these last thought that the doctrine was not prominent enough in Scripture or tradition to be made an article of faith; others deprecated a definition which would put fresh difficulties in the way of Protestants or timid Catholics; others, again, were afraid to pronounce at all on so hard a matter. Nearly six years later the question was closed. On December 8, 1854, Pius IX., in the presence of more than 200 bishops, issued his solemn definition that the immaculate conception of Mary was a truthcontained in the original teaching of the Apostles and an article of divine faith. The definition was accepted by Gallicans as well as by Ultramontanes, for it was notorious that the entire episcopate gave full assent to the doctrines of the Papal bull. Indeed, the opposition made within the Church to the new definition was of the most insignificant kind.

3. The Doctrine in its Relations to Scripture and Tradition. _ A Catholic is bound to hold that the doctrine recently defined was contained in the faith once delivered to the saints by the Apostles. On the other hand, he is under no obligation of believing it possible to produce cogent historical proof (over and above the Church's decision) that the doctrine was so contained. It is enough to show that no decisive argument can be brought against the apostolic origin of the Church's present belief, and there are at least probable traces of its existence in the Church from the earliest times. Petavius _ justly, as we think _ dismisses many passages from the Fathers, which have been cited in support of the doctrine. He points out that if the Fathers speak of Mary as "stainless," "incorrupt," "immaculate" (achrantos, aphthartos, amiantos), it by no means follows that they believed her to have been conceived immaculate. Still tradition does supply solid arguments for the belief in question.

First, from the earliest times and in every part of the Church, Mary in her office at the Incarnation was compared and contrasted with Eve before the fall. We find the parallel between the two drawn by Justin Martyr ("Trypho," 100), by Irenaeus (iii. 22, 34, V. 19), by Tertullian ("De Carne Christi," 17), not to speak of later Fathers; indeed, the doctrine that Mary is in some sense the second Eve is a commonplace of primitive theology. This comparison enters into the very substance of the theology of St. Irenaeus. He urges the parallel between Mary and Eve, just, as he insists on the resemblance between Adam and Christ, the second Adam. As Eve was married and yet a virgin so Mary, "having an appointed husband, was yet a virgin." Eve listened to the words of an angel: so also Mary, Eve's disobedience was the cause of our death. Mary, being obedient, became both to herself and all mankind the cause of salvation." "The knot of Eve's disobedience was loosed by Mary's obedience." The Virgin Mary became "the advocate of the virgin Eve." It is true that whereas Eve of course was made immaculate, yet this is just the point where Irenaeus fails to draw the parallel between Eve and Mary. It must be remembered, however, that in Irenaeus, as in the AnteNicene Fathers generally, there is no explicit statement of the doctrine of original sin, so that we cannot expect an explicit statement that Mary was exempt from it. There is further a presumption that if Irenaeus could have had the question, "Was Mary conceived in sin?" proposed to him, he would have answered in the negative. His whole theory of the Incarnation turns on the proposition, "Man could not break the bonds of sin, because he was already bound fast by them." He in Adam had been already worsted by the devil. When, therefore, he tells us that Mary untied the knot of Eve's disobedience, we may infer that she never had been bound by it in her own person.

The tradition that Mary was the second Eve was familiar to great Fathers of the later Church. But one of these, St. Ephrem (A.D. 379), gives much more explicit evidence _ the most explicit evidence, so far as we know, to be found in patristic writings _ of belief in the immaculate conception. The famous Syriac scholar Bickell edited, with a Latin version of the Syriac, the "Carmina Nisibena " of the saint. There is no doubt as to the authenticity of these poems. In hymn 27, strophe 8, St. Ephrem speaks thus: "Truly it is Thou and thy Mother only, who are fair altogether. For in Thee there is no stain, and in thy Mother no spot. But my sons [i.e. the members of the Church of Edessa] are far from resembling this twofold fairness." Elsewhere Ephrem places first among fallen men infants who die in baptismal innocence, so that it must be freedom from original not actual sin which he ascribes to Mary. So (ii. 327 a.), "Two were made simple, innocent, perfectly like each other, Mary and Eve, but afterwards one became the cause of our death, the other of our life." It is most important to appreciate this testimony at its real value. It is not only or chiefly that it proves the existence of the belief which we are discussing in the fourth century. This no doubt it does, and it enables us summarily to dismiss the confident assumption of many Protestant scholars that the belief arose for the first time in the middle ages. But besides and above this, St. Ephrem supplies an authentic commentary on the meaning of the tradition that Mary was the second Eve. We may well believe, considering how early and in what various quarters it appears, that this tradition was Apostolic. And just at the time when the doctrine of original sin becomes prominent in Christian theology, St. Ephrem, assumes without doubt or question that this tradition implies Mary's entire exemption from the cause, and supplies us with reasonable grounds for believing that the doctrine of the immaculate conception is coeval with the foundation of the Christian Church.

A word or two must be said about St. Augustine. Undoubtedly his theory on the transmission of original sin by the act of generation drove him to believe that Mary, being conceived in the ordinary way, must have been conceived in sin. So Petavius understands him, and the Saint's own language seems to be clear and decisive on this point. Thus ("De Nuptiis et Concep." i. 12), he teaches that all flesh born "de concubitu" is "flesh of sin," and ("In Genesim ad lit." x. 118) he expressly affirms that on this ground Mary's flesh was, while Christ's was not, "caro peccati." Again, in "Contr. Julian." v. 15, his language is still more definite, for he says that original sin passes to the child from the "concupiscentia." of the parents, and that therefore original sin could not infect the flesh of Christ, since his Virgin Mother conceived Him without concupiscence. It may, we think, be affirmed without irreverence to so great a doctor, that this language about sin passing to the flesh involves confusion of thought, and probably very few nowadays would maintain that "concupiscentia," in itself natural and innocent, though caused as a matter of fact by the fall, can possibly be the cause of original sin. The fact that St. Augustine is driven to the position he takes with regard to Mary by the exigencies of a theological theory, probably mistaken, and certainly never approved by the Church, diminishes, if it does not altogether destroy, the force of his testimony. On the other hand, great weight belongs to the testimony which St. Augustine bears to the immaculate conception, because in giving it he speaks, not as a theologian, but as a Christian. He is impelled in this latter case by Catholic instinct and tradition, not by any theory of his own. His testimony is as follows. He is arguing ("De Natura et Gratia," cap, 36) against the Pelagian theory that some of the saints had been wholly exempt from actual sin. He denies the truth of the statement altogether. All have sinned, "excepting the holy Virgin Mary, concerning whom for the honor of the Lord I would have no question raised in creating of sin. For how do we know what excess of grace to conquer sin on every side was bestowed on her whose lot it was (quae meruit) to conceive and bring forth Him who certainly had no sin." We fully admit that it is actual, not original sin which St. Augustine is thinking of directly. But on his own principles he was bound to hold that exemption from actual implied freedom from original sin. Thus he asserts categorically ("Contr. Julian." v. 15) that if Christ had been conceived in sin, He must needs have committed actual sin ("peccatum major fecissit, si parvulus habuisset"). Let the reader observe that this theory, unlike that referred to above on the transmission of sin, is supported by the tradition and subsequent decision of the Church. It is of course conceivable that Mary might have been conceived in sin and then enabled by a special and extraordinary grace to avoid all actual trespass. In any case we may safely say that St. Augustine might easily have accepted the Church's present doctrine. It would have satisfied most fully this inclination to believe that Mary "for the honor of the Lord" was enabled to "overcome sin on every side." The freedom from actual would have followed suitably upon her preservation from original sin, and the progress of her life would have been consonant with its beginning.

Finally, the rapid acceptance of the doctrine within the Church, when once it came under discussion, might of itself dispose individual Christians to believe it and prepare the way for definition. The one positive objection was that if Mary was conceived immaculate, Christ could not have been her savior and redeemer. When once the truth was apprehended that Mary's exemption from original sin was due to the merits of her Divine Son, and magnified instead of detracting from them, the belief in this grew and spread throughout the Catholic world. We cannot expect Protestants to appreciate this argument. But to a Catholic, who believes that the Holy Spirit directs the minds of the faithful, and specially those of the saints, the very fact of the doctrine's acceptance affords a strong presumption of its truth. He would naturally be loth to believe that God allowed the Christian people to cling so zealously to a doctrine which had no solid foundation, and which, if untrue, would be an error of a very serious kind. He would recognize in the belief of so many saints a judgment superior to his own, and a greater quickness to discover the "analogy of the faith." The solemn definition of the Church would but enable him to hold with greater security what he already held as a certain and pious opinion.

(The evidence for and against the doctrine is given by Petavius, "De Incarnat." xiv. 2. Perrone published his treatise "De Immaculato B.V.M. Conceptu: an dogmatico decreto definiri possit," at Rome in 1853. Still better known is the work of Passaglia, also at that time a Jesuit, "De Immaculato B.V. Conceptu," Romae, 1854. A collection of ancient documents relating to the doctrine was made by a third Jesuit, Ballerini.)

1 Cardinal Lambruschini, in a polemical dissertation on the Immaculate Conception (Roma 842), declared that here, as in other places, the MSS. of St., Thomas had been corrupted, But this position does not admit of serious defense.

Return to Contents

Return to Homepage.