The Immaculate Conception of the B.V.M.

Murillo immaculate conception
The Immaculate Conception by Murillo

Let’s start with what the Immaculate Conception is, rather than what it is not. In the Constitution Ineffabilis Deus of 8 December, 1854, Pius IX defined that the Blessed Virgin Mary ‘in the first instance of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace granted by God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race, was preserved exempt from all stain (labes) of original sin.’ In other words, unlike the rest of us, and entirely because of the merits of Jesus Christ (i.e. not her own), she was endowed with sanctifying grace from the first moment of conception. (Sanctifying grace is conferred on us after birth, through the Sacrament of Baptism.) In the narrowest sense, the doctrine refers to original sin only and makes no claim to Mary’s having remained sinless. Of course, Catholics do believe that she was personally sinless, and the Council of Trent placed under anathema anyone who teaches otherwise.

Although belief in the Immaculate Conception can be found early and was probably being celebrated liturgically in Syria by the fifth century, later generations have tended to confuse the doctrine with the virginal conception of Christ and even gone so far as to assume that Catholics believe Mary had no need of redemption. As Ineffabilis Deus makes clear, Mary was redeemed as all are, by our Saviour Jesus Christ, yet in her case the manner of doing so was exceptional.

In the Middle Ages the doctrine was much discussed. Theologians of the stature of St Bernard and St Thomas Aquinas expressed reservations about the formulae used and it was not until Pius IX, at the behest of a majority of the bishops, instituted a committee of enquiry (1851 to 1853) that the solemn definition given in 1854 took final shape.

Where does all this leave us today? People sometimes remark on the apparent absence of devotion to Mary in Benedictine monasteries. By that they really mean the absence of devotions (plural). Hopkins likened Our Lady to the air we breathe, and among monks and nuns I think that just about sums it up. We are privileged to live in a world of sign and symbol, where Mary and the saints are very close to us and highly honoured for their own closeness to God. Let Hopkins have the last word:

Mary Immaculate,
Merely a woman, yet
Whose presence, power is
Great as no goddess’s
Was deemèd, dreamèd; who
This one work has to do—
Let all God’s glory through,
God’s glory which would go
Through her and from her flow
Off, and no way but so.

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10 thoughts on “The Immaculate Conception of the B.V.M.

  1. Unsure about so much of the doctrine relating to Mary.

    The devotion to anyone other than God, through Jesus Christ is a difficult one for me. Saint Mary as I believe her to be, might well have been party to an Immaculate conception, but I feel that to much attention is paid to it, along with the devotions to Mary Ever Virgin. What about Jesus’s brother James and others acknowledged in scripture?

    The Words of the Hail Mary seem to me a more reflective idea of her status. And, even I, an Anglican can say it comfortably.

  2. I think you know what I’m going to say! Although I respect your point of view, I don’t exactly share it; and probably for precisely the same reasons. For me, the evidence of the belief of the early Church is very important. Nothing and no one can take away from the uniqueness of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Our salvation comes from and through him alone.

    There is, however, a kind of hierarchy to the doctrines of the Church: those which relate to God coming first, those which, as it were, enlarge our understanding of the implications of those doctrines coming after. Newman expressed this very fully in his essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. I personally would say that the doctrines relating to Our Lady come into this secondary category. That doesn’t mean they can be ignored: they help us to understand better the nature of the redemption Christ has bestowed on us.

    As to the question of Mary’s perpetual virginity and the references to James as a brother of Jesus, etc, I am comfortable with semitic usage which describes any family member as a brother. Again, it is the belief of the early Church which for me is determinitive. It is surprising how late the questioning of Mary’s perpetual virginity comes.

    As to devotional excesses, I’m with you there. I think my opening essay in Magnificat (see http://www.benedictinenuns.org.uk/Media/Media/books.html) says that clearly enough.

  3. That was helpful, thank you. I have misunderstod the Catholic church’s devotion to Mary for a long time. I, another Anglican, have learned a lot from this site.

  4. Another Benedictine nun said something to me recently about the men’s monasteries (at least in that congregation) tending to have a more explicit Marian devotion than the women’s houses. Well, the concrete example was Our Lady on Saturday – the men’s houses celebrate it by default, the women’s, not so much. I was interested in this context to read this little interview with the retired abbot of Fontgombault:

    Comment s’explique …
    (I don’t know if there’s an English version around – there’s a Polish one, if that’s any use to anyone:

  5. The bit that your blog post brought to mind was this:

    Chacune des trois fondations auxquelles j’ai eu la grâce de travailler porte son caractère propre qui lui vient des circonstances de temps, de lieux et de personnes ; mais toutes vivent du même esprit, celui qui nous a été transmis par notre premier Père abbé, venu de Solesmes en 1948, avec une note mariale nettement affirmée qui est, me semble-t-il, le « secret » de Fontgombault

    The Polish Benedictines of Perpetual Adoration, who possibly belong to and certainly came from a French congregation (in the seventeenth century), have inherited that devotional thing of having Our Lady as abbess. So I suppose the expression of Marian devotion varies among Benedictines just as other things do, and that Benedictine devotion to Our Lady is influenced by Benedictine-ness the way any devotion in any order is affected by the way that order or congregation lives (if it’s all nineteenth-century-flowery, or eighteenth-century-vehement, or whatever). Devotion to the Sacred Heart or the Divine Mercy looks different in Benedictine monasteries and in a congregation founded to help the rural poor of Galicia at the end of the nineteenth century.

    Come to think of it, the Polish “plain” Benedictine nunneries are the “Immaculate Conception Congregation”.

  6. Thank you, Jenny and Berenike. We always celebrate the optional memoria of Our Lady on Saturday, except when it is displaced; but we are very English and restrained and not at all syrupy, in the way that some men are. I think our devotion to Our Lady is clear, but it’s a bit understated by most European standards, and because our origins look back to the pre-Reformation practice of the English monasteries, the Our-Lady-as-Abbess idea has always seemed very avant garde!

  7. Sister,

    Thank you for your helpful explanation of your position. I can only respect it. I suspect that my discomfort with this is tied in with other inhibitions that I have about Catholic doctrine, which I am uncomfortable with.

    I do however appreciate that there is evidence for your beliefs and practices, which are historic, and I’m not trying to dispute, just to discuss them.

  8. Having Evangelical roots but presently evolving to be more ecumenical/contemplative, I find Catholic spirituality extremely inspiring and helpful.

    A huge part of this is the example of Mary in her obedience and devotion as handmaid of our Lord, also the lives of the Saints.

  9. Interesting you know. I had never thought about this, but I too assumed that Mary did not need redemption… Which made her completely out of reach for me, a sort of quasi diabolical patriarchal invention… Sorry if the expression shocks you.
    My heart and soul love Mary. I just don’t like what some of our leaders have made of her.I do like the idea that she is part of the air you breathe…

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