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:
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.