The Immaculate Conception of the Mother of God

from Juniper Carol's Mariology and Ullathorne's Immaculate Conception           

Catechism 490-493: To become the mother of the Savior, Mary "was enriched by God with gifts appropriate to such a role" [Vatican II, LG 56]. The angel Gabriel at the moment of the annunciation salutes her as "full of grace" [Luke 1:28]. In fact, in order for Mary to be able to give the free assent of her faith to the announcement of her vocation, it was necessary that she be wholly borne by God's grace. Through the centuries the Church has become ever more aware that Mary, "full of grace" through God [Luke 1:28], was redeemed from the moment of her conception. That is what the dogma of the Immaculate Conception confesses, as Pope Pius IX proclaimed in 1854:

The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin. [Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus (1854): DS 2803]

The "splendor of an entirely unique holiness" by which Mary is "enriched from the first instant of her conception" comes wholly from Christ: she is "redeemed, in a more exalted fashion, by reason of the merits of her Son" [Vatican II, LG 53, 56]. The Father blessed Mary more than any other created person "in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places" and chose her "in Christ before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless before him in love" [cf. Eph 1:3-4]. The Fathers of the Eastern tradition call the Mother of God "the All-Holy" (Panagia), and celebrate her as "free from any stain of sin, as though fashioned by the Holy Spirit and formed as a new creature" [Vatican II, LG 56]. By the grace of God, Mary remained free of every personal sin her whole life long.

Full of Grace and Immaculate (Popes, Magisterium, Modern History)

Once the divine Maternity and the perpetual virginity of Mary had been proposed by the Church's teaching authority as true Catholic doctrine, the way was open for further development. Chalcedon was a stimulant to progress in Mariology. The doctrinal defense of the true flesh, the full humanity of Christ, emphasized more than ever the importance of the glorious Virgin Mother. Similarly, Christian writers were inspired to develop the theme of the tender love the Mother of God had for the Son truly born of her very substance.

For the East the decisions of Ephesus seem to have consecrated the notion of "ever Virgin" along with "Mother of God." And by the time of St. Augustine's death in 431, the perpetual virginity was also a pacific possession in the West. The Tome of Pope St. Leo expressed the common belief about it; and finally the Lateran Council, under Pope Martin I, defined the perpetual virginity. In the light of these two truths, under the guidance of the Holy Ghost, the Church would now penetrate into the mystery of Mary's sanctity. First, we will consider freedom from personal sin through fullness of grace, leaving to the next section freedom from original sin.

Belief in Mary's virginity led to emphasis on her holiness. The experience of the ascetics first showed the connection between a life of perpetual virginity and holiness. But still deeper reflection was needed to appreciate the full treasure of Mary's sanctity, and this came through reflection on the divine Maternity. From the divine motherhood had come the awareness of perfect virginity; now Christian thought saw that God would make His Mother all-perfect, by gifts of grace beyond compare.

In his controversy with Pelagius, who denied original sin and held the natural perfectibility of man even without supernatural aid, St. Augustine emphasized the universality of sin. Yet he exempted Our Lady from the universal law:

"Now with the exception of the holy Virgin Mary in regard to whom, out of respect for the Lord, I do not propose to have a single question raised on the subject of sin -- after all, how do we know what greater degree of grace for a complete victory over sin was conferred on her who merited to conceive and bring forth Him who all admit was without sin -- to repeat then: with the exception of this Virgin, if we could bring together into one place all those holy men and women, while they lived here, and ask them whether they were without sin, what are we to suppose that they would have replied?" (On Nature and Grace, or De natura et gratia, Migne PL 44:267)

St. Augustine's opinion is the real attitude of Christian antiquity. There were occasional Fathers, even after Ephesus, who said Mary was guilty of the venial sin of vainglory, misinterpreting the Gospel incidents of her charitable request to Christ at Cana (John 2:1-12), and her presence with those relatives of Our Lord who interrupted a sermon in order to speak to Him (Matt 12:47). Cardinal John Henry Newman says of the harshest of these, St. John Chrysostom: "his whole passage is as much at variance with what we hold, as it is solitary and singular in the writings of antiquity."[1]

The magisterium did not speak explicitly on Mary's holiness, her freedom from even venial sin, until the Council of Trent. Direct attacks on Our Lady were not among the many points the theologians of Trent felt pressed to refute. Yet Trent, in its teaching on justification (1547), under Pope Paul III, refers to Our Lady's freedom from sin as an exception to the general rule:

"If anyone shall say that a man once justified....can through the whole of life avoid all sins, even though they be venial, except by a special privilege of God, as the Church holds to have been the case with the Blessed Virgin, let him be anathema." (Council of Trent, Session VI, canon 23, the Latin reads: Si quis hominem semel justificatum dixerit....posse in tota vita peccata omnia etiam venialia vitare, nisi ex speciali Dei privilegio, quemadmodum de beata Virgine tenet Ecclesia: A.S.)

St. Pius V safeguarded this teaching in his condemnation of an error of Baius in 1567: "Error 73: No one, with the exception of Christ, is without original sin. Therefore, the Blessed Virgin died because of the sin contracted from Adam, and all her afflictions in this life, no less than those of the rest of the just, were the punishment of actual or original sin." 

Mary's holiness was protected again under Alexander VIII in 1690 by the condemnation of the Jansenist opinion that Mary's purification in the temple showed she needed it: "Error 24: The offering which the Blessed Virgin Mary made in the temple on the day of her purification with two young turtledoves, one as a holocaust, the other as a sin offering, is sufficient evidence that she needed purification, and that Her Son, who was presented, was also marked with the stain of His Mother, according to the words of the Law." It is noteworthy that here again the honor of Mother and Son are a common cause.

The recent popes say much in praise of Our Lady's sanctity. Pius IX will serve as a good example:

"He [God], therefore, filled her, far more than all the angelic spirits and all the saints, with an abundance of all heavenly gifts from the treasury of His divinity, in such a wonderful manner that she would always be free from absolutely every stain of sin, and that, all beautiful and perfect, she might display such fullness of innocence and holiness that under God none greater is known, and which, God excepted, no one can attain even in thought." (Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus, 12/8/1854)

Our Lady's freedom from personal sin has never been defined, as has her lifelong virginity and her freedom from original sin, but it is nevertheless an article of faith, as Trent states -- "as the Church holds." It is a step further to say that Mary could not sin -- that she was confirmed in grace and impeccable (unable to sin). This is an opinion defended by many theologians, again on the grounds of her divine motherhood.

Period of Discussion, Controversy, Development

If the fact that St. Augustine did "not propose to have a single question raised on the subject of sin in regard to the holy Virgin Mary out of respect for the Lord" virtually settled the question of Mary's freedom from personal sin, the same author's insistence on the universality of original sin proved a deterrent to the development of belief in Mary's Immaculate Conception. Although some writings of Pope Leo the Great and Pope Gregory the Great would seem to exempt Mary from original sin, many more centuries of thought and prayer were required before the Church would realize that the Immaculate Conception was among the gifts God provided for His Mother. And still more centuries would elapse before the supreme magisterium would solemnly declare the doctrine of Mary's freedom from original sin to be a revealed truth, i.e. contained in the original Deposit (cf. 2 Tim 1:13-14; 1 Tim 6:20) confided to the Apostles.

The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is a classic example of the development of doctrine. [2] Theologians distinguish three stages in the progressive awareness of a revealed truth not explicitly contained in the sources of revelation. The first stage is implicit acceptance, the period of tranquil possession. The second stage in the development of a dogma is the period of discussion and controversy, during which the precise meaning of the doctrine is clarified, as well as its relationship to Revelation and to other doctrines. In the third stage, the doctrine is received by the entire Church, is the common teaching of the ordinary magisterium or finally even solemnly defined.

In the present case, the first stage was the tranquil acceptance of the unique graces and privileges of Mary, which, as we now know, imply the Immaculate Conception. The early Christians accepted Mary's singular position as Mother of God, as ever a virgin, as all-holy, as the New Eve. Thereby they implicitly accepted the Immaculate Conception, which is implied by the divine motherhood. During the first period of undisputed acceptance, the first liturgical evidences appear: Feasts of the Conception of St. Anne, hymns, homilies.

The second phase, that of controversy, began with St. Bernard's (d. 1153) opposition to the spread of the feast of the Conception of Mary. The controversy raged through the age of Scholasticism, dividing into two camps the greatest doctors of theology, some of them saints and all of them loyal to Our Lady. Many thought it impossible to reconcile freedom from original sin with the fact that Mary was born of human parents through natural generation. Some were against a feast of the conception of Mary, because they misunderstood it to refer to the active conception, namely to the generation of Mary by her parents Joachim and Anne. In reality, the feast concerned the passive conception of Our Lady, the union of her soul and body in her mother's womb.

This confusion of active and passive conception still occurs, just as even Catholics (and others) sometimes confuse Mary's Immaculate Conception with Christ's Virgin Birth. Other opponents considered an immaculate conception incompatible with the universality of the Redemption of Christ. The Scholastic Doctors of the 12th and 13th centuries, e.g. St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Albert the Great, St. Bonaventure, were more commonly against the belief in a sinless conception. Although it should be pointed out, these same theologians believe Mary was personally free from sin since she was cleansed from original sin before birth. The whole debate centered on what happened between conception and birth, since the personal sinlessness and sanctity of the Mother of God was well established in the Church.

"Since Mary would not have been a worthy mother of God if she had ever sinned, we assert without qualification that Mary never committed a sinful act, fatal or non-fatal: You are wholly beautiful, my love, and without blemish. Christ is the source of grace, author of it as God and instrument of it as man, and, since Mary was closest to Christ in giving him his human nature, she rightly received from him fullness of grace (cf. Luke 1:28) : grace in such abundance as to bring her closest in grace to its author, receiving into herself the one who was full of every grace [for others], and, by giving birth to him, bringing grace to all." (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica IIIa:27.4-5)

The Franciscan John Duns Scotus (d. 1308), perhaps under the influence of his confrere, William of Ware (d. 1300), showed that a preservation from original sin by the merits of Christ would be an even more perfect form of Redemption than to be rescued from already contracted sin.

"Christ was the most perfect mediator. Therefore he exercised the highest degree of mediation in favor of another person. Now he could not be a most perfect mediator and could not repair the effects of sin to the highest degree if he did not preserve his Mother from original sin (as we shall prove). Therefore, since he was the most perfect mediator regarding the person of his Mother, from this it follows that he preserved her from original sin....[above all] it is more noble to forgive one's guilt by preserving that person from it, than by permitting that same person to fall into guilt, and then to remit that person's guilt....since the passion of Christ was immediately and principally ordered to delete original guilt as well as actual guilt, in such a way that all the Trinity, since it had the foresight of the merits of the passion of Christ, applied them to the Virgin and preserved her from all actual sin, and also from all original sin." (Blessed John Duns Scotus, Lectura III Sent 123,126,138)

By the mid-15th century the greater number of theologians were in favor of the Immaculate Conception, and the liturgical celebrations had widely spread. But still there had been no approval on the part of the magisterium. A dogmatic decision on Mary's freedom from original sin was proposed at the Council of Basel, but the definition of 1439 was invalid because the Council had fallen under the excommunication of Pope Eugene IV.

Decisions from Rome

Pope Sixtus IV (r. 1471-1484), a Franciscan (Conventual), was the first officially to encourage the doctrine. His constitution Cum praecelsa of 1477 approved and indulgenced the feast of the Conception of the Immaculate Virgin:

"When, with that deep insight that comes of devout contemplation, we search and discover the sublime proofs of those merits which cause the Queen of heaven, the glorious Virgin Mother of God, raised upon her heavenly throne, to outshine like the morning star all other constellations...We deem it fitting, and even our duty, to invite by means of indulgences and the remission of sins all the faithful of Christ to offer thanks and praise to God...for the wondrous Conception of his same Immaculate Virgin, and to celebrate or to be present at Masses and at other divine functions which have been instituted for this purpose." (Sixtus IV, Cum praecelsa, 1477) [3]

During Sixtus' reign, the long-standing controversy between the Dominicans, on one side, and the Franciscans, Carmelites, and Servites, on the other, flared anew when Bandelli, later General of the Dominicans, wrote two books against the Immaculate Conception, implying in the second that the Pope had not truly intended to make the object of the feast Our Lady's conception, but rather her sanctification (like St. John the Baptist).

Two Bulls, both titled Grave Nimis, appeared in reply, one in 1481, direct to Lombardy where Bandelli was preaching: it specified that Mary's conception, not merely sanctification, was the object of the feast. The second, of September 4, 1483, was directed to the entire Church. It forbade either side to call the other heretical; but the adversaries of the belief was threatened with excommunication not only if they called the defenders heretics, but even if they charged the defenders with error and falsity. [4] Yet, in spite of such signs of favor to the belief, the Pope concludes by saying "since the matter has not yet been decided by the Roman Church and Apostolic See."

Pope Sixtus IV's successors continued to favor the feast. Many contented themselves with simply repeating his constitutions, as Pope Leo X (in 1502 and 1515). So also Pope Julius II (1503-1513), Pius IV (1559-1565), and Sixtus V (1585-1590). The question was discussed at the Council of Trent, but the determined opposition of a small group defeated definite decision on it. Nevertheless, the Council declared in the session on original sin (fifth session, June 17, 1546, under Pope Paul III):

"This same holy Synod declares that it is not its intention to include in this decree, where there is question of original sin, the blessed and immaculate Virgin Mary, Mother of God. Rather, the constitutions of Sixtus of happy memory are to be followed...." (Council of Trent, Session V)

Trent also indirectly advanced the eventual acceptance of the belief by clarifying the notions of original sin, of grace, and of the supernatural life. Pius IX interprets the actions of Trent as follows:

"Indeed, considering the times and circumstances, the Fathers of Trent sufficiently insinuated by this declaration that the Blessed Virgin Mary was free from the original stain; and thus they clearly signified that nothing could be reasonably cited from the Sacred Writings, which would in any way be opposed to so great a prerogative of the Virgin." (Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus, 12/8/1854)

Pope St. Pius V (1566-1572) included the feast of the Conception in the reformed Missal, 1568, for the whole Latin Church, and likewise condemned the error of Baius which stated, "No one, with the exception of Christ, is without original sin. Therefore the Blessed Virgin died because of the sin contracted from Adam...." He likewise forbade debates before the public on the subject. Paul V renewed this prohibition in 1617. In 1622 Gregory XV further forbade, except among the Dominicans themselves, even private writings and sermons against the Immaculate Conception. The celebration of the feast was enjoined on all, with a warning against replacing the word "Conception," by any other word, (such) as "Sanctification."

Controversy continued nonetheless. Pope Alexander VII (1655-1657), appealed to for an authentic statement of the true object of the feast, issued his constitution, Sollicitudo, December 8, 1661. The document determines the object of the feast as understood by the common sentiment of the Church, pastors and faithful alike.

"Ancient is the piety of the Christian faithful toward our Blessed Mother, the Virgin Mary. They believe that her soul, in the first moment of creation and infusion into her body, was, by a special grave and privilege of God, and in consideration of the merits of Jesus Christ her Son, the Redeemer of the human race, preserved free from the stain of original sin. And it is in this sense that the faithful cherish and celebrate with solemn rites the feast of her Conception...[Alexander VII then renews the decrees of Sixtus IV, Paul V, and Gregory XV] favor of the doctrine asserting that the soul of the Blessed Virgin, at its creation and infusion into the body, was endowed with the grace of the Holy Spirit and preserved from original sin..." (Alexander VII, Sollicitudo, 12/8/1661)

Definition by Pope Pius IX

It remained for Pius IX to take the final step. Crowned pope in 1846, he personally signed the decree of the Sacred Congregation of Rites of September 30, 1847, authorizing a new Mass and Office of the feast, extending it on February 2, 1849, to the whole world. In 1848 a commission of theologians was named to study two questions:

  • Can the Immaculate Conception be defined as a dogma?
  • Is such a definition opportune?

On February 2, 1849, the encyclical Ubi primum was sent to the bishops of the world, seeking their views on the definability. The replies from the bishops were better than nine tenths (546 out of 603) favorable. Some did not consider the definition then opportune because of attacks on the Church; only four or five were quite against any dogmatic definition. Another commission was appointed to draw up the Bull of definition; they worked over a year on it. The document was not only to promulgate the dogma, but also to include arguments in its favor. It was then submitted to the cardinals and finally to members of the hierarchy assembled in Rome from the whole world. The result of the long process was a precisely phrased presentation of the belief of all Catholicism, the Church learning (Ecclesia discens) as well as the teaching Church (Ecclesia docens).

On December 8, 1854, in the presence of 200 cardinals, archbishops, and bishops, the Holy Father invoked the Holy Spirit, and then read the words that settled forever all dispute about Our Lady's privilege:

"...To the honor of the holy and undivided Trinity, to the glory and adornment of the Virgin Mother of God, to the exaltation of the Catholic faith, and the increase of the Catholic religion, We, by the authority of Jesus Christ our Lord, of the Blessed Apostles, Peter and Paul, and by Our Own, declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the Blessed Virgin Mary, was the first instant of her Conception, by a singular privilege and grace of the omnipotent God, in consideration of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of mankind, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, has been revealed by God, and therefore is to be firmly and constantly believed by all the faithful." (Pius IX,  Ineffabilis Deus, 12/8/1854, original Latin given in a footnote in Carol's Mariology)

In these words of the dogmatic definition, the Pope is speaking ex cathedra, that is, by his supreme infallible authority as Vicar of Christ. The terms are similar to Alexander VII's, yet so carefully chosen that it is clearly Mary's person, body and soul, that is the subject of the privilege. From the very first moment of union of soul and body, in view of the merits of Christ, Mary was kept free from original sin by the grace of God -- a unique exception to the common lot of mankind. Moreover, this doctrine is revealed by God; therefore it belongs to the original Deposit of the Faith. And so the Catholic's "I believe" now extends to the privilege of the Immaculate Conception just as truly as it does to the divine motherhood (Theotokos) -- on the authority of God Himself, who cannot deceive.

The rest of Ineffabilis Deus, the document of the definition, makes a worthy setting for the dogmatic definition. The various arguments in the development of belief in the sinless conception of Mary was cited; the traditional interpretation of Sacred Scripture, especially of the Protoevangelium (Genesis 3:15), and of the greetings of Gabriel and Elizabeth (Luke 1:48,42); the evidence of the liturgy; and finally the proximate preparation when with one voice clergy and faithful entreated the Pope to define with his supreme judgment the Immaculate Conception. The bishops had been heard, indeed their advice had been first sought, but the final act was the Pope's alone. [5]

Pius IX mentions in Ineffabilis Deus some benefits hoped for from the definition: that the "most powerful mediatrix and conciliatrix of the whole world" win peace for the Church, "pardon for the sinner, health for the sick, strength of heart for the weak, consolation for the afflicted, help for those in danger." The century of development in Marian doctrine and devotion is the evidence of how graciously Our Lady accepted Pius IX's prayers.

Mary in Western Patristic Thought

One of the most perplexing problems in patristic Mariology revolves about Mary's holiness. The issue becomes complex in that it involves an aspect of Mary's sanctity acute for the contemporary Christian: the state of Mary's soul at the moment of her conception. From the close of the Apostolic Age to the Council of Nicaea (325 AD) the literary heritage of Western Christianity contains so remarkably little on the theme of Our Lady's holiness that a pointed question is inevitable. Was the pre-Nicene West even conscious of the problem?

Several facts are not without significance. In the first place, Jewish and pagan circles in the second half of the second century, as a flanking attack on Christ, taxed His Mother with being a prostitute (Tertullian, De spectac, cap 30; also Celsus; Origen, Contra Celsum, lib 1, cap 28ff). The reaction of the Christian West would make fascinating reading, but it is nowhere in evidence. It is not unreasonable, however, to conjecture that Christians who recognized in Mary the counterpart of Eve, whose rule of faith involved the virginity of Mary before Gabriel, must have reacted as strongly, if not as mordantly, as Tertullian of Carthage was to do somewhat later (De spectac, cap 30) Tertullian's reaction was prompted not so much by the insult to the Mother as by the assault on her Son. This much will stand the test of criticism: for the orthodox Christian, Mary was not a woman of bad reputation.

The New Eve, the Holy Virgin

Second, the Eve-Mary analogy is relevant here. Our Lady's consent to the redemptive program implicit in the Incarnation was recognized by St. Irenaeus of Lyons as constituting an act not simply of singular significance but even of exceptional moral value; it was an act of obedience (Adv Haer, lib 3, cap 32, 1; PG 7:958-959). Regrettably, Irenaeus' insight into the Second or New Eve is not paralleled by any conclusion in the texts with respect to the state of her soul prior to her fiat. Did the ante-Nicene Fathers glimpse a further consequence from the analogy, an indication of Mary's sanctity? Le Bachelet, for one, surrenders such investigation: "Who could possibly give a certain answer, one way or the other?" He grants however, that the principles of solution are there. [6]

It is argued that, in St. Justin the Martyr's description of Eve as "virgin incorrupt" there is question of Eve exempt from all corruption, and so the parallelism demands a similar exemption for Mary. The seeds of future development with respect to Mary's sanctity may be contained in the patristic Eve-Mary analogy, but they are seeds and not the full flower.

Third, the adjective "holy" is prefixed to "Virgin." Not often; still, it is used. St. Hippolytus of Rome, for example, states, without explanation, that "God the Word descended into the holy Virgin Mary." (Contra Noetum, cap 17; PG 10:825) The difficulty is, such a usage is ill-defined. The word sanctus or hagios has not always been able to boast of a clearly delimited meaning in ecclesiastical use. [7] Does Hippolytus use hagios as a rather vague laudatory epithet, or as a title of dignity, or to imply moral excellence, or to signify the respect reserved for one who is segregated from profane things and belongs to God by some sort of consecration? The answer must, in the state of the evidence, be a confession of ignorance.

Fourth, there is testimony which attaches more intimately to Mary's holiness. If we can trust a fragment on Psalm 22 attributed to Hippolytus, the Roman exegete wrote:

"The ark which was made of incorruptible timber (cf. Exod 15:10) was the Savior. The ark symbolized the tabernacle of His body, which was impervious to decay and engendered no sinful corruption....The Lord was sinless, because in His humanity He was fashioned out of incorruptible wood, that is to say, out of the Virgin and the Holy Spirit, lined within and without as with the purest gold of the Word of God." (Hippolytus, In Psalm 22; quoted by Theodoret, Dialogus 1; PG 10:610, 864-5)

The author's direct purpose is to reveal the sinlessness of Christ; but his reasoning shows that in his eyes the Virgin Mary, incorruptible wood of which the humanity of Jesus was fashioned, is likewise all-pure, all-holy. The meaning is substantially clear; what fails to emerge is the precise nature of her purity, her incorruptibility.

The extant evidence, therefore, if meager, indicates sufficiently that for some of the ante-Nicene writers in the West the idea of holiness and purity did attach to the person of Mary. It does not justify us in concluding with certainty to the nature of this holiness, or in picturing them as carriers of an historical tradition, or in attributing to them a formal belief in an Immaculate Conception.

"God alone is without sin" and doubts among the Fathers?

It is in this era that we confront a current of thought unfavorable to a thesis of Marian sinlessness. In its general form it is the principle that Christ alone is without sin, and it is unmistakably formulated by Tertullian of Carthage. "Thus, some men are good, others, bad, yet their souls all belong to the same class. There is some good in the worst of us, and the best of us harbor some evil within us.God alone is without sin, and the only sinless man is Christ, since He is God." (De anima, cap 41). In this general form there is no inescapable implicit which would rule out an utterly sinless existence for Mary. There is a sinlessness which is the fruit of nature; such sinlessness has always been, in orthodox Christian thinking, the exclusive prerogative of God (cf. Num 23:19; Psalm 92:15; Heb 4:15; 1 John 1:5-10; 3:5; etc). And there is a sinlessness which is the fruit of grace (cf. Luke 1:28); it is theoretically compatible with human living (cf. Luke 1:6; Job 1:1). Did Tertullian deny such God-given sinlessness in the concrete order of things? One phrase suggests it: "the best of us harbor some evil within us."

However that may be, the stumbling block looks larger when specific defects are mentioned. If we credit Tertullian, Christ publicly denounced His Mother for her disbelief when He asked: "Who is my mother and who are my brethren?" (De carne Christi, cap 7; cf. Adv Marc, lib 4, cap 19). According to the Carthaginian, Mary apparently kept aloof from Jesus while Martha and others were in constant contact with Him. In standing outside he was guilty of disbelief (incredulitas); in calling Him away from His work she was importunate.

And if we believe St. Irenaeus of Lyons, whose Marian theology is otherwise so reverential, Jesus checked Mary's "untimely haste" at Cana, her yearning to quicken the miracle of the water made wine (Adv Haer, lib 3, cap 17,7; PG 7:926). The objection from Irenaeus is scarcely momentous. The Bishop of Lyons finds Mary's request inopportune, untimely; he does not hint that it was sinful.

Tertullian, on the contrary, is harsh and unambiguous. And if his accusation is explicable in the light of his fiery polemic, so heedless of consequences, it remains nonetheless a candid accusation. Though he was flirting with Montanism at the moment, he still gives no indication that he is aware of a contrary belief or official teaching.

[ The problem becomes more acute when we reflect that in the East a score of years later Origen of Alexandria could preach to the people of Caesarea that the sword of sorrow (Luke 2:35) is Mary's experience of scandal at the Passion of her Son, a sword of unbelief, of uncertainty. Even more startling is his theological reasoning: "If she did not experience scandal at the Lord's passion,Jesus did not die for her sins." (In Luc hom 17). ]

If it is unjustifiable to conclude that Tertullian (or slightly later Origen in the east) is representative of a widespread tradition, it remains true that in Africa at the outset of the third century moral deficiencies were apparently not regarded as incompatible with the dignity of God's Mother.

A significant turning point in the Mariological consciousness of the West does not occur until 377, with the publication of St. Ambrose's three books On Virginity, addressed to his sister, Marcellina. The inspiration for his portrait of Mary is not purely local, the contemporary aristocratic virgin vowed to Christian asceticism; it is more specifically Eastern, a work of St. Athanasius on virginity. It is reasonably certain that we have this important production in a Coptic translation. [8]

The influence of Athanasius was fortunate, if only because the ideas of the fourth-century West on Mary's sanctity were so slender. In Gaul, for example, St. Hilary of Poitiers can somehow reconcile a profound reverence for Mary's virginity with a tortuous passage in which she seems destined to undergo the scrutiny of God's judgment, of faults that are slight (Tractatus in Ps 118; PL 9:523). He insists, too, that Our Lord alone is sinless, and this in virtue of His exceptional birth (ibid; De Trinitate, lib 10, cap 25; PL 10:364-6). There is no insuperable problem in Hilary's belief that Mary was sanctified at the hour of the Annunciation, and that the Holy Spirit strengthened her (apparently bodily) weakness (De Trinitate, lib 2, cap 26; PL 10:67-68).

In Rome, Marius Victorinus extends specifically to Mary the imperfection which he attributes to the very idea of woman (In epist Pauli ad Galatas, lib 2; PL 8:1176-7), while Ambrosiasterunderstands Simeon's sword of sorrow as Mary's doubting at the death of the Lord -- a doubt removed only by the Resurrection (Quaest Veteris et Novi Test, cap 76, n. 2).

In Africa, Bishop St. Optatus of Mileve (before 400 AD) sees the flesh of Christ alone as sinless, because of His unique conception; only Christ is perfectly holy, the rest of us are "half perfect"; every man, even if of Christian parents, is born with an unclean spirit (Contra Parm Donat, lib 1, cap 8; lib 4, cap 7; lib 2, cap 20; lib 4, cap 6). Near Granada in Spain, Bishop Gregory of Elvira(or Gregory Baeticus, named after the province of Baetica, Spain) seems to number Mary among the ancestors who would have transmitted to the Redeemer a body soiled and open to sin (Hom in Cant canticorum).

And yet, the climate of thought and feeling promised the ideas of Ambrose an enthusiastic welcome, especially in his own North Italy, where the influence of asceticism and the personal sojourn of Athanasius had paved the way. Thus, St. Zeno of Verona (or Zenone da Verona) implies that Mary, like the virgins he is addressing, was "holy in body and spirit," and claims that she had "deserved" to carry the Savior of souls (Tractatus, lib 1, tr 5,3; lib 2, tr 8,2; PL 11:303,414), although he seems to see in Mary moral faults which had to be cut away before the Incarnation, or simultaneously with it (PL 11:352).

Ambrose of Milan (c. 339 - 397 AD)

But the attitude of Ambrose toward Mary is something novel in Latin literature. Mary was virgin not in body alone, but in mind as well. She is the unattainable model of all virtues; she has lived them to perfection. Not the slightest shadow mars his portrait of her, no smallest imperfection (Ambrose, De virginbus, lib 2, cap 2, n. 6-18).

"The first impulse to learn is inspired by the nobility of the teacher. Now, who could be nobler than the Mother of God? Who more splendid than she, whom Splendor chose? Who more chaste than she, who gave birth to a body without bodily contact? What should I say, then, about all her other virtues? She was a virgin, not only in body but in her mind as well, and never mixed the sincerity of her affections with duplicity." (Ambrose, De virginibus 2,7; PL 16:220; Gambero, Mary and the Fathers of the Church, page 191)

It is a vision of Mary which will inspire Ambrose all his days and lead him to still further insights. A decade later he can attribute to Mary a fullness of grace whose foundation is the divine Maternity: "For Mary alone was this greeting [Luke 1:28] reserved; for she is well said to be alone full of grace, who alone obtained the grace which no one else had gained, to be filled with the Author of grace." (Expos evang secundum Lucam, lib 3, n. 9). It may be that Ambrose is simply equating "full of grace" and "Mother of God"; the construction bears that exegesis. But about the same time, in a sermon on Psalm 118, he speaks of Mary as "a virgin free by grace from all stain of sin." (Expos in Psalm 118; Serm 22, n. 30; PL 15:1599).

"Come, then, and search out Your sheep, not through Your servants or hired men, but do it Yourself. Life me up bodily and in the flesh, which is fallen in Adam. Lift me up not from Sara but from Mary, a Virgin not only undefiled but a Virgin whom grace has made inviolate, free of every stain of sin [Latin: ut incorrupta sit virgo, sed virgo per gratiam ab omni integra labe peccati]." (Ambrose, Commentary on Psalm 118, Jurgens, Faith of the Early Fathers, vol 2, page 166)

It is a text frequently invoked by defenders of the Immaculate Conception, who feel that to understand the phrase of actual or personal sins alone is to restrict arbitrarily the indefinite, unlimited assertion. [9] Gambero: "He calls the Mother of the Lord sancta Maria and sancta Virgo with notable frequency; it appears indisputable that he excluded from Mary any stain of sin whatsoever." (Mary and the Fathers of the Church, page 198)

On the other hand, Ambrose does not seem aware of the implications in his phrase. In any event, the germ of future development is indisputably there, especially since, to his way of thinking, if you are to appreciate what Mary is, you must reckon with what is fitting in such a mother (Epist 63, n. 110; PL 16:1270-1).

St. Jerome is rather vague on Mary's holiness. To him, Mary is Ezekiel's gate to the East (cf. Ezek 10:19; 11:1), a figure of her perpetual virginity (Ezek 44:1ff); this gate is "always closed and full of light" (Epist 49, n. 21). The idea is taken up and accentuated elsewhere: Mary is a cloud that is never in darkness but "always in the light" (Hom in psalmos).

At the beginning of the fifth century the Spanish poet, Prudentius (d. 405), alluding to Mary's role as New Eve, represents the serpent trampled beneath the feet of Our Lady, who has merited to become Mother of God and consequently has remained immune to all poison (Liber cathemerinon, 3, lines 146-155). The text as it stands is susceptible of an interpretation excluding from Mary all possibility of sin from the initial moment of her existence. Once again, the sole lingering doubt is whether Prudentius had so comprehensive, so all-inclusive a concept of sin.

Augustine (c. 354 - 430) and Pelagianism

It is actually with Augustine and the Pelagians that the issues involved take on some measure of clarity. Here there are two significant moments. In the first (415) Augustine confronts Pelagius on the issue of Mary's personal holiness, her freedom from actual sin; in the second (c. 428) he confronts Julian of Eclanum on the score of her conception, her freedom from original sin

Pelagius was not content to deny original sin; he ascribed to Adam's progeny the power to observe the whole moral law on their own, a native ability to live lives of justice. To bolster his belief, he cited a number of individuals -- men and women, Old Law and New -- who actually realized this program of sinlessness. The names range from Abel through Abraham to Joseph and John, from Deborah to Elizabeth, "and in fact the Mother of our Lord and Savior too, whom piety must needs confess free from sin." Ambrose had found no imperfection in Mary; Pelagius asserted on principle that none could be found.

Augustine's response to Pelagius is a two-edged denial. Only Mary is free from sin, and her sinlessness is a triumph not of nature but of grace; its foundation is the divine Maternity.

"With the exception, therefore, of the holy Virgin Mary, in whose case, out of respect for the Lord, I would have no question raised when there is talk of sin -- for how do we know what further grace was conferred on her for absolute victory over sin, she who deserved to conceive and bear Him who obviously had no sin? -- with the exception, then, of this Virgin, could we but gather together in their lifetime all those saints, men and women, and ask them whether they were free from sin, what in our opinion would have been their answer? ...No matter how remarkable their holiness in this body...they would have cried out with one voice: 'If we should say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us' [1 John 1:8]." (Augustine, De natura et gratia, cap 36, n. 42)

It might be argued that Augustine simply prefers not to discuss the case of Mary. It is far more probable that his question is not really a question at all, that it conveys his own conviction of the incompatibility of actual sin with divine motherhood, that consequently it constitutes a landmark in the development of the Western Church's consciousness of Mary's sinlessness. Some theologians argue that the text indirectly or implicitly excludes original sin as well. In the context, they admit, Augustine is speaking of actual sin; but he asserts without reservation that she is free from all sin. The honor of Christ, on which his conclusion is based, is no less incompatible with the hypothesis of original sin than with the affirmation of actual sin. [10]

Julian of Eclanum and Original Sin

Julian of Eclanum, a deposed Pelagian bishop, lifted the discussion to the level of original sin. In his view, every man is born sinless; a unique proof of his position, he feels, is Mary. To attack the doctrine of original sin in its implications, he establishes a parallel between his enemy Augustine and the heresiarch Jovinian, to the advantage of the latter:

"Jovinian opposed Ambrose, but compared with you, he deserves to be acquitted. He destroyed the virginity of Mary by subjecting her to the common laws of child-bearing, but you transfer Mary to the devil, by subjecting her to the common condition of birth." (Julian of Eclanum, cited by Augustine, Contra Julian; from Julian's Ad Florum, 4; PL 45:1417; Archbishop William Ullathorne, Immaculate Conception, page 96) [ original latin: ille virginitatem Mariae partus conditione dissolvit; tu ipsam Mariam diabolo nascendi conditione transribis ]

Jovinian, says Julian, sacrificed Mary's virginity by submitting her to the usual circumstances of human childbearing; Augustine surrenders the very person of Mary to the devil by asserting that original sin is inseparable from human generation. Augustine's retort ranks among the most passionately disputed sentences in Christian literature:

"We do not transfer Mary to the devil by the condition of her birth, for this reason, that that condition is dissolved by the grace of her new birth." (Augustine, Contra Julian; PL 45:1418) [ original latin: Non transcribimus diabolo Mariam conditione nascendi; sed ideo, quia ipsa conditio solvitur gratia renascendi ]

The disagreements in detail among interpreters of this sentence are too many to be retailed here, but basically scholars divide into two camps. Both agree on one point: Augustine denies that his doctrine of original sin surrenders Mary to the devil by the circumstances of her birth. But, for one group, no surrender is involved because the grace of regeneration subsequently annuls this condition by making it disappear. Conditio nascendi is synonymous with birth in original sin. Gratia renascendi necessarily involves a transition from sin to justification subsequent to birth, a spiritual rebirth unintelligible without a prior spiritual death. And Augustine's doctrine on the universality of original sin and on the method of its propagation precludes any exception in Mary's case. This interpretation, unfavorable to an immaculate conception, was the accepted exegesis of Augustine for centuries; right or wrong, it exercised a vigorous influence on the West; even after the Ineffabilis Deus definition, it remains an exegesis championed by scholars of distinction. [11]

The opposing school denies that this interpretation is apodictic. For them, no surrender to the devil is involved because the grace of regeneration simply annuls the condition of birth (original sin) by preventing its realization in Mary. Archbishop Ullathorne states:

"This incident shows how St. Augustine and those of his time shrunk back from the idea that Mary was ever abandoned to the devil, or was a child of sin. And as the sin in question between St. Augustine and Julian was original sin, it is clear that St. Augustine's intention was to free himself from the charge of having transferred Mary with the rest of mankind to Satan through that sin. And by her new birth, or regeneration, he could not refer to baptism in her case, but to the grace of redemption in her passive conception." (Ullathorne, The Immaculate Conception of the Mother of God, page 96)

Conditio nascendi is not so much a fact as a law. Gratia renascendi does not necessarily involve, of itself or in Augustine, the removal of sin already contracted. Augustine's doctrine on original sin and the manner of its transmission is not an insuperable obstacle to a privilege in favor of God's Mother, because Mary's immunity from original sin is not to be regarded as of native right; it is sheer gift. In the other hypothesis, Augustine would actually have enslaved, surrendered Our Lady to the devil, despite his protestation to the contrary. [12]

Whatever the truth of the matter, Latin speculation on Mary's holiness derived a twofold orientation from Augustine. With respect to actual sins, the West would thereafter have little difficulty recognizing in Mary a perfection unblemished. On the score of her debt to Adam, it was to be centuries before the West could free itself from the myopia induced by anti-Pelagian concentration and by its interpretation of five individually intelligible words: ipsa conditio solvitur gratia renascendi ("that condition [of Mary's birth] is dissolved [or solved, set aside] by the grace of her new birth").

After St. Augustine

From the Council of Ephesus (431) until the middle of the 11th century is the epoch of preparation for explicit belief in the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. The dogma was during this era in a stage of incipient explicit profession. In the West the development was less rapid than in the East, due perhaps to the incursions of the barbarians as an historical cause, and to an anti-Pelagian reaction as a theological cause. Many authors feared to press too eagerly the immunity of Mary from all sin, lest they seem thereby to lend credence to the errors of the Pelagians on grace and original sin. But cogent evidence is available to support the argument that adequate basis for the Immaculate Conception is discoverable in the writings of the noted theologians of this period, even though it be simply incipient belief that is contained therein.

Post-Augustinian patristic thought on the perfection of Mary reveals two conflicting currents. There is a negative, unfavorable trend rooted in Augustine's anti-Pelagianism; it accentuates the universality of original sin and articulates the connection between inherited sin and any conception consequent upon sinful concupiscence. The root idea is summed up by Pope Leo the Great:

"Alone therefore among the sons of men the Lord Jesus was born innocent, because alone conceived without the pollution of carnal concupiscence." (Leo I [the Great], Serm 25, cap 5; PL 54:211)

The same concept is discoverable in St. Fulgentius (De ceritate praedest et gratiae Dei, lib 2, cap 2; PL 65:605), Bishop of Ruspe in Africa (d. 533), the most significant theologian of his time; although he also contrasts the sinfulness of Eve with the perpetual sanctity of Mary (Sermo 2, De duplici Nativ Christi, No. 6; PL 65:728C). In a commentary on the angelic salutation, he explains with considerable preciseness, the significance of "full of grace," making it practically equivalent to what is now understood to be immunity from original sin (Sermo 36, De laudibus Mariae ex partu Salvatoris; PL 65:899C).

The statement that Christ alone is sinless (cf. Heb 4:15; 1 John 3:5; 1 Peter 2:22; etc) or was alone conceived without sin is also found in Pope Gregory the Great (Moralia in Job, lib 18, cap 52, n. 84; PL 76:89) at the end of the sixth century; and a century later in Venerable Bede (Hom Gen, lib 1, hom 2; In festo annunt; PL 94:13), a scholar renowned throughout England. It is a concept which leads to the thesis that Mary's flesh is a flesh-of-sin, because conceived in iniquity (cf. Fulgentius, Epist 17, cap 7, n. 13; PL 65:458). It leads likewise to the theory of a necessary purification of Mary at the hour of the Annunciation (cf. Leo I, Serm 22, cap 3; PL 54:196; Bede ibid; PL 94:12). At best, this manner of speaking is ambiguous; it opened the door to the theological controversies to come.

According to Archbishop Ullathorne (The Immaculate Conception of the Mother of God, page 101-3), there is not a single Father, who, in formal terms, declares Mary was defiled with original sin. Some affirm that God alone, or that Christ alone is sinless, without making any allusion to original sin. In others, it is said in general terms, that the whole human race is infected with sin (cf. Rom 3:23; 5:12; etc), while no direct allusion is made to the Blessed Virgin (e.g. Augustine made her an explicit exception). Another class of passages assert that all men, if we except Christ alone, are infected by original sin. When we have separated such testimonies that speak like this, we have a few passages that speak of the flesh of the Blessed Virgin as a "flesh of sin" or speak of her as "sanctified," or as cleansed or otherwise purified. These Fathers are speaking of the flesh of Mary as being conceived in the common way (i.e. she did not have a virginal conception like her Son), and of that concupiscence which is both the daughter and the mother of sin, as St. Augustine says; but in the Blessed Virgin this was cleansed, purified, sanctified by grace, in her true or passiveconception, when that flesh was animated (the union of her soul and body).

And thus, the language of these Fathers and Doctors, of St. Augustine, of St. Fulgentius, of St. Leo I, of St. Peter Damian, and of St. Anselm, etc, so far from being opposed to the true and orthodox sense of the Immaculate Conception, is a language which perfectly accords with the doctrine, and describes one of its real and admitted features. There are also Fathers who call even the flesh of our Lord a "flesh of sin" (cf. Galatians 5; Romans 7) by reason of its descent from them who were sinners (e.g. St. Proclus; St. Hilary; St. Gregory Naz). St. Hilary in his work on the Trinity says of Christ: "He received a flesh of sin, that by taking our flesh He might forgive our sins; whilst He was made partaker of it, by assuming it, and not by criminality" (De Trinitate 50:1).

Popes Leo and Gregory (the Greats)

In other of his Marian writings, Pope St. Leo praises Christ's miraculous and "immaculate birth" from the Virgin Mary and said "Christ is born from the body of his unsullied Mother" with an analogy to our baptism where we are "born again" (John 3:3,5; Titus 3:5) and become members of the Church (1 Cor 12:12-13; Acts 2:38; Gal 3:26-27; Eph 4:4-5; etc):

"For we would have been unable to overcome the author of sin and death had Christ not assumed our nature and made it his own. Sin cannot defile him, nor can death hold him. For he was conceived by the Holy Spirit within the womb of a Virgin Mother, who gave birth to him without losing her virginity, just as she had remained a virgin in conceiving him." (Leo I,Epist 28:2; PL 54:759; Gambero, page 304-5 or 306)

"He foretold to the serpent that the woman's seed would come and crush his haughty and wicked head with his power (cf. Gen 3:15). The woman's seed is Christ, who was to come in the flesh as God and as man, born of the Virgin, to condemn the despoiler of the human race by his immaculate birth." (Leo I, Sermo 22:1; PL 54:194; Gambero, page 307)

"By the Spirit, Christ is born from the body of his unsullied Mother; by this same Spirit, the Christian is reborn from the womb of holy Church." (Leo I, Sermo 29:1; PL 54:227; Gambero, page 308)

Pope St. Gregory exalts the Virgin Mary as higher than the highest mountains, with several biblical analogies:

"The most blessed and ever-Virgin Mary, Mother of God, can be called by this name, 'mountain'. Yes, she was a mountain, who by the dignity of her election has completely surpassed the height of every elect creature. Is Mary not a lofty mountain? For God, to achieve the conception of the eternal Word, raised the summit of her merits above the choirs of angels, up to the threshold of the Godhead. Isaiah said in a prophecy, 'In the last days, the mountain of the Lord's house will be made the highest mountain' (Isa 2:2). And this mountain has been made the highest mountain, because Mary's height has shined out above all the saints. For, just as a mountain implies height, so the house signifies a dwelling place. Therefore she is called mountain and house, because she, illuminated by incomparable merits, prepared a holy womb for God's Only-begotten to dwell in.

"On the other hand, Mary would not have become a mountain raised above the peaks of the mountains had not the divine fecundity raised her above the angels. Further, she should not have become the Lord's house had not the divinity of the Word assumed humanity and come to dwell in her womb. Mary is justly called a mountain rich in fruits, because the best fruit was born from her, namely, a new man. And the prophet, considering how beautiful she is, adorned in the glory of her fruitfulness, cries out: 'There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow from his roots' (Isa 11:1).

"David, exulting in the fruits of this mountain, says to God, 'Let the peoples praise you, O Lord, let all the peoples praise you. The earth has yielded its fruit' (Psalm 67:6-7). Yes, the earth has yielded its fruit, because the Virgin did not conceive her Son by man's doing but because the Holy Spirit stretched out his shadow over her. Therefore the Lord says to David, king and prophet, 'I will place the fruit of your womb upon your throne' (Psalm 132:11).

So says Isaiah, 'And the fruit of the earth shall be exalted' (Isa 4:2). For him whom the Virgin bore was not only a holy man but also the mighty God. Elizabeth refers to this fruit when she greets the Virgin and says, 'Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb' (Luke 1:42). Mary is rightly called mountain of Ephrem because, while she is raised up by the ineffable dignity of the divine birth, the dry branches of the human condition flower again in the fruit of her womb." (Gregory I [the Great], In I Regum 1:5; PL 79:25-26; Gambero, page 371-2)

Peter Chrysologus (c. 406 - 450 AD)

There is also the positive, more favorable current of thought that teaches not simply that Mary is still the Second Eve, instrument of our salvation (Maximus of Turin, Hom 15; PL 57:254), or that the merits she acquires lift her above the angels, to divinity's throne (Gregory the Great, In 1 Regum expos, lib 1, cap 1, n. 5; PL 79:25). More pointedly, St. Peter Chrysologus declares that Our Lady was pledged to Christ in the womb at the moment of her fashioning; that Mary was destined to holiness because of the divine Maternity, and that this sanctity was with her from the beginning (cf. Serm 140, De Annunt D. Mariae Virg; PL 52:576).

"Even before the angel [Gabriel] announced God's plan, the Virgin's dignity was announced by her name; for the Hebrew word Mary is rendered in Latin as Domina ['Lady']. Hence the angel calls her Lady, so that the fear proper to servitude might leave her, the Mother of the Master. For her Son's authority decreed and brought it about that she should be born and named Lady." (Peter C., Sermo 142:2; PL 52:570; Gambero, page 293-4)

"'Blessed are you among women' (Luke 1:42). The Virgin is truly blessed, for she possessed the splendor of virginity and achieved the dignity of motherhood. She is truly blessed, for she merited the grace of a heavenly conception and wore the crown of integrity. She is truly blessed, for she received the glory of the divine Son and is queen of all chastity." (Peter C., (Sermo 143:7; PL 52:584; Gambero, page 294)

"Through Christ, she became the true Mother of all the living [cf. Gen 3:20], who in Adam had become the mother of all the dead. Christ willed to be born in this way, so that, as death came to all through Eve, so life might return to all through Mary. For Mary corresponds to the typology of the leaven, she bears its likeness, she authenticates the figure, since she receives the leaven of the Word from above and receives his human flesh into her virginal womb, and, in her virginal womb, she transfuses the heavenly man into the entire mass [of dough]." (Peter C., Sermo 99:5; PL 52:478-9; Gambero, page 298)

"The messenger flies swiftly to the spouse, in order to remove every attachment to a human marriage from God's spouse. He does not take the Virgin away from Joseph but simply restores her to Christ, to whom she had been promised when she was being formed in her mother's womb. Christ, then, takes his own bridge; he does not steal someone else's. Nor does he cause any separation when he unites his own creature to himself, in a single body." (Peter C., Sermo 140:2; PL 52:576; Gambero, page 297)

The preacher presents Mary's motherhood as a unique case, because it was the consequence of a miraculous and heavenly conception and because its fruit was a divine Son. Mary's divine marriage with her Son is compared to the human marriage she was going to contract with Joseph. The text excludes any incompatibility between the two types of marriage, because they take place on two different levels. Peter Chrysologus also appears to have been the first Latin Father to call the Blessed Virgin "God's spouse."

Maximus of Turin (c. 380 - 465), contemporary of Leo I, finds Mary a suitable lodging for Christ, apparently not so much because of her physical virginity as in virtue of some primal grace which he does not specify (Hom 6; PL 57:235). He writes of the Virgin as "a worthy dwelling of God by virtue of her original grace," and without this grace she would not have been the Mother of the Incarnate Word (Hom 5, Incipit dictum ante Natale Domini; PL 57:235D).

The poets, Caelius Sedulius (c. fifth century AD) and later Venantius Fortunatus (d. 609), sing of Mary in language which leaves no room for sin and is indefinite enough to provoke wonderment with respect to the state of her soul at conception (cf. Fortunatus, Miscellanae, lib 8, cap 7; PL 88:277,281). Sedulius, noted as a writer of hymns, institutes a comparison between Mary the all pure and the tainted nature of the rest of men, for she is "as the tender rose bloom amid sharp thorns" (Carmen Paschale, lib 2; PL 19:595-6). St. Fortunatus, Bishop of Poitiers, called the Virgin "a new creation," the "just seed" promised by God to Jeremiah the prophet (Miscellanea, lib 8, cap 7; PL 88:277-281). Other poems to the Virgin are clear on her sanctity:

"As the tender rose springs up among prickly thorns
But does not offend in any way, since its beauty obscures its thorny branches,
So holy Mary, the new virgin descending from the branch of Eve,
Makes pure the old virgin's offense.
Just so the old nature languished, corrupted
Under the sentence of death. Once Christ was born
Man could be born anew and cast off his old nature's stain."
  (Sedulius, Carmen Paschale 2:28-34; PL 19:595-6; Gambero, page 284)

"Hail, O holy mother; you gave birth to the King
Who governs heaven and earth forever, whose
Divinity and dominion embrace everything in one eternal realm
And endure without end. In your blessed womb
You hold a mother's joy, yet you enjoy the honor of virginity.
No woman like you was seen before, nor did one appear after;
You alone, without comparison, were the woman who pleased Christ."
   (Sedulius, ibid 2:63-69; PL 19:599-600; Gambero, page 288)

"O holy Virgin of God, Mary who bore such a Son!
Through you the people once in darkness now have light.
In the land of the shadow of death, light has risen and shines forth."
  (Fortunatus, In laudem sanctae Mariae 87-89; PL 88:276-84; Gambero, page 361)

"Happy are you, who became
The ticket, the way, the gate, the vehicle into heaven
For the human race, once fallen under hell's dominion.
Royal splendor of God, beauty of paradise, glory of the kingdom,
Receptacle of life, bridge that penetrates into the vault of heaven."
  (Fortunatus, ibid 207-210; Gambero, page 362)

"Spotless Mary offers her womb to serve God, her child;
And she feeds the Bread of Heaven with her milk."
  (Fortunatus, Carmen Misc 8:6; PL 88:269; Gambero, page 363)

Ambrose Autpertus (d. 778) declares that the Mother of God was "immaculate, because in nowise corrupt," and never subject to the snares of Satan (Ep 9 ad Paulam et Eustoch, de Assump Beatae Mariae Virg; PL 30:132A). Paulus Warnefridus wrote that Mary was never "spiritually deserted" by the grace of the Word (Homila 2, in Evangelium: Intravit Jesus; PL 95:1573B).

These citations are illustrations, chosen from among numerous others, of the constant affirmation of such an eminent holiness in Mary as would postulate at the same time freedom from the stain of original sin and its consequences.

Historically, the strides taken by the West in advance of the East on the holiness of Mary -- due primarily to Ambrose and Augustine -- were slowed by the barrier which the West felt had been placed by Augustine in the way of an immaculate conception -- a barrier not confronted by the East (due to differences in their understanding of original sin). Orthodox scholar John Meyendorff comments: "Quotations can easily be multiplied, and they give clear indications that the Mariological piety of the Byzantines would probably have led them to accept the definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary as it was defined in 1854 [by Pope Pius IX], if only they had shared the Western doctrine of original sin." (John Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology, page 148)

Mary in Eastern Patristic Thought

As with her divine Maternity and her abiding virginity, so too with respect to Our Lady's holiness, the year 431 marks a turning point for Eastern patristic thought. Before Ephesus, Oriental theology is apparently unaware of a problem in this regard. Where the literature touches the sanctity of Mary, it does so for the most part obliquely, in passing, with a disinterest which is disconcerting and at times a familiarity which borders on discourtesy. The pre-Ephesus portrait of Mary is paradoxical. For that reason it seems advisable to present separately the two ingredients of which the paradox is compounded:

  1. the evidence which indicates an awareness of Our Lady's sanctity; and
  2. the texts which seem to limit, minimize, or contradict such a consciousness. [13]

Even before Nicaea several facts suggest that the Christian East was not insensitive to Mary's sanctity. In the first place, the second-century calumny -- actually a flanking attack on Christ -- that the Mother of Jesus was an adulteress, perhaps a prostitute, must have been set with scorn by any Christian who confessed with Ignatius and Aristides, with Justin and Irenaeus and the universal Church, that the Savior Christ was born of a virgin. The Marian vision of the early East may well have been myopic; it did not, however, see in Mary a woman of questionable morality.

The New Eve, the Holy Virgin

Second, the Eve-Mary parallelism is not impertinent here. Eastern Christianity saw in Our Lady a "cause of salvation," at least in the sense that she gave birth to the Savior: source of life because Mother of Life. Her consent to an Incarnation recognized as redemptive was not simply an act of singular felicity, undoing the devastation achieved by Eve. It had exceptional moral value; it was an act of uncommon obedience.

From this premise, Mary's uncompelled and unparalleled role in the Redemption, did the Fathers conclude to a rare sanctity, either after her fiat or before? The pre-Ephesus evidence does not warrant the affirmation that they did. Jugie argues that Irenaeus' concept of Mary's sublime role at the side of Christ (i.e. it is to Jesus and Mary that humanity owes its return to primitive incorruption) removed from her ipso facto any such thing as original corruption. The conclusion may be theologically valid; it is nevertheless obvious that Irenaeus did not grasp the implications of his premise. But the germ of later development is already there.

Third, the adjective "holy" is prefixed to "Virgin" even in ante-Nicene times. Thus, Hippolytus (who, for all his Roman activity, was Greek in origin, mentality, and language) [14] states, without explanation, that "God the Word descended into the holy Virgin Mary" (Contra Noetum, cap 17; PG 10:825). On this score, I have emphasized elsewhere that reference to the West is equally germane to the East: the difficulty is such a usage (Latin sanctus or Greek hagios) is not clearly defined.

Similar difficulties arise with respect to kindred adjectives. The Inscription of Abercius (before 216) mentions that "faith....set before [him] for food the fish from the spring, mighty and pure, whom aspotless (Greek given) virgin caught" (Epitaphium Abercii, vv. 12-14). Some argue the Virgin Mary is intended, others the Church (cf. Eph 5:27). A passage attributed (with scant reason) to Origen speaks of "the all-holy (Greek given) Mother of God" (Hom 7 in Lucam). About 300 AD, the anonymous author of a dialogue on orthodox belief says that the Word "took man to Himself of the immaculate (Greek given) Virgin Mary" (Adamantius, De recta in Deum fide). In all these instances, holiness is indeed predicated of Mary, but its intimate nature is indeterminate.

Protoevangelium of James (c. 150 AD)

Fourth, there is testimony which suggests that here again popular piety may have anticipated scientific theology. The witness is the apocryphal but influential Protoevangelium of James (c. 150 or later AD). The pertinent ideas discoverable therein concern Our Lady's virginal purity, the unusual circumstances of her conception, and the description of Mary as "a fruit of justice."

To begin with, an insistent theme in the Protoevangelium is Mary's virginal purity. The author will not abide anything which, from her infancy on, could be construed as contamination or defilement (Protoevang Iacobi, 7-16). True, the contamination directly envisaged is physical and legal; but it may be argued with some justification that in the context purity of body demands purity of soul, especially in her who was destined to be Mother of the Savior. [15]

More significant, however, is the possibility that the Protoevangelium suggests a virginal, and therefore implicitly an immaculate, conception of Mary. Joachim has retired to the desert to lament Anne's sterility, to fast, and to pray (1,4). After a lengthy absence Joachim is greeted, first by an angel and then by Anne, with the news of a conception (4,2; 4,4). At this point our problem turns textual and grammatical. Some scholars are persuaded that, according to the primitive text, the angel said, "Your wife has conceived," and Anne said, "I have conceived." [16] In the context (so runs the argument at its most cogent) a verb in the perfect argues a conception that is virginal, and a virginal conception implies an immaculate conception. On the other hand, several objections deserve recording.

  1. Though the perfect-tense reading is relatively ancient and enjoyed wide diffusion at an early date, other (perhaps most) manuscripts have the future, and the future was adopted by Tischendorf as the textus receptus. [17]
  2. Even the perfect tense does not necessarily involve a virginal conception. For one thing, Joachim's separation from Anne may have begun no more than forty days before. Besides, Epiphanius' fourth-century interpretation is not implausible: by the use of the perfect the angel "foretold what was to be, to forestall any uncertainty" (Panarion haer 79, n. 5).
  3. Though some Christians did take the perfect tense literally and concluded to a virginal conception, Epiphanius indicates that this way of thinking did not represent the mind of the Church (ibid 79, n. 5; 78, n. 23). In a word, Mary's conception emerges as confessedly miraculous, but not convincingly immaculate.

A bit later the Protoevangelium lays a canticle on the lips of Anne after the birth of Mary: "...the Lord has given me a fruit of [His] righteousness, single and manifold before Him" (6,3). The text is uncertain; its meaning is problematical. Still, a not unlikely exegesis interprets the fruit as Mary; she is worthy of the holiness of the God who gave her to Anne; she is unique of her kind; she contains all manner of admirable, God-given qualities. [18]

Origen and Clement of Alexandria (c. 200 AD)

Fifth, the early Alexandrians insinuate Mary's sanctity, but they do little more. There is a fugitive allusion to it when Clement compares the Church to Our Lady. Each is a virgin and consequently undefiled; each is a mother and therefore lovingly affectionate (Paedagogus, lib 1, cap 6). Origen is somewhat more detailed. He claims that before the Annunciation Mary was "holy," that she meditated daily on Scripture (Hom 6 in Lucam). Gabriel's greeting, "Hail, full of grace," Origen sees as a hapax legomenon in Scripture, reserved exclusively for Mary; but he fails to clarify its significance (ibid). Our Lady's journey "into the hill country with haste" strikes him as deeply meaningful; it indicates a significant stage in her efforts to scale the heights of perfection (Hom 7 in Lucam). The Visitation was a source of remarkable "progress" for Elizabeth and John the Baptist, "from the nearness of the Lord's Mother and the presence of the Savior Himself" (Hom 9 in Lucam). Mary can sing, "My soul magnifies the Lord," not that the Lord is capable of increase, but because her soul's likeness to its Lord is increasing (Hom 8 in Lucam). The "humility of His handmaid" Origen interprets as her righteousness, moderation, courage, and wisdom (Hom 8 in Lucam). Briefly, Origen's portrait of Mary corresponds to his general conception of a soul that is making progress in the spiritual life -- and her progress reflects her own good dispositions and the special protection of the Holy Spirit.

The extant evidence, therefore, if meager, indicates sufficiently that for some of the ante-Nicene writers in the East a certain sanctity did attach to the person of Mary. For the most part its essence is unsuspected, though Origen reveals that it involves the practice of virtue, the intervention of God, and an ascent toward perfection. The evidence does not justify us in concluding that the pre-Nicene East envisioned a rare or singular sanctity in the Mother of God, or believed formally that her conception was sinless. If it be insisted that the Immaculate Conception is a legitimate deduction from the patristic doctrine of the Second Eve, let it be remembered that it is deduction and that deduction was not made before Nicaea.

Between Nicaea and Ephesus, Marian theology makes scant progress in the East. It is Arianism that preoccupies the Fathers; mention of Our Lady is mostly casual and incidental. In the fourth century the two patristic authors who lend fresh insight into Mary's sanctity are St. Epiphanius of Salamis among the Greeks, and St. Ephraem (or Ephrem) in the Syriac-speaking Church. If the treatise On Virginity, transmitted in Coptic, is authentic, St. Athanasius should be added. It describes in highly laudatory terms the life of Mary as a young girl. Incidental reservations suggest that the author may have glimpsed in her some trifling, momentary failings; but on the whole the picture is striking. The treatise presents Our Lady as a unique model for Christian virgins.

Epiphanius of Salamis (c. >310 - 403 AD)

Epiphanius, we have seen, recognizes that Mary is "mother of the living" in a sense far more profound than was Eve: she is the cause of life because she gave birth to Life (cf. Panarion haer 78:17-19; PG 42:728-9). Does this involve an uncommon holiness? Epiphanius seems to take it for granted:

"To pass on to the New Testament: If women were appointed by God to be priests or to perform any ministerial function in the Church, it was Mary herself who should have discharged the office of priest in the New Testament. She was thought worthy to welcome in her own womb the absolute Monarch and heaven's God, God's Son; her womb was prepared, in God's love for man and by an astounding mystery, as a temple and dwelling-place for the Lord's Incarnation." (Epiphanius, Panarion haer 79, n. 3)

But there is more. Not merely is Our Lady properly prepared to receive the Word in her womb; she is "graced in every way" (Panarion haer 78, n. 24). Does this imply that she was conceived free from sin? As Epiphanius failed to deduce from his Second Eve doctrine Mary's resemblance to Eve in original sinlessness, so here he makes no inference from Mary's fullness of grace. Nevertheless, his "graced in every way" is not to be taken lightly; for with reference to Our Lady, Epiphanius is aware that he must keep a careful eye on his language and his theology. That is why he reproves the Collyridians who make a goddess of Mary by offering sacrifice to her, and rejects the thesis of the Protoevangelium of James that Our Lady was conceived virginally (Panarion haer 78, n. 23; 79, n. 5). And still he can speak of her as "graced in every way." The phrase need not involve sinless conception, but it does suggest high holiness, as do these passages:

"How will holy Mary not possess the kingdom of heaven with her flesh, since she was not unchaste, nor dissolute, nor did she ever commit adultery, and since she never did anything wrong as far as fleshly actions are concerned, but remained stainless?" (Panarion haer 42:12; PG 41:777B)

"Mary, the holy Virgin, is truly great before God and men. For how shall we not proclaim her great, who held within her the uncontainable One, whom neither heaven nor earth can contain?" (ibid 30:31; PG 41:460C)

"Whoever honors the Lord also honors the holy [vessel]; who instead dishonors the holy vessel also dishonors his Master. Mary herself is that holy Virgin, that is, the holy vessel." (ibid 78:21; PG 42:733A)

Perhaps the sentence that best epitomizes his explicit theology on Mary's sanctity is this: "though Mary is remarkably good, though she is holy, though she is to be held in honor, still she is not to be adored." Another translation from Luigi Gambero, Mary and the Fathers of the Church:

"Yes, Mary's body was holy, but it was not God. Yes, the Virgin was surely a virgin and worthy of honor; however, she was not given us for us to adore her. She herself adored him who was born of her flesh, having descended from heaven and from the bosom of the Father." (ibid 79:4; PG 42:745C-D)

Epiphanius was writing chapter 78 of his treatise Panarion against the "Antidicomarianites" (in particular those who denied the perpetual virginity of Mary), and chapter 79 against the "Kollyridians" (those who practiced exaggerated and aberrant forms of worship, such as offering a kind of bread [kollyra] as if to a god, directed to the Mother of the Lord).

Ephraem of Syria (c. 306 - 373 AD) 

The witness of St. Ephraem is more striking still. Despite the chaotic condition of the so-called Ephraemite literature, the essence of Ephraem's authentic thought on Mary's sanctity may be recaptured in a single idea: Our Lady is singularly sinless. First, he insists that the Cherubim are not her equal in holiness, the Seraphim must yield to her in loveliness, the legions of angels are inferior in purity (Hymni de beata Maria, 13, n. 5-6; ibid 14, n. 1). Second, he links Mary and Eve in their "innocence and simplicity," despite the fact that one was principle of salvation, the other of death (Sermones exegetici; Opera omnia syriace at latine, Vol 2:327). Third, in what is perhaps his most suggestive Mariological insight, Ephraem addresses Our Lord as follows:

"In very truth, you and your Mother are alone perfectly beautiful in every respect; for in you, Lord, there is no stain at all, and in your Mother there is no spot. Among my children there is no one like these two beautiful ones." (Ephraem, Carmina Nisibena, 27)

A second translation of above: "Only you [Jesus] and your Mother are more beautiful than everything. For on you, O Lord, there is no mark; neither is there any stain in your Mother." (ibid; Gambero, page 109)

A third translation of above: "You alone and your Mother are more beautiful than any others; For there is no blemish in you, nor any stains upon your Mother. Who of my children can compare in beauty to these?" (ibid; William Jurgens, Faith of the Early Fathers, vol 1, page 313)

Some argue this way: Ephraem likens the spotlessness of Mary to the stainlessness of Jesus (first translation). In this respect they are unique in humankind; the privilege is exclusively theirs. Moreover, in the context the beauty in question is a spiritual thing; for with this loveliness the Church of Nisbis contrasts its own unsightliness. This spiritual beauty is not limited to virginity; for in the loveliness which is virginity many human beings share. The stain, therefore, is sin, and stainlessness is sinlessness; and so the text excludes from the Mother of God and from her Son all taint of sin, whatever it be -- consequently, even original sin.

It might be objected that Ephraem needs a clear, acceptable concept of original sin before the passage can be cited in favor of the Immaculate Conception. But such a negative and absolute proposition like Ephraem's excludes everything that is genuinely sin, whatever be the author's inability to understand sin comprehensively. However, it can be argued that Ephraem did realize that our inheritance from Adam is properly sin:

"Adam sinned and earned all sorrows, and the world, following his lead, all guilt. And it took no thought of how it might be restored, but only of how its fall might be made more pleasant for it. Glory to Him that came and restored it!" (Ephraem, Hymns of the Epiphany 10:1; William Jurgens, Faith of the Early Fathers). 

Other passsages from Ephraem on Mary's holiness, and the Eve-Mary analogy:

"The eye becomes pure when it is united with the light of the sun, and receives strength from its vigor and clarity from its splendor; it becomes radiant with its ardor and adorned with its beauty...In Mary, as in an eye, the Light has made a dwelling and purified her spirit, refined her thoughts, sanctified her mind, and transfigured her virginity." (Ephraem,Hymns on the Church 36:1-2; Gambero, page 110)

"Blessed are you also, Mary, whose name is great and exalted because of your Child. Indeed you were able to say how much and how and where the Great One, Who became small, dwelt in you." (Ephraem, Hymns on the Nativity 25:14; Gambero, page 111)

"Because the serpent had struck Eve with his claw, the foot of Mary bruised him." (Ephraem, Diatessaron 10:13; cf. ibid 2:2; also Hymns on the Church 37:5-7; Gambero, page 116-7)

This indicates that before Ephesus, Eastern Christianity was not unaware of Our Lady's holiness, recognized it at times as an uncommon thing, and may have even caught a fleeting glimpse of a conception that rivaled Christ's in its sheer sinlessness.

Some Fathers on specific faults

The other side of the paradox comprises a set of patristic affirmations which suggest that Mary's life was not free of actual sin and imply concomitantly that her conception was not exempt from original sin. In their more positive form the affirmations attribute specific faults to Our Lady; in a more negative form they related a purification or sanctification of Mary, commonly on the day of the Annunciation [19].

In the first place, some of the Fathers and early ecclesiastical writers allege specific faults. The root of these allegations may well be a general principle enunciated by e.g. St. Clement of Alexandria: "only the Logos Himself is sinless." He goes on to quote Menander: "for to sin is natural to all and common, but to make amends for sin is not the part of any and every man, but [only] of a remarkable man" (Paedagogus, lib 3, cap 12). St. Cyril of Alexandria recalls this principle before 423: Aaron had to offer sacrifice for his own sins. "The reason is that, being a man, he should not be looked upon as superior to sin. But for Christ anything of this sort simply will not do; far from it; As God, you see, He enjoyed sinlessness by His very nature" (Glaph in Levit; PG 69:584). In a word, among human beings the Incarnate Word alone is without sin.

The imputation or insinuation of specific faults centers around four episodes in Mary's life:

  • the Annunciation
  • Cana (John 2)
  • the "mother and brethren" scene (Matt 12:46ff)
  • and Calvary

With reference to Gabriel, St. John Chrysostom asks why the angel did not act toward Mary as he did toward Joseph, i.e. why he did not wait until conception had taken place before telling her the truth about her maternity. His answer?

"To keep her from being much confused and troubled; for it was likely that, not knowing the clear truth, she would reach some absurd decision in her regard and, unable to endure the shame, hang or stab herself." (Hom 4 in Matt, n. 5; PG 57:45)

Chrysostom's answer is the more surprising as in the same context he recognizes Mary's reaction to Gabriel's greeting as admirable and virtuous.

The marriage at Cana is a proverbial trouble-area for exegetes: "What is that to me and to you?" (John 2:4). St. Irenaeus believes that with these words Our Lord "checked [Mary's] untimely haste," her yearning to quicken the miracle of the water made wine (Adv Haer, lib 3, cap 17,7; cf. also Ephraem, Expos evangelii concord, cap 5, n. 5). Severian, Bishop of Gabala in Syria, finds that Jesus "reproves His Mother for a useless and unsuitable suggestion" (from In sanctum martyrem Acacium). Chrysostom does not hesitate to say that with her appeal, "They have no wine," Mary "wanted to store up favor with [the disciples] too, and make herself still more illustrious through the medium of her Son" (Hom 21 in John, n. 2; PG 59:130).

Matthew 12:46ff pictures the Mother and brethren of Jesus on the outskirts of a crowd, eager to speak with Him. Chrysostom finds the attitude of the brethren (and presumably Mary too) all too human: "their desire was not to hear anything useful, but to show that they were related to Him and so to indulge some vainglory..." (Hom 27 in Matt, n. 3; PG 57:347). In another passage he deals with Our Lady specifically: "What she tried to do sprang from excessive ambition; for she wanted to display herself to the people as having full authority over her Son. As yet she had no extraordinary idea of Him; that is why her approach was so ill-timed" (Hom 44 in Matt, n. 1; PG 57:464-5). It is worth noting that this is not "ivory-tower" exegesis; the Homilies on John and Matthew were preached to the Christians of Antioch about the years 389 and 390.

Calvary and Simeon's "sword of sorrow" (Luke 2:35) pose perhaps the most troublesome problem of all, if seen through the eyes of Origen, Basil the Great, and Cyril of Alexandria. For Origen, the sword is the scandal -- concretely, uncertainty and unbelief -- experienced by Mary during the passion of her Son. What is more significant, Origen (c. 233 AD) proceeds to defend his exegesis on theological grounds:

"Shall we think that, when the apostles were scandalized, the Lord's Mother was exempt from scandal? If she did not experience scandal at the Lord's passion, Jesus did not die for her sins. But if 'all have sinned and need the glory of God' (Rom 3:23), then undoubtedly Mary was scandalized at that time." (Origen, Hom 17 in Lucam)

Origen's influence is evident in Basil (c. 377 AD), who interprets the sword of "a certain unsteadiness," "some sort of doubt," in Mary's soul as she stood by the cross. Why this exegesis? Because "it was imperative for the Lord to taste death for all...." (Basil, Epistola 260, n. 9; PG 32:965-8; cf. Hebrews 2:9).

In a vivid passage, Cyril of Alexandria (c. 425 AD) portrays Our lady beneath the cross and makes three points. First, there is the fact: "in all likelihood, even the Lord's Mother was scandalized by the unexpected passion, and the intensely bitter death on the cross all but deprived her of right reason." Her train of thought is partly this: "He may well have made a mistake when He said, 'I am the Life.' " Second, Mary's way of thinking is due to "her ignorance of the mystery" and has roots in Cyril's typically Oriental view of woman: "No wonder that a woman fell like this," seeing that Peter himself was once scandalized. Third, Cyril insists that "these are not just idle guesses, as someone might suppose, but derive from what has been written of the Lord's Mother"; for Simeon's sword is "the sharp assault of the passion, cutting the woman's mind to strange thoughts" (Comm in Joannis evang, lib 12; PG 74:661-4).

Our Lady's sanctification or purification

So much for specific faults. A second major objection on the score of Mary's holiness stems from a set of patristic propositions which lead us to believe that Our Lady was not definitively delivered from sin until the day of the Annunciation. Cyril of Jerusalem asserts that "the Holy Spirit coming upon her sanctified her so as to enable her to receive Him through whom all things were made" (Catechese 17:6; PG 33:976). Gregory of Nazianzus remarks that the Word was "conceived of the Virgin, who was purified in advance by the Spirit in soul and in flesh; for honor had to be paid to her maternity, and preference given to her virginity" (Oratio 38, n. 13; PG 36:325; ibid 45, n. 9; PG 36:633). Ephraem speaks of a prior purification through the Holy Spirit (from Sermo adv haer); he mentions a purification of Mary's mind, imagination, thoughts, and virginity through the Life that dwelt in her (from Sermones exegetici); he even declares that the Son regenerated His Mother through baptism (from Sermo 11 in natalem domini).

Resolving the Paradox

Can this paradox be resolved? To begin with, the area of conflict can be reduced if we cut away the accumulated undergrowth. The sanctification and purification of Mary described by Cyril of Jerusalem, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Ephraem need have no immediate connection with sin, whether original or actual. In each case the context is satisfied by an increase in holiness, in what the Catholic calls grace, given by God with a view to the divine Maternity. Such sanctification would have for its object not forgiveness of sin but even more intimate union with God.

The general proposition, "Only Christ is without sin," is not fatal to the thesis of Mary's sinlessness. There is a sinlessness which is the fruit of nature; such sinlessness has always been, in orthodox Christian thinking, the exclusive prerogative of God. And there is a sinlessness which is the fruit of grace; it is theoretically compatible with human living. Did the Alexandrians, Clement and Cyril, deny such God-given sinlessness in the concrete order of things? An affirmative answer is not justified by the texts alleged. For Clement and Cyril, Christ is natively sinless, because He is God; man is natively sinful, because he is man. There is a middle ground which neither text invades: the possibility of sinlessness through grace.

Some of the specific faults imputed to Mary, such as Irenaeus' "untimely haste" and Severian's "useless and unsuitable suggestion," are not necessarily sins. In at least one instance, Chrysostom's interpretation of the Annunciation, there is question not of actual fact but of unverifiable hypothesis: "she would have..." Again, it is not evident that the doubts which Cyril lays on Our Lady's lips were deliberate and therefore formally sinful. But the residue is rather formidable: not merely Chrysostom's "vainglory" and "ambition," but especially Origen's "unbelief" and Basil's "doubt," because based on a dogmatic premise, the universality of Redemption.

How to resolve our original paradox? It would seem that before Ephesus some prominent churchmen and some of the laity in Alexandria and Caesarea of Cappadocia, in Antioch and Caesarea of Palestine, (a) were not aware of an obligation to represent the Mother of God as utterly sinless; and (b) did not regard the presence of sin, perhaps even serious sin, as incompatible with her singular sanctity. Did they espy a connection between such faults and original sin, so that in alleging the former they would eo ipso admit the latter? Any answer would be conjecture; Origen, Basil, and Chrysostom never posited the problem in these terms.

After the Council of Ephesus (c. after 431 AD)

During the period of time covered by the middle of the fifth century up into the eleventh century, the belief in the total sinlessness of the Virgin among the great body of the faithful, by the writers of this era and by the teaching Church, became considerably more explicit. The well-established "all-holy" quality of the Mother of Christ, formulated and developed in earlier times, and assuredly emphasized between the Council of Nicaea (325) and the Council of Ephesus (431), offered abundant material for the conclusion that Mary was conceived in grace.

After the Council of Ephesus, reflection on the consequences of the divine Maternity led to the definite conclusions concerning the entire purity of the Mother of God. The dissenting voices of certain of the Eastern writers who held that the Virgin did contract original sin and was delivered of its stain only at the moment of the Annunciation, never gained any measure of wide acceptance among the better authors. The latter, in the course of time, formulated the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception in surprisingly clear terms, although these often took the form of statements in the positive sense of her unrivaled sanctity, rather than in the negative sense of a simple rejection of original sin from her.

Theodotus of Ancrya (d. 445)

In the fifth century, references to Mary's immunity from original sin include the teaching of Theodotus, Bishop of Ancyra in Galatia (d. 445).

"Hail, our desirable gladness;
 Hail, O rejoicing of the churches;
 Hail, O name that breathes out sweetness;
 Hail, face that radiates divinity and grace;
 Hail, most venerable memory;
 Hail, O spiritual and saving fleece;
 Hail, O Mother of unsetting splendor, filled with light;
 Hail, unstained Mother of holiness;
 Hail, most limpid font of the lifegiving wave;
 Hail, new Mother, workshop of the birth.
 Hail, ineffable Mother of a mystery beyond understanding;
 Hail, new book of a new scripture, of which, as Isaiah tells, angels and men are faithful witnesses.
 Hail, alabaster jar of sanctifying ointment;
 Hail, best trader of the coin of virginity;
 Hail, creature embracing your Creator;
 Hail, little container containing the Uncontainable."
  (Theodotus, Homily 4:3; PG 77:1391B-C; Gambero, page 267-8)

"In the place of Eve, an instrument of death, is chosen a Virgin, most pleasing to God and full of His grace, as an instrument of life. A Virgin included in woman's sex, but without a share in woman's fault. A Virgin innocent; immaculate; free from all guilt; spotless; undefiled; holy in spirit and body; a lily among thorns." (Theodotus, Hom 6 in S. Deiparam, No 11; PG 77:1427A)

Another translation of above: "Innocent virgin, spotless, without defect, untouched, unstained, holy in body and in soul, like a lily flower sprung among thorns, unschooled in the wickedness of Eve, unclouded by womanly vanity...Even before the Nativity, she was consecrated to the Creator...Holy apprentice, guest in the Temple, disciple of the law, anointed by the Holy Spirit, clothed with divine grace as with a cloak, divinely wise in your mind; united to God in your heart...Praiseworthy in your speech, even more praiseworthy in your action...God in the eyes of men, better in the sight of God." (Theodotus, Hom 6:11; Gambero, page 268)

"What did the divine messenger do then? Perceiving the Virgin's interior dispositions and perspicacity in her outward appearance and admiring her just prudence, he began to weave her a kind of floral crown with two peaks: one of joy and one of blessing; then he addressed her in a thrilling speech of praise, lifting up his hand and crying out: 'Hail, O full of grace, the Lord is with you, you are blessed' (Lk 1:28), O most beautiful and most noble among women. The Lord is with you, O all-holy one, glorious and good. The Lord is with you, O worthy of praise, O incomparable, O more than glorious, all splendor, worthy of God, worthy of all blessedness....Through you, Eve's odious condition is ended; through you, abjection has been destroyed; through you, error is dissolved; through you, sorrow is abolished; through you, condemnation has been erased. Through you, Eve has been redeemed. He who is born of the holy [Virgin] is holy, holy and Lord of all the saints, holy and Giver of holiness. Wondrous is he who generated the Woman of wonder; Ineffable is he who precedes the Woman beyond words; Son of the Most High is he who springs from this highest creature, he who appears, not by man's willing it, but by the power of the  Holy Spirit; he who is born is not a mere man, but God, the incarnate Word." (Theodotus, On the Mother of God and on the Nativity; Patrologia orientalis 19:330-1; Gambero, page 271)

Proclus of Constantinople (d. 446)

In a similar vein of praise of the Savior's Mother, St. Proclus, Patriarch of Constantinople (d. 446), compares the action of God in preparing a dwelling place for the Word to the work of a potter who would not fashion for himself a vessel of tainted clay. Hence, whatever might stain the purity of the Incarnate Word must first be removed from her who was destined to bear Him.

"He came forth from her without any flaw, and made her for Himself without any stain."; And again: "Mary is the heavenly orb of a new creation, in whom the Sun of justice, ever shining,has vanished from her entire soul all the night of sin." (Proclus, Oratio 1 de Laudibus S. Mariae; PG 65:683B; Oratio 6; PG 68:758A)

"Thanks to her all women are blessed. It is not possible that woman should remain under her curse; to the contrary, she now has a reason to surpass even the glory of the angels. Eve has been healed....Today, a list of women is admired [Sarah, Rebekah, Leah, Deborah, etc]...Elizabeth is called blessed for having carried the Forerunner, who leapt for joy in her womb, and for having giving witness to grace; Mary is venerated, because she became the Mother, the cloud, the bridal chamber, and the Ark of the Lord." (Proclus, Homily 5:3; PG 65:720B; Gambero, page 256)

"O man, run through all creation with your thought, and see if there exists anything comparable to or greater than the holy Virgin, Mother of God. Circle the whole world, explore all the oceans, survey the air, question the skies, consider all the unseen powers, and see if there exists any other similar wonder in the whole creation...Count, then, the portents, and wonder at the superiority of the Virgin: she alone, in a way beyond words, received into her bridal chamber him before whom all creation kneels with fear and trembling." (Proclus,Homily 5:2; PG 65:717C-720A; Gambero, page 251)

Similarly, Hesychius of Jerusalem (d. 450) extolled the incorruptibility, immortality, immunity from concupiscence, impeccability, triumph over Satan, and the co-redemptive mission of the Mother of God (Sermo 5; PG 93:1463,1466). These qualities of Mary, in relation to the Immaculate Conception certainly appear as causes in relation to an effect; as parts in a whole of sanctity connoted in immunity from original sin. Other Eastern writers, such as Basil of Seleucia, and Antipater of Bostra, a near contemporary (cf. In Sanct Deiparae Annunt, Hom 2; PG 85:1778,1783), reflect this same theme of unparalleled holiness. The following is a long passage from the former (cf. Oratio 39 in Sanct Deip Annunt, PG 85:426).

Basil of Seleucia (d. 458)

"He who would exalt the Holy Virgin and Mother of God, will find a most ample subject for his praises....only those who have been intimately illuminated by the light of Divine Grace can worthily accord the praises which are due to the Mother of God....What fear ought to encompass me then, when I undertake to offer praise to the Mother of God; lest, through some indiscretion, I should utter words unsuited to her dignity...

" purpose is, as far as my power will allow, with the help of the Spirit who guides to things divine, even to pass by the choirs of angels with the leaders of their ranks, and to rise above the brightness of the Thrones, the honored dignity of the Dominations, the Principalities in their place of command, and the clear lustre of the Powers; and then the clear-sighted purity of the many-eyed Cherubim, and the six-winged Seraphim with their movements unrestrained on either side, and if there be any created being above these, I will not there stay my course or my longing desire, but will dare to fix my curious gaze intently, as far as is permitted for man in chains of flesh, and will contemplate the co-eternal brightness of the Father's glory, and encompassed and enlightened with that True Light, will begin the hymn of praise to the Mother of God there, from whence she became the Mother of God, and obtained that name and title....

"....the great mystery of the Mother of God transcends both speech and reason. When then I speak of the Mother of God incarnate, I will ascend to God by the help of prayer, and will seek Him for the guide of my speech, and will say to Him: O Lord Omnipotent, King of the whole creation, who, in an incomprehensible manner, dost infuse Thy spiritual light into incorporeal minds, illuminate my mind, that the subject set before me may be understood without error, may, when understood, be spoken with piety, and when spoken, may be received without hesitation...From what flowers of praise shall we cull a garland worthy of her? From her sprang the flower of Jesse; she clothed our race with glory and with honor. What encomiums can we offer her as she deserves, when everything of this world is beneath her merits? For if St. Paul pronounced these words of the other saints, that the world was not worthy of them, what shall we say of the mother of God, who shone with as great a splendor above the martyrs, as does the sun above the stars?

"It is clearly fitting we should greet her with these words of Solomon: 'Many daughters have wrought virtue, but thou hast risen above them all.' O Sacred Virgin, well may the angels exult through thee, destined as they are to the service of men, from whom, in former times, they turned away. And let Gabriel now rejoice, for to him is intrusted the message of the Divine Conception, and he stands before the Virgin in great honor. Wherefore, in joy and grace he auspiciously begins the message: 'Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.'

"Hail, full of grace. Let thy face be joyful. For from thee shall the joy of all be born; and He shall take away their ancient execration, dissolve the empire of death, and give to all the hope of resurrection. Hail, full of grace. Most flourishing paradise of chastity; in which is planted the tree of life which shall produce for all the fruits of salvation; and from which the fountain of the gospels shall stream to all believers, in floods of mercy from their fourfold source and spring. Hail, full of grace. Mediatrix of God and men, through whom the middle wall of enmity is cleared away, and earthly things conjoined with those of heaven.

"The Lord is with thee. For thou art a temple truly worthy of God, and odoriferous with the aromatics of chastity. In thee shall dwell the great High Priest, who, according to the order of Melchisedec, is without father and mother -- of God without mother, of thee without father...And the most Holy Mother of the Lord of all, the true Mother of God, pondering these things in her heart, as it is written, inbibed full draughts of joy within her, and as the greatness of her Son and her God revealed itself more and more to the eyes of her soul, her awe increased with her delight....

"See what a mystery is wrought in her, how it passes both thought and speech. Who then will not admire the vast power of the Mother of God? Who will not see how far she is lifted above the saints? For if God gave to His servants a grace so great, that by their very touch they healed the sick, and the mere casting of their shadows across the street could do the same thing; if Peter, I say, with his shadow, could heal the infirm; and if when men took the handkerchief which wiped the perspiration from Paul, they drove the devils away with it, how much power, think you, did He give His Mother? ....

"But if to the saints He has granted to do things so wonderful as these, what has He given to His Mother for her nursing? With what gifts has He adorned her? If Peter is called blessed, and the keys of heaven are entrusted to him, because he called Christ the Son of the living God, how must she not be more blessed than all, who deserved to hear Him whom Peter confessed? And if Paul is called a vessel of election, because he carried the august name of Christ over the earth, what vessel is the Mother of God, who did not merely contain the manna, like the golden urn, but who in her womb bore that bread -- that heavenly bread, which is the nourishment and strength of the faithful?

"But I fear, lest, whilst prepared to say more concerning her, I should say little that is worthy of her dignity, and bring the more shame upon myself. Wherefore I draw in the sail of my discourse, and retire into the harbor of silence." (Basil of Seleucia, Orat in S. Dei Gentricem, Combefis; Ullathorne, The Immaculate Conception of the Mother of God, page 14-18)

Sixth Century AD

As in the preceeding century, the writers of the Orient repeat in the sixth century the special care God manifested in preparing the soul of Mary as a becoming instrument of the Incarnation and Redemption: perhaps no author of this period is more explicit than St. Anastasius I (d. 598), a staunch defender of the dignity of the Blessed Virgin, and whose writings declare, in equivalent terms, the privilege of the Immaculate Conception (Oratio 3 de Incarnatione, No. 6; PG 89:1338).

Seventh Century AD

By the seventh century the doctrine of Mary's freedom from original sin had become well elaborated, and while the future would hold a yet more explicit statement of it, nevertheless, it may be fairly concluded that from this century on there was in reality no controversy on the substance of the teaching. St. Sophronius (d. 637), Patriarch of Jerusalem, devoted much attention to the fullness of Mary's grace, writing of its incomparably illustrious quality; of its perpetuity; of its uniqueness since no one else received like it for no one else was "prepurified" (Oratio 2 in Sanct Deip Annunt; PG 87(3):3247). In his "Synodal Epistle" approved by the Sixth Ecumenical Council, he described Mary as "holy, immaculate in soul and body, entirely free from every contagion" (Epistola Synodica ad Sergium; PG 87(3):3159,3162). Similar praise of the Virgin's entire holiness can be found in other authors of this period, for example, in the work of St. Modestus (d. 634), another patriarch of Jerusalem.

Eighth Century AD

The oustanding figure of this epoch may properly be considered St. John Damascene (c. 675-749), whose writings on the prerogatives of Mary mark him as a vigorous exponent of her Immaculate Conception. If he did not expressly teach the doctrine, nevertheless his whole treatment of Mariology points the way to it, and indeed presupposes it as an essential element in the composite of her graces (cf. Encomium in Beatam Virginem; PG 86(2):3279,3282,3283,3302,3306). When the Blessed Virgin is contrasted with the fallen human nature conceived in sin and engulfed with the dire results of the fall, St. John Damascene delineates her figure as far removed from everything connected with the primal sin. She alone is full of grace; free from all concupiscence; never for a moment was her face turned from a steady gaze upon the Creator; she submitted to death only in order to resemble her Son. In no place is original sin attributed to her, and although evidently the phrase "Immaculate Conception" is not employed, yet the exemption implied in it must be included in the absolute purity and sinlessness and grace associated in every way with her who was destined to be the Mother of the God of infinite holiness (De Fide Orthodoxa, lib 4, cap 14; PG 94:1159A).

"She is all beautiful, all near to God. For she, surpassing the cherubim, exalted beyond the seraphim, is placed near to God." (John Damascene, Homily on the Nativity 2; PG 96:676D; Gambero, page 403)

"O how could the Font of life be led to life through death? O how could she, who in giving birth surpassed the limits of nature, now yield to nature's laws and have her immaculate body undergo death? She had to put aside what was mortal and put on incorruptibility, seeing that even the Lord of nature did not excuse himself from facing death. He truly died in the flesh to destroy death by means of death; in place of corruption he gave corruptibility; he made death into a font of resurrection..." (John Damascene, Homily on the Dormition 10; PG 96:713D; Gambero, page 403)

"Even though your most holy and blessed soul was separated from your most happy and immaculate body, according to the usual course of nature, and even though it was carried to a proper burial place, nevertheless it did not remain under the dominion of death, nor was it destroyed by corruption. Indeed, just as her virginity remained intact when she gave birth, so her body, even after death, was preserved from decay and transferred to a better and more divine dwelling place. There it is no longer subject to death but abides for all ages." (ibid 10; PG 96:716A-B; Gambero, page 404)

"It was necessary that the body of the one who preserved her virginity intact in giving birth should also be kept incorrupt after death. It was necessary that she, who carried the Creator in her womb when he was a baby, should dwell among the tabernacles of heaven....It was necessary that the Mother of God share what belongs to her Son and that she be celebrated by all creation." (John Damascene, Homily 2 on the Dormition 14; PG 96:741B; Gambero, page 404)

Just as she was immune from original sin, so she was not subject to the disorders of its guilt in the matter of carnal concupiscence: utterly pure in mind and body (Homilia 2 in Dormit Beatae Virg Mariae, No. 2; PG 96:726B; Homilia 1 in Nativ Beatae Virg Mariae, No. 8; PG 96:674B). As Adam was in his innocence, with the whole intent of his intellect devoted to contemplation of things divine (De Fide Orthodoxa, lib 2; PG 94:978C), similarly Mary repelled any movement tward any vice (Homilia 2 in Dormit Beatae Virg Mariae, No. 3; PG 96:727A). The penalty of death, so directly the consequence of Adam's fall, is exacted of every offspring of the first parent who inherits his fault. Christ the Redeemer could not be subject to death since He was sinless and death comes through sin (De Fide Orthodoxa, lib 3, cap 27; PG 94:1095B-C). In the case of the Blessed Virgin, St. John Damascene declares, she also was not subject to the universal law of death, but submitted to it out of loving conformity to the chosen lot of her Son, "the Lord of nature who did not refuse to experience death" (Homilia 1 in Dormit Beatae Virg Mariae, No. 10; PG 96:714D). Thus her death indeed resembled that of sinful man, but was not associated with the humiliation of punishment for sin, for "in her," the Saint exclaims, "the sting of death, sin, has been extinguished" (Homilia 2 in Dormit Beatae Virg Mariae, No. 3; Pg 96:727C).

The evidence is forceful that Damascene taught substantially the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.

Thus ends the patristic period (c. 750 AD).

More Theological and Historical Considerations

Explanation of the dogma, from Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma:

  • By conception is to be understood the passive conception. The essence of original sin consists (formaliter) in the lack of sanctifying grace, in consequence of the fall of Adam. Mary was preserved from this defect, so that she entered existence in the state of sanctifying grace.
  • Mary's freedom from original sin was an unmerited gift of God (gratia), and an exception from the law (privilegium) which was vouchsafed to her only (singulare).
  • The efficient cause (causa efficiens) of the Immaculate Conception of Mary was Almighty God.
  • The meritorious cause (causa meritoria) was the Redemption by Jesus Christ. It follows from this that even Mary was in need of redemption, and was in fact redeemed. She was redeemed "by the grace of Christ" but in a more perfect manner than other human beings. While these are freed from original sin present in their souls (redemptio reparativa), Mary the Mother of the Redeemer, was preserved from the contagion of original sin (redemptio praeservativa or praeredemptio). Thus the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary in no way contradicts the dogma that all children of Adam are subject to Original Sin and need redemption (cf. Rom 3:23; 5:12).
  • The final cause (causa finalis proxima) of the Immaculate Conception of Mary is her Motherhood of God: dignum Filio tuo habitaculum praeparasti (Prayer of the Feast).

The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is not explicitly revealed in Scripture but is implicitly contained (implicite) in several biblical passages.

Genesis 3:15 (the Protoevangelium)

The literal sense of the passage: Between Satan and his followers on the one hand, and Eve and her posterity on the other hand, there is to be constant moral warfare. The posterity of Eve will achieve a complete and final victory over Satan and his followers, even if it is wounded in the struggle. The posterity of Eve includes the Messiah, in whose power humanity will win a victory over Satan. Thus the passage is indirectly messianic.

The seed of the woman was understood as referring to the Redeemer, and thus the Mother of the Redeemer came to be seen in the woman. Since the second century this direct messianic-Marian interpretation has been expounded by individual Fathers, e.g. St. Irenaeus, St. Cyprian, St. Ephrem, St. Epiphanius, Isidore of Pelusium, St. Leo the Great, etc.

"The knot of Eve's disobedience was untied by Mary's obedience. What Eve bound through her unbelief, Mary loosed by her faith." (Irenaeus, Adv Haer 3:22; PG 7:959-60; Gambero, page 54)

"Adam had to be recapitulated in Christ, so that death might be swallowed up in immortality, and Eve in Mary, so that the Virgin, having become another virgin's advocate, might destroy and abolish one virgin's disobedience by the obedience of another virgin." (Irenaeus, Proof of the Apostolic Preaching 33; Gambero, page 55)

"It is written in the prophet Isaiah....'Behold a virgin shall conceive in her womb and bear a son...' [Isa 7:14]...God had predicted that the seed destined to crush the head of the devil would come forth from a woman. In Genesis, it is written: 'I will put enmity between you and the woman, between your seed and hers. He will crush your head and you will strike at his heel' [Gen 3:15]." (Cyprian, Book of Testimonies 2:9; PL 4:704; Gambero, page 93)

"Because the serpent had struck Eve with his claw, the foot of Mary bruised him." (Ephraem, Diatessaron 10:13; Gambero, page 116-7)

According to this interpretation, Mary stands with Christ in a perfect and victorious enmity towards Satan and his following.

Many of the later scholastics and a great many modern theologians argue that Mary's victory over Satan would not have been perfect, if she had ever been under his dominion. Consequently she must have entered this world without the stain of original sin. Pope Pius IX's defining bull Ineffabilis Deus approves this messianic-marianic interpretation. It draws from it the inference that Mary, in consequence of her intimate association with Christ, "with Him and through Him had eternal enmity towards the poisonous serpent, triumphed in the most complete fashion over him, and crushed its head with her immaculate foot."

It is sometimes mentioned at this point that while the Latin Vulgate (i.e. Douay-Rheims translation) indeed reads "she shall crush," the original Hebrew of Genesis 3:15 reads "he [or it] shall crush" --

"I will put enmities between thee and the woman, and thy seed and her seed: she shall crush thy head, and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel." (Genesis 3:15 Douay-Rheims; Latin Vulgate: inimicitias ponam inter te et mulierem et semen tuum et semen illius ipsa conteret caput tuum et tu insidiaberis calcaneo eius)

"And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed: he shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel." (Genesis 3:15 ASV; the KJV has"it")

Despite the differences in translation, the early Fathers saw Mary and Christ together crushing the serpent's head (Gen 3:15; cf. Romans 16:20; 1 Cor 15:22,25; Rev 12:1,17). Other Old Testament women who "crush the head" of enemies should be noted: Jael (cf. Judges 4-5) and Judith (OT book of Judith).

"Beyond general points of correspondence, the common denominator linking together the experiences of Jael and Judith is the violent downfall of God's adversaries. Both women were chosen to strike down the commanding officer of enemy forces with a lethal blow to the head. The question that immediately presents itself to us is obvious: What possible connections could such brutal details have with the quiet life of Mary? In what specific way was she really like these biblical heroines? ...[citing Genesis 3:15] With this promise, God announces far in advance of its fulfillment that the devil's triumph in the Garden of Eden would eventually end in defeat, with his head being crushed or bruised under the trampling blows of the Messiah and His mother." (Curtis Mitch, Catholic For a Reason II, page 56)  

Luke 1:28 ("Full of Grace")

The expression (Greek kecharitomene) in the angel's salutation, represents a proper name, and must on this account express a characteristic quality of Mary. The principal reason why the pleasure of God rests in special fashion on her is her election to the dignity of the Mother of God (Theotokos). Accordingly, Mary's endowment with grace proceeding from God's pleasure must also be of unique perfect. However, it is perfect only if it be perfect not only intensively but also extensively, that is, if it extends over her whole life, beginning with her entry into the world.

See also The Meaning of Kecharitomene (Full of Grace)

Luke 1:42 ("blessed art thou among [above all] women")

The blessing of God which rests upon Mary is made parallel to the blessing of God which rests upon Christ in His humanity. This parallelism suggests that Mary, just like Christ, was from the beginning of her human existence, free from all sin. Also, since Hebrew/Aramaic (the language that Jesus and His apostles probably spoke) does not have the comparative/superlative (better, best), the text uses "among" as meaning "above all" -- the verse can be translated: "You are the most blessed of all women!"

"...when Elizabeth called Mary 'blessed among women' (Luke 1:42), [this is] a Semitic way of saying, 'You are the most blessed of all women.'....Mary is the most blessed woman, as Elizabeth proclaimed under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and for this reason 'all generations will call [Mary] blessed' (Luke 1:48). Mary is, therefore, even more blessed than our mother, Eve, who was conceived without original sin, as all Christians believe. What makes Mary more blessed? Both the fact that she bore her Savior and that, unlike the immaculately conceived [created] Eve, Mary was immaculately conceived and never sinned. Sinlessness is the only true blessing, and Mary is the most blessed woman who ever existed because, by God's grace, she never sinned." (Fr. Mitch Pacwa, in a response to The Cult of the Virgin [Baker, 1992] by Miller/Samples, page 164)

Mary as New Ark of the Covenant and OT Marian Types

If God, who attached the promise of His Presence and Revelation to the Temple of Jerusalem alone, and more particularly the Holy of Holies enters the dwelling-place of Mary to accomplish the act of His Presence and Revelation in its most extraordinary form, the Incarnation, then surely it is because Mary really is at that moment both Temple and Holy of Holies, the dwelling of God and the (New) Ark of the Covenant, thus full of God's grace and devoid of sin. Later Christ, and then the entire Church, and then each Christian, will be called "Temples of God" (John 2:21; 1 Cor 3:16; 6:19), holy, glorified and sinless (Eph 5:25-27; Rev 21:1ff, 27), but at the moment of the Annunciation by the angel, and virginal conception of Jesus, Mary is the dwelling of God.

The response of the angel to Mary, who is astounded by her divine motherhood since she is a virgin (Luke 1:34), is going to make clearer, by references to the Old Testament, the fact that she actually is the place at that moment of the Ark of the Covenant and the dwelling-place of God:

"The Holy Spirit will come upon thee, and the power of the Most High will overshadow thee (Greek epikiasei); that is why he who shall be born will be called the Son of God..." (Luke 1:35).

The parallelism of this text with that of the book of Exodus (40:35) has been indicated by many commentators, both Catholic and Protestant (H. Sahlin [1945]; A.G. Hebert [1951]; J. Coppins [1955]; cited by Thurian, page 46, 196). For Mary, as for the dwelling of God in the desert, the consequences of the Presence of God in the 'Shekinah' the luminous and enveloping cloud, is that God's glory, which comes to fill her, is present. Like the glory of God which filled the dwelling covered by the shadow of the luminous cloud, the Holy Son of God is going to come and dwell in the Virgin Mary.

"In introducing Mary as the Ark, [Luke] draws on Old Testament texts that any Jewish reader would understand and identify with the Ark. Examples here include the similitude between Exodus 40:34,35 and Luke 1:35 and the striking parallels between the Elizabeth's visit to Mary and the transportation of the Ark of the Covenant from the house of Abinadab to that of Obededom and to Jerusalem..." (Robert Payesko's The Truth About Mary and his site

  • "The cloud covered the Tent of meeting and the glory of Yahweh filled the tabernacle." (Exodus 40:34) with "The power of the Most High will cover you with its shadow. And so the child will be holy and will be called Son of God." (Luke 1:35)
  • "However can the Ark of Yahweh (= My Lord) come to me?" (2 Samuel 6:9) with "Why should I be honored with a visit from the mother of My Lord?" (Luke 1:43)
  • "And David danced before the Lord with all his might ... So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouting, and with the sound of the trumpet." (2 Samuel 6:14-15) with "As soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in mine ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy." (Luke 1:44)
  • "And the Ark of the Lord continued in the house of Obededom the Gittite three months." (2 Samuel 6:11) with "And Mary abode with her about three months." (Luke 1:56)
  • "And the Lord blessed Obededom and all his household." (2 Samuel 6:11) [fertility is associated with blessing] with "Now Elisabeth's full time came that she should be delivered; and she brought forth a son." (Luke 1:57)

Mary, the Daughter of Zion, the virgin of Israel, the Dwelling of God, and the Ark of the Covenant! These titles serve to indicate that Mary is the place where God's final visitation of His people is taking place. Already the prophet had united the symbols of the woman and the dwelling in speaking of Israel whom God would visit and dwell in (cf. Jeremiah 31:3-6; Isaiah 62:5,11,12). The fusion of these two images, the Daughter of Zion and the Dwelling of God, used by the messianic prophet is complete in the symbolism relating to the Church in the last time, when the people of God (of whom Mary is the type) shall be renewed (Rev 21:1-3). The new Jerusalem, the transfigured Church, is thus indicated at the same time by these images of the holy city, the young woman betrothed, the Tabernacle, and the Holy Tent which sheltered the divine Presence in the desert. Moreover, in the book of Revelation our vision is directed to the double symbol of the Temple and the Woman, the dwelling-place (or New Ark of the Covenant) of God our Savior.

"Then God's temple in heaven was opened and the ark of the covenant was seen within his temple...and a great portent appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun..." (Rev 11:19; 12:1).

Mary, who is the embodiment of the Church, the Daughter of Zion, and the Dwelling of God on the day of the Incarnation, will take her place once more in the heart of the people of God, and after having been the Ark of the Covenant by bearing the Son of God, she will be like any member of the mystical Body of His Son, the Church, the Dwelling of God, who bears Him spiritually in her heart. But, because of her unique vocation as the Mother of God, she will remain the privileged type of the Church, the symbol of a virginal motherhood which the Church will have to re-live without ceasing in its ministry as Mother of the Faithful. Thus Mary, the Mother of the Lord, who has borne the physical body of Christ and is the dwelling of God and the Ark of the Covenant, remains the figure of motherhood for the Church; as a spiritual mother, the Holy Church gives birth to the members of the Body of Christ, the faithful, by her own life, by the Word of God and the Sacraments of His Presence. And they in their turn become temples of the Holy Spirit, and find in Mary the example which encourages them in that purity of heart and of body which, having been redeemed, belong henceforth only to God; they bear God with them and witness to His glory which dwells in them in fullness (see Thurian, Mary: Mother of All Christians, chapter 4 "Dwelling of God", pages 42-55).

Fathers of the Church

Among the Fathers the theme of Mary's exalted holiness appears very frequently and with considerable elaboration, and nearly always with the purpose of thereby enhancing the dignity of the Son, and defending the reality of His earthly life, suffering, and death. Many of these truths of the Savior had been called into doubt by the early heresiarchs, and one mode, and a forceful one, to combat errors concerning the Son was to emphasize truths about the Mother.

The conviction of the patristic writers relative to her holiness is founded, necessarily, in revealed truth which became more explicit with the passing of time. In denying that she herself had ever sinned, the Fathers placed her merit in a distinct class above the rest of humanity, and no eulogy was too great to describe her, nor were any words adequate to convey the measure of her holiness. She was "most pure"; "inviolate"; "unstained"; "unspotted"; "blameless"; "entirely immune from sin"; "blessed above all"; "most innocent." If she was free from sin without qualification, then why not also from original sin? Assuredly, this freedom excluded deliberate venial sin, and hence with greater reason it should exclude the deprivation of grace implied in original sin, for while venial sin is more voluntary, nevertheless, simply as sin and with its conjoined ignominy, the consequences of original sin are more serious and more unbecoming to the Mother of Christ since it would put her at odds with God. As St. Anselm stated (and he reflects the common mind of the writers on this point): "It was fitting that the Virgin should be radiant with such purity that under God no other can be greater" (De conc virg, c. 18; PL 158:451).

"In such allusions the Fathers taught that the exalted dignity of the Mother of God, her spotless innocence, and her sanctity unstained by any fault, had been prophesied in a wonderful manner...they celebrated the august Virgin as the spotless dove, as the holy Jerusalem, as the exalted throne of God, as the ark and house of holiness which Eternal Wisdom built, and as that Queen who, abounding in delights and leaning on her Beloved, came forth from the mouth of the Most High, entirely perfect, beautiful, most dear to God and never stained with the least blemish." (Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus, 12/8/1854)

Although neither the Greek nor the Latin Fathers explicitly (explicite) teach an immaculate conception of Mary; still, they teach it implicitly (implicite), in two fundamental notions:

  • Mary's most perfect purity and holiness.

St. Ephrem says: "Thou and thy mother are the only ones who are totally beautiful in every respect; for in thee, O Lord, there is no spot, and in thy Mother no stain [of sin]" (Carm Nisib 27). The firm stand of the Syrian Church regarding the utter sinlessness of the Blessed Virgin, is also evinced in the writings of such renowned figures as St. James of Sarug (c. 451-519), who denied that there was the slightest defect or stain upon the soul of Mary.

St. Augustine says that all men must confess themselves sinners, "except the Holy Virgin Mary, whom I desire, for the sake of the honor of the Lord, to leave entirely out of the question, when the talk is of sin" (On Nature and Grace or De natura et gratia 36:42; Latin: excepta sancta virgina Maria, de qua propter honorem Domini nullam prorsus, cum de peccatis agitur, haberi volo quaestionem). According to the context, this is at least freedom from all personal sins. Juniper Carol's Mariology: "St. Augustine's opinion is the real attitude of Christian antiquity."

  • The similarity and contrast between Mary and Eve.

Mary is the Second or New Eve. Mary is, on the one hand, a replica of Eve in her purity and integrity before the Fall (i.e. sinless), on the other hand, the antitype of Eve, in so far as Eve is the cause of corruption, and Mary the cause of salvation.

St. Ephrem (c. 330) teaches: "Mary and Eve, two people without guilt, two simple people, were identical. Later, however, one became the cause of our death, the other the cause of our life" (Op syr II, 327). St. Justin Martyr (c. 100 - 167) was perhaps the first to invoke this beautiful antithesis:

"While still a virgin and without corruption, Eve received into her heart the word of the serpent and thereby conceived disobedience and death. Mary the Virgin, her soul full of faith and joy, replied to the angel Gabriel who brought her glad tidings: 'Be it done to me according to thy word.' To her was born He of whom so many things are said in the Scriptures." (St. Justin, Dial Tryph Jud 100; cf. St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Adv haer III:22:4; Tertullian, De carne Christi 17).

Individual Greek Fathers (Origen, St. Basil the Great, St. John Chrysostom, St. Cyril of Alexandria) taught that Mary suffered from venial personal faults: such as ambition and vanity, doubt about the message of the Angel, lack of faith under the cross, etc. The Latin patristic authors are (virtually) unanimous in teaching the doctrine of the sinlessness of Mary. St. Augustine teaches that every personal sin must be excluded from the Blessed Virgin Mary for the sake of the honor of God (propter honorem Domini). St. Ambrose says she is virgin in both body and mind, who by God's grace was made free from all sin (omni integra labe peccati). St. Ephrem the Syrian puts Mary in her immaculateness on the same plane as Christ. According to the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas, the fullness of grace which Mary received in the passive conception implied confirmation in grace and therefore sinlessness (ST III:27:5 ad 2).

It cannot, of course, be successfully maintained that the truth of Mary's immunity from all stain of Adam's sin was explicitly taught by these and many other similar early writers of the Church. For closeness to the doctrine and for clarity of expression, implicit affirmation of the Immaculate Conception is perhaps found most vividly in Augustine. Surely the continuity of unqualified endorsements of Mary's holiness in general provides a very solid and entirely legitimate conclusion that the writers intended, in some way, to make the Immaculate Conception an integral part of their teaching.

Historical Development and Medieval Theologians

The transition of a truth from the objective order to the subjective; from implicit to explicit levels of knowledge, does not mean that any new thing has been revealed, for revelation terminated for all time with the passing of the last of the Apostles. To the Church has been committed this deposit of total truth, and the office of Christ's Church is to guard and to interpret it. While there can, therefore, be no increase in what is contained in that treasury, yet there can surely be an elucidation of obscure truths with the passing of the centuries. The seed can, in a propitious climate, produce its fruit, and this climate is sometimes created by the rise of heresies which can alone be refuted by a firm declaration by the Church; sometimes it is created by controversies among theologians; or again by a development of a special piety on the part of the Church's faithful. In all these instances it must be held that the Holy Spirit is at work (John 14:16f; 16:13), guiding and enlightening the teaching function of the Church. There is never a change in doctrine. There are advances in the same line of truth (cf. St. Vincent of Lerins, Commonitorium 28).

It was not until the 12th and 13th centuries that the question was thrown into issue in the schools of theology, and by about the middle of the 16th century scarcely anyone any longer called the Immaculate Conception into doubt (including most of the Protestant Reformers, see Protestants on the I.C. below).

Since the 7th century a Feast of the Conception of St. Anne (Conceptio S. Annae) of the passive conception of Mary, was celebrated in the Greek Eastern Church. The celebration and the Feast spread later to the West, first to southern Italy, then to Ireland and England, under the title, Conceptio Beatae Mariae Virginis. The object of the celebration of the feast was initially the active conception of St. Anne, which, according to the Proto-Gospel of St. James (2nd century AD), occurred after a long period of childlessnes, and was foretold by an angel, as an extraordinary manifestation of God's grace.

At the beginning of the 12th century, the British monk Eadmer, a pupil of St. Anselm of Canterbury, and Osbert of Clare, advocated the immaculate (passive) conception of Mary, that is, her conception free from original sin. Eadmer wrote the first explicit monograph on the subject. On the other hand, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, on the occasion of the institution of the Feast in Lyons (c. 1140) warned the faithful that this was an unfounded innovation, and taught that Mary was sanctified after conception only, that is, when she was already in the womb (Ep 174).

This point must be stressed: the whole "debate" among Catholic theologians at this time centered on what happened between Mary's conception and her birth: was the Mother of God free from original sin at conception or cleansed from original sin after conception (and before birth) ?

Under the influence of St. Bernard, the leading Catholic theologians of the 12th and 13th centuries (Peter Lombard, St. Alexander of Hales, St. Bonaventure, St. Albert the Great, St. Thomas Aquinas, cf. ST III:27:2), rejected the immaculate conception, and held Mary was cleansed after conception and sinless from birth. Their difficulty was that they had not yet found the way to bring Mary's freedom from original sin into consonance with the universality of original sin (Rom 5:12), and with the necessity of all men for redemption.

The correct approach to the final solution of the problem was first achieved by the Franciscan theologian, William of Ware, and this was perfected by his great pupil John Duns Scotus (d. 1308). The latter taught that the animation (animatio) need not precede the sanctification in order of time (ordo temporis) but only in order of concept (ordo naturae). Through the introduction of the concept of pre-redemption (praeredemptio), he succeeded in reconciling Mary's freedom from original sin with her necessity for redemption.

The preservation from original sin is the most perfect kind of redemption. Thus, it was fitting that Christ should redeem His mother in this manner. The Franciscan Order allied itself with Scotus, and in contrast to the Dominicans, decisively advocated the doctrine and the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary.

Protestant Reformers and the Immaculate Conception

Max Thurian (1921-1996) was a Reformed/Calvinist theologian and author, and the subprior of the Taizé community, an Ecumenical monastic community in France. During the Second Vatican Council, he was invited by Pope Paul VI to participate in the liturgical reforms of the Catholic Church. On May 12, 1988, Thurian became a Roman Catholic and was ordained a priest.

His book, Mary: Mother of All Christians (Herder, 1963) was written as an ecumenical Marian study, primarily a biblical exegesis of the NT passages, and OT types on Mary with chapter titles such as "Daughter of Zion," "Full of Grace," "Poor Virgin," "Dwelling of God," Handmaid in the Faith," "Mother of the Lord," etc. The prominent Catholic Scripture scholar Fr. Raymond Brown called Thurian's book at the time "not only the best Protestant evaluation of the Mariological question, but far better than many Catholic treatments." (see Brown, The Gospel According to John[1969], page 107)

The quotes from the Protestant Reformers come from this book. Thurian's sources are listed as Tappolet's Das Marianlob der Reformatoren (1962), and R. Stadler's "The Holy Virgin in the Reformers" in Choisir (13 May 1962), pages 17-20; along with Martin Luther's Works (Weimar edition); Huldrych Zwingli's Collected Works (Berlin); etc.

"In regard to the Marian doctrine of the Reformers, we have already seen how unanimous they are in all that concerns Mary's holiness and perpetual virginity. Whatever the theological position which we may hold today, in regard to the Immaculate Conception and Assumption of Mary it is right to know, perhaps to our great surprise, that these two Catholic dogmas were accepted by certain Reformers, not of course in their present form but certainly in the form that was current in their day." (Max Thurian, Mary: Mother of All Christians, page 197)

Martin Luther, the German founder of the Lutherans, certainly believed in the sinlessness of the Virgin Mary, and some argue he accepted the Immaculate Conception as well:

"...above all it is necessary for us to see what original sin is in order to be able to understand how the holy Virgin Mary was released from to the conception of the Virgin Mary whose body was procreated in the fashion of other children, until the soul was infused, it was not necessary that she should be conceived as was Christ; for she was able to be brought forth under the law of original sin, up to the time when her soul was bestowed. But, in that which concerns the other conception [the passive conception], that is to say the infusing of her soul, one believes with devotion and holiness that she was brought forth without original sin, in such a way that at the moment of her soul being infused she was also similarly purified from original sin, and at the first instant in which she began to live she was without sin, adorned with the gifts of God." (Sermon on the Day of the Conception of Mary, Mother of God, 1527; cited in Thurian, page 197)

Ulrich Zwingli, the Swiss Protestant Reformer, does not see (unlike some Calvinist arguments) in the assertion of Mary's perfect sanctity any violation of Christ's humanity:

"He who was about to remove our sins but not to make all men holy, must be himself holy. Hence God sanctified his mother: for it was fitting that such a holy Son should have a likewise holy mother...."; "I have never thought, still less taught, or declared publicly, anything concerning the subject of the ever Virgin Mary, Mother of our salvation, which could be considered dishonorable, impious, unworthy, or evil...I hope this is sufficient to have made plain to pious and simple Christians my clear conviction on the matter of the Mother of God: 'I believe with all my heart according to the word of holy gospel that this pure virgin bore for us the Son of God and that she remained, in the birth and after it, a pure and unsullied virgin, for eternity." (Annotationes in Evangelium Lucae, and sermon on "Mary, ever virgin, Mother of God" in 1524, cited in Thurian, page 23, 76)

Heinrich Bullinger (1504-1575), "who represents the second generation of the Reformation and a kind of stabilization of Reformed doctrine," and who was Cranmer's brother-in-law, and Zwingli's successor said:

"What pre-eminence in the eyes of God the Virgin Mary had on account of her piety, her faith, her purity, her saintliness and all her virtues, so that she can hardly be compared with any of the other saints, but should by rights be rather elevated above all of them..."; "...And if she who was wholly pure from her birth did not disdain to be purified, that is to say to receive the blessing of purification, is this not all the more reason why those who fall under the yoke of the law by reason of their real impurity should observe the same?"; "...we believe, that the pure and immaculate embodiment of the Mother of God, the Virgin Mary, the Temple of the Holy Spirit, that is to say her saintly body, was carried up into heaven by the angels..." (cited in Thurian, page 89, 197, 198)

French Reformed pastor Charles Drelincourt (1595-1669), "who well represents the Reformed tradition of the 17th century":

"We do not simply believe that God has favoured the holy and blessed Virgin more than all the Patriarchs and the Prophets, but also that He has exalted her above all Seraphim. The angels can only qualify as servants of the Son of God, the creatures and workmanship of his hands; but the holy Virgin is not only the servant and the creature but also the Mother of this great and living God." (cited in Thurian, page 89)

Max Thurian concludes:

"The Lutheran and Reformed traditions which have retained the creedal beliefs in Christ, true God and true Man, born 'of the Virgin Mary, blessed mother of God, humble handmaid of the Lord, our example of faith, obedience and saintliness' have not believed that the doctrines of the Immaculate Conception of Mary (though admitted in a certain sense by Luther) or the 'corporeal Assumption' of Mary (though admitted by the Reformer, Bullinger) must be held in the same fashion....

"[On the biblical material:] There is even a danger in insisting on a state of sinfulness for Mary, because sanctity then is in danger of appearing as a kind of contradiction of true humanity, and belief in Christ's humanity is altogether compromised since there can be no doubt that He did not know sin in Himself....As far as [Mary] is concerned, according to the Gospel, she is the expression of grace in its fullness and of God's infallible and predestined choice which causes His earthly mother to become the symbol of the Church's motherhood. There is nothing further in regard to Mary with which revelation is in the least concerned; we can assert nothing other than this, for this is the most as well as the least that we can state to those who on the one hand would wish to speak of Mary as if she were sinful or on the other as separated from our condition as human creatures. We do not see how either the one or the other can be legitimately proved from the Gospel. Mary, full of grace, Daughter of Zion, the Mother of God Incarnate, the symbol of Mother Church is holy because in her the Gospel sees the living sign of a unique and pre-destined choice of the Lord, the response of faith from a perfectly human creature, but one who was also totally obedient." (Mary, Mother of All Christians, page 204 [endnote], and page 24, 25, from the chapter "Full of Grace")

NOTES (some footnotes abbreviated for brevity)

[1] Cardinal Newman, The New Eve (Oxford, 1952), page 57. [2] Several books and articles on development: F.J. Connell, C.SS.R., "Historical Development of the Dogma of the I.C." in Amer Eccl Review, Vol 114 (1946), same in Studies in Praise of Our Blessed Mother, ed Fenton/Benard (1952);  T.E. Flynn, The I.C. of Our Lady, in Our Blessed Lady (Cambridge Summer School Lectures, 1933); B.A. McKenna, The Dogma of the I.C. (Washington DC, 1929); A. Wolter, O.F.M., "The Theology of the I.C. in the Light of I.D." in Marian Studies, Vol 5, 1954; other scholarly studies in German, French, and English. [3] Full text in C. Sericoli, OFM, Immaculata B.M. Virginis Conceptio juxta Xysti IV constituiones (Sibenici et Romae, 1945), p. 153-4. [4] Cf. Sericoli, page 40ff. [5] R. Aubert, Le pontificat de Pie IX(1846-1878), in Histoire de l'Eglise, ed. Fliche et Martin, Vol 21 (Paris, 1952), page 278-280. [6] X. Le Bachelet, Immaculee conception, in DTC, Vol 27, col 874. [7] H. Delehaye, Sanctus, in Analecta Bollandiana, Vol 28, 1909, page 145-200. [8] L. Th. Lefort, S. Athanase: Sur la virginite, in Museon, Vol 42, 1929, page 197-275. [9] Le Bachelet, col 882. [10] Le Bachelet, col 883. [11] Cf. Ph. Friedrich; L. Saltet; B. Capelle; J. Gotz; A. Dufourcq; Jouassard; B. Altaner; their publications in German and French, etc. [12] Cf. Le Bachelet, col 884-5, 889-90. A more detailed defense of this interpretation is offered by F.S. Mueller, Augustinus amicus an adversarius Immaculatae Conceptionis? in Misc Agostin (Romae, 1931), Vol 2, page 885-914. Also Charles Boyer's answer to Capelle in Bulletin augustinien,Gregorianum, Vol 14, 1933, page 93-96. [13] The Oriental tradition for the first five centuries, specifically on Mary's "original sanctity" has been set forth with customary scholarliness and acumen by M. Jugie, L'Immaculee Conception dans l'Ecriture sainte et dans la tradition orientale (Romae, 1952), pages 55-94. [14] J. Quasten, Patrology, Vol 2 (Westminster, MD, 1953), page 163. [15] Jugie,L'Immaculee Conception, page 57. [16] Jugie, page 60. [17] Discussion of the textual problem in Jugie, page 58-62. [18] Jugie, page 62-3. [19] Le Bachelet, col 885-893.