The Immaculate Conception is, according to Roman Catholic dogma, the conception of Mary, the mother of Jesus without any stain ("macula" in Latin) of original sin. The dogma thus says that, from the first moment of her existence, she was preserved by God from the lack of sanctifying grace that afflicts mankind, and that she was instead filled with divine grace. It is further believed that she lived a life completely free from sin. In the words of Pope Pius XII in Mystici Corporis, "she was free from any personal or hereditary sin" Her immaculate conception in the womb of her mother, by normal sexual intercourse, should not be confused with the doctrine of the virginal conception of her son Jesus.
The feast of the Immaculate Conception, celebrated on December 8, was established as a universal feast in 1476 by Pope Sixtus IV. He did not define the doctrine as a dogma, thus leaving Roman Catholics freedom to believe in it or not without being accused of heresy; this freedom was reiterated by the Council of Trent. The existence of the feast was a strong indication of the Church's belief in the Immaculate Conception, even before its 19th century definition as a dogma.
In the Roman Catholic Church, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception is a Holy Day of Obligation, except where conferences of bishops have decided, with the approval of the Holy See, not to maintain it as such. It is a public holiday in some countries where Roman Catholicism is predominant e.g. Italy. In the Philippines, although this is not a public holiday, the predominance of Catholic Schools make it almost a holiday.
The Immaculate Conception was solemnly defined as a dogma by Pope Pius IX in his constitution Ineffabilis Deus, on December 8 1854. The Roman Catholic Church believes the dogma is supported by Scripture (e.g. Mary's being greeted by Angel Gabriel as "full of grace" or "highly favoured"), as well as either directly or indirectly by the writings of many of the Church Fathers , as well as sensus fidei and often calls Mary the Blessed Virgin (Luke 1:48). Catholic theology maintains that, since Jesus became incarnate of the Virgin Mary, it was fitting that she be completely free of sin for expressing her fiat. (Ott, Fund., Bk 3, Pt. 3, Ch. 2, §3.1.e).
For the Roman Catholic Church the dogma of the Immaculate Conception gained additional significance from the apparitions of Our Lady of Lourdes in 1858. In Lourdes a 14-year-old girl, Bernadette Soubirous, claimed a beautiful lady appeared to her. The lady identified herself as "the Immaculate Conception" and the faithful believe her to be the Blessed Virgin Mary.
In this sense, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception defined by Pope Pius IX is also viewed as a key example of the use of sensus fidelium shared by the faithful and the Magisterium rather than pure reliance on Scripture and tradition. The Vatican quotes in this context Fulgens Corona, where Pius XII supported such a faith:
Now, the Roman Catholic tradition has a well established philosophy for the study of Immaculate Conception and the veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary via the field of Mariology with Pontifical schools such as the Marianum specifically devoted to this task.
The Conception of Mary was celebrated as a liturgical feast in England from the ninth century, and the doctrine of her "holy" or "immaculate" conception was first formulated in a tract by Eadmer, companion and biographer of the better-known St. Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury (1033-1109), and later popularized by the archbishop's nephew, Anselm the Younger. The Normans had suppressed the celebration, but it lived on in the popular mind. It was rejected by St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Alexander of Hales, and St. Bonaventure (who, teaching at Paris, called it "this foreign doctrine," indicating its association with England), and by St. Thomas Aquinas who expressed questions about the subject, but said that he would accept the determination of the Church. Aquinas and Bonaventure, for example, believed that Mary was completely free from sin, but that she was not given this grace at the instant of her conception.
Despite this formidable array of tradition and scholarly opinion, the Oxford Franciscans William of Ware and especially Blessed John Duns Scotus defended the doctrine. Scotus proposed a solution to the theological problem involved of being able to reconcile the doctrine with that of universal redemption in Christ, by arguing that Mary's immaculate conception did not remove her from redemption by Christ; rather it was the result of a more perfect redemption given to her on account of her special role in history. Furthermore, Scotus said that Mary was redeemed in anticipation of Christ's death on the cross. This was similar to the way that the Church explained the Last Supper (since Roman Catholic theology teaches that the Mass is the sacrifice of Calvary made present on the altar, and Christ did not die before the Last Supper). Scotus' defence of the immaculist thesis was summed up by one of his followers as potuit, decuit ergo fecit (God could do it, it was fitting that He did it, and so He did it). Following his defence of the thesis, students at Paris swore to defend the position, and the tradition grew of swearing to defend the doctrine with one's blood. The University of Paris supported the decision of the (schismatic) Council of Basel in this matter. Duns' arguments remained controversial, however, particularly among the Dominicans, who were willing enough to celebrate Mary's sanctificatio (being made free from sin), but, following the Dominican Thomas Aquinas' arguments, continued to insist that her sanctification could not have occurred at the instant of her conception.
Popular opinion remained firmly behind the celebration of Mary's conception. The doctrine itself had been endorsed by the Council of Basel (1431-1449), and by the end of the 15th century was widely professed and taught in many theological faculties. However, the Council of Basel was later held not to have been a true General (or Ecumenical) Council with authority to proclaim dogma; and such was the influence of the Dominicans, and the weight of the arguments of Thomas Aquinas (who had been canonised in 1323, and declared "Doctor Angelicus" of the Church in 1567) that the Council of Trent (1545-63)—which might have been expected to affirm the doctrine—instead declined to take a position; it simply reaffirmed the constitutions of Sixtus IV, which had threatened with excommunication anyone on either side of the controversy who accused the others of heresy.
It was not until 1854 that Pope Pius IX, with the support of the overwhelming majority of Roman Catholic Bishops, whom he had consulted between 1851–1853, proclaimed the doctrine in accordance with the conditions of papal infallibility that would be defined in 1870 by the First Vatican Council. Pope Pius IX defined ex cathedra the dogma of the Immaculate Conception on 8 December, 1854. The Pope stressed that Mary's sinlessness was not due to her own merits, but truly, by the merits of her son, Jesus.
"We declare, pronounce and define that the doctrine which holds that the Blessed Virgin Mary, at the first instant of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace of the Omnipotent God, in virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of mankind, was preserved immaculate from all stain of original sin, has been revealed by God, and therefore should firmly and constantly be believed by all the faithful."
Simply stated, Mary possessed sanctifying grace from the first instant of her existence and was free from the lack of grace caused by the "original or first sin" at the beginning of human history.
In his Apostolic Constitution Ineffabilis Deus (8 December 1854), which officially defined the Immaculate Conception as dogma for the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Pius IX primarily appealed to the text of Genesis 3:15, where the serpent was told by God, "I will put enmity between you and the woman, between your seed and her seed." According to the Roman Catholic understanding, this was a prophecy that foretold of a "woman" who would always be at enmity with the serpent—that is, a woman who would never be under the power of sin, nor in bondage to the serpent. Some Roman Catholic theologians have also claimed the angel Gabriel's salutation to Mary at the Annunciation (Luke 1:28) as scriptural evidence for the Immaculate Conception. The verse "Thou art all fair, my love; there is no spot in thee", "Tota pulchra es, amica mea, et macula non est in te" (Vulgate), from the Song of Solomon (4.7) was also regarded as a scriptural confirmation of the doctrine, and as "macula" is Latin for "spot" or "stain", is probably responsible for its name.
The early Church Fathers compared Mary to Eve. St. Justin Martyr said that Mary was a kind of New Eve, "in order that the disobedience which proceeded from the serpent might receive its destruction in the same manner in which it derived its origin." (Dialogue with Trypho, 100) Tertullian argued in a similar manner: "As Eve had believed the serpent, so Mary believed the angel. The delinquency which the one occasioned by believing, the other by believing effaced." (On the Flesh of Christ, 17) St. Irenaeus declared that Mary became "the cause of salvation, both to herself and the whole human race," because "what the virgin Eve had bound fast through unbelief, this did the virgin Mary set free through faith." (Against Heresies, Book III, cap. 22, 4) St. Jerome coined the phrase, "Death came through Eve, but life has come through Mary," (Letter XXII, To Eustochium, 21).
The Catholic Encyclopedia of 1907, however, states that these scriptures merely serve as corroborative evidence assuming that the dogma is already well established, and that there is insufficient evidence to prove the dogma to someone basing their beliefs solely on biblical interpretation:
No direct or categorical and stringent proof of the dogma can be brought forward from Scripture. ... The Proto-evangelium [Genesis 3:15], therefore, in the original text contains a direct promise of the Redeemer, and...the perfect preservation of His virginal Mother from original sin. The salutation of the angel Gabriel—chaire kecharitomene, Hail, full of grace...finds its explanation only in the Immaculate Conception of Mary. But the term kecharitomene (full of grace) serves only as an illustration, not as a proof of the dogma. ―
Other verses sometimes used to defend the Immaculate Conception include:
"And you shall make the ark of testimony of incorruptible wood And you shall gild it with pure gold, you shall gild it within and without; and you shall make for it golden wreaths twisted round about." (Exodus 25:10-11 Brenton LXX)
"So I made an ark of boards of incorruptible wood, and I hewed tables of stone like the first, and I went up to the mountain, and the two tables were in my hand." (Deuteronomy 10:3 Brenton LXX)
It is also claimed that Mary is shown as being totally faithful to Christ, especially during his Passion, when he was abandoned by his followers and apostles except for the young John. In this way, Mary's complete faithfulness is argued to be the fruit of being sinless, as she could not then reject Christ in the darkest hour.
In Ethiopian Orthodox tradition, which is Oriental Orthodox not Eastern Orthodox, there is some suggestion that Mary was created immaculate as seen in the following:
"He cleansed EVE'S body and sanctified it and made for it a dwelling in her for ADAM'S salvation. She [i.e., MARY] was born without blemish, for He made her pure, without pollution, and she redeemed his debt without carnal union and embrace...Through the transgression of EVE we died and were buried, and by the purity of MARY we receive honour, and are exalted to the heights.
The Immaculate Conception is accepted by some Anglo-Catholics, but is rejected by most in the Anglican Communion. In the Book of Common Prayer, December 8—the "Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary"—is a "lesser commemoration", whose observance is optional. However, members of the Society of Mary are required to attend Mass that day.
Old Catholics do not reject the Immaculate Conception of Mary, but Rome's dogma regarding it, because Old Catholics reject Papal infallibility and do not believe the Pope can, by himself, define a dogma. Some Old Catholic parishes venerate Mary as the Immaculate Conception and celebrate the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Old Catholics hold that the the faithful whose conscience does not bind them to belief in the Immaculate Conception, who do not believe it in good conscience, cannot be required to believe it because it has not been infallibly defined as dogma by the Church, the Pope having no authority to act in the capacity of the Church.
Protestants reject the doctrine because they do not consider the development of dogmatic theology to be authoritative apart from biblical exegesis, and that Mariology in general, including the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, is not taught in the Bible.
Protestants argue that God would also need to have intervened in the conception of Mary's mother, and her mother, and so on down the ages. Roman Catholicism's response to this is that Mary did not need to be kept free from sin for Jesus to be sinless, rather her immaculate conception was a special privilege granted her by God.
The primary argument is that the Bible portrays Jesus as the only person without sin. The apostle Paul, in Romans 3:23, teaches that "... all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God ..." (NIV). Peter, in 2 Peter 2:22, states that "He [Jesus] committed no sin ..." (NIV).
A further argument put forward by Protestants is from Mark 10:18 and the parallel Luke 18:9. When Jesus is addressed as "Good teacher" (NIV Mk 10:17), He is quoted as replying "No one is good—except God alone". It is posited that in doing so Christ clearly teaches that no one is without sin, whilst leaving room for the conclusion that he is in fact God incarnate. However, Catholics respond that this phrase is meant in the sense that a man may only be good by participation of God's goodness.
Some Protestants also teach that sinful nature is inherited from the father. Since Jesus of Nazareth did not have an earthly father, he did not inherit a sinful nature; hence, Mary did not need to be immaculately conceived. These Protestants base this view on Romans 5:12 which states that sin entered the world through a man, Adam (even though this word in the Bible means, merely, "human being") and 1 Corinthians 11:3 which says that the head of every woman is the man. In response, however, Catholics hold that the sin of Adam and Eve stains a person's soul, and both parents only contribute to the body of a newborn child - not the child's eternal soul - meaning that God allows original sin to make contact with, and therefore contaminate the individual spirit - and, by the same token, God can certainly preserve someone from original sin as well. Also, as Adam was created before Eve, and as Eve came from Adam, his sin would cause more effect.
Some Protestant groups of more recent origin, such as the Restoration Movement, do not believe in original sin. Consequently, they believe in the immaculate conception of everyone, not only of Mary, though this is considered heresy by most other churches and Christian communities.
For a response to these arguments, see below.
Another misunderstanding is that by her immaculate conception, Mary did not need a saviour. On the contrary, when defining the dogma in Ineffabilis Deus, Pope Pius IX affirmed that Mary was redeemed in a manner more sublime. He stated that Mary, rather than being cleansed after sin, was completely prevented from contracting Original Sin in view of the foreseen merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race. In , Mary proclaims: "My spirit has rejoiced in God my Saviour." This is referred to as Mary's pre-redemption by Christ.