First of all, this is not (directly) about the virginal conception of Jesus by Mary through the Holy Spirit, as it is commonly and mistakingly believed to be. Instead, the focus is on another conception of a child: That of Mary, Jesus’s mother, by her mother (that’s right, Jesus’s Grandma) St. Ann. It is a celebration of the belief that Mary was conceived without ‘original sin’ and the effects thereof. In an indirect way, this is also about Christ—as are all Mariological doctrines ultimately—but it takes a bit of familiarity with the history of this particular dogma to see that.
In today’s blog post, a version of which was originally published here in 2010, I would like to offer a brief overview of the history of this particular dogma and introduction to what it is all about theologically and philosophically.
A British Invasion and Popular Celebration
The celebration of Mary’s conception (which is perhaps the clearest way to describe the solemnity) has always been somewhat English, and not simply because its greatest “champion” was the Oxford Franciscan theologian Blessed John Duns Scotus. The earliest roots of the celebration of the doctrine are traced back to Anglo-Saxon popular piety of the early 11th century. The first to address the popular devotion theologically was a Benedictine monk named Eadmer of Canterbury, who proposed an argument some 175+ years before the Franciscan Scotus.
Between Eadmer and Scotus there were a few promoters and detractors of the idea that God could or would, in effect, “pre-redeem” Mary at her conception in the womb of Jesus’s grandmother, St. Ann.
Christianity’s Most Famous Theologians in Opposition
Among the detractors stand three of Christianity’s most famous theologians—Thomas Aquinas. Additionally, St. Bernard of Clairvaux and St. Bonaventure opposed the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception in their time. Note well, all three of these saints and theologians are also Doctors of the Church!
Bernard believed that, because it was understood at the time that ‘original sin’ was transmitted to each generation through sexual intercourse, and because Mary was conceived through the intercourse of her parents Joachim and Ann, there was an obstacle to asserting and defending the position of the sinlessness of Mary.
Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure had another perspective, one of serious objection to the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. Their concern was primarily Christological and was focused on the role of Christ in the redemption of humanity in the course of salvation history. Thomas Aquinas wrote in his Summa Theologica:
If the sole of the Blessed Virgin had never incurred the stain of original sin, this would be derogatory to the dignity of Christ, by reason of his being the universal savior of all. (ST III.2.ad2)
This would become the issue to address and overcome if the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception could be theologically tenable. Furthermore, Bonaventure asserted, in defense of his oppositional view, that no master of sacred theology had ever accepted the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.
Oxford Franciscans Come to the Rescue
It wasn’t Scotus at first, but William of Ware (who was a professor of the student Scotus at Oxford) that defended the position that Mary might not have “contracted original sin.” His position, a type of argument referred to as a potuit, decuit, ergo fecit proof (“It is possible, it is fitting, therefore it was done”). He made a laudable attempt, drawing on the work of Eadmer (whose work was misattributed to “Anselm,” leading Eadmer to also be remembered as “pseudo-Anselm”), but several years later Scotus would find parts of William’s argument lacking.
The great Scotist scholar Allan Wolter explains, “The real difficulty, then, as Scotus saw it was to construct a theologically respectable proof for the pious belief in Mary’s Immaculate conception that would safeguard the universality of Christ’s redemption that both Scripture and Tradition emphasized so forcefully.” His argument would take the proof-form of William, but more strongly assert a theologically grounded and philosophically sound potuit. Here is Scotus’s final answer to the question, “Was the Blessed Virgin conceived without original sin?” I have included explanatory in-text notes where necessary.
I declare the first [of three options: that Mary was never in original sin] to be possible, because grace is equivalent to original justice [Anselm’s definition] so far as divine acceptance goes, so that because of this grace this is no original sin in the soul that possesses it. God could have at the very first instant infused into this soul grace to such a degree was was given to other souls at the time of circumcision or of baptism; therefore in the first instant the soul would not have original sin, just as a baptized person would also not have it afterwards…
Which of these three possibilities is factually the case, God knows, but if the authority of the Church or the authority of Scripture does not contradict such, it seems probable that what is more excellent should be attributed to Mary.
The Development of the Doctrine and Feast
Scotus, most scholars agree, offers the linch-pin argument that finally allowed for a theologically sustainable defense of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. He wisely hedged his bets, noting that as long as the Church and Scripture do not contradict this position, it seems most fitting to maintain this outlook. A very Anselmian approach, if I do say so.
History shows that this so-called “proof”of Scotus spread quickly after its articulation. And over the next several centuries it would continue to gain popularity as a theological defense for the popular celebration of this feast of Mary.
It would be on December 8, 1854 that Pope Pius IX would decree in the Papal Bull Ineffabilis Deus that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is to be held as Dogma. Pius IX credits Scotus’s argument for its role in this theological view.