Encyclopedia Britannica – Immaculate Conception, The

detail from the painting 'Vierge Marie', 1927, Church of Saint Kilian, Dinghsheim, Bas-Rhine, Alsace, FranceArticle

This dogma of the Roman Catholic Church was defined, as “of faith” by Pope Pius IX on the 8th of December 1854 in the following terms: “The doctrine which holds that the Blessed Virgin Mary, from the first instant of her conception, was, by a most singular grace and privilege of Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of the human race, preserved from all stain of Original Sin, is a doctrine revealed, by God, and therefore to be firmly and steadfastly believed by all the faithful.” These words presuppose the distinction between original, or racial, and actual, or personally incurred sin. There is no dispute that the Church has always held the Blessed Virgin to be sinless, in the sense of actual or personal sin. The question of the Immaculate Conception regards original or racial sin only. It is admitted that the doctrine as defined by Pius IX was not explicitly mooted before the 12th century. But it is claimed that it is implicitly contained in the teaching of the Fathers. Their expressions on the subject of the sinlessness of Mary are, it is pointed out, so ample and so absolute that they must be taken to include original sin as well as actual. Thus we have in the first five centuries such epithets applied to her as “in every respect holy,” “in all things unstained,” “super-innocent” and “singularly holy”; she is compared to Eve before the fall, as ancestress of a redeemed people; she is “the earth before it was accursed.” The well-known words of Saint Augustine (died 430) may be cited: “As regards the mother of God,” he says, “I will not allow any question whatever of sin.” It is true that he is here speaking directly of actual or personal sin. But his argument is that all men are sinners; that they are so through original depravity; that this original depravity may be overcome by the grace of God, and he adds that he does not know but that Mary may have had sufficient grace to overcome sin “of every sort” (omni ex parte).

It seems to have been Saint Bernard who, in the 12th century, explicitly raised the question of the Immaculate Conception. A feast of the Conception of the Blessed Virgin had already begun to be celebrated in some churches of the West. Saint Bernard blames the canons of the metropolitan church of Lyons for instituting such a festival without the permission of the Holy See. In doing so, he takes occasion to repudiate altogether the view that the Conception of Mary was sinless. It is doubtful, however, whether he was using the term “Conception” in the same sense in which it is used in the definition of Pius IX. In speaking of conception one of three things may be meant: (1) the mother’s co-operation; (2) the formation of the body, or (3) the completion of the human being by the infusion of the rational or spiritual soul. In early times conception was very commonly used in the first sense – “active” conception as it was called. But it is in the second, or rather the third, sense that the word is employed in modern usage, and in the definition of Pope Pius IX. But Saint Bernard would seem to have been speaking of conception in the first sense, for in his argument he says, “How can there be absence of sin where there is concupiscence (libido)?” and stronger expressions follow, showing that he is speaking of the mother and not of the child.

Saint Thomas Aquinas, the greatest of the medieval scholastics, refused to admit the Immaculate Conception, on the ground that, unless the Blessed Virgin had at one time or other been one of the sinful, she could not justly be said to have been redeemed by Christ. Saint Bonaventura (died 1274), second only to Saint Thomas in his influence on the Christian schools of his age, hesitated to accept it for a similar reason. The celebrated John Duns Scotus (died 1308), a Franciscan like Saint Bonaventura, argued, on the contrary, that from a rational point of view it was certainly as little derogatory to the merits of Christ to assert that Mary was by him preserved from all taint of sin, as to say that she first contracted it and then was delivered. His arguments, combined with a better acquaintance with the language of the early Fathers, gradually prevailed in the schools of the Western Church. In 1387 the university of Paris strongly condemned the opposite view. In 1483 Pope Sixtus IV, who had already (1476) emphatically approved of the feast of the Conception, condemned those who ventured to assert that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was heretical, and forbade either side to claim a decisive victory until further action on the part of the Holy See. The council of Trent, after declaring that in its decrees on the subject of original sin it did not include “the blessed and immaculate Virgin Mary, Mother of God,” renewed this prohibition. Pope Paul V (died 1651) ordered that no one, under severe penalties, should dare to assent in public “acts” or disputations that the Blessed Virgin was conceived in original sin. Pope Gregory XV, shortly afterwards, extended this prohibition to private discussions, allowing, however, the Dominicans to argue on the subjects among themselves. Clement XI, in 1708, extended the feast of the Conception to the whole Church as a holy day of obligation. Long before the middle of the 19th century the doctrine was universally taught in the Roman Catholic Church. During the reign of Gregory XVI the bishops in various countries began to press for a definition. Pius IX, at the beginning of his pontificate, and again after 1851, appointed commissions to investigate the whole subject, and he was advised that the doctrine was one which could be defined and that the time for a definition was opportune. On the 8th of December 1854 in a great assembly of bishops, in the basilica of Saint Peter’s at Rome, he promulgated the Bull Ineffabilis Deus, in which the history of the doctrine is summarily traced, and which contains the definition as given above.

The festival of the Conception of the Blessed Virgin, as distinct from her Nativity, was certainly celebrated in the Greek Church in the 7th century, as we learn from one of the canons of Saint Andrew of Crete (or of Jerusalem) who died about A.D. 700. There is some evidence that it was kept in Spain in the time of Saint Ildefonsus of Toledo (died 667) and in southern Italy before A.D. 1000. In England it was known in the 12th century; a council of the province of Canterbury, in 1328, ascribes its introduction to Saint Anselm. It spread to France and Germany in the same century. It was extended to the whole church, as stated above, in 1708. It is kept, in the Western Church, on the 8th of December; the Greeks have always kept it one day later.

MLA Citation

  • Bishop John Edward Cuthbert Hedley. “Immaculate Conception, The”. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1911. CatholicSaints.Info. 4 August 2020. Web. 27 February 2021. <>