History of the Definition, by Father Francis Cuthbert Doyle, OSB

detail from the painting 'Vierge Marie', 1927, Church of Saint Kilian, Dinghsheim, Bas-Rhine, Alsace, FranceI. After treating of the Blessed Virgin’s Immaculate Conception – so justly regarded by us as one of her greatest privileges – it will be well for us to learn something about the history of that dogma, which has received the authoritative sanction of the Holy See, and which has been declared to be of faith, only in our own day. Those who know nothing of it, except that which may be gathered from the shallow and flippant criticism of newspaper correspondents, or from the still more shallow expositions of men hostile to the Catholic Church, sneer at us for our credulity, and charge the Church with adding to her creed a dogma never before heard of, till Pius IX, in 1854, defined it to be an article of faith. The sneers of these men may be passed over in silence; their calumnies against the Church must be met and refuted.

In the first place, it is incorrect to say that the Church has added a new article to her creed. The Church does not add to the deposit of faith; she is simply the guardian and exponent of that deposit of religious doctrine entrusted to her keeping by Jesus Christ, and watched over with jealous care by the Holy Spirit. Hence it has been pithily said that the dogmas of the Church are not defined by her in order to make them be believed, but they are defined be cause they are believed, and held generally by the faithful. This is specially true of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. For though the Pope took the chief part in bringing about its definition, yet, true to the usual method pursued by the Church in these matters, he scrupulously adhered to the rule laid down by his glorious predecessors, and carefully inquired whether this belief, which eminent and learned men all over the world called upon him to define as an article of faith, ‘had always, and everywhere, and by all, been held and professed,’ though not, it might be, with that unfaltering belief which is given to an article of faith.

Therefore, in the year 1849 he issued an encyclical letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church, calling upon them to send to him, in writing, their own belief, and that of the Churches over which they ruled, concerning the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin. This wish all obeyed with scrupulous care, each Prelate sending his own belief, and the actual belief of his Church upon the point, and in many cases, also, the belief of his Church in past ages. These testimonies were found to be well-nigh unanimous; and almost every Prelate expressed an earnest desire that what ‘had always and everywhere, and by all been believed,’ should at last, by the authoritative voice of the Vicar of Christ, be declared to be an article of Catholic faith.

Theologians of world-wide repute carefully examined and thoroughly sifted this mass of evidence, and at last, after the space of five years, when all that could be adduced either for or against the dogma had been duly weighed, the Pope, surrounded by upwards of three hundred Bishops from all parts of the world, defined it to be an article of faith henceforth binding on the consciences of Catholics.

Thus we see that the Church, by her action, has not added to her belief. She has only declared what was held and believed by the faithful upon this point to be true and implicitly contained in the deposit of faith committed to her keeping by Jesus Christ.

II. Nor is this a new dogma, and unheard of, before the days of Pius IX. For, omitting the scriptural authority, which has already been considered, we may adduce in testimony the document known as the ‘Acts of the Mar tyrdom of Saint Andrew the Apostle.’ Saint Augustine, Saint Gregory the Great, the Menologium of the Greeks, and a great number of other credible witnesses, approved of this and held it to be authentic. In that document we find the following words, said to have been uttered by the Apostle, when confessing the faith before the Proconsul Egeus: ‘The first man by the wood of prevarication brought death into the world; it was necessary that by the wood of the Passion death should be expelled from the abode which he had usurped. As, therefore, the first man was formed from earth which was still immaculate, it was necessary that from an immaculate Virgin the perfect man should be born, by whom the Son of God, Who first created man, should repair that eternal life, which man had lost in Adam.’

This belief is not confined to the Western Church; it is held by the Greek Church also; and although that Church is in schism with the Roman See, and has been separated from communion with it for more than ten centuries, yet it clings with a tenacious grasp to the dogma that Mary is the Virgin Immaculate.

The testimony of the Bishop of Nicopolis shows us that the same belief is held among the Abyssinian schismatics, who have retained the dogma in spite of their heresy and infidelity.

The Mahommedans also add their voices, to swell the chorus of those who bear witness to the antiquity and the universality of this belief. In the third chapter of their Koran, we read these words: ‘The Angels said to Mary, God hath chosen thee, and made thee exempt from all stain, and selected thee from among all the women of the universe.’ The same belief is wide-spread among the people of Chaldea. Of this, the Patriarch of Babylon informed the Holy See, in his letter upon the definition of this dogma. He cites the words of one of the Mahommedan doctors, who says: ‘Of the whole human race, there were no creatures that were not ruined by the devil, except Mary and her Son.’

If these testimonies do not satisfy us about the antiquity of this belief in the Christian Church, even before heresy and schism had torn it asunder, let us still further strengthen our faith by searching for proof of it, amid that array of Saints and Doctors whose holy lives and prodigious learning have edified and enlightened the Church even unto our own times.

III. However, ‘as their name is legion,’ and their testimony on this point unanimous, it will be best to divide them into five classes, that we may thus escape the weariness of listening to a multitude of witnesses, each saying the same thing.

The first class comprises all those who, explaining the third chapter of Genesis, assert that the enmity between the woman and the serpent, therein predicted, must be understood of that natural and perpetual war, which existed between the Virgin Mother of the Redeemer and the infernal spirit whose head her heel should crush; or, as some versions have it, whose head her divine and spotless Seed, the Man Christ Jesus, should trample upon.

The second class is made up, first, of those who explain the salutation of the Angel: ‘Hail, full of grace,’ as indicating that Mary is more pure than are the heavenly hosts, and free from all spot and stain; and secondly, of those who treating of the words, ‘Thou hast found favour with God,’ explain them to mean a perpetual favour, and address her with the words, ‘O thou who art altogether free from stain.’

In the third class, we put those Fathers who exempt the Blessed Virgin indefinitely, and without any exception, from any blemish.

The fourth class comprises all those who grant this privilege to the Mother of Our Lord, if not in so many words, at least in those which are equivalent.

The fifth class consists of those who, whenever they institute a comparison between our first parents and the Blessed Virgin, declare that she is free from their sin.

Therefore, from all that has been said, we conclude that the accusations of the ignorant, both against us and against the Church, are ill-founded. The Church does not add to her doctrine. What non-Catholics regard as additions are nothing more than the logical developments of doctrine implicitly contained in that original deposit of faith left to her keeping by Our Lord. In this sense, therefore, we may say: It has always been believed in the Church; it has everywhere been believed, and, since the number of those who either disbelieved it, or deemed it to be inopportune is so small, we may also add, it has been believed by all. We, in our day, have been privileged to hear that which many Saints and devout men have desired to hear, and have not heard it; and we have seen what they desired to see, and have not seen it.