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Three Common Misconceptions on the Immaculate Conception

December 8, AD 2013 3 Comments

Today, December 8th, the Church would observe the feast of the Immaculate Conception. This year the feast is transferred to Monday the 9th, giving precedence to the Second Sunday of Advent. In my experience, the Immaculate Conception is one of the most misunderstood teachings of the Church. Today, I’d like to address three common misconceptions on the Immaculate Conception.

1. The Immaculate Conception was Jesus’ conception in the womb of Mary.

This is, in my opinion, the greatest misconception regarding the Immaculate Conception. I think back to my December 8th World History class in high school, when the teacher, a Catholic with a master’s degree in theology from a Catholic college, announced to our class the Church was celebrating the feast of the Immaculate Conception explaining that it was the celebration of Jesus’ conception in the womb of Mary. He went on to say that he never understood this feast day because in less than 20 days, Jesus would be born on Christmas Day. He concluded this is what the Church meant by the virgin birth.

I hope the reader of this article does not espouse these beliefs. I can, however, understand why some people would think the feast celebrates the conception of Jesus for two reasons:

a)  The Church celebrates the feast of the Immaculate Conception during the season of Advent, a season of waiting and expectation for the birth of the Christ child.

b) The gospel for the feast of the Immaculate Conception is Luke 1:26-38–the Annunciation of Jesus’ birth.

Proper Catechesis:  The feast of the Annunciation, celebrated on March 25, is the commemoration of Jesus’ conception. If one counts the months from March 25 to December 25, one will discover the normal amount of time for gestation—nine months. Rest assured the miraculous nature of Jesus birth does not involve only 17 days in the womb!   The Immaculate Conception refers to the conception of Mary in the womb of St. Anne and her preservation from the taint of original sin. The dogma declares that Mary was free of original sin because she received pre-redemption from the merits of the cross on which her son would die upon.

2. The Church Made Up the Immaculate Conception

While the Immaculate Conception only was proclaimed a dogma in 1854, the Church did not wake up one morning and think it was a good idea to tell people the Spirit moved them to declare Mary was immaculately conceived. The Apostolic Constitution which proclaimed the dogma, Ineffabilis Deus, provides an extensive overview of the tradition. Belief in the Immaculate Conception dates back to the early Church and was the subject of reflection on the part of some of the Patristics. It saw a heightened development from the twelfth century onward. St. Anselm laid the groundwork for the dogma and influenced the English Eadmer, who wrote in defense of the Immaculate Conception and proposed the notion of passive conception. It was Duns Scotus who refined the arguments for the Immaculate Conception, earning him the title Defender of the Immaculate Conception.  Many of the Roman Pontiffs (e.g. Alexander VII) and the Council of Trent proposed the immaculate conception of Mary.  Given the longstanding tradition and belief of the Church, Pius IX declared the Immaculate Conception as a dogma of the Church, thus binding in Heaven what was bound on earth. And as many know, it was only four years later that Our Lady confirmed this title herself in her manifestations to St. Bernadette Soubirous in Lourdes, France.

 3. Some Doctors of the Church denied the Immaculate Conception. 

St. Bernard of Clairvaux is one of my favorite saints!  He wrote extensively on the Blessed Virgin Mary, so much so that the antiphon for vespers on his feast day salutes him as an eminent preacher of the Virgin’s glory. One aspect of his Mariology that some may be aware of is his “denial” of the Immaculate Conception in a letter to the canons in Lyons who introduced the feast of Mary’s conception. Augustine, who viewed sex as sinful, highly influenced Bernard. This raised the question whether or not the Holy Spirit could be associated with a sinful act. Bernard did hold that Mary was sanctified in the womb and that she never committed a sin during her life.

Another prominent doctor, cited as a denier of the Immaculate Conception, is Thomas Aquinas. You can read Aquinas’ Summa question here.  Similar to Bernard, Aquinas held that Mary was conceived with original sin, but she was sanctified in the womb of St. Anne before her birth. One hold up in accepting the Immaculate Conception was if this was the case Mary would not have needed a redeemer.  Since I describe myself more as a resourcement theologian rather than a Thomist, I refer the reader to other articles discussing Thomas Aquinas’ belief: New Theological Movement; Patheos.

For Bernard and Aquinas, Mary was sanctified in the womb which is different from denying the overall sinlessness of Mary. It is important to keep in mind these Fathers of the Church, along with the other “deniers” of the Immaculate Conception, were not subject to the Church’s 1854 teaching as it was only a theological opinion. With Pius IX’s dogmatic declaration, all Catholics are now obliged to hold this belief:  Hence, if anyone shall dare — which God forbid! — to think otherwise than as has been defined by us, let him know and understand that he is condemned by his own judgment; that he has suffered shipwreck in the faith; that he has separated from the unity of the Church; and that, furthermore, by his own action he incurs the penalties established by law if he should are to express in words or writing or by any other outward means the errors he think in his heart.”

 Conclusion

The Immaculate Conception has been held as a pious belief for centuries before the dogmatic declaration. Religious congregations like the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception founded in the 1600’s. This day as we contemplate the conception of the Virgin Mary may her sinlessness inspire us on our sojourn to the heavenly Jerusalem. Through her prayers, now and at the hour of our death, may we become worthy of the promises of Christ.

 Sources:

Hilda Graef, Mary: A History of Doctrine and Devotion
Juniper Carol. Fundamentals of Mariology. New York: Benzinger Brothers, 1956.

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This Christmas consider sharing the story of the approved 1859 Wisconsin Marian apparition with your family. Edward has authored books on the apparition for both children and adults. His most recent children’s book is Breakfast in Bethlehem an appropriate book for Christmas. To order any of Edward’s titles, visit his online store at EdwardLooneybooks.com.

About the Author:

Fr. Edward L. Looney was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Green Bay on June 6, 2015. Fr. Looney has a deep devotion to the Blessed Mother, is a member of the Mariological Society of America, and has researched and written extensively on the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help, recognized as the first and only approved Marian apparition in the United States. His most recent work is A Rosary Litany. To learn more visit: arosarylitany.com.
Disclaimer: The views expressed by the author are his alone, and do not reflect those of his diocese. He seeks to always remain faithful to the Magisterium.

  • Steph

    I would love to see better evidence on the section where you discuss how the church did not make up the Immaculate Conception. Basically, your argument is: the Church didn’t pull this out of nowhere when they made it dogma in 1854, instead it was during early Church years. That’s not really evidence since it just pushes the date back in Church history. But it’s still from within the Church. Does that make sense? Is there any other context to support this idea? I, myself, would have gone with the gospel account of the angel Gabriel hailing Mary as full of Grace and how that means that she is without sin. Then you have a discussion that does not depend upon the Church decreeing the issue.

    • Edward

      I just realized your comment. It never showed up in my email. I appreciate your feedback and that would be an appeal to biblical support. The intention of my argument was to demonstrate how it came from the sensus fidei (sense of the faithful). I’ll give more thought to your suggestion. In order to do so, I’ll have to appeal to the Greek for “full of grace.” I know that it has been the subject of much theological discussion.

      • Steph

        That would be great! You have great natural flow for the layout of your argument. I don’t have the entire Bible memorized and when people try to tear down my Catholic belief by asking me, “Where in the Bible is that?” I don’t always have a good answer. I’d love to be able to point non-Catholics to this article when discussing the topic of Immaculate Conception.