Mary and Jesus, from an altarpiece in
the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine
As I mentioned in my previous post, while the idea of original sin can be traced back through Augustine to even earlier patristic sources, it is a theological concept that never developed in the Christian East and is unknown in Orthodox and Eastern Catholic sources. Without a concept of original sin, there is no doctrine of the Immaculate Conception because the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is that Mary was conceived in her mother’s womb without the original sin that has affected the rest of the human family. Mary is unique in this regard. The Church says that she was saved from original sin through the merits of the death and resurrection of her Divine son even though that passion, death, and resurrection had not yet taken place in time: hence “prevenient.” Although the Eastern Churches did not celebrate Mary’s Immaculate Conception they did celebrate her conception, affixing the date (originally) to December 9—nine months (minus one day) before the feast of her birth. In the same way the Church celebrated the conception of her Son nine months before the Church celebrates his birth. (March 25th is nine months before December 25th.) These are the only two “conceptions” I know of being celebrated in the Church calendar. The feast of Mary’s Conception originated in the Church of Syria (which included the Holy Land) in about the sixth century but soon was celebrated throughout Eastern Christianity.
How did the feast come to the West? Scholars agree that it was the Normans who introduced the feast to the Western Church. In the eleventh century Normans conquered Sicily and Southern Italy where the Church, at that time, followed the Greek Rite rather than the Western Latin Rites. It was probably at this time that the Normans became familiar with the feast of the Conception of Mary. There was a problem though in the west. Western theologians, including Augustine, saw that Mary was, like the rest of us, conceived in original sin. How can we celebrate a sinful conception? (Remember the East, not believing in original sin, saw no sin in the conception.) Immediately a theological debate broke out. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, a great devotee of the Blessed Virgin insisted that she, like us, was conceived in original sin. Saint Thomas would pick this up and affirm that Mary was conceived in sin. The Franciscans and Carmelites however, came to Mary’s defense and insisted that she had been spared original sin in order to prepare her for being the Mother of Jesus. The debate raged through the Middle Ages. When Pope Sixtus IV put the feast of Mary’s Conception on the universal calendar in the fifteenth century it was simply called the Conception of the Virgin. The Dominican Pope, Saint Pius V, in revising the Roman Calendar also simply called it “The Conception of the Virgin.” In Franciscan and Carmelite Churches, and several dioceses, however, it was called “The Immaculate Conception.”
The doctrine remained an open question for centuries with Catholics free to believe that Mary suffered the consequences of original sin or that she had been preserved from it by a special dispensation of “prevenient” grace. In much the same way, while Catholics today must believe that Mary was assumed body and soul at the end of her earthly life, we are free to believe that she died or that she did not die before her assumption. The matter is undefined. In regard to the Immaculate Conception, however, Pope Pius IX closed the issue in 1854 by defining the doctrine that Mary was conceived without sin through a dispensation on the merits of her Son’s passion, death, and Resurrection. Thus today this is a defined dogma for the Church, though the Eastern Churches—the various rites that comprise the Eastern Churches in union with Rome as well as the Orthodox Churches, sort of nod their heads in ambiguous assent and go on their way thinking that we westerners argue over the darnedest things. And perhaps we do.