The Immaculate Conception: History of the Dogma

Today the Immaculate Conception of Mary is – or should be – commonplace among all the faithful. After all, it is a dogma of Faith! However, in the nearly two thousand years that preceded its proclamation, fierce disputes were fought over it.

Newsroom (08/12/2021 18:30, Gaudium PressFirst, it is worth remembering that the Immaculate Conception is a feast eminently celebrated by the Brazilians. After all, the country’s patron saint is Our Lady of Conception Aparecida, who was taken from the waters a century before the Dogma was proclaimed.

At the time when the Lady of Brazil first appeared to fisherman João, there was already a great consensus among the faithful about the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. However, the struggle over the theme was not an easy or quick matter to resolve. Just to give you an idea, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Albert the Great were on the other side!

But all this controversy has a completely reasonable explanation – and solution, of course.

The History of the Immaculate Conception

Devotion to the Immaculate goes back to the first centuries of the Church. Passaglia, in his “De Inmaculato Deiparæ Conceptu”, believes that at the beginning of the 5th century the feast of the Conception of Mary (with the name Conception of St. Anne) was already celebrated in the Patriarchate of Jerusalem. However, the oldest reliable document about this feast is the canon composed by St. Andrew of Crete, in the seventh century. The first celebrations of the feast in Spain also date from this century, and 200 years later, in Ireland.

In the times of Emperor Basil II (976 – 1025), the feast of the Conception of Saint Anne became part of the official calendar of the Church and of the State, in the Byzantine Empire.

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Already in the 11th century, it spread to England and France. So far, in general, the acceptance and expansion of the belief in the Immaculate Conception did not encounter any great difficulties, and grew quietly. Only so far, because soon the picture would begin to change…

The opposition of the giants

In the 12th century, and even more so in the 13th century, polemics on the subject began to gain importance. Among those who doubted were learned and virtuous men: St. Bernard, St. Bonaventure, St. Albert the Great, St. Thomas Aquinas![1]

The explanation for this opposition is relatively simple: how to reconcile the Immaculate Conception with Christ’s universal Redemption? After all, if Our Lady was the exception to the rule, then the Redemption was not universal, it did not extend to all the children of Adam. Now, this is impossible since the universal Redemption was already admitted, the hypothesis of the Immaculate Conception was discarded.

The fight became more intense until the 14th century when the venerable John Duns Scotus – following in the footsteps of his master, the Franciscan William of Ware – found a solution: the doctrine of the Preventive Redemption.

His thesis is basically this: there are two ways to redeem someone. One is by paying the ransom to take him out of captivity, the other is by paying it in advance, so that the beneficiary does not even get to prison. The latter way is more properly a redemption, even more profound than the former! And it was in this way that the infinite merits of our Lord Jesus Christ were applied to his Mother.[2]

Back to peace

With Duns Scotus’ solution, the supporters of the Immaculate Conception, both among the theologians and among the people, began to gain strength, to the point that on February 27, 1477, Pope Sixtus IV, by the Bull Cum Præexcelsa, approved the feast and the office and granted indulgences.

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However, the quarrel was not yet entirely settled: this same Pope, for example, had to publish in 1483 a constitution (Grave Nimis) forbidding those of one side to call those of the other, heretics!

Not even the Council of Trent, convened almost a century later, wanted to speak out. It merely ratified the decisions of Sixtus IV.

In any case, the sensus fidelium was leaning more and more toward the proclamation of the Dogma. The newly founded Jesuit Order joined the party of the favorable ones. Under the influence of the Society of Jesus, since 1554, this feast began to be celebrated in Brazil.

In the XVII century, more supporters in the lay sphere: several governors asked the successive Popes to publish the dogmatic declaration of the Immaculate Conception: Emperor Ferdinand II of Austria; Philip V, King of Spain; Sigismund of Poland; Leopold, Archduke of Tyrol; Ernest of Bavaria, among others.

Proclamation of the Dogma

But the Church, extremely wise, never makes hasty decisions. Pius IX, on February 2, 1849, while in exile in Gaeta, sent to all the bishops of the world the Encyclical Ubi Primum, asking them about the devotion of their subordinates to the Immaculate Conception. Of all the 750 Cardinals, Bishops and Apostolic Vicars that Catholicism had at the time, more than 600 were able to answer the Pope’s question. Of these, only five were doubtful about the advisability of a dogmatic declaration.

For Pius IX, it was more than a confirmation. Finally, on December 8, 1854, during a most solemn Mass, in the presence of 54 Cardinals, 42 Archbishops and 98 Bishops from the four corners of the earth, moved to tears, he proclaims:

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“We declare, pronounce and define that the doctrine that the Blessed Virgin Mary, at the first instant of her conception, by the singular grace and privilege of Almighty God, in attention to the mysteries of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, was preserved immune from all stain of original guilt, this doctrine has been revealed by God, and must therefore be firmly and constantly believed by all the faithful.”[3]

With that, and the Bull Ineffabilis Deus, the Pope closed the debate forever. The Immaculate Conception became a truth of faith. From then on, anyone claiming to be Catholic would have to admit this privilege to the Blessed Virgin.[4]

[1] Many believe that St. Thomas, at the end of his life, returned to defend the privilege of the Immaculate Conception, as he had done at the beginning of his theological career (Cf. GARRIGOU-LAGRANGE, Réginald. La Mère du Sauveur et notre vie intérieure. Paris: Du Cerf, 1948, p. 56)

[2] BLAIS, Hervé (org.). La Vierge Immaculée: Histoire et doctrine. Montréal: Franciscaines, 1954, 145-148.

[3] CHANTREL, J. Histoire Populaire des Papes. 2. ed. Paris: Dillet, 1856, v. 24, pp. 160-164. Same formula as the one used by the Pontiff in the Bull Ineffabilis Deus (Cf. DH, 2803).

[4] The data of this article which are not referenced were all taken from the work of Msgr. João Scognamiglio Clá Dias: The Little Office of the Immaculate Conception Commented. 2. ed. São Paulo: Lumen Sapientiæ, 2011, v. 2.


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