For centuries, the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady was defended by saints, theologians and laymen. However, it took centuries of theological debate to establish a consensus in the Church. Only in 1854, did Blessed Pope Pius IX, after consulting with the bishops of the whole world, proclaim this dogma in his Apostolic Constitution Ineffabilis Deus, thus affirming as revealed truth that Our Lady was preserved from Original Sin from the very moment of her conception.
Many defended this position because they felt that the glory of the Most Holy Trinity would be tarnished if the Mother of the Word Incarnate were not the most perfect of all creatures. It would also be against God’s wisdom and mercy if the Savior’s mother did not receive the highest transcendental gifts of nature and grace.
The Immaculate Conception and America
The Immaculate Conception is particularly significant for Americans.
Americans join with Catholics the world over in celebrating the feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8. They are filled with joy this year which marks the 155th anniversary of the proclamation.
However, this feast is especially dear to Americans because Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception is the nation’s patroness. Even before the proclamation of the dogma, the American bishops collectively placed the nation under the protection of the Immaculate Conception at the first Council of Baltimore in 1846. The pope ratified this decision on February 7, 1847.
The special place of Our Lady under this invocation led Theodore Cardinal McCarrick, Archbishop of Washington to ask the Holy See to grant a plenary indulgence for those who visit the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in the nation’s capital for the year ending on December 8, 2004.
Reconciling Christ’s Universal Redemption
Although the Immaculate Conception can be found in Revelation and is part of the Deposit of Faith, it is not expressed with all the clarity of other truths like the Resurrection of Our Lord.
The main objection to the dogma revolved around the fact that, according to the dogma of Christ’s universal redemption, all men were redeemed from Original Sin by the merits of Our Lord Jesus Christ. However, if Our Lady was conceived without Original Sin, it would seem that she could not be redeemed from it by the merits of Christ.
How can these two assertions be reconciled? How does one explain the truth of the whole matter?
As Pius IX explains in his Apostolic Constitution Ineffabilis Deus, Mary Most Holy by the same merits of her Divine Son has been redeemed in a special, preventive manner, preserving her from Original Sin. As the Pope says, “the most Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God …. her soul, in the first instant of its creation and in the first instant of the soul's infusion into the body, was, by a special grace and privilege of God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, her Son and the Redeemer of the human race, preserved free from all stain of original sin. And in this sense have the faithful ever solemnized and celebrated the Feast of the Conception."
While this simple formulation resolved the problem, it took several centuries to uncover. This is not surprising since the solution of delicate theological problems often takes a long time to resolve. Thus, in 1854, the Pope used the authority given him by Our Lord Jesus Christ to safeguard and infallibly interpret Revelation and defined the dogma once and for all.
Popular Piety Affirmed Dogma
Already in the fifth century, Saint Augustine affirmed that “piety imposed the recognition of Mary as not having sin.”1 Popular devotion took up this belief and the feast of the Immaculate Conception was already celebrated in the Oriental Catholic Church as early as the sixth century. Beginning in the eleventh century, theologians made detailed studies into the matter and verified the fact that popular devotion had grown. Popular enthusiasm for the feast increased so much that it was celebrated all over Europe in 1476.
Taking a Vow
In the sixteenth and especially the seventeenth century, the topic became such a burning issue that “in Spain it became impossible to sustain from the pulpit a contrary opinion [to the Immaculate Conception] since the people would react against such preachers with murmurs, clamor and even violence.”2
Beginning in 1617, the University of Granada in Spain began the custom of making a “votum sanguinis”, which was a vow to defend the Immaculate Conception even to the point of shedding blood in its defense. This practice soon spread to religious orders, universities, confraternities and other entities.
The heretical theologian Muratori contested the vow labeling it imprudent, “unenlightened” and even gravely irresponsible. He started a debate on the subject arguing that one cannot risk one’s life for a doctrine that has not yet been defined. This thesis was refuted by the great Catholic moralist Saint Alphonsus Liguori. He favored the vow for two reasons: a) there was a universal consensus among the faithful in respect to the subject; b) a universal celebration of the feast of the Immaculate Conception was already established.3
In Defense of the Immaculate Conception
Great defenders and preachers of the privilege of the Immaculate Conception included: Saint Leonard, Saint Peter Canisius, Saint Robert Bellarmine and many others.
The desire to defend the Immaculate Conception was so great that some universities would refuse to admit any students who did not swear to defend this special privilege of the Virgin. Even civil authorities would demand such an oath as was the case of the congressmen who declared Venezuela’s independence. They swore to defend independence, the Catholic religion and the mystery of the Immaculate Conception.4
Was the Debate Justifiable?
Some modern Catholics who are not well informed or deformed by today’s religious relativism might object: Was not such an obstinate defense of this privilege of Our Lady exaggerated?
Such Catholics do not understand the profundity of the dogma and its implications. As Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira explained: “the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, considered in itself clashed with the essentially egalitarian spirit of the Revolution that since 1789 has despotically reigned in the West. To see a simple creature so elevated over others by an inestimable privilege conceded to her at the first moment of her existence, cannot help but pain the children of the Revolution that proclaim absolute equality among men as the principle of all order, justice and good.”5
This is one more reason why the Church celebrates this marvelous privilege of the Immaculate Conception on December 8. This justification of the privilege was so well expressed by the French orator Bossuet who said the Immaculate Conception represented “flesh without fragility, senses without rebellion, life without stain and death without suffering.”6
The feast of the Immaculate Conception is an excellent opportunity to ask her special intercession for our country. May she protect us against the evils of abortion, same-sex unions, and so much promiscuity that is destroying the family. May she protect our brave troops that are selflessly shedding their blood in Iraq, Afghanistan and so many other places. Let us pray for all families struggling to be faithful to the Church and to raise their children in the love and reverent fear of God.
1. André Damino, Na escola de Maria, Ed. Paulinas, 1962, p. 39. [back]
2. “A cura di Stefano de Fiores e Salvatore Meo, Tratado De Natura et Gratia,” Nuovo Dizionario de Teologia, 42, PL 44, 267, Ed. Paolinas, 1986, Milan, p. 614. [back]
3. Ibid, p. 614. [back]
4. Caracciolo Parra-Perez, Historia de la Primera República de Venezuela, Biblioteca de la Academia Nacional de la Historia, Caracas, 1959, II Vol. [back]
5. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, “Primeiro marco do ressurgimento contra-revolucionário,” Catolicismo, February 1958. [back]
6. André Damino, op. cit., p. 36. [back]