by Alex Roman, Ph.D.
The dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, proclaimed by Rome as an article of the Catholic faith in the 19th century, has long been an additional point of disagreement between East and West on the subject of Mariology or the theological study of the role of Mary. In what way is this so and what are the possibilities for overcoming the difficulties here?
The Roman Catholic dogma of the Immaculate Conception itself affirms that the Mother of God, from the moment of her Conception in the womb of St Anne, was preserved free of the “stain of Original Sin.” In other words, she who was called to assume the great role in salvation history as the Mother of the Divine Word Incarnate and the Ark of the New Covenant was prevented from contracting the sin of Adam.
The foundation of this definition is and always has been the resolution of the issue of: a) the fact that all have fallen in Adam and: b) how can the Mother of Christ, from whose very flesh the Son of God fashioned a Body for Himself by which we are saved and sanctified, ever be said to have been a subject of sin?
St Augustine of Hippo himself, when commenting on Original Sin, affirmed that the Mother of God must always be excluded from any such consideration to begin with. But it was only later with the Blessed John Duns Scotus, the Franciscan theologian, that the theological reasoning behind this view was worked out: The Virgin Mary was preserved free from Original Sin because the FUTURE merits of Christ’s passion and death were applied to her at her conception.
By the seventh century, the Byzantine East was celebrating the feast of the Conception of Saint Anne. This festival was first adopted in the West by the English Church from whence it soon spread elsewhere. It is still to be found in the calendar of the Anglican Church.
The West, however, was divided on whether the Mother of God could be said to have been conceived without Original Sin. St Thomas Aquinas and others, in fact, replied to this question in the negative and one could be a Latin Catholic in good standing while denying the Immaculate Conception.
However, even before the Immaculate Conception was proclaimed as a binding dogma on all Catholics by Rome, there was strong, local devotion to it throughout the Catholic world centuries before. Religious associations organized to honour the Immaculate Conception abounded in the Middle Ages and later. They wore a medal similar to the Miraculous Medal of more recent times, invoked the Virgin as the “Immaculate Mother” and even took the “bloody vow” or a vow to defend to the death her Immaculate Conception. Even some Catholic empires proclaimed the Immaculate Conception as a dogma to be held by all their faithful subjects. We know that the Spanish Empire did so and anyone who was a subject of the Spanish king was obliged to accept the Immaculate Conception. The Church, built by the Spaniards, in New Orleans, Louisiana is a mute testimony to the local proclamation of this dogma by the Spanish Church.
The Immaculate Conception also came to be reverenced in Orthodox countries, especially during the height of the Baroque period in the Kyivan Church and also by Greeks, as Father John Meyendorff has shown. The Ukrainian Saint Demetrius of Rostov, for example, belonged to an Orthodox Brotherhood of the Immaculate Conception (for which he was called before an Orthodox Synod to give account). St Demetrius and others of his day prayed the rosary, recited the Hail Mary at the turn of each hour, the Little Office of the Virgin Mary and even the Psalter of the Mother of God composed by St Bonaventure. His “Easternized” prayer in honour of the Sorrows of the Mother of God survives in many Orthodox prayerbooks today as the “Tale of the Five Prayers!”
The rosary known as the “rule of prayer of the Mother of God” was likewise prayed throughout by Orthodox Christians, especially by St Seraphim of Sarov whose main icon of the Mother of God was actually a Western picture of Our Lady of the Annunciation, known today as “Our Lady, Joy of all Joys” and is among the most popular icons of the Theotokos in Russia.
The Kyivan Orthodox Brotherhoods of the Immaculate Conception likewise took the bloody vow and produced Western-style depictions of Our Lady of Grace and their invocation was, “Most Immaculate Theotokos, save us!” This was a play on the “Panaghia” or “All-Holy” invocation to the Virgin Mary that is a refrain in so many liturgical services: “All Holy Theotokos, save us!”
Some of the icons themselves came to be venerated as Orthodox miraculous icons, as Professor Poselianin shows in his magnum opus, “Bogomater” (”The Immaculate Mother” as one example, although a copy of this icon is not included).
The website of the Orthodox Church in America likewise affirms that the icon for the feast of the Conception of St Anne in Orthodoxy depicts the Mother of God very much as the Western picture of Our Lady of Grace, with hands stretched downwards and standing on a globe etc.
Despite the acceptance of this doctrine in certain Orthodox circles, the fact remains that the doctrine itself was not acceptable to the Eastern Churches. Very often, Roman Catholic commentators have attacked Orthodoxy for refusing to accept this doctrine for, otherwise, this must mean that Orthodox Christians believe the unspeakable–that the Mother of God was conceived in and contracted Original Sin.
The crux of the matter here lies, however, not in a disagreement over Mary’s total sinlessness and holiness from her Conception.
In fact, the East does indeed affirm Mary’s All-holiness in its liturgical tradition. The liturgical celebration, and that from early times, of the Conception of St Anne ALREADY means that the Mother of God was a saint at her Conception and was sanctified by the Spirit as the Temple of the Most Holy Trinity–only feasts of saints may be celebrated, after all!
(The same holds true for John the Baptist, whose Conception is ALSO celebrated in the calendar of the Orthodox Church.)
So both East and West already affirm Mary to be All-Holy and Ever-Immaculate.
What is the problem then?
The problem is in the thorny issue of Original Sin and the way in which it has been understood in the West, taking its cue, as it does, from Saint Augustine. For the Christian East, Original Sin does not totally ravage human nature. Adam’s personal sin resulted in death for all his descendants, the experience of concupiscence and the darkening of the mind that makes us subject to temptation etc. So if Mary died, then she had indeed been subject to the effects of Original Sin, i.e., she could not be said to have been conceived without it.
But by her great sanctification at her Conception and at other times in her life (Annunciation, Pentecost, Dormition/Assumption) God deemed to bestow on His Temple, the Ark of the New Covenant, the fullness of His Gifts of Grace. And so, the effects of Original Sin, while not completely taken away from Mary, were mitigated in an exemplary way. Thus, she suffered no pain when she gave birth to Christ and her passing into eternal life was but a gentle falling asleep (or “Dormition”). Furthermore, she was taken in body and soul to Heaven by Her Son as her body was not to experience corruption. And she continues to grow in holiness in heaven as holiness is a dynamic, rather than static, thing.
So, for the East, when the West affirmed that the Mother of God was conceived without Original Sin, this implied that she did not die–something the East had always believed as its liturgical tradition (”lex orandi, lex credendi”) bore out.
But today the West understands the “stain of Original Sin” in a way that would be compatible with the view of the East. Perhaps this was all a misunderstanding that was artificially maintained across centuries by ill-will on both sides–who can know for sure. And the West does not deny that the Mother of God was under the effects of Original Sin, even though her great holiness mitigated greatly her experience of these. Ultimately, a mutual agreement on this issue would centre on the matter of a common and clear definition concerning Original Sin. It would also have to be based on whether Rome’s definition of the Immaculate Conception, rooted in a form of Augustinianism as it is, cannot be adapted to a more ecumenical perspective that would be open to Eastern theological/patristic viewpoints.
Certainly, there could be no question that the East would ever need to adopt the IC dogma, given the fact that the matter of the All-holiness of the Mother of God was never a point of disagreement in the East and that the dogma itself is the product of a purely Western theological paradigm.
Apart from the dogmas of the Divine Maternity and Perpetual Virginity of the Mother of God, as defined by the Councils, the East prefers to keep all else concerning the Virgin Mary as part of its own intense, inner liturgical piety towards her. As the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom sings of Mary:
“Having commemorated our Most Holy, Most Pure, Most Blessed and Glorious Sovereign Mother of God and Every-Virgin Mary, with all the Saints, let us give offer ourselves and one another unto Christ our God!”
[This article was originally published on my now defunct Pontifications blog on 15 September 2004. I’m delighted I was able to find it through the Wayback Machine. I wish to again thank Dr Roman, with whom I lost touch a good while back, for writing this article for my blog.]