The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, solemnly defined by Pope Pius IX in 1854, is regularly cited by Orthodox theologians and apologists as an insuperable barrier to the reunion of the Orthodox and Catholic Churches. According to St John of Shanghai and San Francisco, the doctrine represents a heretical departure from the faith received by the Church: “None of the ancient Holy Fathers say that God in miraculous fashion purified the Virgin Mary while yet in the womb; and many directly indicate that the Virgin Mary, just as all men, endured a battle with sinfulness, but was victorious over temptations and was saved by Her Divine Son.” In contrast, he quotes these words of a 19th century Catholic bishop, Jean-Baptiste Balou of Bruges: “In three respects—as Daughter, as Mother, and as Spouse of God—the Holy Virgin is exalted to a certain equality with the Father, to a certain superiority over the Son, to a certain nearness to the Holy Spirit.” The Roman Church, he believes, has so exalted the Blessed Virgin that she has virtually become a fourth member of the Trinity: “Thus the Roman church, in its strivings to exalt the Most Holy Virgin, is going on the path of complete deification of Her.”
John advances five objections to the Latin dogma:
- “The teaching of the complete sinlessness of the Mother of God does not correspond to Sacred Scripture, where there is repeatedly mentioned the sinlessness of the One Mediator between God and man, the man Jesus Christ (I Tim. 2:5); and in Him is no sin (John 3:5); Who did no sin, neither was guile found in His mouth (I Peter 2:22); One that hath been in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin (Heb. 4:15); Him Who knew no sin, He made to be sin on our behalf (II Cor. 5:21).”
- “This teaching contradicts also Sacred Tradition, which is contained in numerous Patristic writings, where there is mentioned the exalted sanctity of the Virgin Mary from Her very birth, as well as Her cleansing by the Spirit at Her conception of Christ, but not at Her own conception by Anna.”
- “The teaching that the Mother of God was purified before Her birth, so that from Her might be born the Pure Christ, is meaningless; because if the Pure Christ could be born only if the Virgin might be born pure, it would be necessary that Her parents also should be pure of original sin, and they again would have to be born of purified parents, and going further in this way, one would have to come to the conclusion that Christ could not have become incarnate unless all His ancestors in the flesh, right up to Adam inclusive, had been purified beforehand of original sin. But then there would not have been any need for the very Incarnation of Christ, since Christ came down to earth in order to annihilate sin.”
- “The teaching that the Mother of God was preserved from original sin, as likewise the teaching that She was preserved by God’s grace from personal sins, makes God unmerciful and unjust; because if God could preserve Mary from sin and purify Her before Her birth, then why does He not purify other men before their birth, but rather leaves them in sin?”
- “This teaching, which seemingly has the aim of exalting the Mother of God, in reality completely denies all Her virtues. After all, if Mary, even in the womb of Her mother, when She could not even desire anything either good or evil, was preserved by God’s grace from every impurity, and then by that grace was preserved from sin even after Her birth, then in what does Her merit consist? If She could have been placed in the state of being unable to sin, and did not sin, then for what did God glorify Her? If She, without any effort, and without having any kind of impulses to sin, remained pure, then why is She crowned more than everyone else. There is no victory without an adversary.”
In one form or another, the above objections to the Immaculate Conception doctrine are now commonplace in Orthodox apologetics. Roman Catholic theologians might question whether John has accurately stated the Latin doctrine, and they no doubt have answers at hand to the above objections—but that is by the by. What is important is modern Orthodoxy’s almost unanimous rejection of the Immaculate Conception. Reunion with Rome is thus impossible, until it repents of its heresy.
Yet as we saw with Fr Lev Gillet’s article, in the first-half of the second millennium many Byzantine theologians and preachers not only spoke of the prenatal sanctification of the Theotokos in ways that seemingly approximate the Immaculate Conception; but they exalted her so highly as would make many modern Orthodox squirm in their pews (if they have them). In his article St John ironically invokes Western sources (Bernard of Clairvaux, Thomas Aquinas) to support his condemnation of the Immaculate Conception, yet he does not cite Eastern authorities, much less formal denunciations, from the same period. Why is that? It was not because Byzantium was unacquainted with the Latin proposal.
And so we ask: Must the Eastern Church condemn the Latin doctrine of the Immaculate Conception as heretical? Might it enshrine a truth that the Eastern Church must affirm, once it is detached from the Latin teaching on original sin? Perhaps, just perhaps, an Orthodox construal of the doctrine is possible.
(6 September 2015; rev.)