By Daniel Joseph Barton
D. "The doctrine is not from Scripture or Tradition". True, it is not defined in the Bible! But St Paul Apostle told his audience to hold onto oral teachings (2 Thessalonians 15). Oral teachings are the Church Traditions. The question then becomes, "What year did Tradition cut off"? Tradition is not captive to a certain past century. To claim such concedes that the Church died somewhere along the line and we just worship in a museum. We must remember that the age of the Fathers of the Church comes to an end in the 800's, yet the age of the Doctors of the Church continues. Some of our present-day Church leaders may well be counted as Doctors of the Church in the future, unless Christ comes again beforehand.
This is not to say that we could ever accept the Mormon Joseph Smith's "revelationsĒ, but rather that we be vigilant that present thought follows closely the Tradition of the past. It took the Early Church awhile to formulate the idea of the "Holy Trinity". It took the Early Church awhile to realize the "Mother of God" title. Even the "two natures within Christ (Divine and human)" took awhile to formulate; this terminology was so difficult to the Christians of Egypt, Armenia and Syria, that they broke communion with the Greeks of Constantinople & Latins of Rome. (Today they state, and Orthodoxy and Catholicism seemingly agrees, that the split was unnecessary, a misunderstanding of language terminology.)
The Catholic Church shows the roots of Immaculate Conception are already begun in Early Church period, at least as early as when St Ephraim the Syrian (AD 306-373) wrote "Thou and Thine mother are the only ones who are utterly beautiful in every way. For in Thee, O Lord, there is no stain, and in Your mother no stain" (implying no actual sins AND no original sin). He also wrote in the same tract, "Mary and Eve were two people without guilt. Later one became the cause of our death, the other cause of our life". (The word "guilt" here means the inherited taint of original sin on the soul, not an actual commission of a sin. Otherwise his words make no sense since we do know that Eve was guilty of an actual sin). Even St Ambrose (c. AD 430) wrote of Mary as, "a virgin not only undefiled, but whom grace has made inviolate, free of every stain."
St Severus (d.538), Early Church Father and bishop of Antioch taught: "She (Mary) formed part of the human race and was of the same essence as we, although she was pure from all taint and immaculate." St John of Damascus (aka St John Damascene - c.675-c.749) affirms this in his writings of: "Your immaculate body, which was preserved from all stain of sin, did not remain on the earth." Notice that St John affirms that Blessed Virgin Mary was preserved from ALL sin (which must include original sin) as well as affirming the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin. And St Andrew of Crete (d. 740) wrote that God chose "from all nature this pure and entirely Immaculate Virgin."
In the West, the idea of Immaculate Conception of Mary began being accepted in Spain during the 700-800s, and received from the East! This would not be unusual, as the Spanish Roman Catholics adopted practices that the Eastern Christians had instituted. For instance, the East had integrated the actual proclaiming of the Nicene Creed (Profession of Faith) into the Divine Liturgy by the end of the fifth century. Spanish Catholics followed the East, the first among the Western Churches to do so, by their decision at the Council of Toledo III in 589 AD. It took until 1014 AD for Rome to integrate it into the Liturgy of Holy Mass! The Beacon reports that the holyday of Conception of St Anne (Immaculate Conception) spread into Naples Italy in the 800's (Naples was then part of the Byzantine Empire aka the Eastern Roman Empire). This Feast had already spread throughout the East, and Emperor Manuel Commenus in 1166 made it a holyday for the entire Byzantine Empire ("The Feast of the Immaculate Conception", The Beacon, Jan-Feb 99, a Ukrainian Byzantine Catholic publication from Toronto Canada).
In the history of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, it was first approved in council by a Catholic local Synod of Basel in 1439, but was not binding upon the whole Catholic Church since a Pope had not signed it (he was much more interested in the on-going Council of Florence and hope of reunion with the East). The Franciscans and Blessed John Duns Scotus (AD 1266-1308) were the first Western champions of the Feast, and were soon joined by the Benedictines, Cistercians, and Carmelites. The Feast of the Immaculate Conception was locally approved for Rome in 1476 by Pope Sixtus IV, and in 1568 this Feast was extended to the whole Catholic Church by Pope St Pius V, but up until this point it was only a theological doctrine, not a doctrinal Dogma. Pope Clement XI made it an annual December 8 festival in the 1700s.
Based on people's petitions, Pope Pius IX launched a commission of twenty theologians in 1848 to study the entire question, and the following year he asked for opinions of Catholic bishops from around the world. The opinion was practically unanimous, convincing him to proclaim the dogma on 8 Dec 1854. In essence, he only formally declared "Truth" as had been practiced by the Church for quite some time beforehand.
E. "The great Roman Catholic Saint, Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274), was against it". Can anyone claim that theologians are correct every time? St Cyril of Jerusalem (315-386) was quoted by the monophysites as saying, "One incarnate nature of God the Word", versus our claim that Jesus had two natures, human and Divine. These words of St Cyril as to Jesusí nature did not stop either Greeks or the Latins in listing this great teacher as a Saint (to be fair, it is claimed that he later accepted the two natures of Christ).
We must admit that theologians can utter not only strange ways of expressing themselves but also mistakes, especially if the idea was a new one at the time. Saints are formerly proclaimed by the Church as such due to their life (that we should try to imitate), or for some specific reason (eg martyrdom for refusing to reject Jesus), or for the totality of their teachings (with leeway given for some mistakes). I shall discuss St Thomas Aquinas (a Saint in the Catholic Church.) again later, but I notice that Orthodox forget that St Thomas Aquinas also spoke of "the necessity of being united to the see of Rome". Though Constantinople's Patriarch and the Pope of Rome lifted the centuries old mutual excommunications in 1965, we certainly are only in an imperfect unity.
Of course, arguably the main reason blocking such unity is the understanding of "primacy" (ie: "authoritative" versus "spiritual" leadership; and Orthodox preferred usage of the title of "First Among Equals"). Note that I don't claim whom broke from whom, as each Church says the other broke away. Pope John Paul II says men on both sides were to blame. In his Ut Unum Sint, he offers that the understanding of "primacy" as relating to St Peter's successors can be discussed with a possible new understanding with the Major Patriarchs of Eastern Orthodoxy. We should pray for a return to unity in love and charity, overcoming misunderstandings and misunderstandings that keep us separated.
F. "Acceptance of the doctrine means she is to be exalted as God's equal." This nonsensical claim is usually mouthed by Protestant groups who reject many if not most Traditions, especially those centered around the Blessed Virgin. But the claim is guilty of "reading into" the doctrine. Both Catholics and Orthodox honor and venerate the Theotokos...but do not worship her. Again, Adam and Eve weren't tainted by original sin, yet no one claims them as God's equal when they were in the Garden. Saying such shows the writer doesn't believe God possesses the ability to do anything He wants.
Some Orthodox claim acceptance of the doctrine would put Mary in a divine class, equal to God...I would have to dispute that! Being voluntarily without actual sin, together with being conceived without original sin, would not put a human into a Divine class. No one can claim that Adam and Eve in their pre-lapsarian sinless state, having been created without original sin, were "divine", equal to God. Also consider the good angels...they are absolutely sinless, but not to be considered equal to God.
G. "No one can be given the right to be conceived in sanctity." Can one claim to know every whim, deed, and desire of God? Where's the belief in Holy Mysteries? One should read Jeremiah 1:5 (The Lord speaks to Jeremiah and says, "I have sanctified thee before thou didst leave the womb of thy mother"). Next read Luke 1:37 and Genesis 18:14. Nothing is impossible to God; God can do anything!
Also, to claim one is not really human without original sin would mean that original sin is essential to human nature. Yet, neither the Church, nor the Fathers nor Scripture teaches such. If our nature cannot do without that what is essential to it, then that would seemingly mean that Baptism cannot/does not wash away original sin. Further, if original sin (as a stain on the soul) is essential for human nature, then Jesus (who had no sin) could not be fully human. But no Orthodox would be able to accept that Jesus was not fully human.
H. "If God could preserve Mary from original sin, then why not simply do it for all mankind?" Are we questioning God's abilities? Why was there a tree of knowledge of good and evil? Why did God need to send a Son? He could have just saved all mankind with a wave of the arm, a blink of an eye, or a mere passing thought. (Note that the Muslims use the same excuse to downgrade Jesus from divine to mere human prophet). But should we second-guess God's actions and motives? Since God is timeless, and therefore ultimately knew that Adam and Eve would sin, maybe this was His way of making us work for our salvation, in that we are born with original sin and do sins all our lives, but must work at being granted His salvation...
I. "Mary was a woman by nature, not to be distinguished at all from others." That's not what the Archangel Gabriel said to Mary: "Blessed are you among women". Further, Orthodox theologians have stated: "The Virgin, whom would without stain give birth to the Word, true God and true Man, was not an ordinary person." Is there not a contradiction here? She can't be indistinguishable from others and extraordinary! She was certainly extraordinary by virtue that she led a sinless life!
The real thought is that she possessed the nature of a woman, making her no different from the nature of any other woman. Orthodox say that Mary's "most-pure flesh" was the vessel for the Incarnation. Could she then have the "mark of original sin which weighs on all humanity", as discussed by St Maximos the Confessor? I do not think so. Being without this "mark" would not separate her from the rest of humanity. Again, Jesus also had no "mark of original sin", but was not separate from the rest of humanity.
J. "We offered Him a virgin mother who voluntarily didn't sin, yet if God purified her at her conception in the womb of St Ann, then mankind didn't offer her up, because God arranged it ahead of time." Does not God know everything in advance? Did He not know that Mary would not refuse Him? Further, where has there ever been one human being that "chose" Mary for God? God alone chose Mary, and she consented by her own Free Will.
Also, this argument quoted above contains the mistaken conclusion, namely: "if God gave Mary this privilege (of Immaculate Conception) then it would take away her freedom (free will) to have had actual sins, negating our belief that she led a sinless life by her own desire and effort". Such a conclusion is boiled down to an essential mistaken theology that "God's grace negates freedom/free will", and that "original sin is directly responsible for actual sin under free will; lack of the first creates a lack of the later". But if such conclusion was true, then when the angel came to Mary and said "Blessed are you" (Luke 1:30), does such mean that Mary had lost "freedom to sin" (free will) since the angel informed her of God's grace having been bestowed on her? Wouldn't our own Baptisms/Chrismations (receiving the grace of God) then negate an ability to do actual sin under free will? This mistaken theology would also then have to deny that Jesus had free will since he was not tainted by original sin. If Jesus had no free will, then He couldn't have been human like us in all ways! (I note the thought as to sin being a rejection of God, and since Jesus was/is the Second Person of our Holy Triune God, His human nature could not have sinned, could not have opposed His sinless Divine nature).
But free-will was given even to Adam & Eve in Paradise, something that God wants us to have for God wants us to freely choose Him. I believe there cannot be a human understanding (by virtue of our limited ability to under-stand God's mysteries) as to differences in God's special graces.
As to the "grace negates freedom" issue, St Augustine of Hippo (AD 354-430) (by the way, some Orthodox Churches do not consider Augustine a canonized saint, but only "blessed") taught that grace enables freedom (wherein one can better battle the temptations of sin via our own free-will). He taught that one is only truly free in a state of grace; that while we are free in a limited sense before grace, it is grace that enables the will to choose the infinite end, which is God. He taught that a finite will alone cannot choose an infinite end. From this point, one runs up against the "wall of mystery" as to how deep one can understand this on a human rational level.
Certainly it's possible that St Augustine concluded this "Grace enables freedom from sin" issue by virtue of the fact that the Blessed Virgin Mary had already been blessed (according to the angel) before she was to be with child (more about this later in paragraph "M"). Hence, this grace that she already had been endowed with enabled her to resist actual sin from her very beginning, which leads to the reason why Orthodox and Catholics say that she led a totally sin-less life throughout her life.
Further, the angelís proclamation to Mary as being "full of grace." must be carefully looked at. If something is full, there is no room for something else to be added. Mary was full of grace and therefore could not have also had the opposite (original sin). The fullness of grace was given to her when she was conceived in Maryís womb. (I discuss this more in depth in paragraph "M"). The grace of God given us humans does not ever negate our ability to do sin under free-will, but His grace helps us to resist actual sin under our own free-will
K. "For Mary to have been conceived without original sin implies that her parents, Sts Anna and Joachim, could not have had original sin, and then their parents, and so forth all the way back to Adam and Eve". I believe that God has the ability to make conceived, without the stain of original sin, anyone He so wishes; that He has the power to block the stain. Logic tells me that God the Father did not want His Son conceived in a womb tainted with original sin. I concede the very presence of God in Maryís womb could possibly have just as rightly purified Mary...but this is speculation on my part only, and just does not balance with Eveís having no taint of original sin at her very beginning/creation. There must be balance between the Old Eve and the New Eve (Mary), with each free from original sin, but using their free-will to decide.
Now I shall give some other reasons why I believe in the Immaculate Conception doctrine.
L. There are apparitions of Mary within Catholicism that indicate the doctrine of Immaculate Conception. Apparitions of Mary are not foreign to Easterners; one that comes to mind is the Holy Protection of Mother of God in the year 911 at Constantinople, a holyday celebrated in Slavic Byzantine Churches, whether Catholic or Orthodox. Consider the following:
In some of the Eastern Orthodox texts for 9 December are, "the chorus of the prophets announced the Child of God; our salvation is linked to her purity, for we have been saved because of her, the only immaculate one". Also, the title Theonymph, bride of God, presupposed that Mary is immaculate: "for God chooses His bride from all eternity, and He chooses her all beautiful, more beautiful and pure than all creation". Also, "Maryís conception is the joy of the world, because the curse has come to an end, and the blessing has begun".
It is surprising that one can sing these phrases while thinking that at the first moment of her human existence Mary had suffered the original stain, that she had fallen under the initial curse and under the empire of the devil. Indeed, if in her very conception she cooperated with God to free Adam and Eve and the whole universe from the curse of original sin through her Son Jesus, it is impossible that she would have been stained with original sin. (All of this paragraph above comes from Fr Joseph Leditís Marie dans la Liturgie de Byzance (Mary in the Byzantine Liturgy, Paris, Beaucesne 1976 - in French. Jesuit priest Father Joseph, born 1898, a professor at the Vaticanís Pontifical Oriental Institute from 1929 to 1939, later was sent to be a founder/pastor of a parish for an immigrant Russian Byzantine Catholic community in Montreal).
An analysis of wordings in the Orthodox Church of America Divine Liturgy Book (published 1967) results in pro-Immaculate Conception thoughts. The Nativity of The Most Holy Theotokos (Troparion 4) states: "Your Nativity, O Virgin, has proclaimed joy to the whole universe! The Sun of Righteousness, Christ our God, has shone from you, O Theotokos! By annulling the curse, He bestowed a blessing (my emphasis). By destroying death, He has granted us eternal life." This indicates to me the annulment of original sin for Mary at her conception by virtue of the merits of Christ our Lord! However, I concede that this could have meant annulment of original sin at her BIRTH (since we are celebrating the "nativity" of the Blessed Virgin Mary here). My question would then have to be: "Why would Mary be `immaculateí at birth but not at conception?"
I previously mentioned what St Ephraim of Syria, St Ambrose, St. Severus of Antioch, St John of Damascus and St Andrew of Crete wrote about this subject (see para D). The thought of Immaculate Conception had wide acceptance in the Eastern Church in the Middle Ages (the period of European history from about 500 AD to 1500 AD) and was celebrated as early as the 700's as a Feast Day, but amazingly was controver-sial in the Western Church, according to the book Byzantine-Slav Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, by Fr Casimir Kucharek (Alleluia Press, NJ, 1971).
We also discover in this book that the Matins for the Feast of the Conception of the Theotokos by St Anne says, "This day, O faithful, from saintly parents begins to take being the spotless lamb, the most pure tabernacle, Mary". Kucharek states, "We should not forget that Eastern theologians took St Thomas Aquinas to task on this issue. Two of his most ardent disciples among the Greek's strongly disagreed with him on this point...Thomas Aquinas' failure to admit the Immaculate Conception of the Mother of God!" (Demetrios Kydonios, 14th century translater of Aquinas' works into Greek and eventually entered the Catholic Church, and Georgios Scholarios, 15th century defender of the Immaculate Conception. Scholarios, who voted for union at the Council of Florence, later became Patriarch Gennadios of Constantinople after it had fallen to the Turks).
Aquinas sided with St Bernardís (of Clairvaux - d.1153) arguments, during the continual controversy in the West. (Both believed that Mary could only have been sanctified after the conception, not at the conception. I would have to ask why they did not see a fetus as "life" in its own right, a separate entity & soul from the mother from the very beginning while in the womb - see again Jeremiah 1:5).
Kucharek states that "the great St Gregory Palamas himself (d.1359) believed that Mary was purified from the very first of her existence." Kucharek also states that the Greek Orthodox Church belief of the Immaculate Conception until the 15th century only began to change wherein Greek theologians began to propose the idea of Mary being only made immaculate at her Annunciation. But belief in the Immaculate Conception in eastern Slavs was undisturbed until the late 17th century when the Skirzhal (Book of Laws - also spelled Skrigeal due to problems of translating Cyrillic alphabet to Latin alphabet) appeared in Russia, and proposed what the Slavs considered as a "novel doctrine" of the Greeks (ie that the Theotokos was purified at the Annunciation).
Kucharek says these "new" views were branded blasphemous by the Russian Old Believers, who maintained the ancient customs/traditions however small or inconsequential. Fr Kucharek points out that when Greek Patriarch Anthimos VII wrote his reply to Pope Leo XIII's letter in 1895, listing what he believed to be the errors of the Latins, the Patriarch found no fault with the Latin belief of the Immaculate Conception, but objected to the Pope defining it as a required dogmate. (I add that it is doubtful that the Patriarch's reply was drafted all alone by him, but rather he was assited by his inner group of bishops and theologians alongside him).
Unitas Periodical stated that the Skirzhal is a Slavic translation of the Greek book titled The Divine Liturgy with Explanations of the Different Customs, by John Nathanael. This man had made part of his studies in England and Germany, before appointed as curate of the Greek Church of St George in Venice when he wrote this book. He had added his own thoughts, that Mary was purified from the original stain only at the moment of the Annunciation, right after the hymns sung after the Epiclesis in which Mary is called "more honorable than the Seraphim and incomparably more glorious than the Cherubim". By the time that Patriarch Nikon of Russia had asked the other Patriarchs to send him liturgical books (to reform the Russian Church's liturgy), Nathanael was the secretary of the Patriarch Jeremia II of Constantinople, and his book was included in the shipment. Paradoxically, Unitas reports that the Russian Orthodox Church Holy Synod of 1666 approved Simeon Polatski's Zezl Pravlenia (Rod of Direction) wherein it states textually: "Mary was exempt from original sin beginning with her conception" (see Zezl Pravlenia, Part I, ans 10). But in 1667, the Synod approved the Skirzhal.
Unitas reports that this approval did not, however, go without strong opposition. A large breakaway group, the Russian Old Believers (or Old Ritualists), calling themselves Starovery (preservers of the Old Beliefs), rejected the changes of doctrine & customs instituted by then-Patriarch Nikon and the 1666-1667 Russian Orthodox Holy Synod. They became terribly persecuted by the Czar and the Russian Orthodox Church. Unitas reports that the Old Believers eventually established a separate episcopal see in Bukovina at Bela Krinitza, and refers to the professor Soubbotine who wrote the history of this diocese in 1874. Soubbotine cites a passage from the profession of faith made by the Old Believers which reads: "The Mother of the Creator of the whole universe, not only has in no way participated in the original stain, but she remained as pure as the heavens and all beautiful". (M. Soubbotine, History of the Hierarchy of Bela Krinitza, Moscow, Vol I, pg XLII, in Russian - as quoted in the Jul-Sep 1949 Unitas periodical from the Graymore Franciscan Friars of the Atonement, said magazine now defunct, but a copy supplied to me by Mr James Likoudis, President Emeritus of "Catholics United for the Faith". The above paragraph comes from the Unitas Periodical).
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