Hail Mary, conceived without sin!
We believe that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was preserved free from the effects of the sin of Adam (usually referred to as “original sin”) from the first instant of her conception.
This teaching is not to be confused with Jesus’ conception in Mary’s womb. The Immaculate Conception is not about Jesus’ conception, but about Mary herself, in St. Anne’s womb.
Various texts in both the Old and the New Testaments support the doctrine. There is plenty of evidence indicating this teaching of Mary’s holiness was widely accepted in the early Church. The devotion took on a new impetus after Mary had been solemnly declared to be the Mother of God at the Council of Ephesus in 431. How could one so close to God have actually experienced sinful acts? The Church Fathers’ writings witness unanimously that Mary, the true disciple of the Lord, always cooperated with grace in the most perfect of ways as “the Handmaid of the Lord” (Luke 1:38).
The belief that Mary had thereby been spared also from the disposition to evil inherent in original sin (concupiscence) was not clearly articulated until the 12th century, when considerable debate was centred on an English celebration of Mary’s conception. The discussion was severely clouded by medieval understandings of the biological aspects of conception; and by a concern that it sounds as if Mary preceded Jesus in bringing the very universal redemption effected by Jesus on the Cross!
St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century voiced these difficulties, but without denying what was traditionally believed about our Holy Mother. The Franciscan theologian, Blessed John Duns Scotus, argued that Christ’s redemptive grace was applied to Mary to prevent sin from reaching her soul and that this special intervention resulted in a more perfect redemption in her case. Mary’s ‘privilege’ thus, was the result of God’s grace and not of any intrinsic merit on her part.
The Franciscan argument gradually won favour, as reflected in the teaching of various Popes (especially Sixtus IV in the late 15th century) and the councils of Basel (1439) and Trent (1546). It was not, however, until December 8, 1854, that Blessed Pius IX, urged by the Catholic bishops throughout the world, solemnly declared in the bull Ineffabilis Deus* that the doctrine was revealed by God and hence was to be firmly believed as such by all Catholics.
The feast of the Immaculate Conception is celebrated on December 8 and is usually a holy day of obligation (on which Catholics are required to attend Holy Mass).
Apostolic Constitution of Blessed Pope Pius IX solemnly defining the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception, 8 December 1854.
“…Therefore, having full trust in the Lord that the opportune time had come for defining the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, which Holy Scripture, venerable Tradition, the constant mind of the Church, the desire of Catholic bishops and the faithful, and the memorable Acts and Constitutions of our predecessors, wonderfully illustrate and proclaim, and having most diligently considered all things, as we poured forth to God ceaseless and fervent prayers, we concluded that we should no longer delay in decreeing and defining by our supreme authority the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin. And thus, we can satisfy the most holy desire of the Catholic world as well as our own devotion toward the most holy Virgin, and at the same time honour more and more the only begotten Son, Jesus Christ our Lord through his holy Mother–since whatever honour and praise are bestowed on the Mother redound to the Son.
Wherefore, in humility and fasting, we unceasingly offered our private prayers as well as the public prayers of the Church to God the Father through his Son, that he would deign to direct and strengthen our mind by the power of the Holy Spirit. In like manner did we implore the help of the entire heavenly host as we ardently invoked the Paraclete. Accordingly, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, for the honour of the Holy and undivided Trinity, for the glory and adornment of the Virgin Mother of God, for the exaltation of the Catholic Faith, and for the furtherance of the Catholic religion, by the authority of Jesus Christ our Lord, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own: “We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.”
Hence, if anyone shall dare–which God forbid!–to think otherwise than as has been defined by us, let him know and understand that he is condemned by his own judgment; that he has suffered shipwreck in the faith; that he has separated from the unity of the Church; and that, furthermore, by his own action he incurs the penalties established by law if he should dare to express in words or writing or by any other outward means the errors he think in his heart”.