Non-Catholics (and probably even a few Catholics) commonly confuse the idea of the “Virgin Birth” with the notion of the “Immaculate Conception.” However, the two are quite distinct. While the doctrine of the Virgin Birth teaches that Jesus was born of a virgin mother and, thus, was without an earthly father, the Immaculate Conception refers to the earthly origin of Mary herself.
The doctrine was first officially stated by Pope Pius IX on Dec. 8, 1854. “We declare, pronounce and define,” he wrote, in an encyclical titled “Ineffabilis Deus” (“Ineffable God”), “that the most blessed Virgin Mary, at the first instant of her conception, was preserved immaculate from all stain of original sin, by the singular grace and privilege of the omnipotent God, in virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, the saviour of mankind, and that this doctrine was revealed by God and therefore must be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.”
Believers in the Immaculate Conception have found support for it in Genesis 3:15 and Luke 1:28. Clearly, though, it grows primarily out of subsequent Christian tradition rather than out of the biblical data. Already St. Justin Martyr (d. ca. A.D. 165 ) and St. Irenaeus (d. ca. 200) were calling Mary the “new Eve,” as a parallel to Paul’s biblical description of Jesus as the “new Adam.” By the eighth century, in the Christian East, St. Andrew of Crete (d. 740) and St. John of Damascus (d. ca. 749) were praising Mary’s perfect sinlessness.
A feast celebrating Mary’s conception is known in eastern Christianity in the seventh century. It appeared in Naples and perhaps also in Ireland by the ninth, and it entered England in the 11th century. When the feast was introduced into France between A.D. 1130 and 1140, St. Bernard (d. 1153) opposed the innovation, and the resulting controversy continued over several centuries.
Most of the great scholastic theologians — including St. Albert the Great (d. 1280), St. Bonaventure (d. 1274), and the illustrious Dominican thinker St. Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274) — opposed the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception on the grounds that the stain of original sin was transmitted in every act of begetting. (In medieval Christendom, with its strong support of monasticism and its veneration of Mary’s “perpetual virginity,” attitudes toward sex were not uniformly positive.) Thus, since Mary, unlike Jesus, was conceived in the ordinary human way, they reasoned, she too was subject to original sin. But the great Franciscan philosopher-theologian Duns Scotus (d. 1308) defended the doctrine, and the issue divided Franciscans and Dominicans for many years thereafter.
Supporters began to gain the upper hand in the 15th century. In 1439, the Council of Basel described belief in Mary’s Immaculate Conception as a pious opinion that is consistent with Catholic faith, with reason and with scripture.
Ten years later, in Paris, the Sorbonne required all candidates for degrees to swear an oath to defend the idea, and many other universities followed suit. In 1476, although he conceded that the church had not yet decided on the matter and that, consequently, neither side was heretical, Pope Sixtus IV approved the feast of the Immaculate Conception with its own mass — an approval later confirmed and strengthened by Pope Clement XI in 1708.
From the 16th century onwards, it is safe to say that belief in Mary’s Immaculate Conception became general throughout Catholicism. The Council of Trent (1545-1563) expressly declared that its decree on original sin did not include the Blessed Virgin Mary. Viewed in this light, Pius IX’s proclamation of 1854 was the almost inevitable outcome of theological developments within the Roman Catholic Church.
By contrast, the doctrine has become a major stumbling block for Protestants who seek better relationships with the Church of Rome. The Bible, they point out, does not teach the sinlessness of Mary, let alone her Immaculate Conception. And, although “Ineffabilis Deus” asserts that “this doctrine has always existed in the church as a doctrine that has been received from our ancestors and that has been stamped with the character of revealed doctrine,” the historical evidence for such a proposition seems less than overwhelming.
Many suspicious Protestants view the proclamation of Mary’s Immaculate Conception as a dramatic and unprecedented assertion, by Rome, of power to announce new doctrine, independent of scripture and tradition. Indeed, they see it as a trial balloon for the doctrine of papal infallibility, which would be defined at the First Vatican Council in 1870.
Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU’s Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson, and speaks only for himself.