Today, the Catholic Church celebrates the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. The Immaculate Conception is, according to Roman Catholic Dogma, the conception of the Virgin Mary without any stain (macula in Latin) of original sin. It is one of the four dogmas in Roman Catholic Mariology.
The dogma states that, from the first moment of her existence (conception in St. Anne's womb), she was preserved by God from the lack of sanctifying grace that afflicts mankind, and that she was instead filled with divine grace. We Catholics also believe that she lived a life completely free from sin. Her immaculate conception in the womb of her mother, through sexual intercourse, should not be confused with the doctrine of the virginal conception of her son Jesus, known as the Annunciation, and followed by the Virgin Birth.
With these words, spoken in 1854, Pope Pius IX, in the Papal Bull ineffabilis Dei, declared Mary's Immaculate Conception to be dogma. Pius did not invent the concept. Rather, he was affirming a belief held by many Christians that came before him, from East and West, that Mary was conceived free of the stain of original sin, on account of Christ's work. God caused this immaculate conception in order to render Mary a pure vessel to bear God-made-flesh.
Mary, the one who is "full of grace" and the one whom "all generations will called 'blessed'" has been viewed as unique since the earliest days of the Christian faith. Just as Christ has been called the "new Adam," the Church Fathers, especially Saints Justin (AD 150) and Irenaeus (AD 180), saw Mary as the "new Eve," who humbly obeyed God, even though Eve disobeyed. The Church Fathers also called Mary the "new ark of the covenant" and theotokos, God-bearer. It is from these titles that the doctrine of Mary's Immaculate Conception and sinlessness unfolded. Thus St. Ephrem the Syrian (d. AD 373) spoke of Mary as without stain or blemish, calling her "all-pure, all-immaculate, all-stainless, all-undefiled, all-incorrupt, all-inviolate" (see Nisibine Hymns, and "Precationes ad Deiparam"). St. Ambrose (d. AD 397) wrote "lift me up not from Sarah, but from Mary, a Virgin not only undefiled, but a Virgin whom grace has made inviolate, free of every stain of sin" (Commentary on Psalm 118). Augustine left open the possibility of Mary's sinlessness, even using language similar to the Catholic dogma of the Immaculate Conception:
We must except the holy Virgin Mary, concerning whom I wish to raise no question when it touches the subject of sins, out of honour to the Lord; for from Him we know what abundance of grace for overcoming sin in every particular was conferred upon her who had the merit to conceive and bear Him who undoubtedly had no sin (On Nature and Grace, 42).
Later Fathers, such as St. John of Damascus (d. AD 755) and St. Andrew of Crete (d. AD 740) continued this emphasis on Mary's sinlessness as bearer of God. John of Damascus wrote:
The Father's...sanctifying power overshadowed her, cleansed and made her holy, and, as it were, predestined her. Then Thou, Word of the Father...didst take flesh of the Blessed Virgin, vivified by a reasoning soul, having first abided in her undefiled and immaculate womb...(Sermon I: On the Assumption)
John also spoke of Mary's "holy, undefiled, and stainless soul" (Sermon II: On the Assumption). However, there was no official dogma of the Immaculate Conception as of this period. Most Church Fathers agreed that Mary was sinless at the time she gave birth to Christ. They disagreed as to whether Mary was made sinless at conception, birth, or when she said "yes" to God's call. Even some prominent medieval Western theologians (notably St. Bonaventure and St. Thomas Aquinas*) denied Mary's Immaculate Conception, although not her sinlessness. Even today, Catholic and Orthodox theologians agree that Mary is the all-holy, blameless, "new ark"; the debate is not about Mary being sinless, but about when Mary was made sinless. Part of this disagreement is because the East does not believe in original sin as the Western Church defines it. Orthodox theologian John Myendorff, in Byzantine Theology, has suggested the East would likely accept the Catholic dogma of the Immaculate Conception if they had a Western understanding of Original Sin. The East and West nonetheless seem to be getting at the same "mystery": Mary's sinlessness and holiness in her role as theotokos.
St. Thomas believed, like most at the time, in the entire personal sinlessness of Mary, and believed that Mary was made immaculate before her birth; His writings place this sanctification somewhere between conception and birth, at the time when her soul and body were joined, an event some medieval theologians believed occurred a short time after conception.
History of the Feast
The Feast of Mary's Conception is clearly known as early as the 7th century in the East, and may even date to as early as the 5th century in the Churches of Syria. The feast spread to the West, at least by the 9th century. The feast and doctrine initially were opposed by the Dominicans, while the Franciscans argued in favor of the Immaculate Conception and its feast. For awhile, a great debate raged about the doctrine, even up until the 19th century. The Council of Basle in 1439 affirmed that the Immaculate Conception was a pious belief in accord with the Catholic faith. In 1476 Pope Sixtus IV approved the feast with its own Mass and Office, and in 1708, Pope Clement XI extended the feast to the universal Church, making it a holy day of obligation. In 1847, Pope Pius IX proclaimed Mary as patroness of the United States, under the title of her immaculate conception. Thus, to this day, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception is the patronal feast of the United States.
The Orthodox and many Eastern Catholics celebrate the Feast of the Conception of Mary on December 9. This places Mary's conception 9 months, minus a day, from her birth (celebrated September 8). This apparently symbolizes that while Christ had a perfect humanity, even though Mary was the Mother of God, she did not (since Christ spent 9 full months in the womb, from March 25-December 25). However, the Orthodox do not celebrate Mary's immaculate conception on December 9 as Eastern Catholics do. The West observes the feast on December 8. While this dogma took centuries to develop and unfold, as did the dogma of the Trinity, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is certainly fitting for one whom the Eastern Christians call panagia, i.e. "all-holy," and who bore God-Made-Man, Jesus Christ.