Immaculate Conception

The Immaculate Conception[Notes 1] is a dogma of the Catholic Church which states that Mary, mother of Jesus has been free of original sin from the moment of her conception.[1][Notes 2] It proved controversial in the Middle Ages, but was revived in the 19th century and was adopted as Church dogma when Pope Pius IX promulgated Ineffabilis Deus in 1854. This followed Ubi primum, an 1849 encyclical wherein Pius had asked the bishops for their opinions on the matter,[2][3] resulting in overwhelming support from the Church's hierarchy.[4]

Immaculate Conception of Mary
The Immaculate Conception
by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1767–1769, in the Museo del Prado, Spain
Venerated inCatholic Church
(East and West)
Major shrineBasilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
FeastDecember 8 (Roman Rite)
December 9 (Byzantine Rite)
AttributesCrescent Moon
Halo of Twelve Stars
Blue Robe
Serpent Underfoot
Assumption into Heaven

Protestants rejected Ineffabilis Deus as an exercise in papal power and the doctrine itself as without foundation in Scripture.[5] Eastern Orthodoxy, although it reveres Mary in its liturgy, called on the Roman church to return to the faith of early centuries.[6]

The iconography of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception shows her standing, with arms outstretched or hands clasped in prayer, and her feast day is 8 December.[7]


The Immaculate Conception of Mary is one of the four Marian dogmas of the Catholic Church, meaning that it is held to be a divinely revealed truth whose denial is heresy.[8] Defined by Pope Pius IX in Ineffabilis Deus, 1854, it states that Mary, through God's grace, was conceived free from the stain of original sin through her role as the Mother of God:[9]

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.[10]

While the Immaculate Conception asserts Mary's freedom from original sin, the Council of Trent, held between 1545 and 1563, had previously affirmed her freedom from personal sin.[11]


Anna, mother of Mary

The mother of Mary is not a biblical character.[12] She first appears in the late 2nd-century Protevangelium of James, which names her Anne, probably from Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel. She and her husband, Saint Joachim, are infertile, but God hears their prayers for a child. So is Mary conceived and born, and, like Samuel, taken to spend her childhood in the temple.[13] In the earliest texts, probably representing the original version, the conception occurs without sexual intercourse between Anne and Joachim, but the story does not advance the idea of an immaculate conception.[14]

Original sin

Original sin is the Christian doctrine that each human being is born in a state of sin inherited from the first man, Adam, who disobeyed God in eating the forbidden fruit (of knowledge of good and evil) and, in consequence, transmitted his sin and guilt by heredity to his descendants.[15] The doctrine was defined by Augustine of Hippo (354–430 AD).[16] Engaged in a controversy with the monk Pelagius over the question of whether infants could sin (Pelagius said they could not and therefore would not go to hell if unbaptised), he inserted original sin and the fall from grace into the story of the Garden of Eden and Paul's Letter to the Romans.[17] Augustine identified male semen as the means by which original sin was made heritable, leaving only Jesus Christ, conceived without semen, free of the sin passed down from Adam through the sexual act.[18]

Anselm of Canterbury challenged this identification in the 11th-century, defining original sin as "privation of the righteousness that every man ought to possess". Thomas Aquinas distinguished the supernatural gifts of Adam before the fall from what was merely natural, and said that it was the former that were lost, privileges that enabled man to keep his inferior powers in submission to reason and directed to his supernatural end. Duns Scotus and William of Ockham, identified original sin with the loss of sanctifying grace.

According to Catechism of the Catholic Church,

By yielding to the tempter, Adam and Eve committed a personal sin, but this sin affected the human nature that they would then transmit in a fallen state. It is a sin which will be transmitted the transmission of a human nature deprived of original holiness and justice. and that is why original sin is called "sin" only in an analogical sense: it is a sin "contracted" and not "committed" - a state and not an act.[19]

Medieval formulation

Altar of the Immaculata by Joseph Lusenberg, 1876. Saint Antony's Church, Urtijëi, Italy.

Mary's freedom from personal sin was affirmed in the 4th century, but Augustine's argument that original sin was transmitted through sex raised the question of whether she could also be free of the sin of Adam.[9] The English ecclesiastic and scholar Eadmer (c.1060-c.1126) reasoned that it was possible in view of God's omnipotence and appropriate in view of Mary's role as Mother of God: Potuit, decuit, fecit, "it was possible, it was fitting, therefore it was done;"[20] Interpretations of the doctrine of Immaculate Conception were the subject of intensive dispute between Franciscans and Dominicans.[21]

Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153) and Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), among others, objected that if Mary were free of original sin at her conception then she would have no need of redemption, making Christ superfluous; they were answered by Duns Scotus (1264–1308), who reasoned that

Christ was Mary's Redeemer more perfectly by preservative redemption in shielding her from original sin through anticipating and foreseeing the merits of his passion and death. This pre-redemption indicates a much greater grace and more perfect salvation.[22][23]

Nevertheless, it was not theological theory that initiated discussion of Mary's freedom from mankind's curse, but the celebration of her liturgy in the eleventh century, for the popular feast of her conception brought forth the objection that as normal human conception was sinful, to celebrate Mary's conception was to celebrate a sinful event.[24] Some held that no sin had occurred, for Anne had conceived Mary not through sex but by kissing her husband Joachim, and that Anne's father and mother had likewise been conceived, but St Bridget of Sweden (c.1303–1373) told how Mary herself had revealed to her in a vision that although Anne and Joachim conceived their daughter through sexual union, the act was sinless because it was free of sexual desire.[25]

In 1431 the Council of Basel declared Mary's immaculate conception a "pious opinion" consistent with faith and Scripture; the Council of Trent, held in several sessions in the early 1500s, made no explicit declaration on the subject but exempted her from the universality of original sin; and by 1571 the Pope's Breviary (prayerbook) set out an elaborate celebration of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on 8 December.[26]

Ineffabilis Deus

In the 16th and especially the 17th centuries there was a proliferation of Immaculatist devotion in Spain, leading the Habsburg monarchs to demand that the papacy elevate the belief to the status of dogma.[27] In France in 1830 Catherine Labouré (May 2, 1806 – December 31, 1876) saw a vision of Mary as the Immaculate Conception standing on a globe while a voice commanded her to have a medal made in imitation of what she saw.[28] Labouré's vision marked the beginning of a great 19th-century Marian revival.[29]

In 1849 with the encyclical Ubi primum (Pius IX, 1849), Pope Pius IX asked the bishops of the church for their views on whether the doctrine should be defined as dogma: ninety percent of those who responded were supportive, and in 1854 the papal bull Ineffabilis Deus was promulgated.[2] Despite the fact that a good deal of the support for the dogma came from France, and that it had been promoted by one his predecessors, Hyacinthe-Louis de Quélen, Marie-Dominique-Auguste Sibour, Archbishop of Paris thought the Immaculate Conception "could be proved neither from the Scriptures nor from tradition".[30][31] Nonetheless, despite any reservations, after its promulgation, Sibour published the decree in his diocese. In 1857, the Archbishop was assassinated by an interdicted priest who disagreed with Sibour's support of clerical celibacy and the recently defined dogma.

Ineffabilis Deus found the Immaculate Conception in the Ark of Salvation (Noah's Ark), Jacob's Ladder, the Burning Bush at Sinai, the Enclosed Garden from the Song of Songs, and many more passages.[32] From this wealth of support the pope's advisors singled out Genesis 3:15 as the basis for the Immaculate Conception: "The most glorious Virgin ... was foretold by God when he said to the serpent: 'I will put enmity between you and the woman,'"[33] a prophecy which reached fulfillment in the figure of the Woman in the Revelation of John, crowned with stars and trampling the Dragon underfoot.[34] Luke 1:28, and specifically the phrase "full of grace" by which Gabriel greeted Mary, was another reference to her immaculate conception: "she was never subject to the curse and was, together with her Son, the only partaker of perpetual benediction."[35]

According to Hans J. Hillerbrand, Ineffabilis Deus was one of the pivotal events of the papacy of Pius, pope from 16 June 1846 to his death on 7 February 1878.[3]

Four years later Mary appeared to the young Bernadette Soubirous at Lourdes, in southern France, to announce that she was the Immaculate Conception.[36]

Feast and patronages

The procession of the Quadrittu of the Immaculate Conception taken on December 7 in Saponara, Sicily

The feast day of the Immaculate Conception is December 8.[7] Its celebration seems to have begun in the Eastern church in the 7th century and may have spread to Ireland by the 8th, although the earliest well-attested record in the Western church is from England early in the 11th.[37] It was suppressed there after the Norman Conquest (1066), and the first thorough exposition of the doctrine was a response to this suppression.[37] It continued to spread despite strong theological objections[38] (in 1125 St Bernard of Clairvaux wrote to Lyons Cathedral to express his surprise and concern that it had recently begun to be observed there),[24] but in 1477 Sixtus IV, a Franciscan, placed it on the Roman calendar (i.e., list of Church festivals and observances).[39] Pius V suppressed the word "immaculate",[40] but following the promulgation of Ineffabilis Deus it was restored with the typically Franciscan phrase "immaculate conception" and given a formulary for the Mass, drawn largely from one composed for Sixtus IV, beginning "O God who by the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin...". [41]

By pontifical decree a number of countries are considered to be under the patronage of the Immaculate Conception. These include Argentina, Brazil, Korea, Nicaragua, Paraguay, the Philippines, Spain (including the old kingdoms and the present state), the United States and Uruguay. By royal decree under the House of Bragança, she is the principal Patroness of Portugal.

Prayers and hymns

The Roman Missal and the Roman Rite Liturgy of the Hours naturally includes references to Mary's immaculate conception in the feast of the Immaculate Conception. An example is the antiphon that begins: "Tota pulchra es, Maria, et macula originalis non est in te" ("You are all beautiful, Mary, and the original stain [of sin] is not in you." It continues: "Your clothing is white as snow, and your face is like the sun. You are all beautiful, Mary, and the original stain [of sin] is not in you. You are the glory of Jerusalem, you are the joy of Israel, you give honour to our people. You are all beautiful, Mary.")[42] On the basis of the original Gregorian chant music,[43] polyphonic settings have been composed by Anton Bruckner,[44] Pablo Casals, Maurice Duruflé,[45] Grzegorz Gerwazy Gorczycki,[46] no:Ola Gjeilo,[47] José Maurício Nunes Garcia,[48] and Nikolaus Schapfl.[49]

Other prayers honouring Mary's immaculate conception are in use outside the formal liturgy. The Immaculata prayer, composed by Saint Maximillian Kolbe, is a prayer of entrustment to Mary as the Immaculata.[50] A novena of prayers, with a specific prayer for each of the nine days has been composed under the title of the Immaculate Conception Novena.[51]

Ave Maris Stella is the vesper hymn of the feast of the Immaculate Conception.[52] The hymn Immaculate Mary, addressed to Mary as the Immaculately Conceived One, is closely associated with Lourdes.[53]

Artistic representation

Giotto, Meeting at the Golden Gate, 1304–1306

The Immaculate Conception became a popular subject in literature,[54] but its abstract nature meant it was late in appearing as a subject in art.[55] During the Medieval period it was depicted as "Joachim and Anne Meeting at the Golden Gate", meaning Mary's conception through the chaste kiss of her parents at the Golden Gate in Jerusalem;[56] the 14th and 15th centuries were the heyday for this scene, after which it was gradually replaced by more allegorical depictions featuring an adult Mary.[57] The 1476 extension of the feast of the Immaculate Conception to the entire Latin Church reduced the likelihood of controversy for the artist or patron in depicting an image, so that emblems depicting The Immaculate Conception began to appear. Many artists in the 15th century faced the problem of how to depict an abstract idea such as the Immaculate Conception, and the problem was not fully solved for 150 years. The Italian Renaissance artist Piero di Cosimo was among those artists who tried new solutions, but none of these became generally adopted so that the subject matter would be immediately recognisable to the faithful.

The definitive iconography for the depiction of "Our Lady" seems to have been finally established by the painter and theorist Francisco Pacheco in his "El arte de la pintura" of 1649: a beautiful young girl of 12 or 13, wearing a white tunic and blue mantle, rays of light emanating from her head ringed by twelve stars and crowned by an imperial crown, the sun behind her and the moon beneath her feet.[58] Pacheco's iconography influenced other Spanish artists or artists active in Spain such as El Greco, Bartolomé Murillo, Diego Velázquez, and Francisco Zurbarán, who each produced a number of artistic masterpieces based on the use of these same symbols.[59] The popularity of this particular representation of The Immaculate Conception spread across the rest of Europe, and has since remained the best known artistic depiction of the concept: in a heavenly realm, moments after her creation, the spirit of Mary (in the form of a young woman) looks up in awe at (or bows her head to) God. The moon is under her feet and a halo of twelve stars surround her head, possibly a reference to "a woman clothed with the sun" from Revelation 12:1–2. Additional imagery may include clouds, a golden light, and putti. In some paintings the putti are holding lilies and roses, flowers often associated with Mary.[60]

Other churches

Eastern Orthodoxy

Eastern Orthodoxy never accepted Augustine's specific ideas on original sin, and in consequence did not become involved in the later developments that took place in the Roman Catholic Church, including the Immaculate Conception.[61][62] The Eastern Orthodox do have a conciliar teaching on the matter, however. The Synod of Jerusalem (1672) in its sixth decree teaches the existence of original sin ("hereditary sin flowed to his [Adam's] posterity; so that everyone who is born after the flesh bears this burden") but explicitly rejected the Augustinian notion of inherited guilt ("[by] this burden we do not understand [actual] sin").The decree continues in stating that "many both of the Forefathers and of the Prophets, and vast numbers of others...especially the Mother of God the Word, the ever-virgin Mary" experienced "only what the Divine Justice inflicted upon man as a punishment for the [original] transgression, such as sweats in labor, afflictions, bodily sicknesses...and lastly, bodily death."[63]

When in 1894 Pope Leo XIII addressed the Eastern church in his encyclical Praeclara gratulationis, Ecumenical Patriarch Anthimos in 1895 replied with an encyclical approved by the Constantinopolitan Synod in which he stigmatised the dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and papal infallibility as "Roman novelties" and called on the Roman church to return to the faith of the early centuries.[6] Some Eastern Orthodox have taken a more conciliatory view, an example being one popular ecumenist[64] Eastern Orthodox bishop, Kallistos Ware commenting that "the Latin dogma seems to us not so much erroneous as superfluous."[65]

Oriental Orthodoxy

Eritrean and Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo tradition affirms the Immaculate Conception. The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church celebrates the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on Nehasie 7 (August 13).[66][67] The 96th chapter of the Kebra Nagast states: “He cleansed Eve's body and sanctified it and made for it a dwelling in her for Adam’s salvation. She [i.e., Mary] was born without blemish, for He made her pure, without pollution, and she redeemed his debt without carnal union and embrace...Through the transgression of Eve we died and were buried, and by the purity of Mary we receive honour, and are exalted to the heights.”

Old Catholics

In the mid-19th century some Catholics who were unable to accept the doctrine of papal infallibility left the Roman Church and formed the Old Catholic Church; their movement rejects the Immaculate Conception.[68][69]


Protestants overwhelmingly condemned the promulgation of Ineffabilis Deus as an exercise in papal power, and the doctrine itself as without foundation in Scripture,[5] for it denied that all had sinned and rested on a translation of Luke 1:28 (the "full of grace" passage) that the original Greek did not support.[70] With the exception of some Lutherans and Anglicans, most Protestants therefore teach that Mary was a sinner saved through grace like all believers.[35]


Martin Luther showed an abiding devotion to Mary, including her sinlessness and sanctity, and Lutherans hold Mary in high esteem,[71] but the Immaculate Conception does not hold the status of a dogma within Lutheranism.[72] The ecumenical Lutheran-Catholic Statement on Saints, Mary, issued in 1990 after seven years of study and discussion, affirmed "that the Catholic teaching about the saints and Mary as set forth in the documents of Vatican II does not promote idolatrous belief or practice and is not opposed to the gospel," but conceded that Lutherans and Catholics remained separated "by differing views on matters such as the invocation of saints, the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of Mary."[73]

Anglican Communion

The final report of the Anglican–Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC), created in 1969 to further ecumenical progress between the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion, recorded the disagreement of the Anglicans with the doctrine, although Anglo-Catholics may hold the Immaculate Conception as an optional pious belief.[74]


Manuscript of Chapter 19 (Sūratu Maryam) from a 9th-century Qur'an, Turkey

A saying of Mohammad recorded in the 9th century by the Muslim scholar Muhammad al-Bukhari quotes the prophet saying that Satan touches all the descendants of Adam "except Mary and her child"; medieval Christian monks later used this passage to claim that the Quran supported the Immaculate Conception, with the result that Muhammad was even depicted in altarpieces between the 16th and 18th centuries.[75] Islam, however, lacks the concept of original sin: according to the Quran, Adam and Eve were immediately forgiven for this sin in Eden after their asking of forgiveness. Also, the Quran states in various positions that every soul is only responsible for its good and bad deeds. Which means, no one will be held accountable for a sin of another, even their parents or offspring. [76]

See also

  • Act for the Immaculate Conception of Mary
  • Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception (disambiguation)
  • Church of the Immaculate Conception (disambiguation)
  • Congregation of the Immaculate Conception
  • Miraculous medal
  • Marian doctrines of the Catholic Church
  • Mother of God (Roman Catholic)
  • Patronages of the Immaculate Conception
  • Perpetual virginity of Mary
  • Roman Catholic Marian art


  1. The Immaculate Conception of Mary in the womb of her mother is not to be confused with Mary's purity in the virgin birth of Jesus. See Bromiley (1995), p.272.
  2. "The Virgin Mary was preserved entirely free from original sin from the instant of her conception through a special prevenient grace, received in view of the merits of her Son in anticipation of the Redemption." See Reynolds (2012), p.330.



  1. Reynolds 2012, p. 330.
  2. Foley 2002, p. 153.
  3. Hillerbrand 2012, p. 250.
  4. Coyle 1996, p. 35.
  5. Herringer 2019, p. 507.
  6. Meyendorff 1981, p. 90.
  7. Barrely 2014, p. 40.
  8. Collinge 2012, p. 133.
  9. Collinge 2012, p. 209.
  10. Sheed 1958, pp. 134–138.
  11. Fastiggi 2019, p. 455.
  12. Nixon 2004, p. 11.
  13. Nixon 2004, pp. 11–12.
  14. Shoemaker 2016, p. unpaginated.
  15. Original sin. The Encyclopaedia Britannica | Definition, Consequences, & Facts. Retrieved May 13, 2020.
  16. Wiley 2002, p. 37.
  17. Obach 2008, p. 41.
  18. Stortz 2001, pp. 93—94.
  19. CCC, §404
  20. Coyle 1996, pp. 36–37.
  21. Cameron 1996, p. 335.
  22. "John Duns Scotus on the Immaculate Conception", Samaha S,M., John M., Marian Library, University of Dayton
  23. Duns Scotus, John. "On the Fittingness of the Immacualte Conception", Ordinatio III, d.3, q.1
  24. Boss 2000, p. 126.
  25. Solberg 2018, pp. 108–109.
  26. Reynolds 2012, pp. 4–5, 117.
  27. Hernández 2019, p. 6.
  28. Mack 2003.
  29. Foley 2002, p. 29.
  30. Schaff 1931, p. unpaginated.
  31. Weber, Nicholas. "Marie-Dominique-Auguste Sibour." The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. 13. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. 28 June 2019 This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  32. Manelli 2008, p. 35.
  33. Manelli 1994, pp. 6–7.
  34. Twomey 2008, pp. 73–74.
  35. German 2001, p. 596.
  36. Hammond 2003, p. 602.
  37. Boss 2000, p. 124.
  38. Boss 2000, p. 128.
  39. Manelli 2008, p. 643.
  40. Hernández 2019, p. 38.
  41. Manelli 2008, pp. 643–644.
  42. The text (in Latin) is given at Tota Pulchra Es – GMEA Honor Chorus.
  43. Tota pulchra es Maria, Canto gregoriano nella devozione mariana, studio di Giovanni Vianini, Milano. November 6, 2008 via YouTube.
  44. Anton Bruckner – Tota pulchra es. October 3, 2008 via YouTube.
  45. Maurice Duruflé: Tota pulchra es Maria. May 23, 2010 via YouTube.
  46. Tota pulchra es – Grzegorz Gerwazy Gorczycki. June 17, 2011 via YouTube.
  47. TOTA PULCHRA ES GREX VOCALIS. May 21, 2009 via YouTube.
  48. Tota pulchra es, Maria Canto gregoriano nella devozione mariana. September 21, 2008 via YouTube.
  49. Tota Pulchra – Composed by Nikolaus Schapfl (*1963). January 4, 2010 via YouTube.
  50. "Prayers of Consecration". Archived from the original on December 11, 2008. Retrieved December 7, 2008.
  51. "Nine Days Of Prayer – Immaculate Conception".
  52. Sutfin, Edward J., True Christmas Spirit, Grail Publications, St. Meinrad, Indiana, 1955
  53. "Immaculate Conception Prayers".
  54. Twomey 2008, p. ix.
  55. Hall 2018, p. 337.
  56. Hall 2018, p. 175.
  57. Hall 2018, p. 171.
  58. Moffitt 2001, p. 676.
  59. Katz & Orsi 2001, p. 98.
  60. Jenner 2009, pp. 3–9.
  61. McGuckin 2012, p. unpaginated.
  62. Coyle 1996, p. 36.
  63. Bratcher, Dennis. "The Confession of Dositheus (Eastern Orthodox)". Retrieved January 23, 2021.
  64. Patapios, Hieromonk. "A Traditionalist Critique of The Orthodox Church". Retrieved January 23, 2021.
  65. Ware 1995, p. 77.
  68. Hillerbrand 2012, p. 63.
  69. Smit 2019, pp. 14, 53.
  70. Hammond 2003, p. 601.
  71. Villarreal, Monica M. (April 1, 2013). "The mother of our church?". Living Lutheran. Retrieved April 7, 2020. Lutherans in general affirm the virgin birth and hold Mary in high esteem. Mary was the bearer of God’s love and favor. ... the importance and role of Mary was an important topic for Martin Luther, which he wrote in his 1521 Commentary on the Magnificat which informs Lutheran theology and liturgy.
  72. Chapman, Mark E. (1997) "A Lutheran Response to the Theme of the Virgin Mary as Mother of God, Icon of the Church and Spiritual Mother of Intercession," Marian Studies: Vol. 48, Article 12.
  73. J. Francis Stafford, Avery Dulles, Robert B. Eno, Joseph A Fitzmyer, Elizabeth Johnson, Killian McDonnell, Carl J. Peter, Walter Principe, Georges Tavard, Frederick M. Jelly, John f. Hotchkin, George Anderson, Robert W. Bertram, Joseph W. Burgess, Gerhard O. Forde, Karlfried Froelich, Eric Gritsch, Kenneth Hagen, John Reumann, Daniel F. Martensen, Horace Hummel, John F. Johnson (February 23, 1990). "Lutheran-Catholic Statement on Saints, Mary" (PDF). USCCB. Retrieved April 7, 2020.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  74. Armentrout 2000, p. 260.
  75. Göle 2016, p. 115.
  76. Kritzeck 2015, p. 120 fn.25.


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