Immaculate Conception

How do Eastern Catholics understand the dogma of the Immaculate Conception? Does it differ from the Western understanding?

Concerning the Eastern Catholic understanding of the Immaculate Conception, I will offer a very brief summary of the issue. First, the theological seeds of the Immaculate Conception originated in the East, and were later spread to the West. Since the earliest centuries the Eastern Churches have celebrated “St. Anne’s Conception of the Theotokos,” on December 9. Only later was this feast transplanted to the West, where it is celebrated on December 8.

In the Eastern Catholic Churches we have maintained much of the theological heritage of the Eastern Church Fathers. We try to be very Patristic in our theology, and generally model our theological approach after the great Eastern Fathers. In the West theology has developed somewhat differently. Beginning in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries a whole new style of theology developed, known as Scholasticism. Scholasticism utilized a great deal of philosophical terminology from the writings of Aristotle. It essentially created a whole new way to approach theological questions, and answered them with very specific philosophical terminology. Scholasticism was the dominant theological system in the Western Church until the beginning of the 20th century.

In 1854 Pope Pius IX solemnly proclaimed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. Being a good Western theologian, he used a great deal of scholastic terminology in the definition. Here it is, with the specifically scholastic terms emphasized by me:

“We declare, pronounce and define that the doctrine which asserts that the Blessed Virgin Mary, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God, and in view of the MERITS of Jesus Christ, Saviour of the human race, was preserved free from every STAIN of original sin is a doctrine revealed by God and, for this reason, must be firmly and constantly believed by all the faithful.”

There are two terms used in the definition that are completely foreign to Eastern Christian theology: “merits” and “stain.” Both of these terms are of very late origin, and came to mean very specific things in the scholastic system. But to us Eastern Christians, who still use only the theological expressions of the Church Fathers, these terms are completely alien. So is this a problem, or isn’t it?

I don’t believe that this a problem at all. If something is written in a language that you can’t understand, you simply TRANSLATE it! With some very basic knowledge of scholastic theological terminology, what Pope Pius IX is saying becomes very obvious: From the very first momemnt of her existence, Mary was miraculously preserved from all sin. We Easterns would go even a step further: she wasn’t just preserved from sin, but was graced with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

Also, the definition speaks of Mary being “free from every stain of original sin.” In the East we have always spoken of Mary’s perfect holiness. The language “free from every stain of original sin” is really a somewhat negative formulation in comparison. In fact, this definition speaks of Mary as being “absent of something (the stain of sin),” while we would prefer to speak of her as being “full of something (the Holy Spirit).” In this regard I think that the Eastern approach makes a marvelous contribution to the understanding of this dogma. So does Pope John Paul II:

“In fact, the negative formulation of the Marian privilege, which resulted from the earlier controversies about original sin that arose in the West, must always be complemented by the positive expression of Mary’s holiness more explicitly stressed in the Eastern tradition.” (Pope John Paul II, General Audience June 12, 1996)

So, the Holy Father agrees that the Eastern understanding of the Immaculate Conception actually helps to elucidate the meaning behind the definition.

I have a friend who is Serbian Orthodox and she said that the Orthodox Church believes Mary did have original sin, but she still never commited a sin. What do Eastern Catholics believe?

The dispute with the Orthodox over Mary’s immaculate conception is mostly about semantics. Traditionally Eastern and Western Christianity have arrived at very different definitions of “original sin,” which means that we approach Mary’s immaculate state from different perspectives. Both Orthodox and Catholic Christians readily admit that Mary never sinned, as you know from speaking with your friend. According to the Western definition original sin is a sinful nature, and anyone who has it is powerless to stop sinning. Because Mary was sinless, she must not have had original sin.

In contrast, the Eastern Fathers defined original sin first and foremost as the onset of mortality and death. Because (according to the Eastern Fathers) Mary died before her body was assumed into heaven, she must have had original sin… otherwise she would have not aged, and would have been immortal. Thus many Eastern Orthodox theologians have concluded that Mary must have had original sin – but remained sinless by God’s grace.

As you can see, this entire dispute goes back to how one chooses to define “original sin.” Because the Eastern Catholic Churches follow the guidance of the Pope of Rome, we believe that Mary was freed from original sin at the very first moment of her existence.

The Eastern Christian tradition holds that Mary died at the end of her life, prior to her body being assumed into heaven.  Eastern Christianity also teaches that death is the result of original sin.  Since Mary did die, doesn’t that mean that she did in fact have original sin?  Otherwise she would have been immortal.

According to the Eastern Christian tradition, Adam and Eve’s sin ushered death into the world. Original Sin (which the East prefers to call Ancestral Sin) is the consequence of that, which is our inclination to sin. The image of God in humanity is tarnished, and therefore we behave in ways that are immoral.

Mary was freed from this Ancestral Sin, so she did not have the inclination to sin. God’s image in her was never tarnished. Yet she was still subject to death, for it remained an established reality in the world.

The same held true for Jesus. He had no inclination to sin, and the image of God in him was untarnished, for he was in fact God. Yet he was still subject to death.  He hungered, he thirsted, he became physically exhausted, and he died.  When he took on human nature, he took on the burden of mortality, with all that it entails.  Only at the Resurrection was he no longer subject to death.