Today is the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, celebrating Mary’s conception free of the stain of original sin. The Immaculate Conception is unique to Catholicism. This makes it one of the most difficult Catholic doctrines for Protestants exploring the Catholic faith to accept, and a target for anti-Catholic polemics. Since the Orthodox do not have a theology of Mary’s immaculate conception, this is a point of division with them as well. Of course, the Orthodox do believe Mary was immaculate by the time she gave birth to Jesus (just look at the titles of Mary listed in the Akathist Hymn, and tell me the Orthodox agree with the Protestants on this issue!). I admit that the Immaculate Conception was, with papal infallibility, one of the last Catholic dogmas I accepted before entering the Church.
Mark Shea has written an excellent piece on the Immaculate Conception that I highly recommend (thanks to Dave Hartline for linking to it). He quotes from a variety of Church Fathers who praise Mary as immaculate, and answers common objections to the dogma. However, I think this is the best quote of the whole piece:
The second red herring is that there’s some sort of cutoff date for the development of doctrine. In other words, some people have the vague idea that the Church can legitimately take three centuries to iron out what “Jesus is Lord” means, but it can’t legitimately take eighteen centuries to iron out what “Kaire, Kecharitomene!” (“Hail, Grace-Filled One!”) means.
As a former Anglican, I can attest to the widespread belief in some sort of magical cut-off date for legitimate doctrinal development, which of course includes Nicaea and Chalcedon, but excludes the Immaculate Conception, the Assumption, and transubstantiation. Granted, the first three were declared dogmas after the Church of England had broken off from the Catholic Church, but nonetheless I think Shea’s point remains. For some, the elusive cutoff date is the fourth ecumenical council (e.g. most Protestants and Calvinist Anglicans), and for others it is the seventh. Others end with the Patristic period (and what constitutes the end of this period is debatable). Others like the Middle Ages, just not too far into the Middle Ages. Still others gladly accept modern Protestant developments (women’s ordination, etc), but balk at Catholic developments after the Patristic era. Of course people and churches are free to believe what they want, but my point (based on Shea’s) is that if you allow contraception, gay marriage, and women’s ordination, but get on the Immaculate Conception because it is too “new,” I think a reexamination is in order. The Immaculate Conception develops from Biblical and Patristic themes and ideas about Mary, whereas the others are innovations having their root not in Catholic or Orthodox thought, but the ideas and practices of heretical sects of the Patristic era and 19th and 20th century Protestantism.
I wish everyone a blessed Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. And if our Eastern Catholic contributors have the time, I would love to hear their take on this, hint, hint.