This is a mainly Roman
Catholic doctrine. It is not directly related to the virgin conception/birth,
but is often confused with it.
Most people seem to believe that the dogma of the Immaculate Conception
declares that Jesus was without original sin when he was conceived circa 6
BCE by Mary and the
Holy Spirit. In fact, it is actually the almost uniquely Roman Catholic belief that about 20 BCE, Mary
herself was conceived without original sin.
The history of this doctrine:
Initially, the Christian church taught a belief that is close to modern
conservative Protestantism: simply that Mary was a virgin at the time of the
conception of Jesus.
Eadmer (1066-1124), amonk at Christ Church, Canterbury. England was one of
the first proponents of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. He discussed
it in his book "De Conceptione sanctae Mariae."
St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) and St. Bonaventure (1221-1274) "... believed
that Mary was completely free from sin, but that she was not given this grace at
the instant of her conception." Their beliefs were were supported by the
In 1476, Pope Sixtus IV established the feast of the Immaculate Conception to
be observed annually on DEC-08 -- nine months before the Church celebrates the
anniversary of Mary's birth. But the Roman Catholic laity and clergy was
permitted to accept or reject the concept. This freedom was confirmed at the
Council of Trent in the mid 16th century. However, Oxford Franciscans
William of Ware and Blessed John Duns Scotus supported the full doctrine.
By having Mary free of original sin resulted in both Mary's and Jesus' conceptions
being miraculous. The concept of the
immaculate conception -- that Mary was conceived without sin while a pre-embryo circa 20
gained support in the church.
It was only in modern times
that scientists determined that both the woman and man contributed
genetic information to the production of offspring. In ancient times,
the man was regarded as being totally responsible for the start of
pregnancy. The only role of the woman was to nurture the growing embryo,
and later the fetus. A good analogy is the act of planting a seed in
earth. The woman's role was similar to that of the earth. The soil has
no role other than furnishing nutrients to the seed and later to the
When the woman's role in
conception was discovered by medical scientists, the Roman Catholic Church
faced a problem. For the first time, Mary was seen to play a direct role in
Jesus' conception. Her contribution would have been expected to pass original sin onto
Jesus -- an intolerable arrangement because the Church has taught that
Jesus was without sin at his birth and during his
life on earth.
The Church had two choices:
- To declare that Mary did not pass original sin onto Jesus at the time of
his conception, or
To declare that Mary herself was free of sin when she was conceived.1
They selected the latter route.
It is now a required belief for
Roman Catholics. In 1854, Pope Pius IX
proclaimed in his Bull Ineffabilis that:
"...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, Savior 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."
According to Wikipedia:
For the Roman Catholic Church the dogma of the
Immaculate Conception gained additional significance from the apparitions of
Our Lady of Lourdes in 1858. In Lourdes a 14-year-old girl, Bernadette
Soubirous, claimed a beautiful lady appeared to her. The lady identified
herself as 'the Immaculate Conception' and the faithful believe her to be
the Blessed Virgin Mary."
"In the Roman Catholic Church, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception is
a Holy Day of Obligation, except where conferences of bishops have decided,
with the approval of the Holy See, not to maintain it as such. It is a
public holiday in some countries where Roman Catholicism is predominant e.g.
Italy. In the Philippines, although this is not a public holiday, the
predominance of Catholic Schools make it almost a holiday."
This teaching is not found in the Eastern Orthodox churches, 3 or in the Anglican
Communion -- except among Anglo-Catholics. To our knowledge, no Protestant denomination teaches this either.
"Immaculate Conception, Wikipedia, as at 2007-DEC-13, at:
Pope John Paul II, "Immaculate conception defined by Pius IX,"
Rev. George Mastrantonis, "The fundamental teachings of the Eastern
Orthodox Church," at: http://www.goarch.org/