Church Fathers Against the Immaculate Conception? Refuting the Claims

An Eastern Orthodox apologist who (predictably) doesn’t hold to the Immaculate Conception (IC) dogma. He sent me an article that was issued by lay Catholics in The Catholic Layman from January 18, 1856 which argues against the Immaculate Conception. I would like to address some of the arguments it makes against Our Lady. I would like to address the quotes taken from first millennium Christendom that supposedly teach against the IC.

We will first start off by quoting the official declaration of the dogma by Pope Pius IX in Ineffabilis Deus: “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 Savior 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.”

Let’s now begin to unravel the article.

Reading through the article, you get a sense that the person who wrote it does not understand the dogma to begin with. He is refuting what he erroneously believes to be the dogma of the IC.

The first quote they use comes from St. Augustine who wrote, “He alone, being made man, but remaining God, never had any sin; nor did He take on Him a flesh of sin, though from the flesh of sin of his mother. For what of flesh He thence took, He either, when taken, immediately purified, or purified in the act of taking it.” This is obviously talking about Christ. Does this mean that Saint Augustine believed that Mary was conceived with original sin? If we are going to apply that logic to this, then Romans 3:23 (for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God) would apply to Christ as well. But exceptions are made with regards to that verse. Even an Eastern “Orthodox” would make an exception here and say that both Jesus and Mary committed no sin. Not a great start to the article in support of going against the IC dogma.

 He continues and quotes Augustine again who said, “Mary, the mother of Christ, from whom He took flesh, was born of the carnal concupiscence  of her parents; not so, however, did she conceive Christ, who was begotten, not by man, but of the Holy Ghost.” What Catholic would deny this truth? The IC dogma is not so much about St. Anne and St Joachim’s act as it is about a preservation from original sin for Mary. Yes, she was conceived in the act of concupiscence. The dogma nowhere denies this. What we believe is that, by a singular grace, Mary was preserved from having contacted original sin, despite the fact that she was conceived naturally by her parents. Only Christ needed not to be preserved from original sin since he was born of a virgin without the sexual act. With regards to Mary, it was a different type of miracle than a virgin birth. She was preserved from original sin by an act of God who made sure that she was not under the domain of the devil at any point in her life (Genesis 3:15).

He goes on to quote another quote from Augustine who said, “Mary, springing from Adam, died because of sin; and the flesh of our Lord, derived from Mary, died to take away sin.” As I wrote on my last blog post, man was not naturally created immortal. Immortality is one of the preternatural gifts that God willed that man have prior to the fall. It is not a right that belongs to man who has never contracted nor committed sin. With regards to Mary, God did not will that she remain immortal. Her death (as the fathers of the Church taught) was an imitation of her Son. It was to enter into the glory of heaven. The preternatural gifts that Mary was privileged with had to do with her role as Mother of God. Death does not go against that role; therefore, God did not see it fit that Mary receive such a gift. The gifts that she received were directly linked with accomplishing her role as Mother of God. The gifts that she received were Integrity and infused knowledge. These are the two preternatural gifts that God saw fit for Mary in order to carry out her role.

He then moves on to St Epiphanius who wrote, “Whether the Holy Virgin be dead and buried – in that case, her death is in honor, her end is purity, and her crown in virginhood; or, whether she was slain, &c. – for her end is not known – we must not honor the saints beyond due measure. For neither is Mary a deity, nor deriving her body from Heavy, but from man and woman, determined, as Isaac’s was, by promise. And let no one make offerings to her name; for he destroys his own soul.”

St. Epiphanius is dealing with an early Church heresy called Collyridianism which was a worship of Mary as deity. Scholars dispute whether or not such a heresy existed; However, St. Epiphanius certainly believed they existed and wrote against them in his writings. No true Catholic would disagree with anything written above by St. Epiphanius. Mary died and she should not be worshipped as a deity. Amen. Mary derived her body from her parents. Amen. We should not make offerings to her name (in so far as worship goes). Amen.

In commenting on the St. Epiphanius quote, the author of the article writes, “She is a chosen vessel, but she is a woman, and not at all changed in nature, though, as to her mind and sense, she is held in honor, as the bodies of the saints…” What Catholic would disagree with this? We do not hold that Mary has a different nature from us. Her nature is human. She is a human person. In fact, the difference between us and Mary is that she is a more perfect human than we are. The more virtue you possess, the more human you are. The less you possess, the closer you are to the beasts.  

Continuing on with the St. Epiphanius quote above, “For if He willed not that angels should be worshipped, how much more is He unwilling that worship should be paid to her who was born of Anna, and was given to Anna from Joachim – given to her father and mother by promise – but nevertheless not born differently from the nature of man?” Again, we would say amen to this. Does any Catholic believe that Mary was born differently from the rest of humanity? She was conceived the same as everyone, except Christ. She was born the same way as everyone. The historical context here is not about Mary having been born with original sin or not. The saint is dealing with the Collyridianism heresy.  This is how one should read this text from holy Epiphanius.

He goes on to quote St. Leo the Great, Pope Gelasius I, St. Gregory the Great, and Pope John IV who say a similar thing to what Augustine says above that Christ alone is sinless. We have already dealt with this above and the same logic would apply here.

We see here that much has been made about nothing and it stems not so much from issues with the IC dogma but issues with people who clearly do not know what the dogma actually teaches. If the Eastern Orthodox believes this article proves the Catholic dogma of the IC to be in error, he needs to go back to the drawing board and learn what the actual dogma teaches.

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