In November 1848, the specter of revolution sweeping through Europe finally reached Rome.
On Nov. 15, extremists executed Pellegrino Rossi, the newly named governor of the Papal States. Angry mobs roamed the streets, surrounding the papal palace on the Quirinal Hill.
Besieged for nine days, Blessed Pope Pius IX finally fled under cover of night, disguised as an ordinary priest, taking refuge in Gaeta in the Kingdom of Naples.
He was in the third month of his papacy in exile when, on February 2, 1849, he finished a letter to all the world’s bishops. But it wasn’t the Church’s tribulations, or the imminent end of her temporal powers, that he had on his mind.
He wanted the bishops’ advice on whether to require that Catholics believe in the “immaculate conception” of Mary—that Jesus’ mother, alone among the billions born since the beginning of the world, was conceived without inheriting the curse of Adam and Eve’s original sin.
Perhaps the letter, entitled Ubi Primum, might have waited for more tranquil times. Some saw it as proof positive the pope was alarmingly detached from the violent storms wrecking the Church.
For Blessed Pius, however, the issue was deeply personal. From his earliest years, he told the bishops, his devotion to the Virgin had been “filial, profound and wholehearted.”
And, in the desolation of that historical moment, he looked to Mary to turn the Church’s sadness into joy.
“Mary,” he wrote, “always has delivered the Christian people from their greatest calamities and from the snares and assaults of all their enemies, ever rescuing them from ruin . . . . And likewise in our own day, Mary . . . wishes . . . to restrain and to dispel the violent hurricane of evils which . . . are everywhere afflicting the Church.”
For Blessed Pius, the Immaculate Conception was an idea whose time had come.
It was an idea that had been growing in the Church since the very beginning—and seemed to grow stronger in times when the Church’s earthly fortunes were most in peril.
Indeed, with his letter from exile, the Pope stepped into an ancient stream of reflection on Mary’s role in the drama of human salvation—a tradition expressed in Scripture and liturgy, prayers and hymns, sermons and theological treatises.
When 150 years ago today, on December 8, 1854, he finally declared the Immaculate Conception to be Church dogma, he brought that tradition to its fulfillment. At the same time, he opened a bold new chapter in the story of salvation that continues in the Church until the end of the ages.
It’s a story that begins in-between the lines of the Bible.
“You can copy on an eight-and-a-half by eleven sheet everything there is about Mary in the New Testament,” historian Jaroslav Pelikan, author of Mary Through the Centuries, once remarked.
But though the biblical data is sparse, for the earliest Church teachers it was filled with divine significance.
In Luke’s Gospel, an angel hails Mary—not by name but by a strange, unprecedented title—translated “full of grace” or “highly favored one.”
Matthew reveals that Mary is the virgin foretold centuries beforehand by the prophet Isaiah.
Isaiah had promised that a virgin with child would appear as a “sign” of God’s faithfulness to His covenant with Israel’s King David. The child she was to bear was Emmanuel—a symbolic name that means “God with us.” The child was to be the royal son of David, and God’s own son— all of which God had promised in an oath to David.
Mary—as a virgin bearing a royal child—is also depicted in the “great sign” recorded in the New Testament’s last book. There a war breaks out in heaven, touched off by a woman giving birth to a son “destined to rule all the nations with an iron rod.”
That’s another reference to the son of David, who God promised would rule with “an iron rod.” But early Christians saw even deeper symbolism in this apocalyptic battle.
In the vision, “the ancient serpent who is called the Devil” stands before the woman, waiting to devour the child she is about to bear.
The scene recalls the obscure, oracular lines that God spoke to the woman and the serpent in the Garden of Eden: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers. He will strike at your head while you strike at his heel.”
As the early Church read these lines, God was doing far more than predicting mankind’s fear and loathing of snakes.
He was giving away the ending to the story of salvation—foretelling the final victory of the human race over the Devil, through a divine offspring born of a woman.
And this is how Mary is portrayed in one of the earliest biblical confessions of faith: “When the fullness of time had come, God sent His Son, born of a woman . . . to ransom those under the Law, so that we might receive adoption.”
Like Eve before sin
The apostle Paul taught that Jesus was the “new Adam,” destined from before creation to reverse the sin and disobedience of the first Adam. And early Church teachers naturally looked to Mary as the “new Eve.”
By her disobedience Eve became the mother of a race born in bondage to sin and death, St. Irenaeus said. Mary, by her faithful obedience, became “the pure womb which regenerates men unto God.”
Mary’s pivotal place in the Bible’s plan of salvation was recognized in the Church’s earliest creeds, which confess that Jesus was “born of the Virgin Mary.”
It wasn’t long before the Church began trying to define Mary’s role among the Church’s articles of belief.
The first Marian dogma was proclaimed in 431, honoring Mary as Theotokos—the “Mother of God.”
In making this definition, Church officials weren’t saying anything more than what the Scriptures had already revealed. Matthew said she was the mother of “God with us.” Luke reported that John the Baptist’s mother greeted Mary as “the mother of my Lord.”
There was no question in the mind of the early Church about Mary’s holiness and her importance in the divine scheme of things. A few writers did quarrel over specifics—whether Mary had ever sinned or whether she remained a virgin after Jesus’ birth.
The outspoken Origen quoted Paul’s letter to the Romans— “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”—and said those words applied to Mary, too.
By the end of the fourth century, however, the dominant note of Mary’s divine maternity and perpetual virginity rang throughout the Christian world.
In Byzantium and the Christian East, Mary was revered as panagia—”the All Holy.”
She was described as “pure and stainless,” and “like Eve before the first sin.” Images from the Scriptures abounded: Mary was the Ark of God’s new covenant, the lily among the thorns, the “pure immaculate clay” of a new Eden out of which God would fashion a new humanity.
By the late-7th century, believers in the East were celebrating an annual Feast of the Conception of St. Anne on December 9.
Mary’s conception isn’t an event recorded in the Bible. The feast was partly inspired by the Infancy Gospel of James—a widely-circulated apocryphal work. It described the miraculous announcement of Mary’s birth to an elderly and barren couple, Joachim and Anne.
The oldest surviving prayers for the St. Anne’s Mass, written by St. Andrew of Crete, brim with biblical allusions and images.
One ode for the feast imagines Anne singing to Mary as Queen Mother of a new people of God: “Lo, I conceive in my womb the queen foretold by David, and I shall give birth to the Protectress of all the faithful, the future Mother of Christ, the King.”
Originally the feast celebrated Mary’s conception as the prelude to salvation—the first in a series of mysteries that culminate in the Savior’s birth. In this sense, the feast resembled a much older one honoring the birth of John the Baptist, who paved the way for Jesus.
The feast spread to the West beginning in the 9th century. There it was celebrated on December 8 and came to reflect the growing belief that Mary’s holiness and purity somehow originated in St. Anne’s womb.
This belief seemed to spring naturally from years of prayer and study of the biblical images of Mary as the new Eve and Mother of God.
There was even a certain logic to it—especially when considered with other core Catholic beliefs: If Jesus was the Holy One, like men in all things but sin, how could the mother who bore Him be tainted by the sin of the world that He came to take away?
Even St. Augustine, who gave the Church its fullest teaching on original sin, wanted to exempt Mary from its universal taint.
“We make an exception for the Blessed Virgin Mary, whom for the sake of the Lord’s honor, I would in no way like to be mentioned in connection with sin,” he wrote in his famous treatise On Nature and Grace.
Others opposed the emerging doctrine. They said it was a threat to all the Church holds to be true about Jesus as the one Redeemer, the only way to salvation for mankind.
The fiery monk of Clairvaux, St. Bernard, who penned some of the most beautiful words ever written about Mary, was devastatingly blunt. Writing to Church authorities in Lyons in 1138, he ridiculed the belief as a “puerile absurdity.”
Though few reached his rhetorical heights, the theological establishment overwhelmingly sided with Bernard. Great saints and doctors of the Church—from Anslem to Thomas Aquinas—all taught that Mary was conceived in original sin.
No one disputed that Mary was holy, full of grace, the most blessed among women, and totally without sin. They agreed that anything less would make her unworthy to bear the Son of God in her womb.
But they believed Mary had to have been cleansed of sin by the Holy Spirit sometime after her conception—either in St. Anne’s womb or at the moment Christ was conceived in her own womb.
If she had not—at least for an instant—been corrupted by original sin, she wouldn’t have needed salvation by Christ, St. Thomas said: “If the soul of the Blessed Virgin had never been stained with the contagion of original sin, this would have detracted from Christ’s dignity as the Savior of all men.”
In other words, if Mary was conceived without original sin, it would mean that at least one person didn’t need Christ’s help to be saved. And if one person didn’t need His help, what would that mean for the truth of the Scriptures? Unless Mary was somehow saved from sin, Jesus would be the Savior of all—save one.
It took Blessed Duns Scotus, a brilliant 14th-century Franciscan philosopher and theologian, to forever change the Church’s way of thinking about Mary’s beginnings.
With the world’s leading Catholic theologians aligned against him, Scotus defended the doctrine in lectures delivered in Oxford and Paris, the intellectual capitals of the Catholic world.
Renowned as the “Subtle Doctor,” Scotus argued in effect, that when it comes to original sin, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Mary, like everyone else, he said, needed Christ to save her from sin. But, he quickly added, if it’s a great work to save someone from original sin, it’s a far greater work to keep that person from sin in the first place.
As he put it: “It is a more excellent benefit to preserve a person from evil than to permit him to fall into it and then deliver him from it.”
Mary owed her redemption to the cross of her Son, Blessed Scotus assured the Church. Indeed, Christ did more for Mary than He did for anyone else: To others, Christ gives grace and freedom from sin at the point of Baptism. But to Mary alone He gave these gifts from the first instant of her conception—keeping her perfectly holy from the very start of her life so that she could be the New Eve, the holy Mother of God.
Through Scotus, the Church arrived at the reason for the Immaculate Conception in God’s plan—Mary’s predestination, from before the world was created, to be the Mother of God, the bearer of God’s only Son, the Firstborn of a new creation.
After Scotus it seemed, theologians wrangled and harangued for centuries. But there were no new arguments, only a hardening of positions.
Dominican preachers led a crusade against belief in the Immaculate Conception; Jesuits and Franciscans came to the doctrine’s defense.
By the 14th century’s end, the feast of Mary’s conception was on the calendars of most dioceses and religious orders in Europe. The Immaculate Conception had begun to inspire the founding of new religious orders and became the subject of devotional art.
In 1494, Carlo Crivelli painted the earliest known picture of the Immaculate Conception for a Franciscan church in Pergola, Italy.
The painting is filled with biblical imagery. Mary appears in a robe of black and gold silk, framed by ripe fruit on vines and cut lilies in pure crystal vases. A bearded God looks down from the clouds above, His hand extended in a gesture of blessing. Angels unroll a scroll like a halo above her head. The Latin words translate: “As from the beginning I was conceived in the mind of God, so have I in like manner been conceived in the flesh.”
With the rise of Protestantism—which rejected the notion of a woman without sin—came new calls for the Church to formally define what it really believed.
The Council of Trent in 1546 declined. But its decree on original sin echoed Augustine in carving out an unspecified exception for “the blessed and immaculate Virgin Mary, the Mother of God.”
Even without a formal definition, the doctrine was a staple of the missionary gospel being preached in the New World.
In America, the Jesuit explorer Marquette invoked the aid of “Mary Immaculate,” famously naming one of his greatest discoveries—the river now known as the Mississippi - in her honor.
In 1846, the American bishops declared “Mary Immaculate” to be the heavenly patroness and protectress of their country.
By the time the papacy was driven into exile in 1848, belief in the Immaculate Conception was worldwide and widely taken for granted.
The doctrine and the art it inspired was familiar enough to receive cameo mentions in novels like Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad and Henry James’ The American.
But the belief seemed irrelevant to the mood of Europe at the dawn of the modern age.
A revolutionary spirit—atheist and anticlerical, scientific and materialist—had washed over the continent, beginning in the “enlightenment” of the 18th century and culminating in the revolutionary explosions of 1848 in Paris, Frankfurt, Vienna, Budapest and Rome.
“A specter is haunting Europe,” Marx and Engels wrote in their manifesto of that year. “All that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life.”
Blessed Pius, however, believed forces more powerful than the class struggle were at work in the world.
He knew that in 1830 a young nun in Paris had seen a vision of Mary.
The Virgin was crowned and dressed in a robe of white silk, standing on a globe, her feet crushing a large serpent. As the nun watched, an oval shape formed around the Virgin. On it was written in gold letters: “O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.”
The nun, who would later be called St. Catherine Laboure, heard a voice inside telling her to create a medal based on the image.
Pope Pius himself had encouraged devotion to this miraculous medal, especially among children. And the vision is believed to have inspired his letter from exile.
It was like a great sign in the heart of the darkness that had befallen the Church. Mary had revealed herself in a starkly biblical fashion—in the likeness of the Queen Mother of the Book of Revelation and the new Eve prophesied in Genesis. And she seemed to disclose personally the meaning of those Scriptures—that she was conceived without sin.
Blessed Pius returned to Rome in 1850, giving thanks to the Virgin for the defeat of his foes. Almost immediately he began drafting a papal decree on the Immaculate Conception.
The response to his letter from exile had been overwhelming—of 603 bishops, only four opposed the idea.
Four years later, on December 8, 1854, with bishops from around the world at his side, he read the decree—Ineffabilis Deus (“Ineffable God”) to a jubilant crowd in St. Peter’s Square.
From its first lines, the decree is a beautiful pastiche of Scriptural echo and allusion. Blessed Pius describes Mary as chosen from all ages to reverse Adam and Eve’s sin and become the Mother of God’s only-begotten Son.
He unfolds the long story of the doctrine’s development—in the Bible, in the liturgy and worship of the faithful, and in the teachings of the popes, bishops and Church councils.
The dogma itself reads like a summation of all these centuries of reflection: “The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.”
Blessed Pius said this was “a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.”
The dogma was no new revelation from God. God’s revelation closed with the death of the last apostle. The deposit of faith they left behind can’t be added to or subtracted from.
“But as time goes on, what was given once for all is understood more and more clearly,” as the Venerable John Henry Newman, the Church’s most insightful student of doctrinal development, once wrote.
One hundred and fifty years later, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception can be understood even more clearly as the Church’s prophetic response to the modern world.
As Bishop Fulton Sheen pointed out near the 100th anniversary of the dogma: “The definition of the Immaculate Conception was made when the modern world was born.”
And it did come at a time when rival moral and spiritual blueprints were being drawn up for the modern world. Within five years, Marx would unveil his philosophy of atheist class struggle; Darwin would publish his theory of evolution; and John Stuart Mill, his ethics of radical individualism.
These architects of modernity shared an unshakable faith— that man had no need of God, that there was no such thing as original sin, and that human progress and perfection were not only possible but inevitable.
In other words, Bishop Sheen said, they believed that “everyone is immaculately conceived.”
From his exile, Blessed Pius seemed to sense all this.
And in defining Mary’s Immaculate Conception he was writing a new charter for the modern world. The dogma was a piece of resistance, a defiant vow to resist the false spirit of the emerging age.
The Immaculate Conception remains a powerful reminder of the reality of evil and of human sin. But it’s also a promise—that humanity is destined for something far greater.
Mary, the dogma revealed, was the clean slate humanity so desperately needed—the new Eden from which the world would be made new again.
Blessed Pius’ definition inspired a century of intense Marian piety and devotion—culminating with the declaration, in 1950, of the dogma of Mary’s final Assumption into heaven.
In defining the beginning and end of Mary’s life, the Church defined the meaning and destiny of every human life—to be transfigured by grace, freed from sin, made able to love with a pure heart, and to hope for heaven.
But it was Mary herself who had the last word on the subject.
In early 1858, less than four years after the dogma was declared, an illiterate peasant girl in Lourdes, France, a village in the Pyrenees foothills, began seeing visions.
She saw a beautiful young woman, about age 17, dressed in a flowing white robe, carrying a rosary of white and gold.
The peasant girl, now known as St. Bernadette Soubirous, begged to know the name of the woman in white. In a final vision, given on the Feast of the Annunciation, March 25, 1858, the woman spoke:
“I am the Immaculate Conception.”
She didn’t say another word. And she disappeared smiling.
Originally published in Godspy.com (December 8, 2004)