A better understanding of the Immaculate Conception of Mary

Murillo_immaculate_conceptionMany Catholics today misunderstand the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Catholics celebrate this feast day each year of December 8. Many people believe that the Immaculate Conception refers to the conception of Christ through the working of the Holy Spirit in the womb of Mary. Though that is one of the great gifts God gave to humanity it is not the one he gave in this instance.

Catholic Doctrine of Mary

The Immaculate Conception refers to the teaching that the Blessed Virgin Mary was free from original sin that all mankind has as a result of the fall of Adam and Eve. The Catholic Church teaches us that Mary was free from sin from the very moment of her conception in the womb of her mother, Saint Anne. We celebrate the birth of Mary, the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, on September 8; nine months before that is December 8 the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Both feasts offer the opportunity for us to offer gifts of thanksgiving to God for the gifts he has given us through Mary.

Development of a Doctrine

The Catholic Church moves slowly…and for good reason. It does not want to proclaiming teaching without having completed vetted it. Such was the case with the proclamation of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  It was not until after many centuries of discussion and debate that the Church finally declared the Immaculate Conception as an official doctrine (something all Christians must believe) of the Catholic faith. On 6 December 1708, Pope Clement XI made the feast of the Conception of Mary a Holy Day of Obligation. However, the Church was not done yet.

Declaration of Catholic Dogma

Pope Pius IX, on December 8, 1854, would declare the Immaculate Conception of Mary a dogma—that is, a doctrine that the Church teaches was revealed by God Himself. In doing so he also moved the celebration of the feast day to December 8.  In his Apostolic Constitution, Ineffabilis Deus, Pope Pius IX wrote that, “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.”

Immaculate Conception and America

Beyond the obvious obligation to attend Mass on December 8 in America the Immaculate Conception holds even greater significance. Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception is the nation’s patroness. This declaration took place even before the proclamation of the dogma. Turning towards the protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary, at the first Council of Baltimore 1846 the American bishops collectively placed the nation under the protection of the Immaculate Conception. The Pope Pius IX ratified this decision on February 7, 1847, seven years before declaring the dogma.

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