"Why Don't Eastern Catholics Celebrate the Immaculate Conception?"

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I don’t know about you, but when I was growing up, the “one”-ness of the Catholic Church was often explained as such:

“The Church is one because every Catholic Church all over the world believes the exact same things. If you go to another Catholic church, anywhere in the world, it will have the same readings, the same liturgical prayers, and the same beliefs as every other Catholic church.”

The_Meeting_of_Joachim_and_Anna

“The Meeting of Joachim and Anna”

Anybody who’s ever been to an Eastern rite liturgy knows how this definition of “one” becomes shattered at the first “Lord, have Mercy.” And if you’re lucky enough to attend Divine Liturgy today, on the Feast of the Maternity of Anna (her conception of Mary), everything you thought about what makes a Catholic Catholic and what we’re allowed and not allowed to believe might just go up in flames because you probably won’t hear anything about an “Immaculate Conception” or Mary being conceived without the guilt of original sin.

One of the most common questions Eastern Catholics get from Roman Catholics is “Why don’t you celebrate the Immaculate Conception?”, presumably because they see a different name for the feast day on our calendar or heard the rumors. The answer to this is important, because it illustrates how incredibly diverse our church can be while remaining in union with one another.

The short answer to that question is that Eastern Catholics most assuredly celebrate Mary being conceived, and we believe that Mary was conceived without the guilt of original sin. However, this is not the highlight of the feast for us because we believe it is the ordinary circumstance for every conception.

Confused? I was when I first learned this, too.

Let’s start by discussing original sin. Roman Catholicism, following St. Augustine’s theology and the Western translation of Romans 5:12, teaches that the first sin of Adam and Eve resulted in a globally inherited guilt for that first sin.

In the East, our theology on the first sin of Adam and Eve developed around a different translation of Romans 5:12, and so we don’t believe that all of mankind inherited the guilt of the first sin. Instead, from an Eastern perspective, the main, globally inherited effect of the first sin is death.

(It’s important to note that neither of those explanations are exhaustive regarding each church’s theology on the first sin and its effects; I’m sticking to simply what is necessary for understanding the question at hand).

Given the Roman perspective on the first sin, one can see that Mary being conceived without the guilt of original sin is something extraordinary and merits special celebration in that spirituality. However, for the Eastern Catholic, Mary being conceived without the guilt of that first sin is rather ordinary and does not differ from any other conception in that regard. In fact, she even inherits death from that first sin according to our tradition.

When I explained this to a friend, they responded, “But that makes Mary just like everyone else.”

Exactly.

Well, apart from the whole full-of-grace, completely-sinless-throughout-life, mother-of-god, assumed-body-and-soul-into-Heaven-after-her-death stuff.

A lot of people ask me how we as Eastern Catholics can believe this about the effects of the first sin and Mary’s conception and still be in union with the Catholic church. To be in union, one must accept all of the dogmatic teachings, which includes Mary’s conception without sin. It’s important to note that this teaching simply points out that she did not inherit the guilt of that first sin and remained sinless throughout her life. Eastern Catholics believe this completely. We just don’t believe her being conceived without the guilt of that first sin is something out of the ordinary. There is no dogma stating that Catholics must believe everyone was conceived with the guilt of original sin.

So what do we celebrate about Mary’s conception? We celebrate the beginning of the life of the Mother of God, the Theotokos. We celebrate the joy of Joachim and Anna at finally having conceived a child. We celebrate the beginning of Mary’s life filled with purity and grace and the beginning of our salvation as the temple is prepared for the Lord:

“The sayings of the prophets are now being fulfilled: the holy mountain is planted in the womb; the divine ladder is set up; the throne of the great king is ready; the God-inspired city is being adorned. The unburnable bush is beginning to bud forth, and the treasure house of grace is overflowing. It is spreading over the rivers of unfruitfulness of the God-wise Anna, whom we glorify in faith.”

(Sticheron for Vespers for the Feast of the Maternity of Anna, available from the Metropolitan Cantor Institute).

Why should any Roman Catholic care about this? Well, first of all, it’s great trivia to have up your sleeve for impressing people at Knights of Columbus breakfasts and Jesuit cocktail parties.

Uh, kidding. Even though I know some of you are a little intrigued by that possibility.

The real reason I wanted to share this with you is to, number one, address a common concern about the Eastern churches, and number two, to illustrate how diverse the Catholic Church truly is.

We are not one because we believe exactly the same things about everything. The beliefs that unite us are actually much fewer than I think many of us have been led to understand in common, American catechesis.

My hope is that sharing this with you gives you not only have a better understanding of the Eastern churches’ beliefs regarding this feast day, but also a greater appreciation of the Church’s diversity and of the incredible mystery of the God whom She worships.

If you would like more information about the Eastern Catholic churches, a great resource is 101 Questions & Answers on Eastern Catholic Churches by Edward Faulk. It has been the source for my information on original sin here (along with a bit of interview with a Master’s student in Eastern Christian theology), and I have found it to be an excellent and quick resource for other information as well.

 

Copyright Brittany Balke, 2014

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18 Comments

  1. Thanks so much for this informative post, Brittany. I am a Roman Catholic but very drawn to the Eastern tradition. I think there is so much we can learn from looking at the different expressions of our faith. I appreciated this post so much!

    • Thanks, Colleen! Just now saw this for some reason, I check comments in my email and must have missed yours, sorry! I agree about learning from one another. It’s easy to get kind of stuck in a “my way is best” position–even and especially as an Easterner–and it’s helpful to keep in mind the beauty of other, valid positions on theology.

  2. Brittany:

    Thank you for trying to explain the beautiful riches of the east.

    But I must admit that I am confused by this post. Are you suggesting that man is not conceived in a state of spiritual deprivation, and that Mary’s conception was therefore unremarkable?

    As I understand it, the Catholic Church teaches dogmatically that all men are conceived in original sin, with a wounded nature characterized by intellectual darkness and a weakened will. Original sin is not only mortality, but also the absence of sanctifying grace and the presence of an inclination toward sin.

    “Following St. Paul, the Church has always taught that the overwhelming misery which oppresses men and their inclination towards evil and death cannot be understood apart from their connection with Adam’s sin and the fact that he has transmitted to us a sin with which we are all born afflicted, a sin which is the “death of the soul… It is a sin which will be transmitted by propagation to all mankind, that is, by the transmission of a human nature deprived of original holiness and justice” (CCC 403-404).

    The Church also teaches dogmatically that Mary enjoys the unique – unique – privilege of being conceived with the fullness of sanctifying grace, with an integral and wholesome nature. That is, her conception is not the norm.

    “Through the centuries the Church has become ever more aware that Mary, “full of grace” through God, was redeemed from the moment of her conception. That is what the dogma of the Immaculate Conception confesses, as Pope Pius IX proclaimed in 1854: 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” (CCC 491).

    Note that the Catechism, quoting Pope IX, calls Mary’s conception “singular.” It identifies her conception as an event of extraordinary divine intervention. Pius made very clear in Ineffabilis Deus that this feast teaches and celebrates Mary’s unique and miraculous conception: “Definitely and clearly they [previous pontiffs] taught that the feast was held in honor of the conception of the Virgin. They denounced as false and absolutely foreign to the mind of the Church the opinion of those who held and affirmed that it was not the conception of the Virgin but her sanctification that was honored by the Church.”

    Perhaps I am misreading you. I realize that the east approaches some of these wonderful truths from different angles, but this seems quite foreign to my ears. I look forward to your response. God bless.

    • Good questions, Philip, thank you. They are the questions I knew would be asked but was trying to avoid, haha! The answers–especially for your second question–can be long and confusing, but I will do my best to be as brief and clear as possible.

      To address your first point about original sin, you are quoting the Catechism, which, despite some of its language directed toward “the Church,” is applicable in its totality only to the Roman church. In other words, what the Catechism says about original sin and certain other topics is not applicable to the Eastern churches, because it is meant to be a compilation of the teachings of the Roman church. As further evidence of this, there are many Eastern practices and teachings, such as the details of our “mystery of crowning” (the sacrament of marriage), that are absent from the Catechism. Even though the Catechism sometimes refers to the Eastern churches, those references are there to better educate its Roman audience.

      The next part regarding the language of the dogmatic statement itself is somewhat more complicated to answer, but I will do my best:

      First, one must understand that the vocabulary in the papal bull and definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception is uniquely Roman and thus causes some confusion about how it is applied in the Eastern churches. (The Pope is first and foremost the Bishop of Rome and writes from a Roman perspective. This is especially true of the popes’ writings prior to Vatican II and St. John Paul II’s Orientale Lumen, because this council and letter were instrumental in affirming the diversity of the churches while upholding their unity. That doesn’t mean that our unity is in a perfect state today, but just that it is better than it was when the dogma of the Immaculate Conception was written and accepted).

      So, for example, an idea of the “stain” of original sin is somewhat foreign to the Eastern vocabulary because of our differing teachings on that first sin. What is most comparable in our vocabulary is our understanding of man’s loss of his likeness to God due to sin entering the world. (We were made in his image and likeness; nothing takes away our being made in the image of God, but our God-likeness was lost to sin). This God-likeness is restored in Baptism and cultivated through living a life of virtue and grace. It comes to its fullness in theosis–a concept similar to divinization in the Roman church–in which a person participates in the “energies” of God (a vocabulary concept explained briefly in my article “One Thing is Necessary”) and becomes so united with God as to become one with him.

      Now, the major problem here is that the dogma describes a “singular” grace, and I have said that Mary being conceived without the guilt of original sin is nothing extraordinary in our theology. One might wonder then if maybe Mary was conceived with her “God-likeness,” but I don’t have a source confirming that one way or the other. (Another problem that convalutes all of this is that the Eastern approach to catechesis has always been to learn through experience of the liturgies. There is nothing like a Catechism for the Eastern churches that makes looking up answers to such questions very quick and easy, and it would be problematic to make one for a number of reasons).

      What I DO have are the liturgical texts for this feast and for every other day of the year, and I think it is very clear from those that Mary enjoys a “singular grace” at the moment of her conception simply in who she is and in her relationship with God. This would coincide with our understanding of how our God-likeness comes to its fullness in theosis, which is essentially a very close relationship with God. Mary is the only non-God human being in our liturgies who is described–in every liturgy–as “more honorable than the cherubim, and beyond compare more glorious than the seraphim,” and our texts for the feast of her conception would imply that this is a reality present at her conception. The text that I linked in this article for our Vespers propers for this feast as well as some other liturgical texts for Marian feasts would further demonstrate this point.

      Again, the problem in understanding how the dogma is applied in the Eastern churches boils down to two issues: #1 the uniquely Roman language in the papal bull, even for a dogma that is supposed to be applied to every church, and #2 the differing catechesis methods for each church: Rome with it’s very compartmentalized Catechism, and the East with just a huge bunch of liturgical texts meant to be experienced over a lifetime (or at least a few years).

      Moving on in your questions, your last quote actually supports the eastern view by affirming that the celebration is about Mary’s conception and not about her sanctification. Although am I taking the quote out of its original context? Is it referring to the problem of theologians who said Mary was sanctified after her conception? I couldn’t remember exactly where this was located and it’s proper context.

      Does this help at all? I understand if there are further questions. Feel free to ask them, and I will reply as quickly as I am able. Sometimes that ends up being a week later, but I will do my best!

      • I was rereading the Vespers propers, and I wanted to point out that it does refer in two places to a pure or immaculate conception. I would argue this must give reference to Mary being conceived with her God-likeness, because, again, there truly is no concept in the Eastern churches regarding the guilt or stain inherited from Adam’s first sin. That much is evident, and I do have a reference for that in addition to the one I listed here, but it’s somewhere in a mound of my husband’s textbooks! At the same time, I think the relative sparseness of these references to whatever is meant by a pure conception gives further evidence to the lack of focus on this aspect of the feast in the Eastern churches. The focus seems to be much more on God giving Joachim and Anna a child, ending their barrenness, and on Mary’s role in salvation.

        I have some books I’ve been meaning to read that might answer these questions more clearly. If I find a better answer, I will be sure to pass it along.

        • Philip Primeau on

          Brittany,

          Thank you for your detailed response. First let me say that I fully appreciate the autonomy of the eastern churches, as well as the riches of oriental theology. One of my favorite living spiritual writers is Stephen Freeman, an Orthodox priest whose blog I highly recommend. I do not believe that unity demands homogeneity. Pope Francis, following Benedict XVI and especially John Paul II, has strongly affirmed that diversity of liturgy, theology, and discipline is not inconsistent with catholicity. In fact, authentic catholicity presupposes the freedom of the local churches to express their theological terms in a native idiom. This multiformity is the work of the Spirit! We need only look at the differences between the primitive Pauline and Johannine communities to see unity-in-diversity and diversity-in-unity: that is, true catholicity.

          That said, all of Catholic churches recognize the magisterium of the Roman pontiff. And the promulgation of the dogma of the immaculate conception witnessed the (rare) invocation of the charism of infallibility. It therefore seems to me that all Catholics, eastern or western, must believe that Mary’s conception was unique: she was, from the very first instant of her life, “full of grace,” in contradistinction to the rest of mankind, who are born with some sort of spiritual deprivation.

          This truth may be formulated in various ways. Even in the west, many debate whether or not man can properly be said to inherit Adam’s “guilt.” Similarly, we need not cling to the language of “stain,” although St. Thomas helpfully explains that this term simply refers to the absence of divine light in the soul.

          However, the Catholic Church, by her ordinary and extraordinary magisterium, declares that man is born with a wounded and disordered nature; it further declares that Mary was preserved from this dismal state by the tender compassion of God. From the first moment of her life, the Theotokos was perfected by the grace of God, suffused with his deifying energies, perfectly conformed to his image (to use a mix of eastern and western language!).

          I would urge you contemplate this matter in greater depth. Perhaps you could attempt to formulate the dogma of the immaculate conception in terms consonant with eastern theology. Thank you for your ministry. May you abound with faith, hope, and charity.

  3. Yes, I was wondering the same thing as Phillip. Put another way, what would be the purpose of Baptism if we were not conceived with the stain of original sin.

    • Beth, thank you, I answered a little bit of this question on Baptism in response to Philip. There is more, though, and I will reply here soon!

    • So, yes, Beth, good question, what’s the point of Baptism then?

      Baptism has many purposes in the Eastern churches as well as in the Roman church. Some of these might overlap with the Roman church’s purposes for Baptism, but I will just speak from an Eastern perspective:

      First, for the Eastern Catholic, Baptism is a participation in Christ’s death and Resurrection. Second, it “clothes” a person with Christ. (See Galations 3:27). It washes away ALL sin and brings the person into the light of Christ. Hence, it is often called “illumination” or “enlightenment” in the East.

      (Spiritual “light” and “illumination” are very important concepts in the East that would be difficult for me to explain here. If you are interested in understanding more about this side of Eastern spirituality, a great resource is “Orthodox Spirituality” by Metropolitan Nafpaktos Hierotheos).

      This illumination of entering into Christ’s death and resurrection, “putting on Christ” and being rid of our sin is the beginning of regaining our God-likeness with which humanity was originally created but lost in the fall, as I mentioned in an earlier reply to Philip. Thus, this is how Baptism undoes one of the effects of the first sin in the Eastern approach to this sacrament.

      Does that answer your question?

  4. Very interesting information. In case you haven’t had an ego boost today, I was so excited to see you had a new article! 🙂 Have a wonderful day!

  5. Your article seems confusing, this article, http://credo.stormloader.com/Ecumenic/marycorede.htm explains why some Eastern Orthodox reject the immaculate conception, and I’m assuming some Eastern Catholics have unawaringly mixed up Eastern theology (within a Catholic understanding) with Eastern theology taught outside of communion with Rome. This shows that Eastern Christians have historically accepted original sin and the immaculate conception as taught within the Catholic Church. Also only Eastern Catholics of the Byzantine Rite don’t celebrate the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception; Armenian Catholics, Maronites, Syro-Malabar and others do celebrate the Solemnity. God bless!

  6. The article I lined is by an Orthodox convert to the Catholic Church. He even quoted an Orthodox saint calling Mary the Immaculate Conception!

  7. Correction: Scholarios, the Orthodox saint, describes Mary this way “The grace of God delivered Her completely from the original sin” . He doesn’t call her the Immaculate Conception exactly, but the definition is there.

    • Erik, perhaps I am in error about churches other than my own–which is the Byzantine church–and I will look into that. However, my source explained that this was a belief shared by all Eastern Catholics.
      The Orthodox churches, from what I have read, have been divided from time to time on this topic, and because I am not Orthodox, I cannot address what they believe with perfect confidence.
      But I am reasonably certain that Byzantine Catholics’ beliefs around Mary’s conception and the effects of the first sin are what I described. You may find further clarity to my article in previous comments.
      I appreciate the article you linked, but the author appears to not fully understand Byzantine theology on the effects of Adam and Eve’s sin nor of what makes a person full of Grace. Mary most certainly endured some
      effect of the first sin in her death, which is a widespread Byzantine and generally Orthodox belief, so I’m having trouble understanding why that quote from St. Scholarios says otherwise, as it is so clearly contrary to the general Eastern belief that Mary experienced death. In the Byzantine view, Mary was also full of Grace and set apart from the beginning of her life due to her special and unique relationship with God and not because of some lack of stain. It is a more positivistic view in the East.
      I hope this offers some clarity.

      • Additionally, I want to clarify that Byzantine Catholics do not share the modern Orthodox belief that Mary was “purified” at the time of the Annunciation (and I’m not even sure all Orthodox Christians adopt that view). I’m assuming you’re trying to call attention to the author’s description of Byzantine Catholic belief, but his description seems to be mostly assumption based on Roman belief and lacks appropriate understanding of the nuanced differences between Byzantine and Roman Catholic belief on these matters.

  8. Hi Brittany,

    I realize this is an older post, but could you, please, list that different source/version of translation for Rom 5:12? I looked up 20+ translations/versions of the verse and every one of them includes “all sinned”.

    Thank you.

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