Orthodox popularly reject the Roman Catholic doctrine of the “immaculate conception” of Mary. Oftentimes, it gets cited as a doctrinal development within Roman Catholicism that separates them from Orthodox.

In discussions concerning the immaculate conception, the debate may be obfuscated by both sides not understanding each other’s positions. While I say this with the utmost trepidation, as I venerate Saint John Maximovitch and prayed to him about this article, his writing on the topic leaves a lot to be desired. His response to the immaculate conception is probably the most popular Orthodox response on the topic, but in my humble opinion it misconstrues the Roman Catholic doctrine or does not take into account obvious counter-arguments.

For example, he writes:

  • “If the Pure Christ could be born only if the Virgin might be born pure, it would be necessary that Her parents also should be pure of original sin.”
    • To this, a RC may respond that this is besides the point. Mary had to be completely without sin at all times to be completely pure–a ritually clean ark of the covenant. So, for Mary to be this taintless ark, it really does not matter if her mother was “tainted,” as long as through some miracle she was made immaculate…at conception!
  • This teaching contradicts also Sacred Tradition…“There is none without stain before Thee, even though his life be but a day, save Thou alone, Jesus Christ our God…,” Etc.
    • To this, a RC may respond that we cannot take such statements from the fathers totally literally, otherwise they would imply that the Theotokos did actually sin. So, clearly the fathers are making a categorical statement where the Theotokos would be the exception.
  • “The teaching that the Mother of God was preserved from original sin…makes God unmerciful and unjust; because if God could preserve Mary from sin and purify Her before Her birth, why does He not purify other men before their birth, but rather leaves them in sin?…[I]f Mary, even in the womb of Her mother, when She could not even desire anything either good or evil, was preserved by God’s grace from every impurity, and then by that grace was preserved from sin even after Her birth, then in what does Her merit consist?”
    • To this, a RC may respond that: 1. Men deserve damnation, so its not unfair if He does not give people what they do not deserve. 2. Adam and Eve were made without sin, yet both sinned. So, Mary does not necessarily have a decisive advantage in the not-sinning department against anyone else born without sin. Her greatness as an individual is what sets her apart.

In this article, I am not going to attempt to “disprove” the immaculate conception. Rather, I want to review what the Orthodox doctrine in early Church history was from a different angle–that being, whether Mary had concupiscence. By doing this, I believe, we can then reflect upon how the fathers differ with modern Roman Catholic sensibilities.

As a disclaimer, I personally do not have an opinion on the matter or feel emotionally invested one way or the other. I accept the teaching of the Church on it and if I am not accurately presenting it here, then I will happily correct the record. But, due to a lack of Orthodox resources really slicing and dicing our differences with Roman Catholicism on this point, I wanted to try my best to bring to bear what the saints have written and compare this to how Roman Catholics defend their own Marian dogmas–something I have covered with “Catholic” Matthew Paolantonio in a video discussing St John Maximovitch’s view of the immaculate conception.

The “sword” piercing the Theotokos’ heart. The most common interpretation of Luke 2:35 among the early church fathers is that the Theotokos would feel grief upon seeing the crucifixion.

But this blessed woman, who was deemed worthy of gifts that are supernatural, suffered those pains, which she escaped at the birth, in the hour of the passion, enduring from motherly sympathy the rending of the bowels, and when she beheld Him, Whom she knew to be God by the manner of His generation, killed as a malefactor, her thoughts pierced her as a sword, and this is the meaning of this verse: Yea, a sword shall pierce through your own soul also (An Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Book IV,  Chap 14).

However, more than a few other fathers interpret the grief to include doubt in Christ’s divinity or resurrection, a condition that the Theotokos had to be healed from:

About the words of Simeon to Mary, there is no obscurity or variety of interpretation…By a sword is meant the word which tries and judges our thoughts, which pierces even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of our thoughts…According to the word of the Lord it is said, “All you shall be offended because of me.” Simeon therefore prophesies about Mary herself, that when standing by the cross, and beholding what is being done, and hearing the voices, after the witness of Gabriel, after her secret knowledge of the divine conception, after the great exhibition of miracles, she shall feel about her soul a mighty tempest. The Lord was bound to taste of death for every man — to become a propitiation for the world and to justify all men by His own blood. Even you yourself, who hast been taught from on high the things concerning the Lord, shall be reached by some doubt. This is the sword. That the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed. He indicates that after the offense at the Cross of Christ a certain swift healing shall come from the Lord to the disciples and to Mary herself, confirming their heart in faith in Him (Basil, Letter 260, Par 7, 9).

[B]y this is signified that Mary also, through whom was performed the mystery of the incarnation, looked with doubt and astonishment at the death of her Lord (Saint Augustine, Catena on Luke).

As for what Simeon adds: “And the sword will pierce your soul, so that the thoughts hidden in the depths of the hearts of many will be revealed,” (Luke 2: 35) indicates that Mary, in whose bosom the mystery of the incarnation has been wrought, and there has been some doubt at the death of Our Lord, but doubts that the resurrection’s brilliancy and the Savior’s power soon changed into a firm and unshakable faith. At the death of the Savior, all under an impression of dread, let doubt enter their souls. However, they did not persevere in doubt…Everyone is judged on the vice for which he has the most inclination. The Apocalypse of St. John confirms this truth, “Those who doubt,” he said, “and the unbelievers will have their share in the lake burning with fire and brimstone.” He who therefore does not persevere in doubt is delivered from death, that is to say, he escapes death, for doubt about God or about Jesus Christ is a true death. He who ceases to doubt ceases to be subject to death (Ambrosiaster, Questions and Answers on the Gospel of Luke, Question 73).

For, doubtless, some such train of thought as this passed through her mind: ‘I conceived Him That is mocked upon the Cross. He said, indeed, that He was the true Son of Almighty God, but it may be that He was deceived; He may have erred when He said: I am the Life. How did His crucifixion come to pass? and how was He entangled in the snares of His murderers? How was it that He did not prevail over the conspiracy of His persecutors against Him? And why does He not come down from the Cross, though He bade Lazarus return to life, and struck all Judaea with amazement by His miracles?” The woman, as is likely, not exactly understanding the mystery, wandered astray into some such train of thought…And no marvel if a woman fell into such an error, when even Peter himself, the elect of the holy disciples, was once offended, when Christ in plain words instructed him that He betrayed unto the hands of sinners and would undergo crucifixion and death…What wonder then if a woman’s frail mind was also plunged into thoughts that betrayed weakness?…By a sword, he [Symeon] meant the keen pang of suffering, which would divide the mind of the woman into strange thoughts, for temptations prove the hearts of those that are tempted (Saint Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on John, Book 12). 

And Symeon further said to the holy Virgin, “Yea, a sword shall go through thy own soul also,” meaning by the sword the pain which she suffered for Christ, in seeing Him, whom she brought forth crucified; and not knowing at all that He would be more mighty than death, and rise again from the grave. Nor mayest thou wonder that the Virgin knew this not, when we shall find even the holy Apostles themselves with little faith thereupon: for verily the blessed Thomas, had he not thrust his hands into His side after the resurrection, and felt also the prints of the nails, would have disbelieved the other disciples telling him, that Christ was risen, and had shewed Himself unto them (Saint Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on John, Sermon 4).

“My soul breaketh for the longing that it hath unto thy judgments,” applies it unto the future judgment and among other observations has this passage, “Seeing we must render an account for every idle word do we desire the day of judgment in which that unwearied fire is to be passed through in which those grievous punishments are to be undergone for the expiating of a soul from sin [1 Cor 3:12], a sword shall pass through the soul of the blessed Virgin Mary that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed [Luke 2:35]. If that Virgin who bore God is to come into the severity of the judgment will any one dare desire to be judged by God?” (Excerpt of Saint Hilary of Poitiers, Homily on Psalm 119, p. 522-523 in this source).

Correcting the Theotokos. Another pertinent passage is that of the wedding in Cana found in John 2. John Chrysostom’s exegesis is particularly interesting because it said that the Theotokos needed to be “rebuked” and that “she had some human feelings…desiring to gain credit from His miracles.”

And therefore He answered thus in this place, and again elsewhere, Who is My mother, and who are My brethren?, because they did not yet think rightly of Him; and she, because she had borne Him, claimed, according to the custom of other mothers, to direct Him in all things, when she ought to have reverenced and worshiped Him…And so this was a reason why He rebuked her on that occasion, saying, Woman, what have I to do with you? instructing her for the future not to do the like; because, though He was careful to honor His mother, yet He cared much more for the salvation of her soul, and for the doing good to the many, for which He took upon Him the flesh (John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel of John, Homily 21).

They have no wine. For she desired both to do them a favor, and through her Son to render herself more conspicuous; perhaps too she had some human feelings, like His brethren, when they said, Show yourself to the world, desiring to gain credit from His miracles. Therefore He answered somewhat vehemently” (John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel of John, Homily 21).

Mary is subject to death. The significance of the preceding is not to “prove that the Theotokos sinned.” Orthodoxy teaches that she committed no sin. Yet, the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom says, “You [i.e. God] alone are without sin.”

Is there any sense at all that Jesus Christ is without sin that the Theotokos is not? The usual answer I have heard in Orthodox circles is that she had “original sin,” but original sin is not literally the inheritance of a sinful act. In this way, the Theotokos is sinless but not without sin in the way Christ is, being that He was born completely free of sin.

Father Daniel Sysoev calls “original sin” an “impurity” and “ancestral death,” thereby necessitating baptism without which children “will not be able to enter the Kingdom of God” (Law of God, p. 145-146). It appears to me that Orthodoxy teaches that the Theotokos inherited such an “impurity,” being that she died. “Death spread to all men, because all sinned” (Rom 5:12). This obviously includes infants who have practiced no actual sins. So, one can be both sinless, yet tainted by sin and subject to death.

Being that Orthodoxy definitively teaches that Mary died of natural causes (and not from someone else’s sin, such as martyrdom–the fathers comment extensively on this point) with the doctrine of the Dormition, the taint of death must be incorporated into the Orthodox doctrine.

This differs with Roman Catholicism, which leaves open the question whether Mary actually died:

After the definition of the Immaculate Conception by Pope Pius IX in 1854 the question of whether or not Our Blessed Lady died gradually became a subject of wide theological discussion and is today one of the most widely disputed Mariological questions. The impetus to further study out of which arose the present state of dispute was given by the writings of Dominic Arnaldi of Genoa who died in the year 1895. Arnaldi defended the thesis that Our Blessed Lady’s complete freedom from sin demanded her freedom from the penalty of death.17

Today we have diametrically opposed views on the death of Mary supported by outstanding Mariologists. The most outspoken proponents of the thesis that Mary did not die are Roschini and Gallus.18 Father Freithoff, O.P., expressed the view that “the death of Mary is not certain, either historically or from revelation.”19 On the other hand, Father C. Balic, O.F.M., maintains that “the terminus a quo of the Assumption is the death of Our Lady, the terminus ad quem is the glorification of her body in heaven. The object of the Assumption in recto is the glorification of the living body, and ex obliquo her death and resurrection.”20 (Source).

To the Orthodox, the preceding betrays a deficient Mariology as well as a faulty doctrine of sin. Any rapprochement between Orthodox and RCs would require all talk of Mary not dying be condemned. For us Orthodox, her death is now a settled question.

The issue of “concupiscence.” This subject is, to me, less clear. From what we can see in the above, the most negative comments from the fathers I can find are as follows:

  • Basil said Mary experienced “some doubt” and needed “swift healing.” Augustine concurs that she experienced “doubt.”
  • Ambrosiaster writes that Mary’s “doubts that the resurrection’s brilliancy and the Savior’s power soon changed into a firm and unshakable faith” without which she would have been liable to damnation!
  • Cyril of Alexandria wrote that Mary fell into “error,” but viewed this as constructive: “temptations prove the hearts of those that are tempted.”  This appears analogous to Heb 2:10 which states, “For it was fitting for Him…to make the captain [Jesus] of their salvation perfect through sufferings.” Hence, Christ was “was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb 4:15). Experiencing temptation, even as God, is not blameworthy in of itself. Obviously, Christ Himself was tempted but he never entertained the temptations. Mary, when tempted to doubt, actually (according to the fathers) doubted. So, while struggling with doubt is not in of itself a sinful act, because it did not work its way up to an act, it does appear to be different than how Jesus Christ experienced temptation. Nevertheless, Adam and Eve doubted God’s warning and they were without concupiscence, so this also does not prove that Mary had concupiscence.
  • Hilary of Poitiers took Mary’s doubts especially serious: “[If the] Virgin who bore God is to come into the severity of the judgment will any one dare desire to be judged by God?”
  • Chrysostom writes that Jesus “rebuked” Mary for her “human feelings” because “though He was careful to honor His mother, yet He cared much more for the salvation of her soul.”

From the preceding, it does appear that the Theotokos’ will was not absolutely perfect. She at times wavered in her faith, doubted, and did not always have the highest good in mind.

Some Protestant may seize on verses such as “whatever is not of faith is sin” (Rom 14:23) and “whoever does not do the good one ought to do sins” (James 4:17)–using these to teach the heresy that Mary is a “sinner.” And indeed, if we take the writings of the fathers to heart and were to hold Mary to such a criteria, she would be such.

However, let’s be honest with ourselves: struggling with and overcoming doubt is not objectively sinful. The momentary lapse into weakness obviously denotes human frailty, but the overcoming of such also denotes great merit. Hence, the Orthodox Church does not see in these things proof of the Theotokos’ deficiency but rather of her holiness and merit.

The toughest part to stomach when reading the preceding passages is the explicit teaching by some that the Theotokos would be liable to judgement. How is this possible if she did not sin? I believe the correct answer may be ascertained if we look at the nature of “doubt.” Doubt is not in of itself an act demanding punishment. In fact, it is an non-act.

However, this may precisely be the point. Salvation is not attained by not doing something. Rather, union with Christ is necessary for salvation and for this belief in Christ is necessary. So, to waver in this belief or in obedience to Christ, though not in of itself a sinful act, is still something that requires correction and grace from God to overcome.

This may be why, according to tradition, after a completely sinless life “[b]efore the Dormition, even the Mother of God, on leaving the earth to go to her Son, prayed that He protect her from the toll-houses of the air.” This would be consistent with Saint Hilary of Poitier’s observation that Mary dealt with (at least the spector of) the “severity of judgement.” It is worth pointing out that tradition states Mary skipped the particular judgement by flying straight through all the toll houses.

Nevertheless, it would appear that if the immaculate conception were true, such a prayer may still be necessary as complete sinlessness does not mean one cannot doubt or always think of what is profitable. Mary, being aware of this, would still sincerely pray for deliverance as something not owed to her as union with Christ is not dependent upon hero works but His mercy.

So, I speculate, perhaps the difference ultimately is in emphasis. Roman Catholics may find some of the writings of the saints here scandalous. Yet, I maintain, they are not necessarily incongruous with the immaculate conception. They can be made to work if we simply do not interpret the preceding to mean Mary had concupiscence.

Making the immaculate conception work. The Orthodox also have a doctrine similar to the “immaculate conception,” called the “prepurification” of Mary. Essentially, the prayer life of the Church dictates that the Theotokos was prepurified immediately before the incarnation. Everything at that one moment had to be absolutely perfect. Before and after that moment, Mary did not do anything blameworthy but she was subject to human weakness.

We also have the following Ode chanted during Matins on the Nativity of the Theotokos:

We hymn thy holy nativity and honor thine immaculate conception, O divinely chosen Bride and Virgin. And with the ranks of angels and the souls of the saints glorify thee (Ode 7, Canon II, Par 4).

What is meant by “immaculate conception.” Honestly, I do not know if some of the Roman Catholic doctrine is implied here, though the words are explicitly there. Rather, I presume pertains to the dispassionate coming together of Saints Joachim and Anna. To quote Saint Paisos:

Sts. Joachim and Anna are the most dispassionate (in other words without corrupting passions) couple which ever existed. They did not have any carnal attitude.” This is how God made man and this is how he wanted men to be born, dispassionately. But after the fall passion entered the relationship between man and woman. As soon as a dispassionate couple was found, as God created man and as he wished men to be born, the Panagia was born, this pure creation, and then Christ became incarnate. My thoughts tell me that Christ would have descended earlier to earth, if there were a pure pair, such as were Sts. Joachim and Anna.

The Roman Catholics fall into error and believe, supposedly from piety, that Panagia was born without original sin. While Panagia was not free from original sin, she gave birth however as God wished to be born to men after creation. She was all-pure, because Her conception occurred without pleasure. The Holy Ancestors of God, after fervent prayer to God to grant them a child, conceived not by sexual lust, but by obedience to God. 

This is not a private opinion of Saint Paisos as Ikos 10 of the Akathist Hymn to Saints Joachim and Anna states, “Rejoice, cypress trees of excellent foliage who turn the burning heat of our passions into the stillness of dispassion.”

Whatever prepurification means and no matter the merits of the Theotokos’ parents, neither purified away ancestral death (“original sin” in the words of Saint Paisos), as Mary still died. Human frailty, as we discussed, does not necessarily connote concupiscence, as nothing that the fathers accuse Mary of rises above the doubts of Adam and Eve before their thoughts manifested into sin. Rather, unlike Adam and Eve who acquired a “demerit” for giving into to their aberrant thoughts, Mary did not and she gained merit instead. From this, I conclude, Orthodox can affirm that Mary did not have concupiscence as the RCs do.

necessary difference between RCs and Orthodoxy is that they posit an earlier moment for Mary’s prepurification. This, for us Orthodox, is unacceptable because once a doctrine reaches the level of being part of the liturgical prayers of the Church, it becomes non-negotiable. Further, prepurification did not connote the washing away of original sin if we take this to mean ancestral death.

Nevertheless, taking concupiscence off the table in order to make the immaculate conception work may run afoul of Orthodoxy who, as far as I can tell, has not taken one side or the other on this issue. Some Roman Catholics believe that a Mary with any aberrant thoughts made of the same humanity “tainted” with original sin would not be fitting as God’s footstool.

To this we must say this is Biblically inconsistent. The ark of the covenant was never despoiled and it is our model for the Theotokos. In fact, not even when Uzzah touched it was it despoiled, as it was covered with curtains during its transport. Nevertheless, it was made of the same stuff and subject to the same material deficiency that all matter was–all of creation has been affected by the fall. Yet, the ark was made from fallen wood, fallen linen, fallen metal, etcetera. We do not think any less of the ark because of this because no unclean act was done to or committed by it. Likewise, if Mary had concupiscence as we do, then likewise that does not make her a less fitting footstool for Christ as she was not corrupted nor partook in corruption.

So, if Orthodox were to maintain that Mary had concupiscence, I do not think this betrays they are insincere in praising her as “without corruption” and “sinless.”

Reconcilitation between RCs and Orthodox. Ultimately, for us to find middle ground, I think we need to emphasize the more difficult, hard to stomach points, that the aforementioned saints were making in the above. This earlier Patristic view is more conservative than some of the higher Mariology that Fr Christaan Kappes (a Byzantine Catholic scholar) reads into Orthodox writers during the late Middle Ages. While the earlier Patristic view can be made to fit with the immaculate conception, for us Orthodox our universal rejection of the doctrine by our recent saints is telling.

Why? It usually requires some heresy to be defined for the Church to then clarify her teaching in response to the heresy. It appears with Roman Catholic Marian doctrines, this is what has been occurring within the Orthodox Church ever since the immaculate conception was defined.

When we read Orthodox rejections of the doctrine, what is clear is that what we are rejecting is not prepurification per se, but its timing. Further, we are rejecting the most grandiose claims that have been made about her: that Mary somehow became “uncreated,” a “fourth Person” to the Trinity, or “God” in some sense.  Further, we are rejecting that Mary’s “maternal suffering” had some efficacious effect on our salvation.

While some of these ideas seem like out and out slanders against Roman Catholicism, they were not so slanderous during the early 20th century. Then, both Orthodox heretics such as Father Bulgakov as well as RC Marian extremists pushing for the co-redemptrix doctrine were using the immaculate conception as justification for outright polytheism. One Roman Catholic source restates the said doctrine as follows:

By the title “Coredemptrix” we do not mean that Mary cooperated in the Redemption of the human race only in the sense in which this title may be applied to all who pray and suffer for sinners and, thereby, share in the work of applying the fruits of the Redemption to the souls of men. Coredemption is here taken in the strict sense of a direct and formal co-operation of Mary with Christ in the very act whereby He redeemed the human race. Such a title is truly hers for she allowed the whole plan of Redemption to take place by her free consent to become the Mother of the Redeemer; by freely forfeiting her maternal rights over her divine Son in offering Him in death to atone for the sin of Adam and for the sins of the entire human race; and by uniting her sufferings with those of her Son. Thus did Mary co-operate with Christ in the very act of liberating the world from the power of Satan.

Marian extremism in the early 20th century is worthy of its own article, one I do not feel up to writing. Nevertheless, I think it has been the failure of RCs to condemn their Marian extremists which has led Orthodox to be extremely distrustful of the RCs and their definition of the immaculate conception. This leads Orthodox to believe that RC Marian doctrine is, via guilt by association, heretical. On the flip side of the coin, it seems that Orthodox are so busy rejecting what a minority of extremists believe, that they do not do an adequate enough job of presenting what Orthodoxy actually brings to bear on the subject.

Summary. Perhaps I am writing above my paygrade and I am not accurately portraying the doctrine for either side. However, I think we can conclude the following:

  • Orthodoxy rejects the immaculate conception because 1. our liturgical life dictates prepurficiation happened at the incarnation and 2. someone immaculately conceived would not be subject to natural death, something that our liturgical life likewise disallows.
  • Orthodoxy may affirm that the Theotokos lacked concupiscence, as nothing she did or thought according to the fathers rose above the indiscretions of Adam and Eve before the fall. Nevertheless, we may affirm she had concupiscence and there is nothing technically wrong with this either. (The latter point I am willing to hear correction if we can bring more to bear on this subject.)
  • The immaculate conception is a solution to a non-problem. Concupiscence would not defile the Virgin Mary, any more than being composed of fallen matter would render the ark unclean.
  • Most Orthodox rejections of the RC doctrine dwell upon an extreme Marian wing of RCism which has fallen out of favor for almost a century. The RCs would do well in condemning them.
  • To reconcile east and west, we need to understand we are not separated by much in principle. Rather, what separates us is both epistemological and ecclesiological. Orthodoxy views the doctrine as settled by the Church’s liturgical life. RCism, in defining this doctrine, essentially ignored the settled view of their own eastern churches. However, due to RCism defining doctrine via Papal Ratification or Papal Infallibility, technically anything is in play until the Pope weighs in definitively on the question.

I hope and pray this article may help bring about more clarification of the Orthodox position, a greater appreciation of the mind of the fathers on this issue, and rapproachment between east and west. I am biting off an awful lot in a blog post so I appreciate any correction or additional insight.