Patriach Bartholomew on the “Immaculate Conception”

From: 30 Days

The Catholic Church this year celebrates the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. How does the Eastern Christian and Byzantine Tradition celebrate the Conception of Mary and her full and immaculate holiness?

Bartholomew I: The Catholic Church found that it needed to institute a new dogma for Christendom about one thousand and eight hundred years after the appearance of the Christianity, because it had accepted a perception of original sin – a mistaken one for us Orthodox – according to which original sin passes on a moral stain or a legal responsibility to the descendants of Adam, instead of that recognized as correct by the Orthodox faith – according to which the sin transmitted through inheritance the corruption, caused by the separation of mankind from the uncreated grace of God, which makes him live spiritually and in the flesh. Mankind shaped in the image of God, with the possibility and destiny of being like to God, by freely choosing love towards Him and obedience to his commandments, can even after the fall of Adam and Eve become friend of God according to intention; then God sanctifies them, as he sanctified many of the progenitors before Christ, even if the accomplishment of their ransom from corruption, that is their salvation, was achieved after the incarnation of Christ and through Him.

In consequence, according to the Orthodox faith, Mary the All-holy Mother of God was not conceived exempt from the corruption of original sin, but loved God above of all things and obeyed his commandments, and thus was sanctified by God through Jesus Christ who incarnated himself of her. She obeyed Him like one of the faithful, and addressed herself to Him with a Mother’s trust. Her holiness and purity were not blemished by the corruption, handed on to her by original sin as to every man, precisely because she was reborn in Christ like all the saints, sanctified above every saint.

Her reinstatement in the condition prior to the Fall did not necessarily take place at the moment of her conception. We believe that it happened afterwards, as consequence of the progress in her of the action of the uncreated divine grace through the visit of the Holy Spirit, which brought about the conception of the Lord within her, purifying her from every stain.

As already said, original sin weighs on the descendants of Adam and of Eve as corruption, and not as legal responsibility or moral stain. The sin brought hereditary corruption and not a hereditary legal responsibility or a hereditary moral stain. In consequence the All-holy participated in the hereditary corruption, like all mankind, but with her love for God and her purity – understood as an imperturbable and unhesitating dedication of her love to God alone – she succeeded, through the grace of God, in sanctifying herself in Christ and making herself worthy of becoming the house of God, as God wants all us human beings to become. Therefore we in the Orthodox Church honor the All-holy Mother of God above all the saints, albeit we don’t accept the new dogma of her Immaculate Conception. The non-acceptance of this dogma in no way diminishes our love and veneration of the All-holy Mother of God.


19 thoughts on “Patriach Bartholomew on the “Immaculate Conception””

  1. It has been said that very few people actually oppose the Catholic Church, but rather they oppose what *they think* is the Catholic Church. I am therefore very relieved to read these comments from the Patriarch, because it confirms that he falls into the latter category.

    As a Catholic priest, I can confirm that I was never taught that original sin was transmitted as a legal responsibility, nor was I taught that it was a “moral stain”. The former sounds much more Protestant, actually, and the latter contradicts the teaching of the Catholic Church on personal responsibility for sin.

    The essence of the Catholic teaching on the Immaculate Conception starts from this basic point: thanks to a special grace from God, Mary never sinned, ever, during her life.

    If you are Orthodox and you believe that Mary did actually commit one or more sins during her life at some point, the Catholic Church would disagree with you. If, on the other hand, you believe that Mary never sinned, ever, in her life, we have something to talk about.

    So let’s take this discussion out of the realm of the high-sounding theological vocabulary for a moment, shall we? What is the witness of the Orthodox faith regarding the sinlessness of Mary?

  2. Fr. Thomas,

    Actually the Patriarch is correct since the Immaculate Conception relies solely on Augustinian anthropology. The doctrine doesn’t make sense otherwise. In fact, if you look at the theological rationale behind the doctrime at the time it was dogmatized, you find Augustinian thinking. The inheritability of “original guilt” is precisely why the “special grace” was necessary — according to Catholic thought.

  3. Being raised Catholic, I found most Marian devotion to be harmless. However, I’m not certain what evidence there is to suggest that she was without original or actual sin for the entirety of her life. Certainly none in Scripture. Of course, if she is to be considered a “Co-Redemptrix” I would imagine there would be a practical necessity for such a doctrine.

    I do find it unfortunate that well-meaning Catholics (as well as ill-intentioned scam artists) have made a cottage industry out of Marian apparitions in this century: she has supposedly appeared on a grilled cheese sandwich on eBay.

    Either Christ’s sacrifice was complete or it was not. I’m risking a bet that while her holiness is respected by the Orthodox Church, it does not find a necessity to elevate her to the level of co-savior of mankind, correct?

  4. JamesK, the Orthodox Church cries out to Mary liturgically, saying “Most Holy Theotokos, save us.” Does this mean she is another Christ? No. She too is saved by her Son. However, she is the one who accepted to bear the Word of God into the world in the flesh. She is therefore the one who made our salvation possible. More than that, she is the one who shows all Christians the way to “bear the Word into the world,” not in the flesh, of course, but in our words and actions, thoughts and prayers. The Church looks to her as the paragon of faith not as a static “success story,” but as a role model.

    As for the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, both Fr. Dowd and Fr. Jacobse have a point, from their different points of view. Further discussion should continue to seek understanding between Catholic and Orthodox stances on this issue.

  5. Bill, the theological ground for the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is drawn from Augustinian anthropology. As Augustine fell out of favor, the rationale explaining the doctrine changed. What the Catholic Church teaches today about the doctrine is different than what was taught before Vatican II. Also, if I recall correctly, this doctrine was never formulated through Roman Conciliar Decree.

  6. Fr. Jacobse,

    I am afraid I must disagree with you. The Immaculate Conception rests upon much more than mere Augustinian anthropology. When Catholics see the comparisons made by the Fathers of Mary as the new Eve, for example, paralleling Christ as the new Adam, we see the Immaculate Conception simply expressed in other, more ancient, terms. The difference between Mary and Eve, of course, is that Mary never sinned while Eve did.

    Augustine offered a theologoumen regarding the need for grace, to resist the Pelagians and Semi-Pelagians. Within that context, the reality of Mary’s new-Eve status received additional explanation using his vocabulary. But the source of the dogma is not in the Augustinian anthropology itself, but predates it and, ultimately, devolves from the reality of Mary as theotokos.

    For a Catholic to deny the Immaculate Conception is the same as denying that Mary is the new Eve. One flows out of the other, because Eve was immaculately “conceived”! Now surely you don’t want us to deny the new-Eve status to Mary.

    So, again, it comes down to this question: what is the witness of the Orthodox faith regarding the sinlessness of Mary? The question is important, not because of Augustinian anthropology, but because what is at stake is (among other things) Mary’s status as the new Eve.

  7. The Immaculate Conception confers the salfivic “merits” of Christ onto Mary at the point of her conception to remove the “stain” of original sin. It’s a cosmic transaction that takes place before the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. See: The Catholic Encyclopedia.

    This is Augustinian juridical soteriology, pure and simple.

    Given than Augustine has fallen out of favor, I can understand the need for a new rationale that stresses instead the dimension of Mary’s partaking in the grace of God. BTW, Catholic historians tacitly admit the overdependence on Augustinian anthropology regarding original sin which, I argue, formed the theological ground of the doctrine. See again The Catholic Encyclopedia.

    Several theologians of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, neglecting the importance of the privation of grace in the explanation of original sin, and explaining it only by the participation we are supposed to have in the act of Adam, exaggerate this participation. They exaggerate the idea of voluntary in original sin, thinking that it is the only way to explain how it is a sin properly so-called. Their opinion, differing from that of St. Thomas, gave rise to uncalled-for and insoluble difficulties. At present it is altogether abandoned.

    Many of the poetic formulations about the Theotokos you offer above, the Orthodox would have no argument with. A doctrine of an Immaculate Conception however, is not one of them. Frankly, the Orthodox consider the doctrine a novelty (dogmatized in 1854) and completely unnecessary. We also consider the more recent emphasis that the doctrine stresses the grace of which Mary partook as a way to rationale its existence.

  8. Fr. Hans, correct me if I’m wrong, but our funeral service says, “no man lives and sinneth not” Therefore I have to believe that Mary too sinned. I have always understood that Mary’s status as the New Eve was the result of her absolute obediance and submission to God’s love, “Let it be done unto me according you Your Word”, rather than her lack of sin. Mary’s obediance allowed the Holy Spirit to sanctify her and the Christ to indwell her physcially as well as spiritually. Mary thus became the first human to experience true theosis. As the colors of her garb in her icon demonstrate, she was human and put on God while Jesus’ garb is the reverse, God who put on humanity. If God could wave His magic wand and make one person sinless, why not do it for all at the same time. The reality of Mary as Theotokos, the God Bearer does not in anyway connote sinlessness as a precursor. In fact just the opposite. If the only way for someone to receive Christ is to be sinless, we are all without hope.

    The Catholic idea of the Immaculate Conception as I understand it only logically flows if there is a certain denial of the reality and the power of the Incarnation in the first place.

  9. Fr. Jacobse,

    Let me start out by doing something I haven’t done yet: thanking both you and the other commentators on this blog for engaging in this conversation in a serious and charitable manner. I love the theotokos, and I am sure you all do as well. Our common goal is to ensure that she be shown the greatest honour, which must, of course, include speaking the truth about her. Her own humility would demand nothing less.

    Regarding the quote you offer, it actually confirms my point, rather than denies it. Original sin (in the Catholic view) consists merely in a privation of grace, not a transfer of actual guilt. The theologians of the 17th and 18th centuries said it was a transfer of actual guilt (a.k.a. the “moral stain” the Patriarch speaks of), a view which the Catholic Church *rejected*. The reference to the merits of Christ is to refute the idea that Mary somehow didn’t need Jesus in order to be sinless. Salvation is, of course, much more than salvation from sin — theosis is part of the concept of salvation as well, something the Protestants rejected and which the Catholics needed to re-affirm.

    I am willing to concede that the original wording of the dogma uses Augustinian language, but let us recall that this was to refute some Protestants who, in fact, *did* teach that everyone was personally guilty of Adam’s sin. (Martin Luther was originally an Augustinian monk, so his teachings use that vocabulary). But while the wording of the original dogma was, IN PART, using that particular vocabulary (so that the Protestants would understand it), the reality of it can be expressed in other theological terms as well. The Mary-Eve connection, for example, is also part of the text of the original document offering the dogmatic proclamation.

    My fear is that, in rejecting the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, the Orthodox may be throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Rejecting a novel formulation of an ancient teaching risks throwing out the ancient teaching. Add to that the whole question of authority (i.e. the fact that the dogma was declared by the bishop of Rome, rather than by an ecumenical council), and I see why there would be a hesitancy to affirm it.

    But surely Orthodox recognize that Catholics truly do honour the Blessed Virgin, as they themselves do. A dogma is merely a finger pointed at the truth — it is important to look at the truth, rather than at the finger, unless the finger is not in fact pointing at the truth. This is why I keep harping on the sinlessness question — I’m trying to see for myself, in my own mind, if we really do disagree on the substance of the thing, or merely how we arrive at that substance.

  10. Michael,

    Your comment “why not make everyone sinless” is well taken. The Catholic response would be that this special privilege was given because Mary was to be the theotokos, the greatest privilege of all. Thus it is meant, in fact, to be an *affirmation* of the importance of the Incarnation — Mary is meant to be the true and perfect tabernacle, the perfect throne upon which rests the glory of the Lord present in the Incarnate word. If course, this is not really meant for her: any honour paid to her in this regard is merely to show the honour meant to be paid to Christ. Does she not, in all the icons, always point to her divine son?

    I once heard Fr. Thomas Hopko say that the jury was out in the Orthodox church regarding the sinlessness of Mary, but that most authorities would acknowledge that Mary never committed any sins, mortal or venial. Perhaps I am asking a question that cannot be answered in the Orthodox Church at present. Apart from the Biblical witness in both Luke and Revelation, with regards to the Fathers the Catholic Church sees in the Mary-Eve connection an affirmation of Mary’s sinlessness.

  11. Why does it matter what the Orthodox believe about the Immaculate Conception? It’s a Roman construct in both its original Augustinian form and later redefinition. As for throwing the baby out with the bath water, since the Orthodox don’t hold to the docrtine there is nothing to throw out. The ancient teaching works just fine.

    BTW, a dogma is more than “a finger pointed at the truth.” Defining dogma in these terms essentially makes it indistinguishable from, say, poetry or literature.

  12. Fr. Jacobse,

    I don’t meant to cause any frustration. I just want to get at what you folks do actually believe, rather than simply what you reject. The Immaculate Conception is precious to me (and to many Catholics) because Mary is precious — we love her! Now we see the Orthodox loving and venerating Mary, and we know this is sincere, but we also see the Orthodox rejecting this particular Roman teaching. It is hard for us to understand why. Talk about Augustinian constructs is honestly not that helpful, because our love for Mary is primarily because of who she is as the precious Mother of God, not because of Augustine or any of his theories. We love her because of our desire to follow Christ, who himself loves his Mother. We want to show her honour and defend that honour against those who would challenge it (e.g. fundamentalist Protestants), out of love for her *and* out of love for Christ, to whom all glory and honour must obviously point. There are many points to this honour: her perpetual virginity, her dormition and assumption, and her sinlessness. When we defend the Immaculate Conception, as I have said, we are in reality trying to defend one aspect of the latter point. Are we wrong to defend the idea of her sinlessness? Or are we in fact right to do so, but simply (through the dogma) going about it the wrong way? That is the essence of my question.

    Look at it this way, Father. You believe Catholics are in error on this point. I am saying, in good faith and on behalf of millions of fellow Catholics, that we don’t see how. For us, to deny the Immaculate Conception as we understand it would be to deny the honour due to Mary regarding her sinlessness, because we see the two as linked. If they aren’t, then show me/us how! Proclaim the Orthodox faith to us! Surely you believe the world needs to hear it, and not just what you reject but (more importantly) the Good News that you affirm. And if not for my sake, then for the sake of all the other readers of this blog, who by now may very well be enjoying our exchange and wondering how it will all turn out.

    Can you recommend a good book, perhaps a catechism, which will offer a good presentation of the Orthodox faith on the topic of Mary? I’ll gladly read it.

    Yours in Christ.

  13. Fr. Dowd,

    I think Patriarch Bartholomew, Fr. Hans, and I have spoken pretty clearly about the Orthodox belief regarding Mary. For you to say that we are only stating what we are against is simply not true. To restate my previous post “Mary’s status as the New Eve is the result of her absolute obediance and submission to God’s love, ‘Let it be done unto me according you Your Word’, rather than her lack of sin. Mary’s obediance allowed the Holy Spirit to sanctify her and the Christ to indwell her physcially as well as spiritually. Mary thus became the first (fallen) human to experience true theosis.”

    One of the vast differences between Catholic and Orthodox understanding is the insistence in the West that everything be explained and rationally codified. We find such an approach often times irrelevant and frequently damaging. The apparent unwillingness of western Christians generally to be comfortable with mystery has always been disturbing to me long before I became Orthodox.

    If you wish to know more what we proclaim about Mary follow this link

    One other point, I am frankly tired of the increasingly common canard that we Orthodox here and elsewhere only proclaim what we are against. The statement is not true and is only a poor debating technique that is IMO designed to keep from dealing with substantive differences. If one wants to really know what we Orthodox are for, attended our services with an open mind and heart especially the Divine Liturgy and the Funeral Service. Suspend your rational mind, put aside your technical theology, lift up your heart to the the Holy Trinity, One God, Incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary (the Creed does not say the Sinless Virgin Mary), and you will know, unless you are spiritually dead, what the Orthodox Church has proclaimed, is proclaiming, and by the continued grace of God, will continue to proclaim. The radical, useless and often heretical innovations of the West are unnessary reactions to what we proclaim. A vain attempt to set oneself apart.

    Further, as much as I respect Fr. Hopko, his equivocation is more a result of his committment to ecumenism than to the historic witness of the Church.

    A continuing irritant I have is the assumption of western Christians and western media that we Orthodox broke from Rome. Such assumption is historically invalid. Rome broke from the East. We have maintained continuity with historic doctrine and practice that the west has largely abandoned.

  14. Dear Michael,

    Thank you for your post. I was not aware others have accused Orthodoxy of only being “against”. This is the first Orthodox blog I have ever come across, almost by accident, and only a few days ago. So I apologize if I touched a nerve. It was not intended.

    You did post your view before regarding how Mary could be understood as the new Eve, but it was originally addressed to Fr. Hans, and was phrased as a question, not as an affirmative statement, so I did not take it as such.

    I have read the beautiful prayer to which you linked, as well as reviewed the comments of the Patriarch and other sources (including your comments). From what I can see, the difference is this:

    Catholic: Mary was conceived in a state parallel to that of Eve prior to the Fall. Mary never committed any personal sins, ever.

    Orthodox: Mary was NOT conceived in a state parallel to that of Eve prior to the Fall, but rather was re-instated in that state at the moment of the Incarnation of the Word in her womb. The question of Mary committing personal sins is an open question, although the tendency would be to acknowledge she did commit at least some personal sins prior to the Incarnation, but did not afterwards.

    I am pleased to report that I have, in fact, attended many Orthodox services, and they have nourished me tremendously. I have found in them great personal inspiration. My contacts with Orthodox here in Montreal have always been friendly and courteous, thanks to their own graciousness.

    I know we Westerners can appear overly rational at times, but in this regard I can only speak for myself. Please believe that my desire to understand the Orthodox position is motivated by a genuine respect. When I chat with Orthodox regarding theology I find it is like meditating before an icon: something new and marvelous always emerges.

    Have a blessed Lent.

  15. Note 12. Look, you can affirm or deny whatever you want to. I’m not Roman. I am not going to tell you what you should or should not believe. My argument against the doctrine is it’s exclusive dependence on an Augustinian anthropology when it was first written, even though today it’s recontexualized in an amorphous sea of Marian piety, as your present post indicates.

    Rome should have taken a lesson from Chalcedon when it formulated the doctrine of Mary as Theotokos, ie: keep all dogmatic defintions Christological. (That would keep the “co-redemptrix” ideas that also emerge from Roman quarters corralled as well.)

  16. As a matter of correction Dr. Alexander Roman is in communion with Rome via the unia, although I don’t think he would be offended if he is referred to as being of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. I don’t think he has a degree in theology, I believe it is in Sociology.

    This subject matter has been discussed in the past on many occasions.

    Matthew Steenberg he is teaching Orthodox Patristics at Oxford and had summed things up quite well in another discussion of this nature.

    Dear all,

    Regarding the Immaculate Conception: I think perhaps it would do us some good not to be quite so swift in simply stating flat-out, end-of-statement, that the Roman Catholic doctrine of the ‘Immaculate Conception’ and the Orthodox understanding of the conception of the Mother of God are entirely and in every way opposed. As with so many other statements and issues, what we find here is that there are deeply important aspects behind the RC doctrine with which we Orthodox cannot agree; yet there are also many with which we do.

    Let me try to indicate a few on each side. First we may discuss those points against: (1) The RC doctrine of the Immaculate Conception presupposes a view of ‘original sin’ as centred in imputed sinfulness and guilt which, as it is stated in RC dogma, the Orthodox reject. It is because all human persons are born with this ‘congenital defect’ that the Virgin’s lifelong purity must, according to RC doctrine, be effected by a conception which frees her from this defect. This is the chief and fundamental point of doctrinal divergence between Orthodox and RC on the matter. (2) The immaculate birth of the Mother of God, as proclaimed by the RC doctrine of Immaculate Conception, poses for the Orthodox an unacceptable change and contradistinction between her nature and that of the rest of humanity. She is no longer ‘like me’ in the sense that Orthodox theology has always proclaimed and required, and the alteration of such a view cannot be meshed with the larger doctrines of soteriology and christology which are built upon the nature of the birth of Christ and His mother. (3) The belief that sinlessness and absolute purity of life require a fundamental change in the nature of the human person, such as is represented in Mary’s person according to the RC doctrine of Immaculate Conception, is to some degree at odds with the Orthodox ascetical proclamation of transformation and divinisation. The nature which one day shall be perfect and the nature which this day wallows in sin are, for Orthodox, one and the same. It is purification, not alteration, that is the focus of Christian salvation, and the RC doctrine of Immaculate Conception presents, if only nascently, a conflict with this understanding.

    Nonetheless, there are points of similarity: (1) Many Fathers of the undivided Church proclaim without equivocation the view that the Mother of God was ‘protected from sin’ from ‘before her birth’, specifically so that she might be pure in her life and thus purely bear the Pure One. We might give reference to Jacob of Serug, Germanos of Constantinople, Ephrem of Syria, among others. These are not simply proclamations that the holy Virgin lived a pure life free from sin, but that God protected and prevented her from sin from the moment of her own birth. (2) Some Orthodox Fathers also proclaim that it was impossible for the Mother of God to sin, for this was not in her nature. Again, these are not suggestions that she simply didn’t sin, but that she couldn’t sin. Jacob and Germanos stand out particularly in this regard.

    The above is not meant to suggest that our two churches in the end teach one and the same thing. I am unequivocally of the view that the RC doctrine of Immaculate Conception destroys something of fundamental value in the person of the holy Virgin, and simply cannot be squared with Orthodox thought. But we ought also to understand that the pure life of Mary which the RC doctrine is an attempt to safeguard, is one which has been the object of considerable Orthodox reflection as well — often to the employment of strikingly similar language. There are aspects of the doctrine of Immaculate Conception which are and should be held by Orthodox. But, as with so much else in Orthodox thought, it is the question of wholeness, completeness and fullness that warrants its rejection. The doctrine of Immaculate Conception presents some truths regarding the person of Mary, but not the full truth. In fact, we would say, it distorts that which it does not rightly proclaim in such a manner that even its right proclamations become challenged and suspect.

    But when such individuals as Bishop Kallistos (Ware) suggest that some Orthodox hold to the view of the Immaculate Conception, perhaps we should consider that he does not mean an adherence to the Roman Catholic doctrine, but to the more fundamental issue of Mary’s holy birth and sinless life — which the Orthodox feasts of the Nativity of the Mother of God and the Presentation at the Temple clearly proclaim. I have not discussed this matter personally with him, but I have a suspicion that his remarks might be meant as a balance to overstatements to the opposite extreme. It is a situation akin to the rampant proclamations that Orthodoxy ‘has no doctrine of original sin’. This is of course a nonsensical statement. The Orthodox Church has a very definite and pronounced understanding of original sin, it is simply not the same understanding as that held by Roman Catholics. So with the Mother of God, the Orthodox Church has a very pronounced belief in the sinlesness and purity of her person, even in the holiness and sanctity of her conception (which marks one of our great feasts), but we do not hold the same understanding as the RCC.

    INXC, Matthew

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