We just celebrated the Feast of the Immaculate Conception which was defined by Pope Pius IX in 1854. Very few Catholics, unfortunately, know about the definition or the history behind it. I recently noticed that some opponents of the Catholic faith have insisted that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is exclusively post medieval in origins. These claims ignore the evidence about the thriving discussions and disputes over the doctrine before 1500. One of the little known facts about the definition is that a similar one was attempted once before at a major Church council. The definition was not honored by the Church, however, because the council itself had strayed into schism. The Council of Basel (remember it is not an official council of the Catholic Church!) which started in 1429 by order of Pope Martin V, settled on the following as a definition:
This doctrine, asserting that the glorious Virgin Mary, Mother of God, through the special preventing and operating grace of the divine Being, was never actually subjected to original sin, but was always exempt from original and actual sin, holy, and immaculate, we define and declare as pious, and consonant to Ecclesiastical worship, to the Catholic Faith, to right reason, and to Sacred Scripture; by all Catholics to be approved, and held, and embraced ; (and also) that it is not lawful for any one to preach or to teach anything to the contrary. J. D. Bryant, The Immaculate Conception of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary of God: a Dogma of the Catholic Church (Boston: Donohue, 1855) 184-186.
Although the Council of Basel was not legitimate – the council fathers there went so far as to elect an anti-pope – the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was increasingly seen as legitimate and perfectly in keeping with the other doctrines of the faith. In 1457, a provincial council held in Aviginon, presided over by two papal legates, both cardinals, adopted the decree of Basel with the following understanding:
We enjoin that the decree on the Conception of the most Blessed Virgin. Mary, which was made in the Council of Basle, be inviolably observed; and we strictly forbid any person whatever, under pain of excommunication, from presuming to preach or dispute publicly to the contrary; and if any so do, it is our will that he incur the aforesaid sentence by the very fact. And in the first Synod to be celebrated in each several diocese, we ordain that the aforesaid decree be promulgated, and that it be enjoined on the curates of the churches, to make it known to the people. William Bernard Ullathorne, The Immaculate Conception of the Mother of God: an Exposition (Baltimore: Murphy, 1855) 181.
Four decades later the doctrine was so commonly accepted the finest theology school in the world – the University of Paris – that the faculty members and students there enjoined to take this oath:
We, being all assembled together the third time, after much grave and mature deliberation, have bound and pledged ourselves by a special oath to defend and maintain that most pious doctrine which declares the blessed Mother of God to have been preserved from original sin by a special privilege of God; which doctrine we have long believed and do still believe true; decreeing that henceforth no one can be enrolled in this sacred college unless he profess, by the same oath, that to the best of his ability he will be a strenuous supporter and defender of this religious doctrine. But if, which Heaven forbid! any one of us, going over to the enemies of the Virgin, shall in any manner dare to favor the contrary assertion, which we deem false, impious, and erroneous, despising not only our authority, but that of the Synod and the Church, which is, undoubtedly, the highest, him we decree to be stript of our honors and driven from our society as a heathen and a publican. Luigi Lambruschini A polemical treatise on the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin (New York: Sadlier, 1855) 57-58.
All of this, and much more, happened BEFORE 1500.
Dr. Tim Brennan (Guest blog)