The sad reality of our life is the fact that, from the moment of our conception, we are subject to death. Every minute of our development is a minute closer to our demise, and there is nothing we, or anyone, can do about it. That this is as true of infants as it is of the elderly has nothing to do with something either has done; it is simply a result of biological imperative. Indeed, this would hardly provoke disagreement even from theologians divided by ecclesiological allegiance, as neither Greeks nor Latins have any interest in denying nature. The theological interpretation put on it, though, often constitutes a different story entirely.
The question of the Conception of Mary is one that arose in the Church very early on, and as with all questions in the Church, garnered different approaches from different quarters. The Latin West, with its understanding of Original Sin derived from Tertullian, Ambrose, and Augustine (among others), as a stain inherited from Adam, developed a notion that Mary must have been preserved from this stain even from the womb. From this point of view, the Immaculate Conception is logical insofar as Mary, in order to have been greeted by the Angel Gabriel with any such words as ‘full of grace’, would have needed to be free of anything that could separate her from grace, as the stain of Original Sin would have. The Greek East, however, seeing Original Sin not as an inherited stain that marred grace, but as human subjection to death—that is, a ‘reverberating result’ of the actions of our first parents—approached the Conception differently.
It is possible, from an Eastern point of view, to understand death itself as the mark of Original Sin. In other words, because God did not create his children to die, but rather death was brought into the world through sin, that all creation undergoes death is the legacy of sin. Creation is infused with grace by virtue of its Creator, but that it also dies is a result of the law of nature set in motion by Adam’s disobedience. And if so, then some form of inheritance must necessarily be attached to Original Sin.
While it may be that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is a Latin device for dealing with the problem posed by inherited guilt, if we concentrate on the idea that from the beginning God decreed that Mary, as Theotokos, should not have to pass through the process of death in the manner of all flesh, then it would mean that hers would be a conception free from natural liability. That the Roman Church should call this the Immaculate Conception then becomes a matter of semantics. In fact, the Immaculate Conception and its corollary doctrine, the Assumption, can make particular sense when conditioned by an Eastern ‘corrective’: if, by God’s decree, Mary is conceived free of the inevitable effect of Original Sin, then the idea that she should take her place as Queen of Heaven by means of the same mysterious manner that both Moses and Elijah passed from this world, is hardly surprising. The earthly dénouement of the Theotokos is simply a natural extension of her progenation. This is distinct from a ‘raw’ Latin interpretation insofar as, from the Latin point of view, the Immaculate Conception is necessitated by an understanding of sin and grace that gives precedence to the former over the latter in the course of human generation. The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, as Rome defines it, is then isolated as an honorific event, as if it has no light to shed on anything other than Mary’s moral status. But I think that would only be apparent.
Indeed, I normally hesitate to leap to conclusions that offer easy solutions in the face of complex debates, but in terms of the Immaculate Conception, as much as the Roman definition may be reflective of presuppositions regarding grace and sin that do not resonate in Eastern ears, there is little in the end result that cannot be reconciled with an Eastern way of thinking about both issues. An Orthodox friend of mine once said to me with all respect that ‘it isn’t that to an Orthodox mind Rome is necessarily wrong; it’s just that she never seems to know when to shut up. For instance, we both believe that the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ. But Rome has to go on and describe in forensic detail precisely how it happens.’ Indeed, my friend might well have been talking about the mode of Mary’s entry into heaven or, of greater significance here, the nature of her conception. The thing is, it seems to me that even while the Latin tradition will have an interest in defining certain ideas central to the Faith as distinct from the interests of the East, these definitions need not always represent a stumbling block to rapprochement. As in the first centuries of the Church, when there were diverse ways in which the Person and work of Christ were understood yet communion upheld, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception says a great deal about the Church’s understanding of a range of theological questions, all of which may beg further questions and warrant further debate. But, it might be argued, not only would the debate not represent grounds for separation, the differences in perspective might even be grounds for mutual enrichment.
I am well aware of the limits of a 900-word entry on a blog as a medium for dealing with complex theological issues. As always, I advance what I do above simply as a starting point for discussion and as an alternative to the polemical viewpoints readily accessible elsewhere. That said, I am emboldened to have read, just before going to press, the words of Orthodox theologian, David Bentley Hart, on the elasticity of communion between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches, and the fact that we need not be coy in identifying those points where doctrinal divergence is either not so great as it at first may seem, or no grounds for ultimate separation in the case where the divergence is more significant. With thanks to SK for drawing it my attention the first place.