BRITISH CATHOLICS have sometimes been regarded with a certain suspicion by their Protestant neighbours, not least because Catholicism has been seen as "foreign". Yet the Immaculate Conception the most distinctively Catholic of all doctrines has its roots firmly planted in the soil of this island.
It was an English monk, Eadmer of Canterbury, who first gave a proper exposition of the teaching that the Blessed Virgin Mary was conceived without original sin. At the end of the 11th century, he protested against the fact that Church authorities had recently suppressed the feast of the Conception of the Virgin, which had been celebrated in England before the Norman Conquest. The objection to the feast was as follows: All human beings, apart from Jesus, are conceived in a state of original sin. Since Mary had a normal human conception, she too must have been conceived in a state of sin. It is wrong for Christians to celebrate a sinful event, and therefore they should not celebrate the Virgin's conception.
In defence of the feast, Eadmer argued that Mary was conceived without sin. He pictures a wood filled with thorns, in which every plant is scarred by them, and he asks us to imagine that there is one chestnut tree which alone grows up amid the thorns but remains unharmed. This, Eadmer says, is the sort of thing we mean when we say that Mary is conceived sinless in a world of sin.
He goes on to say that since she is the Mother of God and is thus the most exalted being in all creation after Christ, we can be sure that God has given to Mary every good thing which it is possible to bestow upon a creature, and hence, that he will certainly have given her the gift of exemption from original sin.
Eadmer presents the Immaculate Conception as a sign of God's love and generosity towards his creation. Indeed, Eadmer almost makes one feel that it would be imputing meanness to God to suggest that he would have withheld this gift from Our Lady!
For many centuries, those who argued for the truth of the Immaculate Conception saw it as a sign that Christ's redeeming power knew no bounds. Prevention is better than cure, and in Mary, this perfect form of salvation is realised. God longs to bring us all to a state of wholeness, and as a sign that this work of redemption is coming to fulfilment, that state is already accomplished in Mary.
The most important theologian of the Immaculate Conception was another Briton, the Franciscan John Duns geotus. He was a Scotsman who studied and taught in Oxford a century after Eadmer's time. It is perhaps not surprising that it was the Franciscans who were for centuries the major promoters of the doctrine, because they saw clearly that God cherished everything in his creation, and the Immaculate Conception is a sign of the joyful perfection which is the proper destiny of all that the Creator has made.
The medieval promoters of the immaculate Conception would sometimes say: Even if you do not believe that Mary was conceived without sin, you should still celebrate the feast of her conception, because Mary's flesh was the same flesh which was to be united with God in Christ. Christ is one with us in the flesh which was given him by his mother Mary, and which first took form at her conception. The conception of Mary is the beginning of our salvation.
Dr Sarah Ross is the Director of the Marian Study Centre, LSU, Southampton.