The Immaculate Conception and the Theotokos

WASHINGTON—Devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary is practiced and understood in different ways by different churches. That much should have been clear to those attending the recent conference of Catholics and Eastern Christians in Washington, D.C.

One difference is in iconography, where Orthodox icons nearly always show the Virgin holding Christ. That is to emphasize that Mary's greatness derives entirely from her role as the Theotokos, she who bore God.

Above all, Catholics and the Orthodox differ on the Immaculate Conception, the Roman Catholic doctrine that Mary was by a special grace preserved from the stain of original sin at the very moment of her conception. The Orthodox have problems with both the doctrine and the Pope's having declared it as an article of faith in 1854. The Orthodox hold that Mary was purified of all sin at the Annunciation, Metropolitan Isaiah told the conference.

Father Michael Fahey, a Roman Catholic professor of theology at Marquette University in Milwaukee, told the conference that the West's view of the Immaculate Conception was rooted in an understanding of original sin that the Orthodox do not share. Paraphrasing a remark by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Catholic Church's Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, Father Fahey said that East and West could reach agreement on Mary “provided that the East sees the Latin doctrines as legitimate for them … and that they are correct, without feeling any obligation on their part of having to assert the formulations in that way.”

But Father Fahey pointed out that both East and West have not held back in extolling the holiness and protection of the Mother of God. “We do in fact believe the same thing,” Father Fahey asserted at the end of the conference.

Archimandrite Robert Taft emphasized that true devotion to Mary for Catholics should also always be rooted in her status as Mother of God.

“We venerate Mary for a holiness and role in salvation history that is totally relative and totally derived,” he observed. “It is inseparably related to her divine Son's saving work, and derived from and dependent on it.”

—Wesley Young