How Many Popes Does it Take to Deny the Immaculate Conception?

During Dr. James White’s debate with Christopher Ferrara on the alleged sinlessness and Immaculate Conception of Mary, Mr. Ferrara questioned the fact that a half dozen popes taught or held a position contrary to the dogma that was later defined as the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. Dr. White provided a citation to Schaff, the respected church historian, who identified seven popes, and in turn cited an earlier scholar. I’ve provided a more detailed discussion on my personal blog (here), but the following abridged version should address the main points of interest. Schaff wrote:

Even seven Popes are quoted on the same side, and among them three of the greatest, viz., Leo I. (who says that Christ alone was free from original sin, and that Mary obtained her purification through her conception of Christ), Gregory I., and Innocent III. [FN233 The other Popes, who taught that Mary was conceived in sin, are Gelasius I., Innocent V., John XXII., and Clement VI. (d. 1352). The proof is furnished by the Jansenist Launoy, Prœscriptions, Opera I. pp. 17 sqq. …

(Creeds of Christendom, Volume 1, Chapter 4, Section 29)


Launoy’s work, cited by Schaff, is in Latin (starting here). He identifies the following list of popes:

  1. Leo I
  2. Gelasius I
  3. Gregory I
  4. Roman Clergy, during a vacant seat time, after the death of Honorius I (attributed to John IV, though not by Launoy)
  5. Innocent III
  6. Innocent V
  7. John XXII (or Benedict XII)
  8. Clement VI

You’ll notice that my list has eight items, rather than the seven that Dr. White mentioned and Schaff listed. That’s because I’m also including an item that Launoy does not specifically attribute to John IV, although others have. In the list below, where I have not explained the citation, it is what Launoy cited, but I have added to what Launoy has cited, and have explained my basis for that.

1. Leo I (aka Leo the Great)

First Sermon on Nativity (Sermon 21), Chapter 1

There is for all one common measure of joy, because as our Lord the destroyer of sin and death finds none free from charge, so is He come to free us all.

Personally, I think an even more compelling item from this same sermon, same chapter, on the same topic is this:

Truly foreign to this nativity is that which we read of all others, “no one is clean from stain, not even the infant who has lived but one day upon earth.” [Job 14:4-5, Septuagint version] Nothing therefore of the lust of the flesh has passed into that peerless nativity, nothing of the law of sin has entered.

Second Sermon on the Nativity (Sermon 22), Chapter 3.

And to this end, without male seed Christ was conceived of a Virgin, who was fecundated not by human intercourse but by the Holy Spirit. And whereas in all mothers conception does not take place without stain of sin, this one received purification from the Source of her conception.

Fifth sermon on the Nativity (Sermon 25), Chapter 5.

… when by the condition of birth, there is one cause of perishing for all. And so among the sons of men, the Lord Jesus alone was born innocent, since he alone was conceived without the pollution of carnal concupiscence.

My friend, Pastor King, pointed out that this may well have been drawn from Augustine and Ambrose:

Ambrose (c. 339-97) commenting on Luke 1:35:

For wholly alone of those born of woman was our Holy Lord Jesus, Who by the strangeness of His undefiled Birth has not suffered the pollutions of earthly corruption, but dispelled them by heavenly majesty.

– Saint Ambrose of Milan, Exposition of the Holy Gospel according to Saint Luke, trans. Theodosia Tomkinson (Etna: Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, 1998), Book II, §56, p. 59. (Expositio Evangelii secundum Lucam, 2.56, PL 15:1572D-1573A.)

Augustine (354-430 AD):

Moreover, when expounding the Gospel according to Luke, he [i.e. Ambrose] says: “It was no cohabitation with a husband which opened the secrets of the Virgin’s womb; rather was it the Holy Ghost which infused immaculate seed into her unviolated womb. For the Lord Jesus alone of those who are born of woman is holy, inasmuch as He experienced not the contact of earthly corruption, by reason of the novelty of His immaculate birth; nay, He repelled it by His heavenly majesty.”

– NPNF1: Vol. V, Augustine’s Anti-Pelagian Works, The Grace of Christ And on Original Sin, Book II On Original Sin, Chapter 47-Sentences from Ambrose in favor of Original Sin.

One of my readers, Fredericka, pointed out an additional reference in Leo’s Sermons:

Third sermon on the Epiphany (Sermon 33), Chapter 1

For as justice was everywhere failing and the whole world was given over to vanity and wickedness, if the Divine Power had not deferred its judgment, the whole of mankind would have received the sentence of damnation. But wrath was changed to forgiveness, and, that the greatness of the Grace to be displayed might be the more conspicuous, it pleased God, to apply the mystery of remission to the abolishing of men’s sins at a time when no one could boast of his own merits.

Jason Engwer, at the Triablogue, pointed out a further example from Leo the Great.

Eighth Sermon on the Nativity (Sermon 28), Chapter 3

And therefore in the general ruin of the entire human race there was but one remedy in the secret of the Divine plan which could succor the fallen, and that was that one of the sons of Adam should be born free and innocent of original transgression, to prevail for the rest both by His example and His merits. Still further, because this was not permitted by natural generation, and because there could be no offspring from our faulty stock without seed, of which the Scripture saith, ‘Who can make a clean thing conceived of an unclean seed? is it not Thou who art alone?’

2. Gelasius I

Launoy cites Gelasius’ fifth letter. I found it elsewhere identified as his seventh letter. Regardless, it is written to the Picenian Bishops. It states:

Accordingly whatever those parents produced of their stock, is indeed the work of God, according to the institution of nature, but not without the contagion of that evil which they derived through their own transgression

Launoy also cites Gelasius “Lib. contra Pelagium,” which I found elsewhere cited as as “dicta adv. Pelag. haeresin.,” which in any event means it is a work against the Pelagians. It states:

It belongs alone to the immaculate Lamb to have no sin at all.

3. Gregory I

Book of the Morals, an exposition of Job, Book 18, on Job 27 (and quoted by Thomas Aquinas in Summa Theologiae, 3rd part, question 34, article 1, reply to objection 3)

For we, though we are made holy, yet are: not born holy, because by the mere constitution of a corruptible nature we are tied and bound, that we should say with the Prophet, Behold, I was shapen in wickedness, and in sin hath my mother conceived me. But He only is truly born holy, Who in order that He might get the better of that same constitution of a corruptible nature, was not conceived by the combining of carnal conjunction.

My friend, Pastor David King also noted some additional quotations from Gregory:

Gregory the Great (Gregory I c. 540-603):

Moreover, since no one among men in this world is without sin (and what else is sinning but flying from GOD?), I say confidently that this my daughter also has some sins.

NPNF2: Vol. XII, Selected Epistles, Book VII, Epistle 30.

Gregory the Great (Gregory I c. 540-603):

And what a thing it would be, were we to neglect for the salvation of the soul what we carefully attend to in matters of earthly concern! And so, since, according to the words of the Apostle John, no one is without sin, let us call to mind enticements of thought, incontinence of tongue, deeds of transgression; and let us, while we may, with great knocking, do away with the stains of our iniquities, that our just and loving Redeemer may not execute vengeance according to our deservings, but according to His mercy be bent to pardon.

NPNF2: Vol. XIII, Selected Epistles, Book XII, Epistle 1.

4. Roman Clergy, post Honorius I (John IV before his reign)

Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, Book 2, Chapter 19:

And in the first place, it is blasphemous folly to say that man is without sin, which none can be, but only the one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, Who was conceived and born without sin; for all other men, being born in original sin, are known to bear the mark of Adam’s transgression, even whilst they are without actual sin, according to the saying of the prophet, “For behold, I was conceived in iniquity; and in sin did my mother give birth to me.”

However, this same quotation is, as my friend Pastor King pointed out, elsewhere attributed to John IV, because it was apparently written by him and three other high-ranking clergy while he was Rome’s bishop-elect (see this source).

John IV, Bishop of Rome (d. 642):

And in the first place it is foolish blasphemy to say that man is without sin; which can by no means be, except the one Mediator between God and man, the Man Christ Jesus, Who was conceived and born without sin. For other men born with original sin, even though living without actual sin, are known to bear testimony to the prevarication of Adam; according to the Prophet saying: “For behold in iniquities was I conceived, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” (Psalm 51:5).

John IV, Epistola I, ad Episcopos et Presbyteros Scotiae, PL 80:602B-C; see John Harvey Treat, The Catholic Faith, or Doctrines of the Church of Rome Contrary to Scripture and the Teaching of the Primitive Church (Nashotah, WI: The Bishop Welles Brotherhood, 1888), p. 22.

5. Innocent III

Sermon on the Purification of the Virgin

But forthwith [upon the Angel’s words, ‘The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee’] the Holy Ghost came upon her. He had before come into her, when, in her mother’s womb, He cleansed her soul from original sin; but now too He came upon her to cleanse her flesh from the ‘fomes’ of sin, that she might be altogether without spot or wrinkle. That tyrant then of the flesh, the sickness of nature, the ‘fomes’ of sin, as I think, He altogether extinguished, that henceforth any motion from the law of sin should not be able to arise in her members.

(I’ve presented the translation from the linked source, which omits the first phrase that Launoy includes, but includes subsequent phrases that Launoy omits)

Sermon on the Assumption, Sermon 2 (aka Second Discourse on the Assumption)(see the alternate translation here)

Eve was produced without sin, but she brought forth in sin; Mary was produced in sin, but she brought forth without sin.

There’s at least one additional quotation from Innocent III that we can bring to bear on the topic:

On the Feast of John the Baptist, i (Sermon 16 on Feast Days)

Of John the Angel does not speak of the conception but of the birth. But of Jesus he predicts alike the Birth and the Conception. For to Zechariah the father it is predicted, ‘Thy wife shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John,’ but to Mary the mother it is predicted, ‘Behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb and bear a Son, and shalt call His Name Jesus.’ For John was conceived in fault, but Christ Alone was conceived without fault. But each was born in grace, and therefore the Nativity of each is celebrated, but the Conception of Christ Alone is celebrated.

6. Innocent V

Commentary on Peter Lombard’s Sentences, Book 3, Distinction 3, Question 1, Article 1

The nearer any one approaches to the Holy of Holies, so much the greater degree of sanctification ought he to have, for there is no approach to Him, except through sanctification. But the mother approaches more than all to the Son, Who is the Holy of Holies; therefore she ought to have a greater degree of sanctification after her Son. The degree of sanctification may be understood as fourfold: either that one have sanctity (1) before conception and birth; (2) after conception and birth; (3) in the conception itself and birth; (4) in birth, not in conception. For, ‘in conception and not in birth’ is impossible. The first degree is not possible, both because personal perfection (like knowledge or virtue) is not transfused from the parents; and also because in children the being of grace cannot take place, before the actual being of nature, upon which it is founded. The second degree is common to all, according to the common law of sanctification through sacraments. The third is peculiar to the Holy of Holies, in Whom Alone all sanctification took place at once, conception, sanctification, assumption. There remains then the fourth. But this has four degrees; because the foetus, when conceived in the womb, may be understood to be sanctified either before animation, or in the animation, or soon after the animation, or long after the animation. The first degree is impossible, because according to Dionysius (de div. nom. c. 12) ‘Holiness is cleanness free from all defilement, and perfect and immaculate;’ but the uncleanness of fault is not expelled except through ‘grace making gracious’ [acceptable], as darkness by light, of which grace the reasonable creature only is the subject. The second degree was not suitable to the Virgin, because either she would not have contracted original sin, and so would not have needed the universal sanctification and redemption of Christ, or if she had contracted it, grace and fault could not have been in her at once. The fourth degree also was not suitable to the Virgin, because it did suit John and Jeremiah, and because it did not suit so great holiness that she should have lingered long in sin, as others; but John was sanctified in the sixth month (Luke i.). But the third seems suitable and piously credible, although it be not derived from Scripture, that she should have been sanctified, soon after her animation, either on the very day or hour, although not at the same moment.

(Only the final portion, regarding the suitability of the third condition is provided by Launoy, but I’ve provided some expanded context.)

7. John XXII (or Benedict XII)

Sermon 1 on the Assumption

She (the Virgin) passed, first, from a state of original sin, second, from a state of childhood to maternal honor, third, from misery to glory.

8. Clement VI

Sermon One of the Lord’s Advent (aka “Sigua erunt in sole.”)

But before I divide the theme, it seems that that Conception ought not to be celebrated, first, on the authority of Bernard, who, in his Epistle to the Lyonnese [canons], gravely reprehends them, because they had received the feast and held it solemnly. Because no feast ought to be celebrated, except for reverence of the sanctity of the person as to whom it is celebrated, since such honor is shown to saints on account of the [relation] which they have to God above others; but this is on account of holiness; and not actual sin only, but original sin also [separates] from God. But the Blessed Virgin was conceived in original sin, as many saints seem to say, and may be proved by many grounds. It seems that the Church ought not to hold a festival of her Conception. Here, being unwilling to dispute, I say briefly that one thing is clear, that the Blessed Virgin contracted original sin in the cause. The cause and reason is this, that, as being conceived from the coming together of man and woman, she was conceived through passion, and therefore she had original sin in the cause, which her Son had not, because He was not conceived of seed of man, but through the mystic breathing (Luke i.), ‘The Holy Spirit shall come upon thee.’ And therefore not to have original sin is a singular privilege of Christ Alone. But whether she had ‘in form’ original sin, or was by Divine virtue preserved, there are different opinions among Doctors. But however it was, I say, that if, in form and not in cause only, she had original sin, we may still very reasonably keep festival of her Conception, supposing that, according to all most opposed, it was but a little hour that she was in original sin, because according to all she was sanctified as soon as she could be sanctified.

Launoy only provides the portion beginning with “But whether she had ‘in form’ original sin …,” but I’ve provided the remainder of the context, so that the sense is reinforced. Note that this too is something that was written before his reign. I have not checked in every case above whether the writing was before or after the man became the bishop of Rome.

– TurretinFan