Pius IX Decrees the Immaculate Conception Dogma

Pope Pius IX decreed the dogma of the Virgin Mary’s Immaculate Conception by papal bull. Although his action was based on long-standing popular acceptance of the doctrine and its recent acceptance by Church leaders, its form presaged the later enunciation of papal infallibility and helped invigorate the papal position as spiritual leader of the Catholic Church.

Summary of Event

The wave of liberal and revolutionary activities that rocked Europe in the 1830’s and 1840’s shook the Roman Catholic papacy to its core. The most immediate threat to papal authority was the Italian Risorgimento Italian unification movement;and Roman Catholic Church[Roman Catholic Church]
Roman Catholic Church;and Italian unification movement[Italian unification movement] movement, which sought to rid the peninsula of foreign and ecclesiastical monarchs and to establish a single, secular, self-determining Italian state for the first time since the fall of the Roman Empire. Liberal and anti-ecclesiastical movements in France, Catholic Germany, and Austria-Hungary also threatened to undermine further the position of the Catholic Church and its papal administration, a position seriously weakened during the earlier Enlightenment and French Revolution French Revolution (1789);and Roman Catholic Church[Roman Catholic Church]
Roman Catholic Church;and French Revolution (1789)[French Revolution (1789)] (1789). Pius IX
[p]Pius IX[Pius 09];and Immaculate Conception dogma[Immaculate Conception dogma]
Roman Catholic Church;Immaculate Conception dogma
Immaculate Conception dogma
[kw]Pius IX Decrees the Immaculate Conception Dogma (Dec. 8, 1854)
[kw]Decrees the Immaculate Conception Dogma, Pius IX (Dec. 8, 1854)
[kw]Immaculate Conception Dogma, Pius IX Decrees the (Dec. 8, 1854)
[kw]Dogma, Pius IX Decrees the Immaculate Conception (Dec. 8, 1854)
Pius IX
[p]Pius IX[Pius 09];and Immaculate Conception dogma[Immaculate Conception dogma]
Roman Catholic Church;Immaculate Conception dogma
Immaculate Conception dogma
[g]Italy;Dec. 8, 1854: Pius IX Decrees the Immaculate Conception Dogma[3040]
[c]Religion and theology;Dec. 8, 1854: Pius IX Decrees the Immaculate Conception Dogma[3040]
Antonelli, Giacomo
Passaglia, Carlo

Although the trend of papal response to this situation had been appeasement and accommodation to liberal change, Pope Gregory XVI Gregory XVI (pope 1831-1846) had reversed this policy. He had revitalized institutions such as the Inquisition Inquisition
Roman Catholic Church;Inquisition and the Index of Forbidden Books Roman Catholic Church;Index of Forbidden Books whose purpose was to enforce Catholic doctrinal purity and the Church’s position as a moral leader. Gregory’s successor was Pius IX, an emotional yet very pastoral leader whose reign would be the longest of any supreme pontiff.

When revolutionary fervor reached the streets of Rome in 1848, Pius disguised himself as a common cleric and fled to the town of Gaeta, from which he ruled for two years. Convinced that the pope’s Roman Catholic Church;papacy position as a temporal ruler was waning rapidly, he decided to continue reinforcing the papacy’s role as Catholic Christianity’s spiritual leader. The spiritual power of the papacy was best exemplified in its ability to define Church teaching and official dogma, that is, doctrines that must be believed and acknowledged by professed Catholics. The definition of Catholic doctrine was a role often shared by the pope with other Church organs, such as commissions or councils, but Pius realized making the papacy the primary voice of dogma would confirm on a practical level that the pope was the most powerful figure within the Roman Catholic Church.

Because the position of the papacy was so precarious, however, Pius knew that he needed to proclaim a dogma that would be embraced both by the Church organs he would be bypassing and by rank-and-file Catholics throughout the world. If the dogma to be proclaimed were noncontroversial, the pope’s choice to proclaim it through a papal bull might go unnoticed or at least uncontested. Thus, Pius needed to raise the papal voice on behalf of something positive, rather than the kind of repressive program that Gregory had espoused. He chose to do so regarding the ancient doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, the mother of Jesus, a teaching that had been championed by Gregory but never advanced to the level of a dogma.

Pius IX on his accession to the papacy in 1846.

(Library of Congress)

The Catholic Church had long allowed priests to teach that Mary had been kept pure from any taint of sin by God from the beginning of her existence—that she was conceived, in other words, free from the original sin that attaches to all other people from the moment of conception. The Church had never defined the parameters of this teaching, however, much less mandated it. Nothing in Scripture unambiguously supports the doctrine, which the Church first acknowledged only in the eighth or ninth century—and then only on a local basis.

The Syrian church celebrated Mary’s conception in St. Anne from before 700, but the Catholic Church did not institute such a feast day until the eleventh century. During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, scholars such as Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, Thomas Aquinas, and Bonaventure argued against the teaching for various specific reasons, generally seeing it as undermining Christ’s role in saving all of humankind. Theologian John Duns Scotus early in the fourteenth century made the teaching more palatable by pointing out that Christ merely saved Mary from sin before all others. His role therefore remained unchallenged.

The issue remained unresolved, however, even as the teaching became deeply rooted in some parts of Europe, especially Spain, and among certain religious orders, such as the Jesuits. In 1830, the religious novice Catherine Labouré of Paris had a vision of Mary surrounded by the words “O Mary conceived without sin. . . .” Many Catholics quickly adopted the devotion to Mary of the Immaculate Conception, including American Catholics. Roman Catholics;American The Sixth Provincial Council of Baltimore in 1846 dedicated the American Catholic Church to Mary of the Immaculate Conception, the name still appended to the Catholic national cathedral.

Pius himself was a devotee of Mary and began the process of formally adopting the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception as dogma shortly after his election. On June 1, 1848, in the midst of the Austrian war, Pius appointed a commission of twenty Jesuits led by the theologian Carlo Passaglia Passaglia, Carlo to study requests that he had received from Paris urging pronouncement of the dogma. Following their advice, at Gaeta on February 2, 1849—the feast of the Purification of Mary—Pius promulgated the encyclical Ubi primum, in which he asked Catholic bishops everywhere for prayers and advice on the subject. The response was overwhelmingly positive, with 536 supporting the idea, 4 against it (including the archbishop of Paris), and 36, generally from Protestant countries, arguing that the time was not yet right for such an action.

Meanwhile, Civiltá Cattolica (catholic civilization), a journal founded by Pius’s prime minister, Giacomo Antonelli, Antonelli, Giacomo was pressing the case for adopting the dogma. Once ensconced back in Rome after 1850, Antonelli became Pius’s secretary of foreign affairs, and as the chief diplomat of the Papal States, he was even more forceful in his arguments. Pius proceeded with the formalities and prepared for a major celebration surrounding the proclamation of the dogma. Two Jesuits, Fathers Perrone and Passaglia, Passaglia, Carlo drew up the bull Ineffabilis Deus (1854; ineffable God) in which the dogma and its meaning were outlined. Prelates gathered in Rome for the event and were given the opportunity to discuss formally the wording of the bull, since there were those who distrusted the Jesuits, and Pius wanted no taint of partisanship attached to his action.

Ineffabilis Deus laid out the scriptural hints on which Catholics had long based acceptance of the teaching of Mary’s Immaculate Conception, but it clearly founded the dogma on long-standing Catholic belief, tradition, and teaching. Finally, on December 8, 1854, in a grand ceremony in St. Peter’s Basilica, Pius formally read the bull proclaiming the dogma. Significantly, the attending prelates served as an audience, not as actors: The pronouncement was the pope’s and his alone; the decision was his and his alone. Despite the commission, the advice, and the deliberation, Pius himself declared the dogma. This was an important example of what was later termed centralistic papalism, a notion articulated by Thomas Aquinas that stated that the pope alone was the final determiner of matters of the faith. The Jesuit Carlo Maria Curci Curci, Carlo Maria had instilled this idea in Pius, who later articulated it in the dogma of papal infallibility promulgated by the First Vatican Council Vatican I (1868-1870)
Roman Catholic Church;Vatican I in 1870.


Pius’s proclamation was a hammer blow to the remaining Jansenist movement in France, which had long opposed the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, as well as a spur to Marian devotion throughout the Catholic world. Passaglia Passaglia, Carlo wrote a new liturgical office for the feast day, and in Rome’s Piazza Spagna, Pius had a tall column erected, topped by Mary as seen in Catherine Labouré’s 1830 vision.

The papacy’s political authority and power continued to wane over the following two decades, and Pius could do little to prevent this decline. In the midst of his struggles with the emerging Italian kingdom, however, he continued to develop the papacy’s spiritual authority in ways founded on his handling of the Immaculate Conception doctrine. Collegiality in the Church hierarchy was desirable, but the pope—as vicar of Christ—had the final say on all matters of faith and morals for all Catholics. Despite the opposition of political realists, liberals, and Protestants, this strategy indeed strengthened the pope’s role as the Church’s spiritual voice, even as Pius reluctantly relinquished the role of political player. Significantly, he opened the First Vatican Council at St. Peter’s Basilica on December 8, 1859, and the 764 prelates who attended finally adopted the teaching of papal infallibility, a concept that underlay Pius’s pronouncement six years earlier. Also significant, Pope Pius XII Pius XII would follow the same method of inquiry and consultation in preparing the way for the 1950 pronouncement of the dogma of Mary’s Assumption into Heaven.

Further Reading

  • Chadwick, Owen. The Popes and European Revolution. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981. Classic study of the effects of the social and political upheavals on the position, actions, and role of the papacy in Catholic Europe.
  • Coppa, F. J. Pope Pius IX: Crusader in a Secular Age. Boston: Twayne, 1979. Overview of the life and career of Pius for the general reader.
  • Hales, Edward E. Y. Pio Nono: A Study in European Politics and Religion in the Nineteenth Century. Garden City, N.Y.: Image Books, 1962. The fullest study of Pius’s career in English and essential reading for the student or scholar.
  • Hasler, August Bernhard. How the Pope Became Infallible: Pius IX and the Politics of Persuasion. Translated by Peter Heinegg. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1981. Places the enunciation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in the context of the later pronouncement of papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council.
  • O’Connor, E. D., ed. The Dogma of the Immaculate Conception. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1958. Collection of articles that discuss the history and theology of the dogma and that lay behind Pius’s action.
  • Stratton, Suzanne. The Immaculate Conception in Spanish Art. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Well-illustrated outline of the important role that the iconography of this subject played in Renaissance and Baroque Spanish painting.
  • Swanson, R. N., ed. The Church and Mary: Papers Read at the 2001 Summer Meeting and the 2002 Winter Meeting of the Ecclesiastical History Society. Rochester, N.Y.: Boydell Press, 2004. Collection of papers on Mary’s role in the Church, including two on the Immaculate Conception controversy.

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