Bernard of Clairvaux on the Immaculate Conception

“I am frightened now, seeing that certain of you have desired to change the condition of important matters, introducing a new festival unknown to the Church, unapproved by reason, unjustified by ancient tradition. Are we really more learned and more pious than our fathers? You will say, ‘One must glorify the Mother of God as much as Possible.’ This is true; but the glorification given to the Queen of Heaven demands discernment. This Royal Virgin does not have need of false glorifications, possessing as She does true crowns of glory and signs of dignity. Glorify the purity of Her flesh and the sanctity of Her life. Marvel at the abundance of the gifts of this Virgin; venerate Her Divine Son; exalt Her Who conceived without knowing concupiscence and gave birth without knowing pain. But what does one yet need to add to these dignities? People say that one must revere the conception which preceded the glorious birth-giving; for if the conception had not preceded, the birth-giving also would not have been glorious. But what would one say if anyone for the same reason should demand the same kind of veneration of the father and mother of Holy Mary? One might equally demand the same for Her grandparents and great-grandparents, to infinity. Moreover, how can there not be sin in the place where there was concupiscence? All the more, let one not say that the Holy Virgin was conceived of the Holy Spirit and not of man. I say decisively that the Holy Spirit descended upon Her, but not that He came with Her…I say that the Virgin Mary could not be sanctified before Her conception, inasmuch as She did not exist. if, all the more, She could not be sanctified in the moment of Her conception by reason of the sin which is inseparable from conception, then it remains to believe that She was sanctified after She was conceived in the womb of Her mother. This sanctification, if it annihilates sin, makes holy Her birth, but not Her conception. No one is given the right to be conceived in sanctity; only the Lord Christ was conceived of the Holy Spirit, and He alone is holy from His very conception. Excluding Him, it is to all the descendants of Adam that must be referred that which one of them says of himself, both out of a feeling of humility and in acknowledgement of the truth: Behold I was conceived in iniquities (Ps. 50:7). How can one demand that this conception be holy, when it was not the work of the Holy Spirit, not to mention that it came from concupiscence? The Holy Virgin, of course, rejects that glory which, evidently, glorifies sin. She cannot in any way justify a novelty invented in spite of the teaching of the Church, a novelty which is the mother of imprudence, the sister of unbelief, and the daughter of lightmindedness”

Epistle 174

35 Responses to Bernard of Clairvaux on the Immaculate Conception

  1. Veronica M. says:


    Thank you for responding to my comment. I appreciate your appreciation and respect for St. Bernard. I, too, love and esteem him. In reading his letter, I see that his reasons for discouraging the institution of the feast of the Immaculate Conception in the 12th century were sound, based on reason, scripture and tradition. However, as Martin Luther said, in matters of faith one must blind and slay reason. It is a matter of faith. And, speaking of faith, fortunately for all of us Christians, salvation is based on our faith in the saving power of the Shed Blood of Our Savior. It is one-on-one with Jesus. That is how I understand it, and in the end we will all find out, dogmas and doctrine notwithstanding.

  2. Veronica,

    Many doctrines could be justified on this basis which is why this is not an adequate basis for doctrines. To my knowledge catherine Labourne is not Orthodox and not an Orthodox saint, so her comments really don’t have any standing for me.

    I posted this from Bernard since Bernard was not only a saintly individual in his life, but an accmomplished theologian and had a keen intellect. Opposition to the dogma of the IC is cannot be chalked up to left wingers or fundamentalists. bernard was as Catholic as any other and to point to what Bernard would think now is exactly the point, that Catholicism has put aside tradition for development.

    As for Jeremiah, that passage does not imply that JEremiah existed prior to his birth. It only implies that God had an intimate plan for JEremiah before his existence. It is Catholic teaching that souls do not pre-exist the body but are created by God at conception, and on this point I think the Orthodox would agree.

  3. Veronica M. says:

    I am a believer in the Immaculate Conception of Our Ever-Virgin Mother not specifically because it is a Dogma of the Roman Catholic Church but because my own experience of Mary proves it to my heart. Not only this but because Our Mother in Her patience and kindness had the goodness to reveal Herself immaculately conceived on at least two occasions: in 1830 to St. Catherine Laboure, showing Her the design for the Miraculous Medal with the inscription “O Mary, Conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to Thee,” and to St. Bernadette Soubirous in 1858 as the Immaculate Conception. Not that She had an immaculate conception, but that She IS the Immaculate Conception.

    Instead of hashing around words, even those of scripture, should we not think and pray on the actual words and acts of the Holy Mother and perceive the undenial truth therein?

    Perhaps if St. Bernard lived in our time he would have a different take on the truth and reality of the Immaculate Conception.

    Also, as to the statement that Mary did not exist before her conception in her mother’s womb (James Kelley, July 26, 2008), do not the words of Jer. 1:5, “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee…” (KJV) apply as much to Our Holy Mother as to the Prophet Jeremiah or to any human?

  4. Kepha,

    I was wondering when you’d pick this up.

  5. kepha says:

    What is amazing about the quote is that it demonstrates that the growing “consciousness of the Church” overrides both the conscious faith of both the apostolic and the patristic Church. There is yet another example favorable to the East, that of “paradise,” in which St. Bernard plays yet another crucial role. I did a blog entry on this very issue, although instead of St. Bernard I choose to highlight Pope John XXII who relied heavily on St. Bernard. Here is the link:

  6. […] Bernard of Clairvaux on the Immaculate Conception […]

  7. Andrew,

    Well in a lot of ways, it’s my opinion Lutherans have more in common with Orthodoxy than does RC.


    Ancestral Sin, i.e. mortality, is transferred via conception. You take on the corrupted human nature of your parents. The confusion is that Augustine confuses person and nature. For him, Infants die because they are guilty.


  8. Andrew says:

    ‘You can find similar crypto-Protestant statements when they were under Lutheran influence. ‘

    When was this? The reason I ask is because I’m reading through St Tikhon’s Journey To Heaven, and at several points I’ve thought to myself, ‘My, this sounds rather Lutheran’.

    (For those that don’t know, Lutherans have a rather particular way of expressing the faith that is significantly different from other Protestant traditions. Given this, saying ‘this sounds rather Lutheran’ is different than saying ‘this sounds rather Protestant’.)

  9. Roland says:

    “. . . the sin which is inseparable from conception . . .”

    As I understand it, the doctrine of the IC was motivated by the belief that original sin is necessarily conveyed (biologically or mechanically?) through the very act of conception. Here, St. Bernard seems to accept the understanding of the transmission of original sin that underlies the IC, but he deals with it in another way. This raises some questions:

    1. Is this understanding of the transmission of original sin universally accepted? If not, is it, in itself, a difference between East and West? Or is it a point on which there is disagreement within both the East and the West?

    2. Does belief in the IC necessarily entail belief in this understanding of the transmission of original sin? Or can one accept the IC without also accepting a particular understanding of the transmission of original sin?

    The discussion on Eirenikon is tending to confirm my longstanding impression that disputes that are, on the surface, about the IC, are really about original sin and its transmission. On the other hand, I have recently heard Orthodox explanations of original sin and its transmission that don’t sound much different from the Catholic/Augustinian position.

  10. Fr. J,

    Even if everything you claim were true or persuasive, it would still miss the argument I directed the quote against. I outline that argument above.

    Second, it is far too dismissive to say that he was just a theologian. But suppose it is so. But then this illustrates what I have argued in the past, namely that tradition isn’t really a functioning entity in Catholicism. It just doesn’t matter. It’d be one thing if you had an articulated criteria for sifting out corruptions in the tradition such as Ireneaus or Vincent. But you position seems to give no serious weight to tradition.

    Further, the Russian material that I think you are alluding to is hardly representative. First because opposition and a different positive tradition existed there and elsewhere, even in the west, long before that later period. Second, much of it is due to the political situation in so far as Russian clergy were Jesuit trained or influenced. You can find similar crypto-Protestant statements when they were under Lutheran influence. I hardly think you wish to claim that Lutheranism can find weight in Orthodoxy in Russia.

    And I never claimed that the Orthdox view is that infallible teaching depends on the teaching of every theologian, so your comments represent something of a strawman. And I never claimed that infallibility depended on Bernard. But you have a strange relationship going here. On the one hand, Fathers are brought forward as a basis to believe in the papacy, and then when they witness against it, they don’t matter. This is special pleading.

    As for belief in the IC in Orthodoxy up through the 19th century, usually I have seen only vague statements or statements which carry standard terms where a Catholic meaning is read back into them. For example, there are biblical figures denoted as pure, immaculate, blameless, etc in the liturgical tradition of the East. Were they immaculately conceived? I don’t think you’d want to say as much and so the evidence you appeal to really doesn’t support your position.

  11. Fr. J,

    Your argument is somewhat still missing the mark because the aim is not the worry of infallibility, but of Tradition. When that question is answered, the issue of infallibility falls in place or be a mute point.


  12. Fr. J. says:

    Regarding pushing back Eastern opposition, so what? You can always find people who are unbelieving of some aspect of the faith at any time in history. Unbelief is no virtue. What we need to look at is belief. And, it is clear that there is a tradition of belief in the IC in the East up through the 19th Century.

  13. Fr. J. says:

    That Bernard did not agree with the IC is not a problem. Mere theologians are entitled to be wrong. There are differing opinions on the subject on both sides. So, there is instability on the Orthodox side, because of century of Russian acceptance of the doctrine. But, on the Catholic side, there is infallible teaching with does not depend on the agreement of every theologian. Bernard does not undermine infallibility because infallibility does not depend on him.

  14. Charles,

    My point was that the idea that opposition in the East only developed much later, say in the 17th and 18th centuries. Bernard is significanly prior to that period. Consequently, Eastern opposition needs to be pushed back. Further, it shows that not all serious opposition to it was in the west or that there was only “seeming” opposition. Those were the claims I was responding to.

    Do you think the East is opposed to the idea of corruption being passed down through generation? Further, even if Bernard gets to the same end by a different route, his end is the same, which is reason for thinking that the end was a product of the tradition and not a specific theological perspective. Further, if his opposition is due to aberrant theological presuppositions endemic to medieval Latin theology, then one of two points will follow. Either it will be proof of significant theological error in Latin theology across the board, which I don’t think Latins will wish to accept. Or it will be a good reason for thinking that the proposed solution of the IC was motivated by a theological mistake. That doesn’t seem to me to be a profitable way to defend the IC.

  15. Charles R. Williams says:

    “Part of the reason for this post was to show that the idea that the East only developed its view in oppositon to Rome later on is a mistake. The other reason was to show that the self same tradition is in the mind of Bernard (an others) for a significant time after the schism in the west.”

    How does this quote from St. Bernard document opposition to the IC in the East early on? True, many in the East and in the West opposed this teaching in the 2nd millenium but we all know that.

    Consider St. Bernard’s argument carefully and not just his conclusions. Could the East ever accept his premises about the relationship between the conjugal act of Sts. Joachim and Ann, marred by concupiscence, and the transmission of original sin to the Blessed Virgin? Bernard writes: “She could not be sanctified in the moment of Her conception by reason of the sin which is inseparable from [natural human] conception.”

    One could use this quote from St. Bernard to show that opposition to the IC in the West is rooted in certain aberrant theological presuppositions endemic to medieval Latin theology.

  16. Adam says:

    “That a teaching is not agreed upon by all prior to its definition just doesnt mean a lot. One is not judged by his position prior to a doctrinal definition, but after it.”

    I’m not sure I agree with you, Father. Usually dogmas are declared after a long period of condemnation and strife with dissenters and the faulty positions they espouse. A dogma doesn’t mark the first condemnation of the heresiarch and his position, but the final and definitive condemnation. For example, Sts. Basil and Athanasius were able to oppose and judge the position of Arius before Nicea, as were Catholic bishops able to do to Luther and other Protestants before the Council of Trent. This is possible because every dogma is first a doctrine of the Faith, which the Church knows, teaches and will defend when obstinately denied and attacked.

  17. photius at sbcglobal dot net

  18. I am trying to get hold of you guys privately. How do I do that?

  19. Visibilium says:

    Of course. My understanding is that infallible pronouncements would be infallible independently of any past or present consensus. Discussion would therefore constitute window-dressing.

  20. The Scylding says:

    The above is a good point, but I have a suspicion it won’t change anything for our Catholic bretheren. Once you have an infallible office, any revision, opposition or mere investigation become completely moot. The propogation of the infallibilty doctrine is “the root of all evil” in this regard. That’s why we (Confessional) Lutherans are fond of saying – we did not leave the Roman Church, the Roman Church left us.

  21. Riding the coattails of Photios’s last question:

    Why don’t a number of important theologians – say, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, Peter Lombard, Albert the Great, Alexander of Hales, etc. – seem to represent the Tradition with regard to holy ever-virgin Mary’s conception?

    Too many really important (to the RC tradition) men denied the immaculate conception. Shouldn’t that turn heads a little more?

    As a side note, the editors of my edition of Aquinas’s Summa felt they needed to put an “explanatory note” before II-II.57, in which they try to give an IC spin to the Doctor’s words, but finally admit that he agrees with those I listed above. Amusing.

  22. The other question I have with regards to this quote is why isn’t Bernard’s view of the conception of Mary considered to represent the Tradition?

  23. James Kelley says:

    Fr. J,

    I’m sure you are familiar with the posts about IC on Eirenikon. Do you think, along with at least one Roman Catholic who posted there, that it has been worrisome for you guys to elevate papal infallibility, IC, etc. to the level of dogma?

    Maybe this RC queasiness (which may not be common, I don’t know) over these developments needs to be commented on. I hesitate to jump into something to which I have no real new information to contribute, but let me say that certain Orthodox (who aren’t on the right track) are queasy about so-called Palamism, but that makes no difference whatsoever about the truth of the matter. However, the fact that this “iffyness” exists is significant, as I have written elsewhere.

    What about RC “iffyness”?


  24. Fr. J,

    Then I suppose the people over at Eirenikon haven’t studied Catholic theology. I never claimed it *changed* anything. I was using it as a piece of evidence to show contray the claims of Catholics there that it was in fact denied prior to its definition.

    Further, given DD, any position could be justified on such grounds, which is why if DD is true, tradition doesn’t matter any more. Tradition then isn’t the test for a doctrine and that I find troubling. This is why the tradition regarding Mary’s death had to be pummeled by Jugie prior to the definition of the Assumption. Tradition didn’t matter.

  25. Fr. J,

    Your gloss really doesn’t touch the point of the post. The reason why it was posted was to show that one can hold to the opinion of Bernard, because there about as many wide variety of opinions on Mary as there are philosophies in ancient Greece. You can’t have a dogma based on that kind of speculation. Also, Bernard seems to be taking a rather anti-Gnostic stand here against those who want to introduce something unkown to the Church. So it isn’t just something simply about a doctrine that isn’t agreed upon to articulate but rather the technique(s) of subversion in which the teaching is being introduced. The first few sentences above sound a lot like Irenaeus.


  26. Fr. J. says:

    The objection of St. Bernard is well known to anyone who has studied Catholic theology. We read this in undergrad. It just doesnt change a thing. That a teaching is not agreed upon by all prior to its definition just doesnt mean a lot. One is not judged by his position prior to a doctrinal definition, but after it.

  27. Part of the reason for this post was to show that the idea that the East only developed its view in oppositon to Rome later on is a mistake. The other reason was to show that the self same tradition is in the mind of Bernard (an others) for a significant time after the schism in the west.

  28. […] Love, Orthodox Objections, St. Bernard of Clairvaux There was a letter posted at Energetic Procession from St. Bernard of Clairvaux. It was posted for the purpose of objecting to the Immaculate […]

  29. James Kelley says:


    His point about the Theotokos not being sanctified before Her conception because…
    She did not then exist! Brilliant.

    Also, St. Bernard’s eyebrow-raising use of the “infinite regression” argument against immac. conception.

    Maybe V. Lossky (Orth. theologian and Meister Eckhart scholar) and even the snotty David Bently Hart (who has written on St. John of the Cross) were onto something.

    At any rate, this quote leaves me wanting more St. Bernard.

  30. L.T. says:

    and sadly you don’t have to be right to be infallible.

  31. asimple,

    You don’t have to be infallible to be right.

  32. abu daoud says:

    I like the website. I especially like this quote, I have a special affinity and tie to St Bernard of Clairvaux.

  33. Good thing he wasn’t understood to be infaillable, eh?

  34. Catechumen says:

    You know, there was a time when I investigated Catholicism but doctrinal developments along these same veins really steered me away from the Roman Catholic Church.

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