Not all [modern] Orthodox theologians deny [the Immaculate Conception], though some do very explicitly deny it, thereby illustrating the different development which took place in the West and left the East comparatively unaffected. The development of an explicit doctrine of the Immaculate Conception originated in the Pelagian denial of original sin, which denial forced Latin theology to consider the nature of original sin, and hence to formulate more explicitly some of the relations between nature and grace in a way which Orthodox theology was not forced to do.
The sinlessness of the Theotokos, her closeness to her Son, her absolute accord all through her life with all the designs of her Son, her singular place in the economy of salvation – all this was and is common to Greeks and Latins alike. Common, too, was the belief that Mary was redeemed by her Son and redeemed in a most singular way. Mary as the second Eve was not a concept that arose in the West, but in the East – at least as far as we know; Mary as the type of the Church is to be found equally among Greek theologians and among Latin, and the Orthodox hold strongly that the Church is without sin, however much sin there may be in the members of the Church.
But the Latins, having had to deal with Pelagius’ denial of any original sin at all, had to analyze the notion of original sin more explicitly than the Orthodox; and thus the Latins came to see more universally than the Greeks that Mary’s singular privileges, as revealed in the Scriptures and the Church [Tradition], carried the implication of total exemption from the common sinful inheritance of the rest of men. The Orthodox, of course, hold strongly to the doctrine of original sin and to the privileges of the Mother of God; but they did not so early or so clearly connect the two.
I conjecture that those Orthodox who deny the Immaculate Conception may be under the impression that exemption from sin implies either that Mary did not need redemption, or else that exemption from sin carried with it exemption from the natura phthora, corruption in the wide sense, which is the natural lot of all men save only the God-man.
Professor Jean Meyendorff thinks that the Latin doctrine of original sin involves some responsibility, meriting a punishment, on the part of all men, and that exemption from this responsibility involves exemption from all “corruption” and hence exemption from death. The Orthodox doctrine, he says, of original sin involves a certain subjection, or even servitude, to the devil, who exerts a usurped, unjust, and deadly tyranny. Hence all men “inherit corruption and death and all commit sin.” But Mary, being born by natural generation of Joachim and Anne, was mortal, and her corporal glorification came only after her death. Hence he objects to the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.
But the Catholic doctrine of original sin does not involve any responsibility for the actual sin of Adam. Sin is spiritual disorder. If it is personal sin, then the person is responsible for the disorder; but if it is original sin, then the originator of the race, and not the individual person, is responsible for the disorder. The spiritual disorder, which is signified by original sin, involves a privation of that original holiness and rightness in which God created man; it involves too, in the normal way, that subjection to the evil one of which Professor Meyendorff speaks; and it involves bodily corruption and death.
Christ was exempt from all sin, and from all spiritual subjection to the evil one; but he was not exempt from death, for he died, and by his death we live. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception has nothing to do with the acts of Joachim and Anne; it only means that God exempted the future Mother of his Son from the spiritual disorder which leads all ordinary men to actual sin. Mary was born mortal, a true child of our race in that her natural lot was death. She was the second Eve, and it was precisely her immaculateness which, by God’s unmerited, spontaneous gift, prepared her for the fiat through which God sent his Son to be the second Adam, head of the new race, born of a sinless Mother.
On the subject of the Mother of God, I think Latins and Orthodox have the same mind, though perhaps language may sometimes be misleading.
– Bernard Leeming, SJ.