This is such a difficult topic. Over the past few years I have read more than a few Orthodox reflections on it. I think it is fair to say that within Orthodoxy a fairly wide range of opinion exists on the questions that have been posed in this thread. And given modern Catholic abandonment of the Augustinian notion of original guilt, it has become even more difficult to specify the points of dogmatic disagreement with Orthodoxy and Catholicism. Over at Catholic Answers I recently posted the following comment:
The differences between the Latin and Eastern Churches on the Immaculate Conception reflects subtle disagreements on grace, nature, and freedom, disagreements that are difficult to articulate but which exist nonetheless.
One important reason, for example, that EO reject the Immaculate Conception is because it appears to ground the sanctity of the Theotokos in a singular bestowal of grace rather than in the sanctity of Israel, progressively embodied in the ancestors of Mary (particularly in her parents), and her synergistic, ascetical cooperation with divine grace. As Paul Evdokimov states: "Although she is of Adam's race, the Virgin is guarded from any personal impurity, all evil being rendered powerless to affect her by the successive purifications of her ancestors, by the special operation of the Spirit and by her outstanding act of free will" (Orthodoxy, p. 157).
I first became aware of this concern when I read Sergius Bulgakov's The Burning Bush and The Friend of the Bridegroom. EO do not see the Theotokos as "the great exception," as Orthodox polemicists sometimes like to put it. St John the Baptist also embodies an analogous sanctity! His conception, too, is commemorated in the liturgical calendar. He, too, manifested an incomparable sanctity. He, too, lived a sinless life. He, too, was "pre-determined" to exercise a unique role in the economy of salvation. Just as the Virgin Mary never knew separation from God, so did the Forerunner. And thus on the Deisis the Enthroned Christ is flanked by St John on his left and his Mother on his right.
I suspect it is simply impossible for us to categorize the grace and graces the Theotokos received at various points in her life. On the one hand, we do not want to make her into the great Pelagian heroine who brought herself into a state of sinlessness and theosis by her own ascetical efforts. On the other hand, we do not want to divorce her from the sanctity of Israel nor to diminish the salvific significance of her cooperation with God's grace at every point of her life.
Did the Blessed Virgin ever sin at some point in her life? Sergius Bulgakov certainly did not think so. Consider these two passages:
In its countless divine services dedicated to the Mother of God, the Holy Orthodox Church firmly and clearly teaches the absolute sinlessness of Mary in her birth, her holy childhood and adolescence, in the Annunciation, in the birth of her Son and throughout her entire life. We shall pause at only the most important dogmatic witnesses borrowed from the services of Theotokos feasts. As is evident from these witnesses, the Most Holy Virgin is called in her very birth "Holy of Holies," "living heaven," "temple of all kings and thrones," "sole immaculate one," "the true temple pure from infancy on," "hostile to the course of sin," etc. The question arises: is the idea of any sort of assault of sin, which even some fathers of the church, and with them other orthodox theologians, allow, compatible with this veneration? Obviously not. The Mother of God was sinless, not a single attack of sin approached her most pure soul, the bearer of perfect virginity. But in that case is she not made equal "to the one sinless" Lord Jesus? No, and therein is the whole point. Sinlessness belongs in a unique and exclusive sense to the Son of God conceived without seed from a virgin who had never known a man, in that He was a stranger not only to every personal sin but also to original sin. The latter had absolutely no power over the new Adam. ... It is quite the opposite in the case of the Most Pure and Immaculate One: in her, original sin preserved its entire power with all its fatal consequences--weakness and mortality of the body (for death is only the final revelation of this weakness). The Theotokos died a natural death in fulfilment of the natural law, which she bore in her human nature. Death was defeated only by the salvific power of Christ's resurrection and was ultimately annulled by it. The Lord Jesus is in this sense the Saviour for the entire human race, and in it of His mother as well. ...
n as much as sin through the paralysis of human freedom engenders personal sinfulness, this latter can be weakened to a minimum and even brought down to the condition of full potentiality: posse non peccare (though before redemption and before baptism the condition of non posse peccare cannot be reached). To be sure, such a maximum achievement is unthinkable for fallen humanity without the help of Divine grace which, however, only assists freedom and does not compel it. In other words, when original sin as infirmity is kept in force, personal freedom from sins or personal sinlessness can be realized by the grace of God. In harmony with the firm and clear consciousness of the Church, John the Forerunner already approaches such personal sinlessness. The most holy Virgin Mary, the all-pure and all-immaculate, possesses such sinlessness. Only by virtue of this sinlessness was she able to say with her entire will, with her whole undivided essence, behold the handmaid of the Lord, to speak so that the answer to this full self-giving to God was the descent of the Holy Spirit and the seedless conception of the Lord Jesus Christ. The smallest sin in the past or the present would have broken the integrity of this self-giving and the power of this expression. This word, decisive for the whole human race and the entire world, was the expression not of a given moment only, but came out of the depths of Mary's unblemished being. It was the work and the sum of her life. The inadmissibility of personal sin in the Virgin Mary thus becomes axiomatically trustworthy provided we understand what kind of answer was demanded here of Mary. This was not the particular agreement of her will to a particular action, relating only to a given moment of life; no, this was the self-determination of her entire being.
Bulgakov is certainly not alone in believing this. Having read St Gregory Palamas's homilies on the Theotokos, I believe that he too would affirm her absolute sinlessness. Compare also George Gabriel's Mary: The Untrodden Portal of God
and Met Hierotheos's article "The Annunciation of the Virgin Mary
." In an essay on St John of Damascus and the Theotokos, Met Kallistos Ware writes:
John believes that Mary underwent a special purification and hallowing at the moment of the annunciation, when "the sanctifying power of the Spirit overshadowed, cleansed and consecrated her." But this does not signify that, in John's view, she was sinful prior to the annunciation; on the contrary, he clearly considers that she was always pure and guiltless. Moreover, he also states clearly that she was predestined from all eternity to be the Mother of God incarnate: "She was chosen from ancient generation, through the preordained counsel and good pleasure of God the Father ... The Father forechose her, the prophets through the Holy Spirit proclaimed her in advance.
But St John of Maximovitch
appears to disagree. He believes that that assertion of Mary's perfect sinlessness contradicts both Scripture and Tradition.
The Catholic dogma of the Immaculate Conception is driven by the anti-Pelagian imperative. Catholicism must insist, over against all forms of Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism, that the Virgin Mary possessed sanctifying grace from the first moment of her existence. Orthodoxy also rejects Pelagianism; but it's less clear (at least to me) how the Orthodox understanding of synergism can be reconciled with the canons of the Second Synod of Orange. I suspect that it is here where the real disagreement may lie.