A lot of people confuse the Immaculate Conception with the Virgin Birth. The Virgin Birth refers to the birth of Jesus Christ. The Immaculate Conception refers to the conception of Mary, not Jesus. It is the dogma defined by the Catholic Church in 1854 that:
“The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.”
The Church not only teaches Mary never sinned in thought, word or deed, it teaches Mary never even suffered from “original sin,” that hole in our souls where the life of God was originally intended to be.
It is common in our Protestant and post-Protestant culture to somehow imagine that the sinlessness of Mary is a “late corruption” on “simple Bible teaching” — one of those things that “arose in the Dark Ages.”
But, in fact, the seeds of the teaching are already present in Luke 1:28, which records the greeting of the angel Gabriel to our Lady: “Kaire, Kecharitomene!” (“Hail, Grace-Filled One!”). Essentially, what Catholic (and all) apostolic Christianity has done over the centuries is plumb the depths and measure the heights of that astonishing title.
A sinless Mary?
The problem that title poses, of course, is that it creates a taut line of tension with another immutable rock of Catholic teaching: the doctrine of original sin. As St. Paul clearly teaches, “all have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). This is due to the fact that fallen man has contracted original sin from our first parents. So how can it be that Mary is without sin? Doesn’t this suggest that she doesn’t need Jesus’ salvation? Doesn’t it mean that she is not truly human?
These and similar questions vex, not merely Protestants, but many modern Catholics as well. However, the reality is that the Church has long been accustomed to carrying seemingly opposing ideas in tension, for the very good reason that God (who is both one and three, as well as Man and God in Christ Jesus) is a God of paradox. So we also affirm, for instance, that God is sovereign and that we have free will. We believe that good works cannot save us and that faith without good works is dead. And so on. Catholic faith tends toward both/and rather than either/or thinking.
And so, the very same Fathers of the Church who insist most strongly that we are afflicted with original sin likewise take it for granted that Mary is without sin, that she is “immaculate,” “all holy,” “spotless” and without any minutest stain. (See sidebar below)
How this could be was not worked out in detail for about 14 centuries. Essentially, what the Church arrived at was the understanding that Jesus saves from sin in two ways just as a doctor saves from sickness in two ways: cure and prevention.
Mary was prevented from contracting original sin in the moment of her conception by a singular act of grace through Christ. In her, we see, not the absence of Christ’s saving grace, but its fullest expression. Hence, she is “full of grace” and praises “God my savior” (Lk 1:47).
‘Sin is normal’
How then is this squared with Romans 3:23? By recognizing that St. Paul is not making a declaration of minute mathematical accuracy, but a statement of general fact, as we do when we say, “Everybody knows the world is round.” In technical fact, not everybody knows this, just as in technical fact, not every last human being is a sinner or else not just Mary, but Jesus is sinful.
“But Mary has to be a sinner or she’s not human!” cries the Protestant. This leads to the point of the dogma. For, as ever, the truth of Marian teaching is that the thing about Mary is that the thing is not about Mary. What the dogma is meant to do is show the scope of Christ’s power to save, and to reveal the truth of the dignity of our origins in Christ. When we pass from saying “Sin is normal” (which is what the doctrine of original sin teaches) to saying “Sin is natural” or “Sin is what makes us human” we make a deep and fundamental error about the human person. For of course, God is the author of nature and he does not create sin (see Jas 1:13-14). So original sin, while normal, does not constitute our nature, but instead destroys it.
The whole point of Christ’s salvation is to repair and glorify our damaged human nature. Earthly ideologies, philosophies, religions and political systems understand that something is wrong with us. That is why they exist: as attempts to cope with that fact. But earthly ideologies (particularly beginning in the 18th and 19th centuries) having jettisoned the Christian vision of our place in the universe increasingly have propagated sundry Philosophies of Pride (via such voices as Schopenhauer, Feuerbach, Comte, Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche, Spencer, Galton, and Freud and their heirs), which teach that there is no God, that we are products of chaos, that we live by enmity, and that our destiny is oblivion. In short, they lose the apprehension of God as Father and come to relate to him as Master.
It is right in the middle of this greatest intellectual assault on the dignity of human origins in the history of the world that the Holy Spirit prompted the Church to define as dogma what it had already settled as doctrine nearly four centuries earlier when the feast of the Immaculate Conception was first celebrated in 1476. And so, Pope Pius IX promulgated the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1854.
In that dogma, we see once again that Mary protects the truth about Jesus — and therefore about us. What the dogma teaches us, contrary to the Philosophies of Pride, is that we come from God, that we live by love, and that our destiny is eternal union with God and one another in love through Christ.
In preserving Mary from all sin, both original and actual, God has given us, yet again, a sort of miniature figurine of the Church and, in turn, of the completely saved human person. In this we see, as well, a foretaste of our destiny since, of course, all the saints in Heaven are likewise without any sin whatsoever.
It would be wonderful to be able to say that the 19th century understood all this and heeded it. But, as we shall see next month, it was, tragically, not to be — necessitating the most recent Marian dogma: the Assumption of Our Lady.
This is part seven in an eight-part series. Mark Shea is author of the three-volume “Mary, Mother of the Son” (Catholic Answers, $29.95) and writes from Washington state.
What The Church Fathers Say (sidebar)
St. Ambrose says Mary is incorrupt, a virgin immune through grace from every stain of sin;
St. Maximus of Turin calls her a dwelling fit for Christ, not because of her habit of body, but because of original grace;
St. Theodotus of Ancyra terms her a virgin innocent, without spot, void of culpability, holy in body and in soul, a lily springing among thorns, untaught the ills of Eve nor was there any communion in her of light with darkness, and, when not yet born, she was consecrated to God.
She was created in a condition more sublime and glorious than all other natures (St. Theodorus of Jerusalem);
When the Virgin Mother of God was to be born of Anne, nature did not dare to anticipate the germ of grace, but remained devoid of fruit (St. John Damascene);
St. Ephraem of Syria writes:
“Most holy Lady, Mother of God, alone most pure in soul and body, alone exceeding all perfection of purity ... alone made in thy entirety the home of all the graces of the Most Holy Spirit, and hence exceeding beyond all compare even the angelic virtues in purity and sanctity of soul and body ... my Lady most holy, all-pure, all-immaculate, all-stainless, all-undefiled, all-incorrupt, all-inviolate spotless robe of him who clothes himself with light as with a garment ... flower unfading, purple woven by God, alone most immaculate.”
In refuting Pelagius, St. Augustine declares that all the just have truly known of sin “except the Holy Virgin Mary, of whom, for the honor of the Lord, I will have no question whatever where sin is concerned.”