Catholic Teaching

Immaculate Conception

The Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception is one of the few Holy Days of Obligation on the Church calendar and it is the only feast day other than Christmas that cannot be moved to the nearest Sunday.  It always is celebrated on December 8th. Although this is a very important day in the Catholic Church; surprisingly, a great number of Catholics do not understand the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. Some think the term refers to Christ’s conception in Mary’s womb without the intervention of a human father; but that is the Virgin Birth. Others think the Immaculate Conception means Mary was conceived as was her son "by the power of the Holy Spirit," but that, too, is incorrect. The Immaculate Conception means that Mary, whose conception occurred in the normal way, was free of original sin or its stain which mankind has borne since Adam’s and Eve’s fall from grace in the Garden of Eden. 

The essence of original sin consists in the deprivation of sanctifying grace, and its stain is a corrupt nature. Mary was preserved from these defects by God’s grace; from the first instant of her existence she was in the state of sanctifying grace and was free from the corrupt nature original sin brings.

In 1854, Pope Pius IX's solemn declaration, Ineffabilis Deus, clarified with finality the long-held belief of the Church that Mary was conceived free from original sin. In proclaiming the Immaculate Conception of Mary as a dogma of the Church, the pope expressed precisely and clearly that Mary was conceived free from the stain of original sin. This privilege of Mary derives from God's having chosen her as Mother of the Savior; thus she received the benefits of salvation in Christ from the very moment of her conception. This great gift to Mary, an ordinary human being just like us, was fitting because she was destined to be Mother of God. The purity and holiness of the Blessed Virgin Mary is a model for all Christians.

Doctrines are defined formally only when there is a controversy requiring resolution or when the Magisterium (the Church in its office as teacher; cf. Matt. 28:18–20; 1 Tim. 3:15, 4:11) believes the understanding and devotion of its people will be increased by the illumination of an already-existing belief. The definition of the Immaculate Conception was prompted by the latter.  It did not come about because there were widespread doubts about the doctrine. In fact, the Vatican was deluged with requests from people desiring the doctrine to be officially proclaimed. Pope Pius IX, who was highly devoted to the Blessed Virgin, hoped the definition would inspire others in their devotion to her
Scripture itself does not define the Immaculate Conception in these specific words; however, scripture does corroborate the dogma.  When discussing the Immaculate Conception, an implicit reference may be found in the angel Gabriel’s greeting to Mary, "Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you" (Luke 1:28). The phrase "full of grace" is a translation of the Greek word kecharitomene. It therefore expresses a characteristic quality of Mary.

The traditional translation, "full of grace," is better than the one found in many recent versions of the New Testament, which give something along the lines of "highly favored daughter." Mary was indeed a highly favored daughter of God, but the Greek implies more than that (and it never mentions the word for "daughter"). The grace given to Mary is at once permanent and of a unique kind. Kecharitomene is a perfect passive participle of charitoo, meaning "to fill or endow with grace." Since this term is in the present perfect tense, it indicates that Mary was graced in the past but with continuing effects in the present. So, the grace Mary enjoyed was not a result of the angel’s visit. In fact, Catholics hold, it extended over the whole of her life, from conception onward. She was in a state of sanctifying grace from the first moment of her existence.

The Church Fathers almost from the beginning of Church History found further Scriptural evidence by comparing the figure of Eve to the figure of Mary. St. Justin Martyr said that Mary was a kind of New Eve, "in order that the disobedience which proceeded from the serpent might receive its destruction in the same manner in which it derived its origin." Tertullian argued in the same manner, saying, "As Eve had believed the serpent, so Mary believed the angel. St. Irenaeus declared that Mary became "the cause of salvation, both to herself and the whole human race," because "what the virgin Eve had bound fast through unbelief, this did the virgin Mary set free through faith." St. Jerome coined the phrase, "Death came through Eve, but life has come through Mary."

Many Protestants object to the dogma of the Immaculate Conception because we are told that "all have sinned" (Rom. 3:23). Have all people committed actual sins? Consider a child below the age of reason. By definition he cannot sin, since sinning requires the ability to reason and the ability to intend to sin. This is indicated by Paul later in the letter to the Romans when he speaks of the time when Jacob and Esau were unborn babies as a time when they "had done nothing either good or bad" (Rom. 9:11).

We also know of another very prominent exception to the rule: Jesus (Heb. 4:15). So if Paul’s statement in Romans 3 includes an exception for the New Adam (Jesus), one may argue that an exception for the New Eve (Mary) can also be made.

The objection is also raised that if Mary were without sin, she would be equal to God. In the beginning, God created Adam, Eve, and the angels without sin, but none were equal to God. Most of the angels never sinned, and all souls in heaven are without sin. This does not detract from the glory of God, but manifests it through the work he has done in sanctifying his creation. Sinning does not make one human. On the contrary, it is when man is without sin that he is most fully what God intends him to be.

We can read in scripture how Mary was blessed.  Didn’t Elizabeth call her “Blessed are you among women.” several times in her greeting to Mary? (Luke 1:39-45).  Would not God conceive a sinless mother for his only begotten Son?  It is odd that Protestants who believe in Sola Scriptura appear horrified when we Catholics use the term “Blessed Virgin Mary” when it is written in the scripture.

Saint John Neumann wrote, ”Purer than heaven’s purest angel; brighter than its brightest Seraph; Mary, after her creator, God, who made her and gave her all, is the most perfect of beings, the masterpiece of Infinite Wisdom, Almighty Power and Eternal Love.  To such a person we cannot reasonably suppose that perfection was denied her which had been already gratuitously, bestowed on inferior creatures: on the angelic spirits.”

For more on the role of Mary in Salvation History, read the entire section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, §§ 456-511. 

Jim Fritz

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