We turn our attention now in our series to what I consider to be the most controversial of Marian Dogmas (which is why I'm a bit surprised at how much controversy Mary's Perpetual Virginity actually generated in the Introductory post). It seems somewhat ironic that in my faith journey, the ideas and doctrines that were the hardest for me to come to believe are now the ones to which I am most devoted. I think specifically of Our Blessed Lord present in the Eucharist, and Mary herself, in general. But of all the teachings about Mary, that she was immaculately conceived was the hardest belief for me to accept. Yet now, if it is possible to be more particularly devoted to one aspect of a person over and above others, her Immaculate Conception is the doctrine that most captivates my imagination and devotion, and makes me love my Mother all the more.
As I mentioned briefly in the Introductory post to Marian Dogmas, the first two Dogmas to be defined by the Church, namely, that Mary is the Mother of God, and that she is Perpetually a Virgin, spoke more about Mary's role in salvation history than about her personal identity (though those two things aren't entirely separate issues). What I mean is, God created and called Mary for a purpose (just as He does for all of us). The dogma of Theotokos succinctly sums up that purpose--that Mary was to be God's Mother--that God the Son would become Incarnate through her. The second dogma, her Perpetual Virginity, highlights the method by which God became Man--namely, the Virgin Birth--, but also illustrates poignantly the overwhelming holiness of God and the importance of His Incarnation, by teaching us that Mary, and her womb, was now consecrated exclusively to Him.
In these later centuries, however, the Church has seen fit to declare and promulgate two dogmas that deal more with who Mary is than with what she did. The Dogma of Mary's Immaculate Conception tells us about how God created Mary--to be full of grace and thus free of sin--, and the Dogma of Mary's Assumption into Heaven gives us the logical conclusion to a life that is free from sin, and thus, free from sin's consequences, which, as Romans 6:23 tells us, is death.
But I thought...
As in the previous articles, in part one, I'll look at the common objections to the Dogma, and then turn, in part two, to give a positive defense of it, examining Scripture, logic, and the historical witness. But before I move on to counter the specific objections, I want to pause and clear up some misconceptions about the Immaculate Conception.
First of all, many people who first hear the term think that it doesn't refer to Mary, but to Jesus, and that it is another way of referring to His Virgin Birth. This is not the case. While Jesus, certainly, was conceived without any stain of original sin (and thus could be considered to be "immaculately conceived"), the Dogma refers to Mary herself, and her own conception. The second misconception regarding Mary's Immaculate Conception is that people sometimes wonder if the Church thus teaches that Mary herself was born of a virgin. This, too, is not the case. Mary's parents, Sts. Joachim and Anne, were a married couple like any other, except, as The Protoevangelium of James tells us, like so many notable couples in God's salvation history, they were barren and unable to have children. As with Abraham and Sarah, God miraculously intervened in this elderly couple's life, and they, through otherwise natural means, conceived and gave birth to Mary. (Incidentally, this miraculously late birth to the elderly Joachim and Anne rather succinctly explains why Mary's cousin, Elizabeth, was so much older than her, according to Luke's Gospel.)
The Official Promulgation of the Dogma
So, if Mary's Immaculate Conception doesn't refer to Jesus' virgin birth, or teach that Mary was born of a virgin, too, then what does the Dogma teach? According to the official pronouncement by Pope Pius IX in 1854, the Catholic Church holds it to be an infallibly revealed truth "that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instant of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of Original Sin" (Ineffabilis Deus).
The Dogma of Mary's Immaculate Conception holds not simply that she was conceived free of Original Sin, but that she continued to remain sinless throughout her life. It is no small wonder that this teaching often receives the criticism that it does! The objections are many, but to my mind they seem to boil down to four main arguments--two from Scripture, one from History, and one from Logic. In sum, the objections run, 1. The Bible teaches very plainly that "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23); 2. Mary herself calls God her "saviour" in her Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55); 3. Many saints and teachers of the Church have disbelieved in Mary's Immaculate Conception, including St. Thomas Aquinas, arguably the Church's greatest theologian; and 4. If Mary was sinless, that means that Christ's death on the Cross was unnecessary--either God could have just "zapped" us all sinless, or Mary could have died to save us all. That, in a nutshell, covers the main objections to the Immaculate Conception. Let's take them in their turn.
1. Romans 3:23--"All have sinned"?
I begin with what could be considered the most damning objection to the doctrine of Mary's Immaculate Conception, and that is St. Paul's statement in the Epistle to the Romans about the universality of sin. He writes,
Well: are we any better off? Not at all: we have already indicted Jews and Greeks as being all alike under the dominion of sin. As scripture says:St. Paul is really hammering home the point that, whether one is Jewish or Gentile, they are a sinner and need Christ's salvation. As I said when stating the objection, Paul clearly states that "all have sinned", and even quotes Psalm 14 and others to make his case. But does Paul's case actually allow for no exception? Have all, in fact, sinned?Not one of them is upright, not a single one,Now we are all well aware that whatever the Law says is said for those who are subject to the Law, so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world brought under the judgement of God. So then, no human being can be found upright at the tribunal of God by keeping the Law; all that the Law does is to tell us what is sinful.
not a single one is wise,
not a single one seeks God.
All have turned away, all alike turned sour,
not one of them does right, not a single one.
Their throats are wide-open graves,
their tongues seductive.
Viper's venom behind their lips;
their speech is full of cursing and bitterness.
Their feet quick to shed innocent blood,
wherever they go there is havoc and ruin.
They do not know the way of peace,
there is no fear of God before their eyes.
God's saving justice was witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, but now it has been revealed altogether apart from law: God's saving justice given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. No distinction is made: all have sinned and lack God's glory, and all are justified by the free gift of his grace through being set free in Christ Jesus. (Romans 3:9-24, NJB)
The fact is, St. Paul's discourse does, in fact, allow for exceptions, for all people have not, in fact, sinned. For most of my life, I assumed that Romans 3 was referring not simply to the actual sinful deeds committed by people, but to the underlying fact that all of us are born into a state of original sin, and are thus, at our core, wicked and guilty. Thus, I thought, when Paul said that "all have sinned", he meant that all are equally bound to this Original Sin. Of course, I was wrong here on several points: First of all, to be born with original sin does not mean that we are thereby wicked at our core, or guilty of any actual sin. What Original Sin means is that, due to Adam and Eve's initial rebellion from God, they lost the life of Grace in which God had created them. They became spiritually dead, and they passed on this state of spiritual death to their descendants. Original Sin, in a nutshell, means that we are born without the active life of Grace within us. While this means that we thereby have a disordered tendency toward sin, it does not mean that we are inherently wicked, or that we are guilty of sin by having that disordered tendency towards sin (known as Concupiscence). Since simply being "born in sin" does not make us guilty of sin, St. Paul cannot be specifically referring to Original Sin when he says that "all have sinned." Rather, the context makes it clear that Paul is saying that the "all", whoever that includes, have committed actual sin. That is, they have done sinful acts--they "have sinned, and fallen short of God's glory."
From this more accurate understanding of what St. Paul is saying, we are in a better position to know whether there are, in fact, exceptions to Paul's "all". The first and most notable exception to St. Paul's indictment that all have sinned, is, of course, Our Lord and Saviour, "the Man Jesus Christ" (1 Tim 2:15), about whom the book of Hebrews clearly states, "For the high priest we have is not incapable of feeling our weaknesses with us, but has been put to the test in exactly the same way as ourselves, apart from sin" (Heb 4:15). Now, one will say that Jesus does not count, since He was God, and therefore ontologically could not sin. And this is true, but it is also true that in Jesus, God became fully human, and, to that end, would have to fit into St. Paul's "all". And if that's the case, then "all" has an exception.
Are there other exceptions? Absolutely. Consider newborn babies (or even those still in the womb) who cannot make a choice, let alone choose to sin. They have committed no actual sin, and if one dies before doing so, it is true that they lived a sinless life. Consider also, for example, those who have a mental handicap that prevents them from understanding the rightness and wrongness of certain behaviours. They are not guilty of sinning, because to sin entails making a choice to do wrong. If a person does not choose to do wrong, they are not guilty of wrongdoing. These cases (and others that could be mentioned) demonstrate that "all have sinned" is not an absolute statement encompassing all people, everywhere, for all time. Since not all people have committed actual sin, Romans 3:23 cannot be conclusively used as an objection to the Church's teaching on Mary's Immaculate Conception, for how can one definitively assert that Mary wasn't one of these exceptions?
2. Luke 1:47--Mary called God her "Saviour"
While Romans 3:23 might not be conclusive on its own, when combined with Mary's referring to God as her Saviour in her Magnificat, it seems evident that she was, in fact, a sinner--because only sinners need a Saviour, right? Thus, the objection runs, since Mary needed a Saviour, she must have sinned, and thus the Immaculate Conception is a false doctrine.
This objection is a pretty thoroughgoing one. It is, in fact, part of the reason why St. Thomas Aquinas, as mentioned above, did not believe in Mary's Immaculate Conception. However, as with St. Thomas, those who put forth this objection have a wrong or incomplete understanding of what the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception actually teaches. We'll explore it more specifically later on when we provide a positive defence of the doctrine, but for now, let us look again at Pope Pius IX's formulation: "the most Blessed Virgin Mary...in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of Original Sin" (emphasis mine). That is to say, Mary's Immaculate Conception was only achieved, or even possible, because of Jesus' Death on the Cross. Yes, when Mary was conceived, Jesus hadn't been born, let alone died, yet. However, God, who exists outside of Time, already saw Christ's Passion in the eternal present as having been accomplished. He thus applied the salvific merits of Jesus' sacrifice to Mary in a special way at her conception. This is analogous to how the Old Testament saints were saved. Since no one can be saved without Jesus' sacrificial death on the Cross, those saved before the temporal act of His Passion were nevertheless saved by Christ's passion in an anticipatory way. That is, not only does Christ's sacrifice extend into the future to perpetuity for all generations yet to come and to experience His saving grace, but it extends retroactively and covers all those who lived faithful lives to God before Jesus' death and resurrection. Thus, while the particular method of Mary's salvation was unique, it nevertheless was fully dependent upon the Cross of Christ. As such, Mary truly could exclaim that her soul "rejoices in God my Saviour!"
Further, when Christ saves us, it is through the forgiveness of sins--that is, He takes away the sins we have already committed. In Mary's case, though, she was saved from sin not after committing it, but before. Blessed John Duns Scotus pointed this out as he wrestled with St. Thomas' objections to the Immaculate Conception. He compared sin to a muddy pit on a path. When a person walks down the path and falls into the pit, Jesus saves them by pulling them out and cleaning them off. But with Mary, He saved her not by pulling her out of the pit, but by keeping her from falling into it. In this way, he argued, Mary's salvation was actually greater and more perfect than our own. Thus, Mary even more truly could say, "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour! For He has looked upon the lowliness of His handmaid. Yes, from now on, all generations shall call me blessed, for the Almighty has done great things for me. Holy is His name!"
3. The Dogma has not always been believed
This objection stems from the Catholic Church's claim of Apostolic Tradition. Since the Church claims that she teaches nothing new that was not passed down from Christ and His Apostles, at least in seed form, objectors to Mary's Immaculate Conception point out that it was not universally held since the beginning of the Church, and, in fact, several notable saints denied it, such as Bernard of Clairvaux, Bonaventure, and, as we mentioned above, St. Thomas Aquinas. Further, the Council of Trent, which was expected to define the matter, opted not to do so, and thus left the question of Mary's Immaculate Conception dangling until Pope Pius IX finally declared it in 1854. If, therefore, there was such debate and disagreement about this dogma, how could it have been passed on as Sacred Tradition from the Apostles?
This objection highlights the tension between the Catholic Church's claim to possess the "Fullness of the Faith", and the development of doctrine over the ages. While on the one hand, the Church holds that all its dogmas were, essentially, handed down from the Apostles, this does not preclude natural development of those doctrines over the years, through reflective thought and further study. While the Church held certain teachings since the beginning, how those teachings were definitively stated or properly understood has grown over time. This is seen, for example, in the Dogma of the Trinity--that there is One God who subsists in three co-equal and co-eternal Persons. Scripture itself never explicitly teaches that formulation; nor was it arrived at very quickly. And over the centuries before the Doctrine of the Trinity was fully hammered out, there was much dissension and controversy surrounding it. The same is true for the doctrine of Original Sin, and of the Canon of Scripture itself, as well as many other doctrines of the Church. It should be no surprise that there were some who questioned certain formulations of a dogma that was otherwise believed since the beginning. When we examine the historical evidence for the Immaculate Conception, we'll have a clearer understanding of this idea. For now, though, let us briefly look at what the Church did teach throughout the centuries.
The seed of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is that Mary was sinless. This is evident from various sources in the early Church, most notably St. Augustine, who stated, "Having excepted the holy Virgin Mary, concerning whom, on account of the honor of the Lord, I wish to have absolutely no question when treating of sins--for how do we know what abundance of grace for the total overcoming of sin was conferred upon her, who merited to conceive and bear him in whom there was no sin?--so, I say, with the exception of the Virgin, if we could have gathered together all those holy men and women, when they were living here, and had asked them whether they were without sin, what do we suppose would have been their answer?" (Nature and Grace 36:42). Even those theologians, such as Thomas Aquinas, who disbelieved in the Immaculate Conception, as such, upheld the belief that Mary was, nevertheless, free of actual sin. It was only as the Church's teaching on Original Sin itself developed, that the question of whether Mary was conceived free from Original Sin could itself even be pondered. Nevertheless, the implications from Scripture, and the abundant testimony of the Church, overcame those who objected. How this took place, we shall examine more thoroughly in part 2.
4. The Dogma Nullifies Christ's Saving Work
The final objection to Mary's Immaculate Conception is that, if she is free from sin, then Jesus Christ did not need to die for our sins. This objection takes one of two directions, typically (if not both together). The first is that, if God could create Mary free from original sin, then He could have just as easily created all of us free from original sin. And if that's the case, then the whole Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection were needless wastes of time. The second point along this line is that, if Mary were truly sinless, then she could have saved us from our sins herself.
Both of these objections display a fundamental misunderstanding, either of the Immaculate Conception itself, or of basic Christian soteriology in general. The first objection is easily answered by recourse to the official declaration of the dogma, where we again note that Mary's Immaculate Conception was performed by God for her as a "singular" or unique act of grace, which was accomplished only in light of Christ's redeeming work on the Cross, and only because of her particular and important role in salvation. Thus, to say that God could have just "zapped" us all sinless, rendering Christ's atoning work as needless (as one person said in conversation with me), completely misses the point of the Immaculate Conception, and the fact that it was only accomplished by the merits of Christ's sacrifice.
The second form of the objection, it seems to me, is the worse of the two, because it goes beyond simply misunderstanding Mary, to misunderstanding our Salvation. Jesus was not able to save us merely because He was sinless (though that was certainly part of it). He was qualified because He was, in fact, God in the flesh. An offense against an infinite God is an infinitely grievous offense. Only an infinite price can satisfy it. None of us are infinite, and thus cannot satisfy our debt to God. Even Mary, who was sinless, was still not infinite. Only Jesus, who is God, is infinite and thus could satisfy the debt of our sins. Since He became truly one of us, He was able to pay that debt on our behalf.
Further, because we as humans do not own ourselves, but are servants of God, we cannot choose to make such a sacrifice for another. Only Jesus, who, as God, was fully in ownership of Himself, could voluntarily offer Himself on our behalf. Thus, supposing that simply because Mary was free from sin, it made her qualified to somehow save us shows a rather fundamental misunderstanding of our salvation. As such, the "logical" objection to Mary's Immaculate Conception fails to counter the doctrine as it is based on faulty premises.
This sums up my responses to the common objections to Mary's Immaculate Conception. If any of my illustrious readers has any further objections which I have overlooked, I invite them to share them in the comments for further discussion. In Part 2, we'll turn to look at Scripture, to see if it offers any clues to the doctrine, and then look at the historical witness of the Church.
(Category: Catholic Distinctives: Mary, Mother of God.)