MARY'S IMMACULATE CONCEPTION
Consequences of the Divine Maternity
Three consequences result from Mary's predestination as the Mother of God. The first is her fullness of grace; the second is her Immaculate Conception or her exemption from original sin; and the third is her impeccability, or her exemption from all actual sins, including venial sin, during her entire lifetime.
Her fullness of grace is explicitly revealed in Holy Scripture, because the Angel Gabriel addressed her thus: "Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee" (Luke 1:28). Her Immaculate Conception is also a revealed truth, but it is not explicitly stated in Holy Scripture. It was preserved in Sacred Tradition and eventually defined as a dogma by Pope Bl. Pius IX on December 8, 1854, in the Papal Bull Ineffabilis Deus. Her sinlessness or impeccability was not a defined dogma, but it was widely accepted in Catholic tradition.
What does the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception mean? It means that, unlike all the descendants of Adam, who were born stained with original sin (the sin of Adam and Eve), the Blessed Virgin Mary, at the first moment of her conception and by a singular privilege from God, was preserved clean, immaculate, and exempt from any stain of original sin, in view of the merits of our Lord Jesus Christ. This special privilege was granted to her, not due to any merit on her part, but because she was predestined to be the mother of the Son of God.
The Immaculate Conception
A painting by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696–1770)
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The Traditional Belief
The belief that the Virgin Mary was perfectly spotless and sinless (not only in life or from birth but from the moment of conception) makes absolute sense, for it would be an embarrassment to the Son of God and would detract from His dignity to have a sinful mother. Thus, the sinlessness of Mary was firmly believed and taught by many of the Fathers.
St. Gregory Nazianzus (A.D. 329-389), Oration 38, XIII: "Conceived by the Virgin, who first in body and soul was purified by the Holy Ghost (for it was needful both that Childbearing should be honored, and that Virginity should receive a higher honor), He came forth then as God with that which He had assumed, One Person in two Natures, Flesh and Spirit, of which the latter deified the former."
St. Augustine (A.D. 354-430 ), On Nature and Grace, Ch. 42: "We must except the holy Virgin Mary, concerning whom I wish to raise no question when it touches the subject of sins, out of honor to the Lord..."
Lateran Council (A.D. 649), from Denzinger 256: "If anyone does not properly and truly confess in accord with the holy Fathers, that the holy Mother of God and ever Virgin and immaculate Mary in the earliest of the ages conceived of the Holy Spirit without seed, namely, God the Word Himself specifically and truly, who was born of God the Father before all ages, and that she incorruptibly bore [Him?], her virginity remaining indestructible even after His birth, let him be condemned." (Italics added.)
Some of the Fathers, such as St. Justin Martyr (in Dialogue with Trypho, Ch. 100) and St. Irenaeus of Lyons (Against Heresies, Book III, Ch. 22, Par. 4 last sentence), compared Mary to Eve before the Fall. This is because, before Eve yielded to the temptation of the devil, she was also immaculate and undefiled. Thus, the Fathers gave the idea that Mary was the "New Eve" or the "Second Eve" in the same way that St. Paul suggested that Christ was the "New Adam" or the "Second Adam" (Rom 5:12–21; 1 Cor 15:21–22,45).
Catholic Tradition also regards the Ark of the Covenant as a type or foreshadowing of Mary. Thus, St. Gregory Thaumaturgus calls her the Ark (in the First Homily on the Annunciation, second paragraph): "For the holy Virgin is in truth an ark, wrought with gold both within and without, that has received the whole treasury of the sanctuary." For just as the Ark was the sacred place where the word of God was kept, so Mary's virginal womb was to be the sanctuary of the Word. It is, therefore, fitting that in the Litany of Loreto, we address Mary with this title and say, "Ark of the Covenant, pray for us." But how does Mary's being the new Ark point to her Immaculate Conception? If one considers how highly God regarded the Ark, commanding that it be overlaid with the purest gold and made perfect in every detail (Ex 25:10–15); if one considers how He desired it to be spotless and without blemish so that His indignation is enkindled when anyone touches it (2 Kgs 6:6–7), it is easy to understand why He would want Mary, who would bear His Son, to be similarly immaculate and undefiled.
Although the belief in the total sinlessness of Mary makes sense, it caused great difficulty for Catholic theologians because it seemed to contradict another revealed truth: that Christ is the "Savior of all men" (1 Tim 4:10) without exception, since in Adam "all have sinned" (Rom 5:12). Now, if Mary was sinless from the moment of conception, then it seemed that she would not need a Redeemer and would be an exception.
In the Middle Ages, the brightest theologians of the Church wrestled with this difficulty. How is it possible to reconcile the sinlessness of Mary, which is required by the dignity of the Son of God, of whom she would be the mother, with her being a descendant of Adam, in whom all have sinned? It is easy to understand that Christ was conceived without sin because He was not conceived by way of natural generation but supernaturally by the Holy Spirit. But the Virgin Mary's case was different. She was the natural child of human parents (Joachim and Anne) and, therefore, a descendant of Adam by natural descent. So, how could she be exempt from original sin?
During the Middle Ages, theologians of the East were steadfast in their belief that the Virgin Mary was conceived without sin. But the philosophers and theologians of the West were divided on this issue. At first, St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) also believed in the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary. In his Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, Book I, Distinction 44, Q. 1, Art. 3, Reply to #3, p. 1023, he said: "Purity is intensified by receding from its opposite; hence it is possible to find a creature than which nothing purer can be found in all created things if in it there is no contagion of sin, and such was the purity of the Blessed Virgin, who was immune from original and actual sin." But when he wrote his Summa Theologiae, he seemed to have changed his mind and said, "The Blessed Virgin did indeed contract original sin, but was cleansed therefrom before her birth from the womb" (ST, Part III, Q. 27, Art. 2, Reply to Obj. 2). He wrote the same idea in Compendium Theologiae, Ch. 224, and in his Exposition on the Angelic Salutation, Art. 1, sixth paragraph.
Since conception occurs when a soul is infused into the body (at which point a new person is said to exist), St. Thomas could not accept the idea that Mary was sanctified before conception because it would mean that sanctification happened before there was a human person to sanctify. In addition, he denied Mary's Immaculate Conception because he wanted to protect the dignity of Christ. He felt that if Mary was sinless when she was conceived, then she would no longer need a redeemer, and this would detract from Christ's dignity as Savior of all. Of course, St. Thomas was correct in his perception that, as a descendant of Adam, Mary also incurred the debt of original sin and, therefore, needed a Redeemer. However, he failed to distinguish between incurring the debt and actually contracting the stain of original sin. As a result, he made the mistake of denying the Virgin Mary's Immaculate Conception.
However, St. Thomas Aquinas was not alone in this error. St. Bernard, St. Bonaventure, and other theologians—who were also great devotees of the Blessed Virgin—committed the same mistake and denied the Immaculate Conception.
Resolution of the Problem
The idea of Mary's Immaculate Conception and her absolute purity is very strong in Catholic Tradition. There is abundant patristic evidence of this, as pointed out by the Catholic Encyclopedia. This was the reason why there was an urgent need to find a solution to this seemingly insoluble dilemma of reconciling Mary's sinlessness with Christ's role as the universal Redeemer of humankind.
The credit for solving the theological problem occasioned by Mary's Immaculate Conception goes to the Franciscan friar, Blessed John Duns Scotus (1266–1308), otherwise known as the Subtle Doctor (Doctor Subtilis). Although he was called "Doctor" by many historians, he was not a Doctor of the Church because he was never pronounced as such by any of the popes. But his often ingenious analysis of philosophical and theological problems earned him the honorary title of Subtle Doctor.
Blessed John Duns Scotus
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The following is a summary of Scotus' teaching on this subject:
As a descendant of Adam, Mary also incurred the debt of original sin; therefore, she also needed Christ, the Redeemer of all men.
Mary was redeemed by a process of "preventive redemption," to distinguish it from "liberative redemption," whereby all of us, except Mary, are redeemed. Liberative redemption is when you are lifted out of the pit after you have fallen. Preventive redemption is when you are stopped from falling into the pit. According to this concept, God, at the instant of Mary's conception, and by a singular privilege granted to her alone, applied the future merits of Jesus Christ to pay her debt due to original sin in a way that prevented her from ever contracting the stain of sin itself. Therefore, Christ was still her Savior as the One who suffered, paid her debt, and preserved her from the stain of sin by a process of preventive redemption. "Even in human affairs," Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange noted, "we look on one as more a savior if he wards off a blow than if he merely heals the wound it inflicts." The Mother of the Savior and Our Interior Life, Part I, Chapter II, Art. II, p. 53
Mary's redemption did not happen before or after conception, but at the instant of conception. Here Scotus used the vastly important distinction between the order of nature and the order of time. Mary, indeed, needed to be redeemed first in the order of nature to be conceived without sin, but her redemption happened simultaneously with her conception in the order of time. Consequently, there was never a time when she had any sin in her soul.
The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is a revealed truth. It is not only found in Sacred Tradition but is also contained implicitly in Holy Scripture. For example, the following texts allude to Mary's Immaculate Conception:
Genesis 3:15: "I will put enmities between thee and the woman, and thy seed and her seed: she shall crush thy head, and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel."
Luke 1:28: "And the angel being come in, said unto her: Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women."
The text from Genesis portrays Mary's triumph over the devil as overwhelming and complete: "she shall crush thy head." But Mary's triumph would not be complete if she had been conceived with sin. Likewise, the text from Luke states that Mary was "full of grace," but her grace would seem to be wanting or not full enough if there was sin at her conception. Therefore, these two texts strongly suggest Mary's Immaculate Conception.
In spite of the scriptural support and the strength of Sacred Tradition favoring the Immaculate Conception, the theologians of the twelfth and succeeding centuries continued to be at odds regarding the status of Mary's Immaculate Conception. Therefore, the Church had to intervene. In 1439, the Council of Basle decided that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was to be the official teaching of the Church. However, it was not a binding decision because the Council at the time did not have a head. To pacify the theologians, Pope Sixtus IV in 1483, in the Constitution Grave Nimis, threatened to excommunicate all those in either school who charged their opponents with heresy. The Council of Trent did not settle the question of the Immaculate Conception either, but it upheld the Constitution of Sixtus IV. In 1567, Pope Pius V condemned the thesis of Baius that no one but Christ was without original sin. One year later, he also made the feast of the Immaculate Conception a holy day of obligation. In 1622, Pope Gregory XV prohibited any further discussion on the issue of the Immaculate Conception, except for the Dominicans, who were still allowed to discuss it in private. In 1661, Pope Alexander VII issued the Constitution Solicitudo, in which he renewed the decrees of previous Popes and placed all writings that attack the Immaculate Conception under the rules of the Roman Index. For the next two centuries, the Church continued to wait in silence until Pope Pius IX, on December 8, 1854, defined the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in the Bull Ineffabilis Deus and made it binding for the entire Church:
"Accordingly, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, for the honor of the Holy and undivided Trinity, for the glory and adornment of the Virgin Mother of God, for the exaltation of the Catholic Faith, and for the furtherance of the Catholic religion, by the authority of Jesus Christ our Lord, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own: “We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful."
Four years later, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception was confirmed by the Blessed Virgin Mary herself in an apparition to St. Marie Bernarde Soubirous (or St. Bernadette) at Lourdes, France, which was followed by several documented healing miracles.