One of the four Marian dogmas of the Catholic faith is the Immaculate Conception. It is most certainly one of the most misunderstood Catholic beliefs as well as the most challenged by other Christians. I’ll begin this series of posts with an overview of what the dogma means, and what it does not mean.
One of the misunderstandings that often occurs is people believe the dogma of the Immaculate Conception is referring to the miraculous conception of Jesus in the Virgin Mary’s womb. Rather, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception is speaking to the conception of Mary, and how she was conceived without original sin. We also believe she remained sinless her entire life. To understand this dogma, we must first understand the Church’s teaching on original sin and its consequences for humanity.
St. Paul writes in Romans 5:19 “by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners.” The Catechism says in CCC403 “Following St. Paul, the Church has always taught that the overwhelming misery which oppresses men and their inclination towards evil and death cannot be understood apart from their connection with Adam’s sin and the fact that he has transmitted to us a sin with which we are all born afflicted, a sin which is the ‘death of the soul’”.
Continuing we read “Still, the transmission of original sin is a mystery that we cannot fully understand. But we do know by Revelation that Adam had received original holiness and justice not for himself alone, but for all human nature. By yielding to the tempter, Adam and Eve committed a personal sin, but this sin affected the human nature that they would then transmit in a fallen state. It is a sin which will be transmitted by propagation to all mankind, that is, by the transmission of a human nature deprived of original holiness and justice.” (CCC404)
The catechism continues in paragraph 405 that while humanity has been deprived of original holiness and justice, “human nature has not been totally corrupted: it is wounded in the natural powers proper to it, subject to ignorance, suffering and the dominion of death, and inclined to sin – an inclination to evil that is called ‘concupiscence’. Baptism, by imparting the life of Christ’s grace, erases original sin and turns a man back towards God, but the consequences for nature, weakened and inclined to evil, persist in man and summon him to spiritual battle.”
The Catholic understanding that human nature has not been totally corrupted by original sin but is wounded is in direct contrast to the doctrine of Total Depravity as taught by John Calvin. But the woundedness that we all inherit does come with inherent disorders — we all have them albeit they are different for all of us. These disorders attract us to certain sins that are destructive to ourselves and others, but by God’s grace we can do battle and overcome these tendencies and grow evermore in holiness.
But Catholics believe Mary, because of her role as the mother of Jesus was spared the fallen human nature that is a consequence of original sin by a special act of God’s grace. When we speak of Mary being conceived without original sin, we are referring to a supernatural act whereby God intervened, and she was conceived without the consequences of original sin being transmitted to her. This was proclaimed as dogma by Pope Pius XI in 1854. As with many Catholic dogmas, some will point to the timeline and try to profess Catholics “invented” the dogma at the time it was formally professed. The Jehovah Witnesses will try to make this point about the dogma of the Trinity, which was formally defined in 325, so they conclude that it was “invented” at that time. Rather, the dogma of the Trinity was formalized to combat the heresy of Arianism and we see that doctrine develops to meet the challenges of the day. We see this in Sacred Scripture when the apostles had to wrestle with the decision on whether Gentile converts had to be circumcised. They established the pattern whereby the Church meets in council to allow the Holy Spirit to guide them to the truth, as was promised by Jesus (John 16:13).
In the case of the Immaculate Conception, we see clear evidence that the early Church understood Mary was the “new Eve.” The doctrine of original sin and how it affects our human nature became more fully developed when St. Augustine challenged the heresy of Pelagianism. Missing from the earliest of church fathers is an accurate understanding of the biological development of humans. As our understanding of biology grows, so does the understanding that human life begins at conception. Reflecting on all these great truths over time brought forth the fruit of understanding that Mary was immaculately conceived and spared the fallen nature the rest of us inherit from our first parents.
The formalization of this belief into dogma was not the result of an ecumenical council but rather by an ex-cathedra statement of the pope. This can also lead to a view by some that the pope makes such decisions in a vacuum. Historically that view would be false. When we look specifically at this dogma, we discover it was much more of a “bottom up” occurrence than coming from the “top down.” The previous Pope (Pope Gregory XVI who reigned from 1831-1846) had received petitions from many bishops around the world to formalize the belief that Mary was conceived without sin. His successor, Pope Pius XI polled all the bishops, and found that 90 percent of them favored the formalization of this long-held belief of the Church into dogma.
Some will point out there was not unanimity among the early Church fathers on this belief, and even scholars like Thomas Aquinas offered varying opinions during his life on the subject. The same can be said of most dogmas of the Church. There was certainly a variety of opinions on the dogma of the Trinity prior to its formalization – in fact by some estimates almost 80% of the Christian world including many bishops had embraced the heresy of Arianism. Often these disagreements are what lead to a dogma becoming formalized, just as the disagreement over the Gentiles and circumcision lead the Church leaders to meet in council to let the Holy Spirit guide them into truth. It is also worthwhile to note that while Aquinas denied the Immaculate Conception in the Summa Theologica, he ultimately accepted it — “For she was most pure because she incurred the stain neither of original sin nor of mortal sin nor of venial sin.”[Expositio super salutatione angelica]. This of course was also prior to the dogma being formalized and common for a variety of theological opinions to be considered.
As we move forward into Scripture to review both the evidence and objections for the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, it is important to keep in mind what the formal declaration of the dogma actually says. From the papal bull “Ineffabilis Deus” (Latin for “Ineffable God”), the proclamation says this: “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 portion I emphasized is foundational to any discussion about this dogma. First, Mary being conceived without original sin is dependent upon the merits of Christ, not something Mary merits on her own. Her salvation, like our own, is totally dependent upon Christ.
The second thing we must not lose sight of is that she received this blessing by “a singular grace and privilege of almighty God.” If you read my posts on salvation – what it means to be saved from the Catholic perspective and how that occurs – you will remember a constant theme, and that is “everything is grace.” Everything related to our salvation is, and always will be due to God’s grace, and this includes Mary.
My next post will begin to look at the common objections to this Catholic belief given from Scripture.