The belief in the Immaculate Conception of Mary is a dogma unique to Catholicism. Catholics believe that by a special act of God’s favor and grace in her role to become the mother of God, Mary was conceived without original sin. We also believed she remained sinless her entire life. The Orthodox churches often affirm they too believe Mary lived a sinless life, but they tend to reject the belief she was also conceived without original sin.
In a previous post I covered what is the most common objection to those who believe this dogma is not Biblical, and that is when St. Paul says in Romans 3:23 “all have sinned.” For most Protestants that statement by St. Paul should end any discussion of whether Mary remained sinless – they interpret “all” to mean every individual who ever lived. But when we actually study how the Bible uses the term “all,” and especially within the context of Paul’s statement “all have sinned,” we discover that is not the case.
In my last post I covered many of the other common objections based on Scripture we can often hear regarding this dogma. In this post I’ll consider some additional objections often presented.
One common argument is if Mary had to be created without original sin for Jesus to be sinless, then that would mean Mary’s mother would have to have been created sinless for Mary to be born without sin, and her mother before her, and so on. Logically that would be true. The issue here is with the words “had to be.” Nothing in official Catholic teaching indicates at all that Mary had to be conceived without sin for Christ to be born with a sinless nature. Vatican II expresses this quite clearly — “For every saving influence that the blessed Virgin has on humanity arises not from any natural necessity but from the divine good pleasure; it flows forth from the superabundance of Christ’s merits.” In my next post I will review the Biblical evidence that supports the Immaculate Conception, and why the Catholic Church understands it to be more fitting that the woman who would conceive and become the Mother of God should be conceived without sin, but this has never been viewed by the Church to be a necessity – something God “had” to do in order for Christ to be born sinless. Unfortunately, there are sometimes Catholic apologists who do not seem to know or recognize this and may provide an incorrect view that the Immaculate Conception of Mary was indeed necessary for Christ to be born sinless. As always, it is important to rely on official Catholic Church teaching to correctly portray Catholic dogma.
In order to try to prove Mary sinned, some want to use the fact that on the return from their annual trip for the feast of Passover Jesus remained in Jerusalem unknown to his parents. They only discovered he was missing at the end of the first day’s journey home. Scripture says they “supposed him to be in the company” and at the end of the day they looked for him among their friends and family and discovered he was missing (Luke 2:42-44). This argument can take one of two paths. Some claim because Mary “lost” Jesus, that would be a sin. That view has a rather chilling effect – is any parent who has ever lost a child guilty of sin? While there could certainly be an act of negligence on the part of a parent (a sin), it could also be simply the result of a mistake or simply an accident which would not be a deliberate act against God and man, or a sin. It is important to note within the story Jesus was twelve years old – certainly at an age where a reasonable parent would have expected him to not deliberately stay behind without their knowledge. It is also important to note the Bible records the person who grew in wisdom from the event was the child Jesus (Luke 2:52). To try to claim Mary sinned because Jesus stayed in Jerusalem is more than a stretch.
The second path I’ve seen used in that story to try to prove Mary wasn’t sinless is to have a view that because Mary did not understand Jesus’ response to her question as to why he had stayed behind, this proves she was a sinner (Luke 2:50). This article expresses it this way – “Someone who is sinless would know God’s ways and not need a explanation. It is sin that corrupts ones understanding of spiritual things.” (http://www.letusreason.org/rc1.htm). The logic here is deeply flawed. While it is true sin will corrupt our understanding of spiritual things, it is not true that a human person in a sinless state would be expected to know all things (be omniscient) or to have a perfect understanding of all spiritual things. Even Christ, because he emptied himself (Philippians 2:7) grew in wisdom (Luke 2:52) and did not know the hour of his return (Matthew 24:36). Nor do the sinless angels in heaven have perfect knowledge or understanding, for they too do not know the hour of Christ’s return (Matthew 24:36), and they also “long to look” into the good news preached by the Holy Spirit (1 Peter 1:12). To claim because Mary didn’t have a full understanding of Christ’s mission and purpose at that point in his life somehow proves she was a sinner seems to be a bit desperate.
Another often made claim by those who want to prove Mary wasn’t sinless is the evidence that she made a “sin offering.” This is based upon the text in Luke 2:22-24 where Jesus is presented in the temple and an offering is made of “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.” This offering was part of the Mosaic law required for the purification of women after childbirth (Leviticus 12:1-8).
It is always astounding to me that people want to make the claim Mary committed sin by giving birth to Christ. This argument too seems to come from a sense of desperation rather than reason.
It is important to understand that the Mosaic law prescribed communal sacrifices for sin, as well as offerings that were to be made for actual personal sin. The sacrifice described for purification of women after childbirth has no relation to personal sin. It is not, and never has been, a sin for a woman to give birth to a child. But as a woman under the law of Moses, Mary was bound to make this sacrifice; to have not made the offering would have been a sin. But the idea that by giving birth to Christ she personally sinned has no basis in what Scripture teaches about the Mosaic law and sacrifice.
People who make this claim also seem to ignore that the Gospel tells us this sacrifice occurred because it was time for their purification (Luke 2:22). The offering is not only made on behalf of the mother but also the child. If one wishes to make the claim that making this sacrificial offering is “proof” Mary sinned, and since the offering was also for Jesus, wouldn’t they have to logically accept that proves Jesus sinned as well? We also see Jesus participate in other rituals that using the same logic would “prove” he sinned. He presented himself for baptism to John the Baptist – a baptism Scripture refers to as a baptism “for repentance” (Matthew 3:11). Is that proof Jesus sinned? In Matthew 17:24-27 we see Jesus chose to pay the half-shekel tax, which was established in Exodus 30:13-16. Its purpose is to make atonement for oneself – which indicates a person needs atonement – a sinner. Does that prove Jesus sinned? The idea that Mary somehow committed personal sin by giving birth to Christ is nonsense, and the offering of a communal sacrifice as prescribed by law has no relationship to personal sin.
Another claim used to prove from Scripture that Mary sinned is because in Revelation 12 we see a vision John had that shows a woman giving birth to the Messiah and she “cried out in her pangs of birth, in anguish for delivery” (Revelation 12:2). Catholics believe the image of this woman is primarily Mary, as well as a representation of Israel and the Church. That was covered in detail in this post. Protestants often deny that the image has anything to do with Mary, but will have the opinion – okay Catholics, you can’t have it both ways. If the woman is Mary, then you must admit she wasn’t sinless because pain in childbirth is one of the consequences of sin (Genesis 3:16). They claim that if Mary was sinless, she wouldn’t have experienced pain in childbirth.
There is quite a bit to be explored with this topic. One question I would have – are the pangs of childbirth that are a consequence of original sin related to personal sin in individuals, or now simply part of the result of living in a fallen world? I would contend the latter. For example, death is also a consequence of living in a fallen world and not related to personal sin. And even though we understand Christ was conceived without sin and remained sinless, he still died as the result of living in a fallen world. To profess Mary could not have been conceived without sin or remain sinless because she may have had pain in childbirth would not seem to be consistent with an understanding that being sinless does not prevent one from experiencing consequences of sin due to living in fallen world. Jesus hanging on the cross should make that obvious.
Clearly though the scene in Revelation 12 is not a literal depiction of the birth of Christ. Mary did not give birth while standing on the moon for example (Revelation 12:1-2). So if this is not a literal depiction of the birth of Christ, how can the birth pangs be seen to be literal? For Protestants who insist the image has nothing to do with Mary, the only choice is to view the birth pangs as metaphorical. So how is it logical to have a view that the birth pangs are metaphorical unless the woman is Mary, and then they have to be literal? Even though the scene is not a literal depiction of the birth of Christ?
The concept of metaphorical birth pangs is seen many times through Scripture. The prophet Jeremiah compares Israel going into exile to birth pangs (Jeremiah 13:21), as does Micah (Micah 4:9-10). Hosea relates them to Israel’s judgment for sin (Hosea 13:12-13). St. Paul uses them to refer to spiritually giving birth to those he is leading to Christ (Galatians 4:19).
There is a direct correlation however to metaphorical birth pangs in this image and how they relate to Mary, and that is her suffering at Christ’s passion. In Luke 2:22-38 when Mary took Christ to the temple for their purification, she was told by Simeon that a sword would pierce her soul also (Luke 2:35). With the “also” this prophecy links her suffering to Christ’s passion, for the only other reference in Scripture to a sword piercing a soul is in the crucifixion Psalm 22. There we hear the afflicted one pray to “Deliver my soul from the sword” (Psalm 22:20).
And Christ describes the sorrow that will be felt at his passion in terms of the pains of a woman giving birth (John 16:20-21). When we understand the woman in Revelation 12 as being Mary and read of her anguish and birth pangs, it is a reasonable conclusion we are seeing the sorrow depicted she experienced over the brutal execution of her innocent son. I believe most mothers would agree that the literal pangs of childbirth would pale in comparison to that experience.
So is there reason to accept the thought that if the woman in Revelation 12 is Mary and she experienced pains in childbirth that is evidence she was not sinless? I don’t think so – again this seems to be quite a stretch to try to make that claim.
In my last posts I have tried to address the primary objections often given to the Catholic belief in the Immaculate Conception of Mary. In my next post I will begin to look at the Biblical evidence that supports this dogma.