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.
I then provided two posts here and here that covered many of the other common objections based on Scripture often used to dispute this belief. In my last post I provided the evidence in Scripture that supports the Catholic understanding of the Immaculate Conception.
In this post I will try to address the question – Why does the dogma of the Immaculate Conception matter? What does it teach us about Christ? At their core, all Marian dogmas help us to see more clearly who Jesus is.
I mentioned in a previous post that it would be incorrect to view the Immaculate Conception as a necessity – something God “had” to do for Jesus to be sinless. This leads to the inevitable question – if Mary had to be conceived without sin for Christ to be sinless, then wouldn’t her mother have had to be conceived without sin in order for Mary to be sinless, and her mother before her, and back in time all the way to Eve? But the Catholic Church does not teach Mary had to be sinless in order for Christ to be born without original sin. It was not necessary, simply more fitting and more consistent with God’s nature as revealed to us.
In his anti-Catholic work “The Gospel According to Rome,” James McCarthy states “Indeed, Mary as defined by the Roman Catholic Church is virtually indistinguishable from the Son of God himself in excellency, power and achievement. They differ only by degree.” Of course, we know as Catholics this is simply not true. The Catholic Church teaches Jesus is God, and Mary is not. That is an infinite degree of difference between the two. Mary’s existence is totally dependent upon God, and all she received is gift from Him. This understanding should also answer for us the question as to why Mary was conceived without sin and her mother was not. Mary’s mother received a human person into her womb. Mary received into her womb a divine person who is the “King of kings and Lord of lords” (Revelation 19:16). It was only fitting she received special preparation that was not appropriate for her mother to carry Mary in her womb. The Immaculate Conception teaches us about the holiness of God and testifies to us that Jesus Christ is truly God. It highlights for us his divine nature, and as we learn from the Old Testament archetypes, God’s dwelling place among us is constructed with great preparation and completely sanctified to prepare for His coming to be with His people (Exodus 30:22-29).
The other aspect of Jesus’ divine nature this dogma highlights is that because he is truly God, he has both the power and the authority to give Mary this unique gift. And while we can certainly understand it was fitting that in order to become the dwelling place of God this was appropriate, we should also understand that in his human nature, it was also a fitting gift for a son to give his mother. And as Christ fulfilled all the commandments perfectly, the command to honor his mother is no exception.
I’ve written many times about the promise God made in Genesis 3:15 that he would send a redeemer who would be “at enmity” with Satan, but that “enmity” was also shared with “the woman” whose seed would be Christ. As God, Jesus was capable of living a totally sinless life and maintaining “enmity” with Satan. Mary, on her own, would not have been capable of this without a unique gift of grace from God. Her “enmity” with Satan is dependent upon her Son. Again, another indication that Mary is indeed most distinguishable from Christ in Catholic theology.
Jesus knew the destruction sin had caused to His creation. Sin was not part of human nature as created and intended by God. Rather through our first parents who opened the door, sin is a parasite that has infected our human nature — a nature Christ has come to redeem and to heal. As God, Christ certainly had the authority and power to share with his mother the “enmity” he would have with Satan. In his human nature is it so hard to believe he would have stood between Satan and Mary with all the vengeance of a devoted son and told him “not her?’ That “even though you have corrupted the goodness that I have created, you don’t get to touch her?’
And while Mary endured much suffering in her life, and most especially endured the pain of watching the brutal execution of her beloved son, Jesus also spared his mother an even greater grief. All of us, at some point in our lives must come to understand how our personal sin can be seen in the suffering of Jesus on the cross. It can be so easy to look at the sins of Pilate, or the Jewish leaders, or the brutal guards. To come to understand the relationship of our own personal sin as contributing to his suffering is a difficult but necessary aspect of our conversion, and when fully understood will cause us much sorrow. Can we imagine how much more painful that realization would have been for Mary if she had to come to understand that her personal sin was responsible for the suffering she witnessed as her son died on the cross? She indeed endured much suffering for the sake of his mission, as a sword pierced her own soul also (Luke 2:33-35). To also have to realize that she bore some responsibility for his suffering and death due to her own actions would seem to be more than any mother’s heart could bear. Christ’s gift spared her that most unfathomable depth of pain. Let us never forget that he truly has a human nature, and she is his mother.
As all Marian dogmas teach us about the divinity and/or humanity of Christ, they also relate to all believers. In understanding the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, we should come to understand we all have “gifts that differ according to the grace given to us,” (Romans 12:4-6) and seek to understand those gifts. We should come to understand that sin was never intended to be part of our human nature as created by God, and our ultimate end with Him is to be totally healed and perfected in Christ. Mary shows us our destiny when we say “yes” to Christ and the gift of salvation he has offered to us. She shows us our potential when we embrace a life rooted in “let it be done unto me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). The same grace given in a unique way to Mary is now offered to all of us – to heal and to sanctify us so that we too will come to have a sinless nature and one day join the ranks of those “spirits of just men made perfect” (Hebrews 12:23). Just as Jesus in the Gospels opened the door to all of us to become part of his family (Matthew 12:49-50), the gift of salvation offered first to Mary becomes the destiny of all those who follow her example and accept him by faith (Luke 1:38), and then do whatever he tells us (John 2:5).