… of Mary, not Jesus!
Many people, including far too many Catholics, tend to mistake the Immaculate Conception for the conception of Jesus in Mary’s womb.
However, the “Immaculate Conception” refers to the conception of Mary, not Jesus.
The Catholic Church professes that Mary was immaculately conceived–that by a special grace from God, she was “preserved free from all stain of original sin” from the first moment of her existence (Pope Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus). This is not so much a necessary requirement as it is fitting in light of her unique call to bear the Son of God. So, we see Mary as the New Eve and Ark of the New Covenant.
In giving birth to Jesus, Mary did what no other creature has ever done. She “carried a Son,” wrote Saint Clare of Assisi (d. 1253), “Whom the heavens could not contain; and yet she carried Him in the little enclosure of her holy womb and held Him on her virginal lap” (Third Letter to Blessed Agnes of Prague).
Could God have chosen a sinner to be the mother of His Son? Yes, if He so desired, He could have. But it was only appropriate that He chose the most-pure virgin.
Essentially, the Immaculate Conception teaches us about Jesus, affirming as it does His unfathomable sanctity. Indeed, Mary’s holiness points directly to the holiness of her son, who was so holy that one can simply not imagine Him being made of sinful flesh.
Others often protest that the Immaculate Conception is not found in the Bible.
It is true that the phrase, “Immaculate Conception,” is not found in the Bible, and it is also true that the Bible nowhere states, “Mary was conceived without sin.” But then, the term “Holy Trinity” is not found in the Bible either. Nor does the Bible state, “There is one true God, consisting of three co-eternal persons.”1
However, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception may be shown to be an authentic Biblical teaching.
Mary’s sinlessness is strongly inferred, for instance, in God’s reproach of the Serpent in Genesis 3:15, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” Here the divine plan is revealed for restoring man’s fallen relationship with God, brought on by Adam and Eve’s transgression. According to this plan, the Woman and Her Seed are to be set apart from the rest of Adam and Eve’s fallen descendants—to be immune to the curse of original sin, which they shall undo. The immunity of the Woman and Her Seed is signified by the “enmity” which God promises to place between them and the Serpent and the Serpent’s seed, or in other words between them and sin.
The Seed of the Woman, of course, is Jesus. The Woman has been interpreted figuratively to be the Daughter of Zion, a symbol of Jerusalem (see Isaiah 37:22). But, in the literal, Christological sense, of course, she must be also the Virgin Mary, the Bearer of the Redeemer.
The ancient Christians honored the extraordinary and unique sanctity of the Virgin Mary, which they spoke of always in close association with the sanctity of Her Son. For example, in about 170, Saint Melito of Sardis said of Jesus, the spotless Lamb, “He was born of Mary, the fair ewe,” implying her spotlessness as well (Easter Homily).
Saint Hippolytus of Rome (d. 235) referred to her as “the spotless and God-bearing Mary;” and, comparing her to the timber used to construct the Ark of the Covenant, called her “incorruptible” (Discourse on the End of the World 1; Commentary on Psalm 22; Theodoret of Cyr, First Dialogue).
The Sub Tuum Praesidium, a prayer dating from the mid-third century, calls Mary “alone pure and alone blessed.” Saint Ephraim the Syrian (d. 373) said of Christ, “You alone and your Mother are more beautiful than any others; For there is no blemish in you, nor any stains upon your Mother” (The Nisibene Hymns 27:8).
Saint Ambrose of Milan (d. 397) called Our Lady “a Virgin not only undefiled but a Virgin whom grace had made inviolate, free of every stain of sin” (Commentary on Psalm 118 22:30).
Affirming that the holy men and women in the Bible, in spite of their great piety, were sinners, Saint Augustine of Hippo (d. 430) made an exception for 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 on her, who merited to conceive and bear him in whom there was no sin?” (Nature and Grace 36:42).
Some of the ancient Church writers did allow for the possibility that Mary had sinned. Tertullian and Origen were the earliest to espouse this view in writing (cf. Tertullian, The Flesh of Christ 7; Against Marcion 4; Origen, Homilies on Luke 17).
Insights from the Wedding at Canaan
Some would also lump Saint Irenaeus in with Tertullian and Origen because of his comment about her at Wedding Feast at Cana (John 2:1). He wrote that Mary, “desirous before the time to partake of the cup of emblematic significance,” was “check(ed)” by Jesus for her “untimely haste” (Heresies 3:16:7). However, to conclude that Irenaeus believed Mary had sinned would be presumptuous. Irenaeus did not indicate an immoral motive on her part or behavior against God. If her motive in wanting to see Her Son revealed to the world was love for Him, then her “haste” was misguided, but not sinful. (By contrast, in his Homily on John 21:2, Saint John Chrysostom suggested Mary’s motive was vanity, which, indeed, would be sinful.)
To be sure, Mary’s perfect sanctity does not imply that she perfectly understood Her Son, but that she perfectly obeyed Him and His Father, and we see this at Cana, especially (see John 2:5).
Regarding her “eagerness,” Severus of Antioch (d. 538) noted, “She does not distance herself from him or leave, in the manner of a person who has received a reproof; neither is she silent, repenting her eagerness, as happens with a person who has been censured” (Homily 199).
Debate Among Catholics
Despite their heterodox status, these writers held a certain sway over the theological thought of later generations. Origen’s influence in particular was prominent among the Fathers of the East, Saints Basil the Great (d. 379), John Chrysostom (d. 407), Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444), and others.
Anti-Catholics have made much of this fact,but the truth is it has always been permissible for the faithful to question a teaching that has not yet been dogmatically defined.2
Pope Sixtus IV affirmed as late as 1483 that regarding the Immaculate Conception, it was permissible for Catholics either to accept or reject this teaching “since the matter has not been decided as yet by the Roman Church and Apostolic See” (Grave Nimis).
It was the same in the days of the Apostles. The very fact that “there had been much debate” among those assembled at the Council of Jerusalem proves differences of opinion existed among the Church hierarchy on an important issue (see the Acts of the Apostles, 15:7).
Once the matter had been decided, however, all debate ceased and no further dissension was tolerated (see 15:12, 28). Furthermore, while some of the early Fathers denied Mary’s sinlessness, their position was far from unanimous. Many of the Fathers affirmed her impeccable sanctity, as demonstrated in the writings of doctors such as Saints Athanasius, Ambrose, Augustine, and others. Belief in Mary’s sinlessness existed in the early Church, in the East and in the West; and in time the belief that she had not committed sin of any kind throughout her lifetime superseded all opinions to the contrary.
In it well worth noting that there is nothing in Church teachings that states that during the formative stages of a dogma those who believe rightly will be immediately victorious or even find themselves in the majority. Take the example of the Church’s battle with the followers of Arius, who denied the Divinity of Christ. José Orlandis recounts how Arius’ heresy did not vanish with the close of the Council of Nicaea but rather grew in its influence to the point that “it looked as if Arianism was going to prevail. The most outstanding of the Nicene bishops were exiled and, as St Jerome graphically put it, ‘the whole world groaned and discovered to its surprise that it had become Arian’” (A Short History of the Catholic Church, Four Courts Press Limited, p. 39; Jerome, Dialogue Between a Luciferian and an Orthodox Christian 19).
Scholars have questioned whether the Fathers who professed the Virgin’s sanctity truly believed she was free from original sin as well as personal sins. The predominant theory of the time, at least in the West, was that the sin of Adam and Eve was transmitted from one’s parents through concupiscence in intercourse. This would mean that only Jesus, who alone was conceived without intercourse, could have escaped original sin. Regardless of how original sin is transmitted, however, the fact remains that an exception would had to have been made in Mary’s case for her to have been spared from it. Augustine made it clear that an exception was made for her (and for her alone), though he did not explain when and how this occurred (see Nature and Grace 36:42, above).
The Immaculate Conception was not dogmatically defined until the middle of the nineteenth century. It should be said by way of comparison, however, that the Divinity of Christ was not dogmatically defined until 325 (Council of Nicaea); the Divinity of the Holy Spirit, 381 (Council of Constantinople); the Two Natures in Christ, 451 (Council of Chalcedon); the Two Wills in Christ, 681 (Third Council of Constantinople); and the Canon of the Bible, 1441 (Council of Florence). Each of these teachings, like the Immaculate Conception, has always been believed by the Church, though not officially declared until it became necessary (or beneficial) to do so. With the exception of a relatively few individuals over the course of two thousand years, Mary’s sinlessness was never in doubt. It was only the questions of when and how God brought about this miracle that took so long to resolve.
Though all of the major concerns regarding the Immaculate Conception had been sufficiently addressed by the late Middle Ages, a dogmatic definition would not come for many more centuries. The usual impetus for dogmatic pronouncements is the need to counter heretical teachings endangering the cohesiveness of believers. This was not the case with the Immaculate Conception, however, as universal agreement had long since been reached in the hearts and minds of the faithful. Nonetheless, sensing the moral and spiritual corruption that Modernism would unleash upon society, the Church of the mid-nineteenth century saw the promotion of the perfect sanctity of the Mother of God as objectively beneficial to Christians.
Critics of the Immaculate Conception will some times cite particular Bible verses that seem to diminish Mary’s pristine holiness. One such verse is Luke 8:21, in which, upon being told that His Mother and brethren have come to see Him, Jesus remarks, “My mother and my brethren are those who hear the word of God and do it.” Saint Ambrose said of this verse, “The Mother is not denied—as certain heretics would artfully make out—for she is acknowledged even from the Cross (see John 19:26-27). Rather, preference over ties of flesh is given to a type of relationship which is prescribed from above” (Commentary on the Gospel of Luke 6:38).
In a similar passage, found in the eleventh chapter of Luke, a woman in the crowd calls out to Jesus, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you sucked!”; to which He responds, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” (11:27-28). These words, though, are a direct reference to Mary.
Earlier in that same Gospel, Elizabeth tells her, “Blessed is she who believed that there would be fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (Luke 1:45). She likewise says, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” (1:42). And Mary herself exclaims, “Behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed” (1:48). Jesus, then, is not disputing His Mother’s blessedness, but clarifying the reason why she is so blessed: her obedience to the Word of God. Consequently, in both Luke 8:21 and 11:28, mention of His Mother impels the Lord to praise those who hear and keep the Word of God.
Absence of Original Sin
Probably the Bible verse which non-Catholics believe most directly refutes the Immaculate Conception is in Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans 3:23, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (see John’s First Letter, 1:8 & 10, too).
They interpret this general statement about the human race in an absolute sense to mean every single person has sinned. Yet what of individuals such as infants and the mentally ill, who are incapable of sinning? Mary is merely another exception.
What really needs to be made clear is that Mary’s sanctification did not occur apart from the Redemption. To the contrary, she too came under the curse of original sin, though she was spared from its taint through God’s intervention. To put it another way, had she been invulnerable to original sin by nature—as only Her Son is—then the Immaculate Conception, God’s special intervention on her behalf, would not have been necessary.
Mary herself confirms her need for a Savior in Luke 1:47. Ineffabilis Deus likewise makes it clear that she was preserved from the stain of original sin “by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race” (emphasis added). In Mary’s case the merits of Calvary were applied ahead of time, that is, in anticipation of Her Son’s death. God saved the rest of the human race by raising it up after it had fallen; He saved Mary by preventing her from falling in the first place. The extraordinary way in which she was saved made Mary more, not less, indebted to God than the rest of humankind.
Sometimes, in discussing the Immaculate Conception, the question of whether or not Mary suffered pain in childbirth is raised. There is an ancient belief that she did indeed deliver the Christ Child without pain, implying she was exempted from Eve’s punishment and transgression (see Genesis 3:16).
At the same time, it is possible to imagine Mary endured labor pains in spite of her sinlessness. Consider the related question of whether or not she underwent natural death, also a part of Adam and Eve’s punishment (see Genesis 3:19 or Paul’s Letter to the Romans 6:23). The broad consensus among Catholic theologians is that Mary did indeed die, in order to perfectly conform to Her Son. If she had not been spared from death, it follows she may not have been exempted from other forms of suffering for the same reason. The truth of the Immaculate Conception, therefore, does not hinge upon the matter of Mary’s birth pangs or lack thereof.
It is impossible to settle the mystery of the Virgin’s delivery from Scripture alone. Isaiah 66:7 states, “Before she was in labor she gave birth; before her pain came upon her she was delivered of a son.” Irenaeus, for one, took this as proof Mary had delivered without travail (Apostolic Preaching 54).
On the other hand, the Book of Revelation, 12:2, says the Woman “cried out in her pangs of birth, in anguish for delivery.” Like the Woman in Genesis 3:15, Catholics tend to interpret the Woman in Revelation 12 in the ultimate sense as Mary. This does not preclude the birth pangs being understood symbolically, however. It has been suggested the pangs represent Mary’s anguish, not from the physical birth of the Savior at Bethlehem, but from the spiritual birth of the Church at Calvary (cf. Pope Pius X, Ad Diem Illum; John 19:26-27) where she watched her son die.
One of the earliest non-biblical references to Mary’s freedom from pain in childbirth is found in an apocryphal writing called The Protoevangelium of James, which was likely composed around the middle of the second century. Because of this work’s realistic description of the birth of Jesus, emphasizing the corporeal nature of the Incarnation (as opposed to The Ascension of Isaiah, for instance, in which Mary is completely unaware of the delivery), it is thought that The Protoevangelium of James was written to combat gnostic Docetism, which maintained Christ’s body was an illusion. Those who immediately discount the apocryphal writings because they are not inspired texts ought to consider that Saint Jude makes reference to two such works, The Assumption of Moses and First Enoch, in his New Testament Letter (see Jude 1:9, 14).
Though useless as sources of theology, the Apocrypha do give witness to religious ideas that were prevalent among Christians in the first centuries. They were often written around orthodox Christian beliefs, in fact, that had not yet been fully defined by the Church. Many beliefs about the Blessed Virgin were incorporated into such accounts—some authentic, some not, some from Scripture and Sacred Tradition, some from the minds of heretics. Mary’s freedom from labor pain, furthermore, is verified by early orthodox writers the caliber of Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria. The very fact that her painless delivery is mentioned by believers of varied backgrounds and influences—orthodox and heterodox—suggests the idea predates the writings; that it was not dreamed up by a later group but taught by the Apostles.
- To discern the doctrine of the Trinity from Scripture, Christians have had to compare and connect various Biblical teachings, such as Isaiah 44:6, “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god;” with Matthew 28:19: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” ↩
- Once a teaching has been raised to the level of a dogma doubt among the faithful is no longer permissible. An historical instance of a Saint going against this principle would be that of Andrew of Crete, who, at the Monothelite synod of Constantinople in 712, denied there are two wills in the Person of Christ, even though this had been dogmatically defined at the Third Council of Constantinople in 681. Realizing his error, he recanted a year later and made a profession of faith against Monothelitism and other heresies. ↩