The Immaculate Conception is, according to Roman Catholic doctrine, the conception of the Virgin Mary without any stain (“immacula” in Latin) of original sin. Hence Mary is sometimes called the Immaculata (the Immaculate One). The Immaculate Conception was solemnly defined as a dogma by Pope Pius IX in his Ineffabilis Deus on 8 December 1854 as follows: “We decree, pronounce and define the doctrine which asserts that the Blessed Virgin Mary, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God, and in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, saviour of the human race, was preserved free from every stain of original sin is a doctrine revealed by God and, for this reason, must be firmly and constantly believed by all the faithful”.
The papal definition of the dogma declares with absolute certainty and authority that Mary possessed sanctifying grace from the first instant of her existence and was free from the lack of grace caused by the original sin at the beginning of human history. Protestants and other non-Catholic Chris gin Mary could not have been immaculately conceived and that if She were conceived without sin, She would not have needed redemption as She herself acknowledged that She needed in Her own words in the Magnificat when She said “my spirit rejoices in God my saviour” (Luke 1:47). They also maintain that St. John clearly states that “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). They therefore wonder how Catholics can claim that the Virgin Mary was sinless.
Another Biblical text which protestants and other non-Catholic Christians often cite as being negated by the Catholic Church’s teaching on the Immaculate Conception of the Mother of God is found in St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: “Sin entered the world through one man, and through sin, death and this death has spread through the whole human race because everyone has sinned” (Rom. 5:12). These texts raise a question: Does the Catholic teaching on the Immaculate Conception indicate that Mary was not in need of salvation? The Catholic Church teaches that the dogma on the Immaculate Conception is supported by Scripture. Thus, in his Apostolic Constitution Ineffabilis Deus (8 December 1854), which officially defined the Immaculate Conception as dogma, Pope Pius IX primarily appealed to the text of Genesis 3:15, where the serpent was told by God, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, between your seed and her seed”. According to the Roman Catholic understanding, this was a prophecy that foretold of a “woman” who would always be at enmity with the serpent—that is, a woman who would never be under the power of sin, nor in bondage to the serpent. Some Roman Catholic theologians have also claimed the angel Gabriel’s salutation to Mary at the Annunciation (Luke 1:28) as scriptural evidence for the Immaculate Conception.
The verse “Thou art all fair, my love; there is no spot in thee”, “Tota pulchra es, amica mea, et macula non est in te”, from the Song of Solomon (4.7) is also regarded as a scriptural confirmation of the doctrine. In 1858, the Blessed Virgin Mary revealed herself to St. Bernadette Soubirous at the grotto of Massabielle in Lourdes, France, as the Immaculate Conception, thus giving Heaven’s approval to the Bull Ineffabilis Deus of Blessed Pope Pius IX. The Church believes that God’s Son who was to come into the world through Mary’s consent was Himself her saviour. Mary as a member of the human race was in need of salvation. However, her salvation was “singular” (unique). In order to help us understand Mary’s need for salvation, theologians distinguish between a “liberative salvation” and a “preservative salvation”. Every member of the human race with the exception of Mary, was liberated from sin and eternal damnation by the Cross of Jesus. In virtue of the Cross of Jesus, Mary was preserved from sin and eternal damnation.
Two illustrations might be helpful in coming to understand the significance of this distinction: If you are wounded by a bullet and I remove it and help you to heal the wound, you might correctly call me your “saviour”. However, would I not be more properly your “saviour” if I had preserved you from being shot in the first place? Again, I might save you from being burned to death in a fire. I could liberate you from the flames and save your life. Would I be any less your “saviour” if I preserved you from even falling into the destructive flames? Every member of the human race, except Mary, is wounded by the sin of Adam. We are liberated from Adam’s sin by the grace of Jesus Christ. Mary, also by Christ’s grace, was preserved from being wounded by the sin of the race in her conception. In this way, Jesus saved her from sin and the effects of sin. You and I and all mankind are liberated from the “fire” of sin and eternal death in hell through the saving grace of Our Lord Jesus.
We receive this grace in baptism and if we fall into mortal sin, through sacramental confession. Baptism, so to speak, “pulls us out of the fire”. When we deliberately fall into the fire again through our deliberate mortal sins, the Lord rescues us through Confession (Sacrament of Reconciliation). Mary by Jesus’ grace was preserved from ever falling into that fire. The Catholic Church does not deny that the Virgin Mary needed redemption, for She was a child of Adam together with the rest of humanity. However, Her redemption was effected in another, “more sublime manner”, namely, “redemption by pre-emption”. Consequently, in reference to Mary, the Church strongly affirms these Scriptural truths: Mary is indeed saved from sin and Jesus is her saviour! The Immaculate Conception has always been the belief of the Church, being implicitly contained in the Church’s teaching of the Virgin Mary’s absolute purity and sinlessness. Just as Our Lord “grew in grace and wisdom”, that is, manifested increasing signs of wisdom as He increased in age, so the Church, which possesses the wisdom of God from Her origin, manifests it only according to the order of Providence and Her children’s needs.
In the centuries before 1854, the Popes and Councils made continuous and explicit references to the Immaculate Conception in their pronouncements: (i) Pope St. Martin I, Lateran Council (649), Canon 3 on the Trinity; (ii) Pope Sixtus IV, Constitutions Cum Praeexcelsa (1476); Grave Nimis (1483); (iii) Pope Paul III, Council of Trent (1546), Decree on Original Sin; (iv) Pope St. Pius V, Bull Ex Omnibus Afflictionibus, (1567); (v) Pope Alexander VII, Bull Sollicitudo Omnium Eccl. (1661). The Church finds support for the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception in the words of the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary: “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou amongst women” (Luke 1:28 [Douai]). She, who was to conceive the Son of God, the Holy of holies, must Herself be supremely holy, and therefore be preserved, not only from actual sin, but also from all stain of Original Sin. The Angel’s words would not have been entirely truthful had the Virgin Mary, for even one instant, been deprived of grace. The Church, furthermore, asserts that God, immediately after Adam’s fall, cursed Satan and said, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head” (Gen. 3:15). It was by the Virgin Mary’s seed, that is, Jesus Christ, that the kingdom of Satan was demolished. It was not fitting that She, who was to co-operate in the defeat of Satan, should ever be infected by his breath or a slave to his kingdom of sin.
The enmity between the Virgin Mary and the serpent placed by God was Her triumph over sin, Her Immaculate Conception. The writings of the Fathers of the Church on Mary’s absolute purity abound.
• The Fathers call Mary the tabernacle exempt from defilement and corruption (Hippolytus, “Ontt. in illud, Dominus pascit me”);
• Origen calls her worthy of God, immaculate of the immaculate, most complete sanctity, perfect justice, neither deceived by the persuasion of the serpent, nor infected with his poisonous breathings (“Horn. i in diversa”);
• Ambrose says she is incorrupt, a virgin immune through grace from every stain of sin (“Sermo xxii in Ps. cxviii”);
• Maximus of Turin calls her a dwelling fit for Christ, not because of her habit of body, but because of original grace (“Nom. viii de Natali Domini”);
• Theodotus of Ancyra terms her a virgin innocent, without spot, void of culpability, holy in body and in soul, a lily springing among thorns, untaught the ills of Eve, nor was there any communion in her of light with darkness, and, when not yet born, she was consecrated to God (“Oral, in S. Dei Genitr”);
• In refuting Pelagius, St. Augustine declares that all the just have truly known of sin “except the Holy Virgin Mary, of whom, for the honour of the Lord, I will have no question whatever where sin is concerned” (On Nature and Grace 36).
• It is evident that Mary was pure from eternity, exempt from every defect (Typicon S. Sabae);
• She was formed without any stain (St. Proclus, “Laudatio in S. Dei Gen. ort”, I, 3);
• She was created in a condition more sublime and glorious than all other natures (Theodoras of Jerusalem in Mansi, XII, 1140);
• When the Virgin Mother of God was to be born of Anne, nature did not dare to anticipate the germ of grace, but remained devoid of fruit (John Damascene, “Hom, i in B. V. Nativ.”, ii).
• The Syrian Fathers never tire of extolling the sinlessness of Mary. St. Ephraem considers no terms of eulogy too high to describe the excellence of Mary’s grace and sanctity: “Most holy Lady, Mother of God, alone most pure in soul and body, alone exceeding all perfection of purity …., alone made in thy entirety the home of all the graces of the Most Holy Spirit, and hence exceeding beyond all compare even the angelic virtues in purity and sanctity of soul and body …. my Lady most holy, all-pure, all-immaculate, all-stainless, all-undefiled, all-incorrupt, all-inviolate spotless robe of Him Who clothes Himself with light as with a garment… flower unfading, purple woven by God, alone most immaculate” (“Precationes ad Deiparam” in Opp. Grace. Lat., III, 524-37).
• To St. Ephraem, Mary was as innocent as Eve before her fall, a virgin most estranged from every stain of sin, more holy than the Seraphim, the sealed fountain of the Holy Spirit, the pure seed of God, ever in body and in mind intact and immaculate (“Carmina Nisibena”). Jacob of Sarug says that “the very fact that God has elected her proves that none was ever holier than Mary; if any stain had disfigured her soul, if any other virgin had been purer and holier, God would have selected her and rejected Mary”. It seems, however, that Jacob of Sarua, if he had any clear idea of the doctrine of sin, held that Mary was perfectly pure from original sin (“the sentence against Adam and Eve”) at the Annunciation. St. John Damascene (Or. i Nativ. Deip., n. 2) esteems the supernatural influence of God at the generation of Mary to be so comprehensive that he extends it also to her parents.
He says of them that, during the generation, they were filled and purified by the Holy Spirit, and freed from sexual concupiscence. Consequently according to the Damascene, even the human element of her origin, the material of which she was formed, was pure and holy. This opinion of an immaculate active generation and the sanctity of the “conceptio carnis” was taken up by some Western authors; it was put forward by Petrus Comestor in his treatise against St. Bernard and by others. Some writers even taught that Mary was born of a virgin and that she was conceived in a miraculous manner when Joachim and Anne met at the golden gate of the temple (Trombelli, “Mari SS. Vita”, Sect. V, ii, 8; Summa aurea, II, 948. Cf also the “Revelations” of Catherine Emmerich which contain the entire apocryphal legend of the miraculous conception of Mary. From this summary it appears that the belief in Mary’s immunity from sin in her conception was prevalent amongst the Fathers, especially those of the Greek Church.
In clear terms, the Church teaches that Our Lady had no sin whatsoever in her life. She was not just remarkably “saintly” or “upright.” Referring to someone who is upright and holy, Scripture says that the “righteous man falls seven times” (Prov. 24:16). Even the saints, St. Thomas tells us, in momentary weakness occasionally fall into “indeliberate” venial sins in situations that they would normally be able to handle (cf. II-II, 184, 2). The sole exception to this, other than our Blessed Lord, was His Virgin Mother, who like her Son, was totally free from the slightest sin while here on earth. The sinlessness of Mary, the Church holds, is total and without exception. Beginning with her conception – by the foreseen merits of Christ – she was preserved free from the stain and effects of original sin, so that never for a moment of her earthly existence did she comes under the dominion of the devil. All other human beings inherit the consequences of the sin of Adam and Eve, and come into this world separated from God until restored to His friendship through the sacrament of baptism. Hence, as the poet Wordsworth so beautifully puts it, Mary is “our tainted nature’s solitary boast”….
• Prof. Michael Ogunu is the President and Coordinator of the World Apostolate of Fatima in Africa.