One of the central Marian doctrines of the Catholic Church is the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. This doctrine, which received the added certainty of an infallible definition by Pope Pius IX in 1854, proclaims that Mary was conceived without any stain of Original Sin. Before examining the full solemn pronouncement of Pope Pius IX, which was issued with the papal charism of being protected from error by the power of the Holy Spirit, let us first examine the revealed seeds of this doctrine as they are contained in Scripture and Tradition.
From Sacred Scripture we have at least two passages of the Bible that present the implicit seed of the revealed truth of Mary’s Immaculate Conception.
In Genesis 3:15, after Adam and Eve committed Original Sin, God addresses Satan, who is represented by the serpent: “I will put enmity between you and the woman and between your seed and her seed; he (1) shall crush your head, and you shall lie in wait for his heel.” Since the “seed” of the woman is Jesus Christ, who is to crush Satan victoriously in the Redemption, then the woman must in fact refer to Mary, Mother of the Redeemer.
The word “enmity,” which is rich in meaning in this passage, signifies “in opposition to.” The enmity established between the “seed” of the woman, which is Jesus, and the “seed” of the serpent, which is sin, and all evil angels and humans, is in absolute and complete opposition, because there is absolute and complete opposition between Jesus and all evil. In other words, the seed of the woman and the seed of Satan have to be in complete and total opposition to each other as depicted in the term “enmity.”
Further in the passage we see the identical God-given opposition or enmity given and proclaimed by God between the woman, Mary, and the serpent, Satan. Mary is given the same absolute and perpetual opposition to Satan as Jesus possesses in relation to sin. It is for this reason that Mary could not have received a fallen nature as a result of Original Sin. Any participation in the effects of Original Sin would place the Mother of Jesus in at least partial participation with Satan and sin, thereby destroying the complete God-given opposition as revealed in Genesis 3.
The opposition between Jesus and sin is paralleled by the opposition between the woman, Mary, and the serpent, Satan. Again, this tells us that Mary could not participate in the fallen nature of man because that would mean participating, at least partially, in the domain of sin, a reality to which God gave Mary complete opposition.
From the New Testament the principle scriptural seed for the Immaculate Conception is revealed in the inspired words of the Angel Gabriel, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you” (Lk 1:28). In the angelic greeting, Mary’s name is nowhere used. Rather, the title “full of grace” is used as a substitute for Mary’s name by the angelic messenger of God. These angelic words refer to a fullness of grace, a plentitude of grace that is part of Mary’s very nature. So much is Mary’s very being full of grace that this title serves to identify Mary in place of her own name. It is also true that no person with a fallen nature could possess a fullness of grace, a plentitude of grace, appropriate only for the woman who was to give God the Son an identical, immaculate human nature. Mary was conceived in providence to be the woman who would give her same immaculate nature to God when God became man. Certainly, we can see the fittingness in God receiving a human nature from a human mother, and receiving an immaculate nature from a truly immaculate mother.
In the Greek text of Luke 1:28, we have an additional implicit reference to Mary’s Immaculate Conception taking place before the announcement of the Angel. The Greek word kecharitomene, is a perfect participle, and so we translate Luke 1:28 most accurately in this way, “Hail, you who have been graced.” The Greek translation of the angel’s greeting refers to an event of profound grace experienced by Mary that was already completed in the past. (2)
These implicitly revealed seeds of the Immaculate Conception blossomed gradually but steadily in the Tradition of the Church. The early Church Fathers refer to Mary under such titles as “all holy,” “all pure,” “most innocent,” “a miracle of grace,” “purer than the angels,” “altogether without sin,” and these within the first three centuries of the Church. Since the word “immaculate” means “without sin,” then the titles used for Mary by the early Fathers, such as “altogether without sin,” certainly contain the understanding of her immaculate nature (cf. Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus, 1854).
The early Church Fathers also compared Mary’s sinless state as being identical to Eve’s state before the participation of Eve in Original Sin. Mary as the “New Eve” was seen to be in the same state of original grace and justice that Eve was in when she was created by God. Since Eve was obviously conceived in grace, without the fallen nature that we receive due to Original Sin, the parallel made by the Church Fathers between Mary and Eve before the fall illustrates their understanding of Mary’s likewise immaculate nature.
In the words of St. Ephraem (d.373): “Those two innocent… women, Mary and Eve, had been (created) utterly equal, but afterward one became the cause of our death, the other the cause of our life.” We can see the complete parallel between the sinless Eve before the fall and the sinless Mary. St. Ephraem also refers to Mary’s sinless nature in this address to Our Lord: “You and your Mother are the only ones who are immune from all stain; for there is no spot in Thee, O Lord, nor any taint in Your Mother.” (3)
In time, references to Mary’s Immaculate Conception became more and more explicit and developed. To quote a few examples:
St. Ambrose (d.397) refers to Mary as “free from all stain of sin.” (4)
St. Severus, Bishop of Antioch (d.538) states: “She (Mary)…formed part of the human race, and was of the same essence as we, although she was pure from all taint and immaculate.” (5)
St. Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem (d.638), refers to Mary’s pre-purification at conception, addressing the Virgin: “You have found the grace which no one has received…. No one has been pre-purified besides you.” (6)
St. Andrew of Crete (d.740) tells us that the Redeemer chose “in all nature this pure and entirely Immaculate Virgin.” (7)
Theognostes of Constantinople (c.885) writes: “It was fitting indeed that she who from the beginning had been conceived by a sanctifying action…should also have a holy death…holy, the beginning…holy, the end, holy her whole existence.” (8)
These patristic references are important, for occasionally one encounters the misunderstanding that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception began with the infallible declaration of Pius IX in 1854. This position is not only dogmatically confused but is historically in error. These patristic references to the Immaculate Conception within the first five hundred years and then later within the first millennium of the Church, testify to the growing fundamental understanding of the doctrine present in the Church’s Tradition.
Papal Definition of the Immaculate Conception
We see then, how the living Church of Christ grew in its understanding of the divinely revealed truth of Mary’s conception without Original Sin. This doctrinal blossoming eventually led to the solemn papal pronouncement of Pius IX in 1854. Let us examine the specific infallible definition of Pius IX.
The papal document Ineffabilis Deus in 1854 proclaims as follows:
We declare, pronounce and define that the doctrine which holds that the Most Blessed Virgin Mary, at the first instant of her conception, was preserved immune from all stain of sin, by a singular grace and privilege of the Omnipotent God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was revealed by God and must be firmly and constantly believed by all the faithful.
The charism of papal infallibility is that gift of the Holy Spirit which protects the Pope in his office as successor of St. Peter and Vicar of Christ on earth from error regarding a final pronouncement on faith and morals. When speaking ex-cathedra (“from the chair,” or in his official capacity as head of the Church on earth), the Holy Spirit protects the Pope from any error in safeguarding the deposit of faith and morals entrusted to the Church (cf. Mt 16:18; Jn 21:15-17; Lk 22:31).
In this concise ex-cathedra definition, Pope Pius IX summarizes several foundational elements regarding Mary’s Immaculate Conception. First, it states that Mary, from the moment her soul was created and infused into her body, which is known theologically as “passive conception,” was preserved from the effects of Original Sin and, thereby, entered human existence in the state of sanctifying grace.
Due to the sin of our first human parents, all human beings are conceived in a deprived state without the sanctifying grace in their souls that God had originally intended. Hence, there is the need for sacramental Baptism which restores the life of grace in the soul.
Belief in Mary’s Immaculate Conception is not difficult if we remember that it was God’s original intention that all humans be conceived in sanctifying grace. God’s original plan was for all humans to begin their existence in the family of God in the state of sanctifying grace. It was only as a result of Original Sin that we are now conceived in a state deprived of sanctifying grace. Mary, rather than being the exception, fulfills in a real sense the original intention of what God wanted for all His human children: to be members of His family from the first moment of their existence.
This preservation from Original Sin for Mary was nonetheless “a singular privilege.” The definition testifies that the Immaculate Conception was a unique privilege given by the all-powerful God to Mary alone. This free gift from God prepared Mary to be the stainless Mother of God-made-man. And it fittingly allowed Mary to give Jesus an immaculate human nature, identical to her own, which respects the law of motherhood. For we know that God the Son could not be united to a stained fallen nature when he became man. How appropriate it is that Mary could give Jesus an immaculate nature as a mother rightly passes on to her offspring her identical nature.
Mary’s Preservative Redemption
An important section of the papal definition states that this unique gift to Mary was granted “in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race.” Mary received sanctifying grace at conception through an application of the saving graces that Jesus merited for all humanity on the Cross. Mary was redeemed by Jesus Christ as every human being must be.
It was this question of the universal redemption of Jesus Christ that led several noted theologians during the scholastic period of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries to have difficulties (9) in understanding and accepting the Immaculate Conception.
Preservative Redemption explains that Mary’s preservation from Original Sin was an application by God of the saving graces merited by Jesus Christ on Calvary. Mary was redeemed at the moment of her conception through sanctifying grace by an application of Jesus’ merits on Calvary. God, being out of time, has the power to apply the graces of redemption to individuals in different times of history and did so to Mary at the first moment of her existence.
That Mary’s soul was preserved from Original Sin at the moment of conception does not mean that Mary had no need of the redemption of Jesus; rather, Mary owed more to the redemption of Jesus than anyone else. In fact, Mary received from her Son a higher form of redemption.
Why is Mary’s Immaculate Conception a higher form of redemption? Because all other human beings are redeemed after they have received a fallen nature through sacramental Baptism. Mary, on the contrary, was redeemed by the grace of Jesus at conception, the grace which prevented Mary from ever receiving a fallen nature. Hence, the grace of Jesus redeemed Mary at conception before her nature was affected by sin. And so, we rightly say that Mary owed more to Christ than anyone else. Through the graces of Jesus at Calvary, Mary never received a fallen nature but was sanctified and thereby redeemed from the first instance of her existence.
Many theologians viewed Mary’s gift of sanctifying grace at conception as running contrary to Scripture passages, like Romans 5, which refer to Christ’s need to redeem all humanity because of Original Sin and its effects. It was the insightful contribution of Blessed Duns Scotus (d.1308) who solved this theological misunderstanding with the principle of what is called “Preservative Redemption.”
This theological contribution by Blessed Duns Scotus helped many a theologian to see the profound complementarity between the universal redemption of Jesus Christ and the Immaculate Conception of His Mother. In short, Mary needed to be saved and was saved in an exalted way by her Son. (10)
The splendor of Mary’s Immaculate Conception is echoed in these words of the Second Vatican Council:
It is no wonder then that it was customary for the Fathers to refer to the Mother of God as all holy and free from every stain of sin, as though fashioned by the Holy Spirit and formed as a new creature. Enriched from the first instant of her conception with the splendor of an entirely unique holiness, the virgin of Nazareth is hailed by the heralding angel, by divine command, as “full of grace” (cf. Lk l:28) (Lumen Gentium, No. 56).
(1) Although some translations have the pronoun “she” for the one crushing the serpent’s head, the original Hebrew somewhat favors the masculine “he.” But in either case, the victory over Satan is ultimately that of Jesus Christ with Mary’s instrumental participation as the “New Eve.”
(2) Cf. Carol, Fundamentals, p. 90.
(3) St. Ephraem, Sermones exegetici, opera, omnia syriace et latine, 2 (Rome, 1740), 327.
(4) St. Ambrose, Exposito in Psalm 118, Sermon 22, n. 30, PL 15, 1599.
(5) St. Severus, Hom. cathedralis, 67, Patrologia Orientalis (PO) 8, 350.
(6) St. Sophronius, Orat in Deiparae Annunt., 25, PG 87, 3246-3247.
(7) St. Andrew, Hom. 1 in Nativ. Deiparae, PG 97, 913-914.
(8) Theognostes, Hom., in Dorm. Deiparae, Greffin-Nau, PO 16, 467.
(9) The other principal objection to the Immaculate Conception in the scholastic age was based on the misunderstood notion of how Original Sin was transmitted. Since they erroneously held that Original Sin was transmitted from an infected body to the soul once the soul was created and infused, then Mary would have contracted Original Sin from the fallen nature of St. Anne, her mother. It was Blessed Duns Scotus who correctly clarified that Original Sin consisted rather in the absence of sanctifying grace in the soul at conception, a deprivation caused by the sin of Adam and Eve. Hence, Mary, by the merits of Jesus Christ, was granted that gift of sanctifying grace in her soul at conception.
(10) Cf. Burghart, S.J., “Mary in Eastern Patristic Thought” in J. B. Carol, Mariology, Vol. II, Bruce, 1957; Carr, “Mary’s Immaculate Conception” in Mariology, Vol. I, Bruce, 1955; O’Carroll, “Immaculate Conception” in Theotokos; Carol, Fundamentals of Mariology, Benziger Brothers, 1956, p. 90-115.