Mary’s Immaculate Conception

Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary was formulated with absolute precision and for all time in the Bull of Pope Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus, on December 8, 1854. The essential words of the definition are these:

The most blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instant of her conception, was by the singular grace and privilege of almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin. This doctrine is revealed by God and therefore must be firmly and constantly believed by all the faithful. (1)

As is evident from the terms of this proposition, there are two constitutive elements in the definition: 1. a declaration of the privilege itself of the Immaculate Conception; 2. a statement of the certitude of that privilege.

1. Declaration of the Privilege

In order the better to understand what is contained within this singular privilege of Christ’s Mother, one may examine the component parts, or “causes” of the Immaculate Conception. These are:

a) Material cause, or subject. Obviously, the subject of the Immaculate Conception is the person of the Blessed Virgin Mary, considered in the first instant of her conception in the womb of her mother. A human begins to be, in the true sense, at the moment the soul is created by God and infused into the fetus, and this is the moment of animation. That is called Mary’s “passive conception.” Passive conception is the terminus of the parents’ generative act, which act is, by way of contradistinction, called “active conception.” (2)

Before the human fetus is informed by a rational soul, the conception is known as “inchoate,” while from the instant of the animation of the fetus, the conception is “consummated.” (3) It is solely when the fetus is consummately conceived that a person has come into being. At precisely what stage of fetal development the soul is created and infused by God has always provided theologians with material for subtle discussion, but modern writers commonly favor the opinion that it takes place at the very first moment of fecundation. The definition of the Immaculate Conception offers no intimation as to the official teaching of the Church on the point.

Surely it would be untenable to argue in favor of any sanctification of Mary prior to the animation of the fetus, for until the moment of the substantial union between soul and body there is not yet a person, and hence no possible subject of grace. Only a rational person can be sanctified. The privilege accordingly affects uniquely the person of the Virgin, and not merely the soul nor merely the virginal body of the Mother of God. The initial sanctity of Mary concerns exclusively her personal conception achieved in sanctifying grace. Her freedom from the stain of all sin is identified with her being and her personality. (4)

b) Formal cause, or object. This aspect of the privilege of the Immaculate Conception concerns the fact of the preservation of the Virgin from all stain of original sin. The definition directly denies that she contracted the guilt of Adam’s curse, and so indirectly it affirms, because of the diametrical opposition between sin and grace, that she possessed sanctifying grace from the first instance of her personal existence. Original sin, according to the settled teaching of the Church, is the deprivation of grace inflicted upon the posterity of Adam as a consequence of his personal sin; it is a radical enmity between a sinful mankind and the Creator. (5) Therefore, directly to exempt Mary from this essential effect of original sin is indirectly to affirm that she enjoyed an original sanctity through grace, with its accompanying adoptive filiation as a child of God. She was ever on terms of perfect friendship with God. (6)

Similarly, the privilege of the Immaculate Conception is expressed negatively when it is stated that Mary was always without original sin. It is expressed positively when it is stated that she always had sanctifying grace. While in the words of the very definition of the doctrine the formula employs the negative statement, yet in other cognate sections of the Bull Ineffabilis Deus the positive aspect receives due emphasis. A like duality of expression of the Virgin’s sanctity, two sides of the one coin, appears in the writings of the Fathers of the Church and of later theologians, wherein sometimes is emphasized the negation of all sin, while again is stressed rather the positive fullness of grace. (7)

The angels and our first parents, prior to the angelic and human falls from grace, were immune from any sin, actual or original. But their immunity is to be distinguished from that proper to the Mother of God, for she was preserved immune. As will be seen in greater detail later, the immunity attributed to her was divinely provided for in view of the merits of Christ, which were applied to her in an exceptional and unique manner. She was redeemed. (8) The grace which adorned the angelic nature, like that granted to Adam and Eve, was “owed” to them in the hypothesis that God had decreed the elevation of the angels and of our first parents to the supernatural order. Having so to speak “obligated” Himself to give the means by which alone such an elevation could be realized, God accordingly constituted the angels and the first man and woman in a state of sanctifying grace. (9) But in the case of Mary, although in fact she was, in virtue of the privilege of the Immaculate Conception, constituted in grace from the first moment of her existence, nevertheless as a lineal descendant of Adam’s infected nature, she would have been conceived in sin, had not God intervened to preserve her. (10) This miraculous preservation will be considered at length in a subsequent part of this article.

Finally, the immunity of the Blessed Virgin Mary from the stain of man’s primal sin is specifically different from the freedom possessed by her divine Son. (11) He had no human father according to the flesh, for the active principle of His carnal generation was the overshadowing action of the Holy Spirit, in virtue of which His Mother conceived Him. (12) Since no seed of Adam begot Christ, there can be no question of tainted human nature in any way infecting Him. Surely the Redeemer of mankind needed no redemption!

c) Efficient cause of the privilege of the Immaculate Conception is God, or rather His great love for the woman destined to be the Mother of the Incarnate Word. This divine benevolent love motivated God to preserve Mary from the stain of all sin, in view of her sacred Maternity and through the merits of Christ her Son. This wondrous immunity effected by God’s love and special providence still numbered Mary among the redeemed, but with the unique modality of redemption that might better be called “preredemption” or “redemption in a more sublime manner” than that accorded to all other children of Adam. While in the case of the rest of mankind the merits of the Savior are applied in suchwise as to free them from the guilt of original sin already contracted at their conception; in Mary’s case, on the contrary, the fruit of Christ’s redeeming life and death was applied in suchwise as to preserve her from ever contracting Adam’s guilt. Accordingly, this gratuitous concession on the part of God did not infringe at all on the formality of the Savior’s redemptive role. (13)

While the redemption obtained by other humans is properly described as “restorative” or “liberative,” that of Mary is simply known as “preservative,” and is incomparably of a nobler kind.

In this light it is evident that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception does not derogate from the universality of Christ’s Redemption, for Mary, although immaculately conceived, was still redeemed by her Son, whose theandric life and piacular death contain the meritorious cause of His Mother’s singular grace. It was the difficulty of a seeming derogation from the universality of Christ’s redemption which had prevented theologians prior to the Franciscan, Duns Scotus (+ 1308), from affirming the truth of Mary’s Immaculate Conception. It is the particular glory of Scotus, in regard to the entire doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, that he demonstrated not only the nonrepugnance of the dogma in the context of mankind’s original sin, but its nonrepugnance as well in the context of Christ’s universal Redemption. Other theologians denied that Mary was conceived in grace because they were persuaded that to admit it would be to detract from the honor due Christ. It remained for Scotus, on the contrary, to show that by denying the Immaculate Conception one indeed would derogate from the excellence of Christ insofar as He is a perfect Redeemer. (14)

d) Final cause, in the sense of the ultimate reason for the Immaculate Conception, was that Mary might be a fully worthy instrument for the accomplishment of the Incarnation. (15) As to the dogmatic definition itself, its ultimate reason was, as the Bull declares, “the honor of the most holy and undivided Trinity, the adornment and dignity of the Virgin Mother of God, and the exaltation of the Catholic Faith and Christian religion.” (16)

2. Certitude of the Privilege

The Bull Ineffabilis Deus defines that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is

“revealed by God and therefore must be firmly and constantly believed by all the faithful.” (17) Since this truth is, according to the words of the Sovereign Pontiff, a revealed one, it follows that it must be formally contained in the deposit of divine revelation, and not merely contained virtually therein as a theological conclusion the minor premise of which is human reason. While Pope Pius IX seems to indicate that the doctrine is formally revealed, still he does not specify whether that revelation has been made to us in an explicit manner by God, that is to say, in an express and direct manner, or whether it has been revealed only implicitly, that is to say, indirectly and obscurely. That question the Pontiff left to the deliberations of theologians, (18) restricting himself to declaring that the Immaculate Conception is a truth revealed by God. That something is in fact contained in the deposit of revelation is one thing: the way in which it is contained is another thing. Since God can reveal a truth explicitly or implicitly, it follows accordingly that this truth itself can likewise be included in revelation either explicitly or implicitly. (19)

According to the principles of the Catholic Faith, all revealed truth is enveloped in Scripture and Tradition, and one must accept, “with like pious affection and reverence” the two sources of revelation. (20) Hence the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is not merely deduced from revelation without actually being revealed; nor is it some dogmatic fact in some way only connected with a revealed dogma to which it stands related; nor is it a new doctrine. The truth of Mary’s Immaculate Conception is undeniably one given by God to the Apostles in revelation, and delivered by them to the Church. (21) The certitude of the doctrine is rooted not merely in the authoritative teaching office of the Catholic Church, making use of Scripture and Apostolic Tradition, but the writings of the Fathers and later theologians, together with the common consent of the vast body of the faithful, all offer irrefragable testimony to that certitude.

Adversaries of the Doctrine

Only non-Catholics stand opposed to the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary. Among them must be numbered the schismatic Greek “Orthodox” Church, the “Old Catholics” founded by Dollinger late in the nineteenth century, Protestants of all sects, Rationalists, and divers other groupings. All these object to the doctrine itself, maintaining that it is no part of the Christian religion, and so reject the definition as contrary to revealed truth. As grounds for refusal to accept the Immaculate Conception, spokesmen for the objectors allege the same difficulties offered by adversaries prior to the solemn definition in 1854. This contrary position is expressed succinctly in the question of the Protestant theologian Harnack: “If this truth is a revealed one, when was it revealed and to whom?” (22)

Tenor of the Bull “Ineffabilis Deus”