Early on in my priestly ministry a woman who is a very good friend of mine confided to me about her state of frustration and annoyance when she discovered that she was pregnant with one of the “middle number” of her six children. Being a good Catholic, she never entertained the thought of abortion and surely never deliberately “rejected” this new life in her womb. Her attitude seems to have been characterized by that Stoicism which many of us try to pass off as “abandonment to Divine Providence,” but which, in reality, represents a rejection of God’s will for us together with those people or situations which He has brought into our lives without our permission.
The invitation to say with Mary “I am the servant of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38) was not readily accepted. Rather, she “resigned” herself to the presence of a child whose “timing” did not coincide with her’s or her husband’s. It may seem a bit harsh to describe her stance as one of rejection, but at base that is what it was: an unwillingness to accept God’s plan and this new life. On the other hand, with three little ones already “under foot” and vying for her attention along with her husband, her attitude was quite understandable. No doubt the rejection was not a conscious refusal, but for all of that it was nonetheless real.
Surely one of the great contributions of modern psychology to child-rearing in our century has been to highlight the importance of the relationship of the mother with the child in her womb from the very time when she becomes conscious of its existence. No doubt mothers have always grasped this intuitively. Still, it is one of the merits the nascent disciplines of psychology and psychiatry in our times to have underscored with ever greater clarity the inestimable importance of the mother/child bonding process which begins in the womb.
When the mother is happy, the child is at peace; when she is upset, the child experiences unrest and disquiet. The primal communication which takes place between the child and its mother cannot be discounted and nor should it be minimized. The healthy development of the infant in the womb depends not only on its mother’s physical well-being, but also—and even more importantly—on her emotional and spiritual state. In this context one can begin to appreciate the emphasis of the so-called “French School of Spirituality” (which had its beginning with Cardinal Pierre de Bérulle (1575-1629) and continued with his disciples such as the Venerable Jean-Jacques Olier (1608-1657) and St. John Eudes (1601-1680), on the nine months during which Jesus lived in the womb of Mary. These men rightly perceived the mystery of the beauty and depth of the communication which took place between Mary and her Son during this blessed period. Olier and Eudes especially would speak of this communication as being between their hearts (1).
If even just for a time during pregnancy a mother should seriously consider terminating the life of her child by abortion—even though she never carries out such an act—this contemplated rejection will have its inevitable effect on the child. The child (and eventually the adult) may never be able to put his finger on this spurning or be able to articulate it, but he or she will have been “hurt” by maternal rejection, even if the rejection was only temporary and this hurt will most probably, in turn, contribute, at least to some extent, to the malformation of a human personality. Here is how the Dominican Father Paul Hinnebusch puts it:
Though most children are lovingly received by the mothers who conceive them, many children are unwanted. An unwanted child in his mother’s womb already senses that he is unwanted, even before his sense of touch has developed. For his nerves are already responding to the nerves of his mother’s body. If she resents his presence in her womb, he feels this in all the fibres of his being, and he reacts with an incipient fear of the very one who should be loving and cherishing him (2).
It seems to me that one of the great merits of the “charismatic renewal” in recent decades in the various Christian Churches and ecclesial bodies has been to facilitate the Spirit of God in not only indicating the existence of such hurts, but even more in pointing to the possibility of their being healed.
Let us turn again to my friend. Eventually, by the gift of God’s grace, she became consciously aware of her previous negativity toward the child she was carrying and told me that after her birth (the child was a girl) she did all she could to lavish special affection on this child to make up for her attitude of unwelcome during those important first weeks of life. My friend had become sensitized to a profound fact that is more and more recognized by modern psychology, namely that from the beginning of life in the womb a child (fetus) is influenced by the disposition of those closest to it, most especially by its mother.
What we have considered here from a psychological perspective translates into an equally important theological one. It speaks of original sin as the state of “being hurt by the sins of others through no fault of one’s own.” It is a process which began in Adam and Eve and, as attested to by the Psalmist (Ps 51:5), affects each of us concretely from the first moment of our existence. Quite without our being able to do anything about it, we are marred in our very formation, not insofar as our life comes from God, but insofar as the effects of the sins of others are communicated to us and hurt us. Father Hinnebusch puts it this way:
The sin of our “first parents” is transmitted to us in the sins of our more immediate parents, and we in turn ratify it. Thus, the child who is already fearful and resentful in his mother’s womb is likely someday to accept consciously and ratify willingly this resentment, which at first is but the spontaneous reaction of the nerve fibres of his sense life. His is likely to turn the resentment into sin when he comes to the use of reason by consenting to it and turning it into a willful act of rejection of those who have rejected him. And thus he too will become a full-fledged sinner like those who have sinned against him (3).
This is not to say that from the womb we are flawed “beyond redemption,” but it does help to explain why we need redemption from the time of our birth. In this very real sense the “hang-ups” of our parents become ours and the Israelite proverb is verified that “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” (Ezek 18:2).
My friend went a step further in sharing her hard-won insight and said: “Don’t you see now why it was necessary for Mary to be preserved from original sin in order that she would have no ‘hang-ups’ that would mar Jesus’ human development?” Not only would being conceived in a sinful, sin-prone human person be repugnant to God’s holiness, but such would also wound his humanity, thus preventing the Son of God from having a “perfect human nature” and consequently from being the “perfect Savior.”
My friend’s seemingly simple insight has astounded me ever since and taught me something that I never learned in a theological lecture room: far from being merely a special prerogative which God gave to Mary as a further “jewel in her crown,” her Immaculate Conception is, in the first instance, just like the Incarnation itself of which it is an integral element, “for us men and for our salvation.” Mary’s being preserved from sin from the first moment of her existence is ultimately a gift for us, even as it is personally also a unique gift for her.
In order for the Virginal conception of Christ to be “without a hitch,” it was necessary that his Mother should bear no element which could impair the development of his “human personality” (4). In order to accomplish this in the most perfect way God provided that Mary “in the first instant of her Conception … in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin” (5) or to express this in a completely positive way (as St. Luke does in his gospel), he transformed her by his grace from her very beginning (6). In this sense there is an extraordinary divine logic in both the conception of Jesus and of his Mother: the Virginal conception of Christ calls for the immaculate conception of Mary as its perfect complement (7). John Macquarrie, former Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity and Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, further fleshes out this “divine logic” with regard to Mary’s conception:
Children, unfortunately, are sometimes conceived in drunkenness, sometimes in lust, sometimes by accident, and such children, alas, from the very moment of conception have been made victims of human sin. If we could imagine a child conceived out of pure love before God, would not such a child from the very moment of conception—I mean, conceived in the loving desire of the parents for the child even before they came together in sexual union—would not such a child be from the beginning the recipient of grace? This is no mere sentimentality but simply the recognition that human beings are personal beings, not just biological organisms, the recognition that sees the creative moment of conception, whether for good or bad, in the personal relation subsisting between the parents rather than in the biological phenomenon of a fusion of cells. Even before birth, a child growing into relation with its mother, and from the very beginning is receiving influences that help to mould it one way or another. Already that child is becoming an individual person within the community of persons to which it belongs (8).
Not only is Mary’s Immaculate Conception a gift for us in terms of its original purpose, but it continues to be a gift for us in the here and now. Even the best of parents with the best of intentions make mistakes which can have devastating consequences for their offspring. As through Baptism into Jesus we are given the perfect Father (cf. Mt 6:9; Lk 11:2; Rom 8:15; Gal 4:6), so, by the will of Christ are we also given the perfect mother (cf. Jn 19:26-27) (9). Just as God, Our Father, begins the process of the reversal of the effects of original sin in Baptism, so He has ordained that through Mary this radical healing should be aided and continued in us.
Catholic exegesis has with mounting consistency seen Mary as the “Woman of Genesis” (cf. Gen 3:15) (10), the one who aides us in our struggle against the serpent, the one who can intercede for our healing and purification as no other creature can. I believe that this is a secret that God wants us to share: Mary Immaculate is the perfect mother who can help us to overcome every hurt that even the best of mothers have unintentionally caused us. Truly her Immaculate Conception, like the Incarnation for which it was the perfect preparation, is propter nos homines et propter nostram salutem.
Published on January 19, 2008 by Msgr. Arthur B. Calkins in General Mariology
Msgr. Arthur B. Calkins was an official of the Pontifical Commission “Ecclesia Dei” in Rome, a contributing member of the Pontifical International Marian Academy and the author of Totus Tuus. He is internationally known for his numerous articles on Our Lady and for his scholarly work in the fields of dogmatic and spiritual theology.
(1) Cf. A. B. Calkins, “The Union of the Hearts of Jesus and Mary in St. Francis de Sales and St. John Eudes,” Miles Immaculatae 25 (1989) 472-512, especially 491, 493, 496-7.
(2) Paul Hinnebusch, O.P., Mother of Jesus Present With Us (Libertyville, IL: Prow Books, 1980) 154.
(3) Hinnebusch 155.
(4) I use this terminology while fully adhering to the article of faith which affirms that the Son of God is a Divine Person. Although he has both a human and a divine nature, it is not correct to speak of Jesus being a “human person” because this would imply that He is a creature. He has a created nature, but is not a created person. Nonetheless, I believe that when this is clearly understood, it is quite possible to speak of his “human personality” and its development in terms of Lk. 2:40 & 52.
(5) Ineffabilis Deus, Apostolic Constitution on the Immaculate Conception in Our Lady: Papal Teachings, trans. Daughters of St. Paul (Boston: St. Paul Editions, 1961) #62.
(6) Father Ignace de la Potterie, S.J. argues cogently for understanding kecharitoméne, the word commonly rendered “full of grace” and “favored one” in Lk. 1:28 in this way. Cf. his two articles “Kecharitoméne en Lc 1, 28,” Biblica 68 (1987) 357-82; 480-508 and his book Maria nel mistero dell’alleanza (Genova: Casa Editrice Marietti, 1988) 47-51. Cf. also René Laurentin’s treatment in The Truth of Christmas Beyond the Myths: The Gospels of the Infancy of Christ trans. Michael J. Wrenn & assocs. (Petersham, MA: St. Bede’s Publications, 1986) 18-9 and the scholarly assessment by Ernesto della Corta, “Kecharitoméne (Lc. 1, 28) Crux interpretum,” Marianum LII (1990) 101-48.
(7) Blessed Pope Pius IX put it this way in Ineffabilis Deus: “God, by one and the same decree, had established the origin of Mary and the Incarnation of Divine Wisdom” (Our Lady #34). The Servant of God Pope Pius XII quoted this statement in his Apostolic Constitution on the Assumption, Munificentissimus Deus (Our Lady #520) and the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council restated it in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium #61.
(8) John Macquarrie, Mary For All Christians (London: William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd., 1991) 68-9.
(9) I was genuinely delighted years ago to discover that a Protestant woman who exercised a ministry of inner healing, Ruth Carter Stapleton, was in the process of discovering Mary’s spiritual maternity as well. Cf. Ruth Carter Stapleton, The Gift of Inner Healing (New York: Bantam Books, 1977) 52-54.
(10) Cf. Michael O’Carroll, C.S.Sp., Theotokos: A Theological Encyclopedia of the Blessed Virgin Mary(Wilmington, DE & Dublin: Michael Glazier, Inc. & Dominican Publications, 1982) 370-3; André Feuillet, P.S.S., “La Connexion de la Revelation Divine avec l’Histoire du Salut dans l’Annonce Prophetique du Sauveur Messianique et de sa Mère,” Divinitas 32 (1988) 543-64; 643-65; Pope John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Redemptoris Mater #11, 47.