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What is the Immaculate Conception?

Joël Sprung - published on 01/21/13

What does the dogma of the Immaculate Conception entail, and why is it important?

Scripture says that Mary is “full of grace.” By virtue of this grace, she was preserved from original sin from the moment of her conception. Throughout her life she also remained pure from all personal sin, and it was in this state of exceptional holiness that she was able to carry the Son of God in her womb. This teaching, which was passed down by the Fathers of the Church, was promulgated definitively in 1854 by Pope Pius IX in the papal bull Ineffabilis Deus. Chosen as the vessel for the Incarnation of the Word, Mary was redeemed from the beginning of time by the death and resurrection of her Son.

“To become the mother of the Savior, Mary was enriched by God with gifts appropriate to such a role. At the Annunciation, the Archangel Gabriel salutes her as “full of grace” (Luke 1:28). In fact, “in order for Mary to be able to give the free assent of her faith to the announcement of her vocation, it was necessary that she be wholly borne by God’s grace” (CCC 490).

The Incarnation united two natures – one human and one divine – in the one person of Christ. Given this most exceptional union, it was necessary that she who would bear God incarnate be perfectly holy. For her part in this union, it was fitting that Mary act in perfect freedom so that she could truthfully and freely espouse the will of God, and indeed, it is only when man is freed from sin that he is truly free. In Mary, this freedom needed to be complete in order to accept her vocation: an intimate union with God.
Moreover, Church Tradition teaches that just as death entered the world through a woman’s sin, so the world is then saved through a woman’s assent to God’s will. Thus, womanhood does not indict woman with culpability for original sin. Were this not the case, all generations of women would have had to bear the shame of original sin by virtue of their share in Eve’s womanhood. But by the election of Mary, we are distanced from this error, and directed to a just appreciation of woman’s admirable dignity, for it was also a woman who gave birth to the Son of God by whom the world was saved; a woman who was thus elevated to the highest dignity, a dignity above all creatures: “The knot of Eve's disobedience was untied by Mary's obedience: what the virgin Eve bound through her disbelief, Mary loosened by her faith” (CCC 494).
Filled with grace that was received entirely from God, the most Blessed Virgin Mary could freely and fully give herself to Him. In order to become the Mother of God, she responded with a gift that was like the one she herself had received. The Immaculate Conception allowed Mary the freedom to make this perfect gift.

“Through the centuries, the Church has become ever more aware that Mary, “full of grace” (Luke 1:28) through God, was redeemed from the moment of her conception. That is what the dogma of the Immaculate Conception confesses, as Pope Pius IX proclaimed in 1854” (CCC 491).

The dogma of the Immaculate Conception is rooted in the account of the Annunciation. Tradition has always interpreted the greeting of the angel – “full of grace” – as indicating the special gift of sinlessness that was given to Mary. The Church has celebrated the sanctity of Mary from the first centuries of Christianity. The Fathers of the Church defined her as “Panaghia”, a title acknowledging her as all holy, sanctified by the Holy Spirit, “lily most pure,” and “immaculate”.
In the West, Church tradition always maintained the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, but its movement towards dogmatic definition was nevertheless met with various theological difficulties. First among these was that the universality of salvation through the death and resurrection of Christ could be challenged by the idea of the sinlessness of Mary, which could indicate she would have had no need of being saved. Furthermore, whether Mary was “conceived without sin” or conceived first, then delivered from sin was yet to be defined.
The real controversy began in Europe in the twelfth century with the birth of universities and scholasticism. Anselm of Canterbury elaborated on the concept of pre-redemption, supporting that redemption was applied to the Virgin Mary before the time of her birth. The Franciscan John Duns (1265 -1308) authored of the maxim “Potuit, decuit, fecit” (meaning, "God could have preserved his Mother from the sin of mankind, it is fitting that he would, and he did so”). The Immaculate Conception, therefore, came to be understood not as an exception to Christ’s redemption, but as its most perfect and effective salvific application.
The controversy continued, however, and in 1439, the question was brought before the Counsel of Basel. After two years of discussions, the counsel pronounced its favor of the Immaculate Conception, but since this was not an ecumenical counsel, the teaching could not be defined as dogma. Starting in the 16th century, major universities became bastions of defense for the teaching.
In 1476, under Pope Sixtus IV, the feast of the Conception of Mary was introduced in the calendar of the Roman Church. On 8 December 1661, Pope Alexander VII promulgated the constitution Sollicitudo Omnium Ecclesiarum, which stated that it was an object of faith that Mary was preserved from original sin from the moment her soul was created and infused into her body. Support for the Immaculate Conception also came in the catechisms of Canisius (16th century), Bellarmine (17th century) and Bossuet (18th century).
In 1830, St. Catherine Labouré (1806-1876) received an apparition of the Virgin Mary, who entrusted her with the duty to spread the devotion of the “Miraculous Medal” throughout the world. The medal was to bear the image of Mary and the inscription “conceived without sin.” So great was the devotion it provoked among the faithful that many bishops asked Pope Gregory XVI to define the dogma of the Immaculate Conception.
Finally, in 1854, the dogma was proclaimed by his successor, Pope Pius IX, in the papal bull Ineffabilis Deus: “The doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God”.
Four years later, a woman clothed in white with a blue sash appeared at Lourdes to the young St. Bernadette Soubirous, saying, “I am the Immaculate Conception,” thereby providing significant confirmation of the proclamation of Pius IX.

“The ‘splendor of an entirely unique holiness’ […] comes wholly from Christ: she is ‘redeemed, in a more exalted fashion, by reason of the merits of her Son.’ The Father blessed Mary more than any other created person ‘in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places’ (Eph 1:3) and chose her ‘in Christ before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless before him in love (cf Eph 1:4)’" (CCC 492).

The Immaculate Conception is what makes the holiness of Mary completely unique. Indeed, though she was saved like us all by the death and resurrection of Christ, salvation was given to her from the moment of her conception. She was chosen by God from “the beginning of time,” and in her, the Word became flesh in “the fullness of time.” These events, with their eschatological impact and necessity, go beyond the simple contingency of the events of this world. These are events that find their source outside of time and in the will of the Almighty. Between them, there is no before or after; there is but one single salvific action of God, made present to the history of man when Providence saw it most fitting.
The Immaculate Conception is also closely linked to the predestination of Mary. “‘God sent forth his Son’ (Gal 4:4), but to prepare a body for him (cf. Heb 10:5), he wanted the free cooperation of a creature. For this, from all eternity God chose for the mother of his Son a daughter of Israel, a young Jewish woman of Nazareth in Galilee, ‘a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary’ (Luke 1:26-27). The Father of mercies willed that the Incarnation should be preceded by assent on the part of the predestined mother, so that just as a woman had a share in the coming of death, so also should a woman contribute to the coming of life (LG 56; cf. 61)” (CCC 488).
Salvation in Christ is a re-creation of man. Christ is the new man – the new Adam – and he destined us to be incorporated into this new humanity which was fulfilled in his body. Thus, in Christ, humanity experiences a radical evolution that is not so much biological as ontological. And, extending the metaphor of evolution, we could also say that the Blessed Virgin Mary is the “missing link” between the old man and the new man. The first creature saved by Christ, and mother of all other creatures, Mary is, so to speak, the sacrament of new birth.
With her, we who are disciples at the foot of the cross can hear Christ say to us, “Here is your mother.” Thus, we too are begotten of Mary, for we are incorporated into the body of her Son. With Mary, we enter into a new line of descent – one that breaks us free from the downward spiral of original sin.
The Immaculate Conception is also related to the Perpetual Virginity of Mary. As the sign of the new creature in Christ, her soul remains pure, just as her body remains virginal. Finally, it is because she was conceived without sin (and remained ever immaculate) that she did not experience the corruption of death. With her, the Universal Church can celebrate her Assumption into heaven, the last Marian dogma. This is what makes the Immaculate Conception so important for the Christian faith.

Translated by Krista Millegan.

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