The dogma of the Immaculate Conception, which was solemnly defined by an infallible pronouncement of Bl. Pius IX in 1854, proclaims that Mary was conceived without the stain of original sin. Mary’s preservation from all stain of sin or its effects was a singular grace and privilege of God the Father in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the universal Redeemer of humanity.
Before examining the full solemn pronouncement of Bl. Pius IX (which was issued through an exercise of the papal charism of infallibility by which the Vicar of Christ is protected from error by the power of the Holy Spirit), let us first examine the revealed seeds of this dogma as they are first contained in Scripture and Tradition.
From Sacred Scripture we have two principal passages that present the implicit seed of Mary’s Immaculate Conception. In Genesis 3:15, after Adam and Eve commit the 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; she shall crush your head, and you shall lie in wait for her 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, from whom the seed of victory comes.
The word “enmity,” which is rich in meaning in this passage, signifies a complete and radical opposition. The enmity God 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 an absolute opposition, because there is absolute enmity between Jesus and all evil.
We see the identical God-given opposition or enmity established 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 enmity as revealed in Genesis 3:15.
God reveals in this Genesis passage that the woman who will give birth to the seed of victory in the future will be in total separation from Satan and sin. Since original sin and its effects constitute a form of union with Satan and his seed, this passage prophesies the future woman free from sin and “immaculate” (sine macula, without stain).
The New Testament inspired seed for the Immaculate Conception is revealed in the 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 words refer to a fullness of grace, a plenitude 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 the place of her own name, which, biblically, always expresses the person.
It is also true that no person with a fallen nature could possess a fullness of grace, a perfection of grace appropriate only for the woman who was to give God the Son an identical, immaculate human nature. Mary was conceived in the plan of God to be the woman who would give her own immaculate nature to God when God became man. Certainly we can see the appropriateness of God receiving a human nature from a human mother, and receiving an immaculate nature from a truly immaculate mother.
The Greek text of Luke 1:28 manifests an additional support for Mary’s Immaculate Conception. The Greek word “kecharitomene,” is a perfect participle, which in Greek denotes an action completed in the past which bears a relevance to the present. We translate Luke 1:28 most accurately, “Hail (or rejoice), you who have been perfected in grace” (or Hail, you who have been fully graced), which refers to an action of profound or perfecting grace, which has taken place in the past, but which remains relevant to the present, i.e., the Immaculate Conception. Note that this part of the angel’s greeting comes before any mention of the invitation to become the Mother of Jesus, and therefore the angelic reference to her perfection of grace is not due directly to her future “yes” to be the Mother of the Savior, but to an action of perfecting grace completed in the past (1).
Patristic Development of the Immaculate Conception
These biblical 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 do so within the first three centuries of the Church (2). As the word “immaculate” signifies “without sin,” these titles used for Mary by the early Fathers, such as “altogether without sin,” contain the essential understanding of her immaculate nature (3).
Moreover, the early Fathers of the Church also compared the Mother of God’s sinless state as being identical to Eve’s spiritual state before her participation in original sin. Mary, the New Eve was acknowledged to be in the same state of original grace and justice that Eve had initially experienced when she was created by God. Since Eve was obviously conceived in grace, without the fallen nature that we receive due to original sin, this parallel made by the Church Fathers illustrates their grasp of Mary’s nature.
For example, St. Ephraem (d.373) writes: “Those two innocent…women, Mary and Eve, had been (created) utterly equal, but afterwards one became the cause of our death, the other the cause of our life.” St. Ephraem also refers to Mary’s sinlessness 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” (4).
References to Mary’s Immaculate Conception became more and more explicit and developed throughout the first millennium of Christianity. To quote a few examples:
• St. Ambrose (d.397) refers to the Blessed Virgin as “free from all stain of sin” (5).
• 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” (6).
• St. Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem (d.638), refers to Mary’s pre-purification in this address to the Virgin: “You have found the grace which no one has received…. No one has been pre-purified besides you” (7).
• St. Andrew of Crete (d.740) tells us that the Redeemer chose “in all nature this pure and entirely Immaculate Virgin” (8).
• Theognostes of Constantinople (c.885) makes explicit reference to Mary’s sanctification as taking place at the moment of conception: “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” (9).
The patristic testimony to the gradually explicit understanding of the Immaculate Conception assists in correcting the misunderstanding that the dogma of the Immaculate Conception began with the infallible declaration of Bl. Pius IX in 1854. The patristic references to the Immaculate Conception within the first millennium of the Church offer historical witness to the maturing understanding of this dogmatic truth present in the Church’s living Tradition.
As the doctrine continued to mature at the beginning of the second millennium, major theological controversies arose concerning the doctrine, particularly in the West, not due to any desire to prevent this honor from being given to the Mother of Jesus, but rather because it appeared to oppose other theories maintained at that time, but later proven to be incorrect.
For example, St. Bernard of Clairvaux thought the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception violated the manner in which original sin was transmitted, in St. Bernard’s view, from the infected body of the parents to the soul of the child. Later theologians, like the Franciscan Bl. John Duns Scotus (d.1308) would clarify that original sin is not transmitted from the infected body of the parents to the soul of the child, but rather from an absence of sanctifying grace in the soul at conception as a result of original sin. Other theologians were concerned about the universality of the Redemption of Jesus Christ, objecting: “if Mary was immaculately conceived, then she did not need to be saved by Jesus Christ” (10). While some of these objections continued for centuries, the Papal Magisterium gradually responded and corrected these misconceptions, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit and with the assistance of theological clarifications of other great Mariologists, such as Bl. John Duns Scotus.
Papal Definition of the Immaculate Conception
By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Magisterium had settled all principal objections, and petitions began flowing into the Vatican from cardinals, bishops, priests, laity, and various heads of state requesting the papal definition of the Immaculate Conception. After consulting with the bishops of the world and establishing a theological commission to study the question, Bl. Pius IX decided to proclaim the doctrine as a solemn dogma on December 8, 1854.
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 (11).
In this concise ex cathedra definition, Bl. Pope Pius IX summarizes several foundational elements regarding the Mother of God’s Immaculate Conception. First, it states that Mary, from the moment her soul was created and infused into her body (which is known 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 most reasonable, if we remember that it was God’s original intention that all mankind be conceived in sanctifying grace and begin their existence in the family of God. 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.
Bl. Pius IX confirms that this preservation from original sin for the Blessed Virgin 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. 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. Moreover, Mary would not suffer any of the effects of original sin, and therefore would retain the three major sets of gifts granted by God to Adam and Eve: the natural gift of a human body, soul, intellect, and will; the principal preternatural gifts of a certain infused knowledge regarding the providence of God, a perfect harmony between reason and the emotions (which the scholastics called integrity), and the natural immortality of the body; and the supernatural gift of sanctifying grace in original justice (12).
Mary’s Preservative Redemption
A critical element 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.
Once again, it was the 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 in understanding and accepting the Immaculate Conception. Many theologians viewed Mary’s gift of sanctifying grace at conception as running contrary to Scripture passages, such as 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 Bl. Duns Scotus (d.1308) who solved this theological misunderstanding with the principle of what is called “Preservative Redemption.”
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 the Blessed Virgin’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. 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 her 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 in any way affected by sin. Thus, 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.
This theological contribution by Bl. 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 (13).
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 1:28) (Lumen Gentium, No. 56).
This article was excerpted from Introduction to Mary: The Heart of Marian Doctrine and Devotion, Queenship, Third Edition, June 2006, and is available from Queenship Publishing at 1-800-647-9882, www.queenship.org., or P.O. Box 220, Goleta, California, 93116, U.S.A.
(1) Cf. Carol, Fundamentals, p. 90.
(2) Cf. Bl. Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus.
(4) St. Ephraem, Sermones exegetici, opera omnia syriace et latine, 2, Rome, 1740, 327.
(5) St. Ambrose, Exposito in Psalm 118, Sermon 22, No. 30, PL 15, 1599.
(6) St. Severus, Hom., cathedralis, 67, PO, 8, 350.
(7) St. Sophronius, Oral in Deiparae Annunt., 25, PG 87, 3246-3247.
(8) St. Andrew, Hom. 1 in Nativ. Deiparae, PG 97, 913-914.
(9) Theognostes, Hom. in Dorm. Deiparae, PO, Graffin-Nau, 16, 467.
(10) 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 Bl. 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.
(11) Cf. Mt 16:18; Jn 21:15-17; Lk 22:32; cf. also Lumen Gentium, No. 25, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 891.
(12) Cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I, Q. 94-101.
(13) Cf. Burghart, S.J., “Mary in Eastern Patristic Thought,” Mariology, II; Aidan Carr, O.F.M.Conv., “Mary’s Immaculate Conception,” Mariology, Vol. I; Michael O’Carroll C.S.Sp., “Immaculate Conception,” Theotokos: A Theological Encyclopedia of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Delaware, Michael Glazier, Inc., 1983; Carol, Fundamentals, p. 90-115.