Why Do Catholics Believe in the Immaculate Conception?
We celebrate a beautiful and important feastday this week, in the middle of advent. December 8 marks the “Feast of the Immaculate Conception” in the Catholic Church. The Church uses the word “Feast” to describe a day of commemoration in which we remember and ponder events of particular significance in salvation history. The teaching of the Immaculate Conception is so fundamental that the Feast has been raised to a Holy Day of Obligation, meaning the truth is so important that we are directed to call it to mind. Unfortunately, few people (even Catholics) seem to know or remember what the Feast of the Immaculate Conception celebrates. Therefore, it might be of great benefit to examine this teaching a little further in order to answer the following questions: (1) What is the Immaculate Conception? (2) Why is it a necessary event in salvation history? (3) What is the evidence and why do we believe in it?
The Immaculate Conception or Misconception?
The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is one of the most misunderstood teachings in the Church. I can only imagine if it appeared as a question on the game show the Family Feud, “The top 4 answers are on the board. We asked a hundred people to define the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. Ring. The answer is Mary’s virgin conception of Jesus in her womb. Ding! Ding! Ding! The number 1 answer! Would you like to play or pass?”
The only problem is that this is not the correct answer! Rather, the term Immaculate Conception refers to Mary’s conception in the womb of her mother St. Anne. In the words of Pope Pius IX,
"We declare, pronounce, and define that 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 and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.” (Apostolic Constitution of Pope Pius IX on the Immaculate Conception December 8, 1854)
In other words, the central belief is that Mary was the recipient of a special gift and preserved from original sin. “To become the mother of the Savior, Mary “was enriched by God with gifts appropriate to such a role.”132…” (CCC 490)
Although it was with these words that Pope Pius IX made the Immaculate Conception official Church teaching in 1854, it would be a mistake to think that it was a new belief. The belief in the Immaculate Conception dates back to the early Christian church. However, “Through the centuries the Church has become ever more aware that Mary, “full of grace” through God, was redeemed from the moment of her conception.” (CCC 491) It was this growth in understanding that led to the formal declaration by Pope Pius IX 1854.
So What Took So Long?
If Christians believed in the Immaculate Conception from the beginning of the Church, what took so long for it to be declared? The answer is that there are several aspects of the Immaculate Conception which make it an easily misunderstood belief. The first objection is that it simply makes Mary too much like God. After all, we all need Jesus!
This is the most common objection made by non-Catholics. “…all have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) As such, we all need a savior and on the surface, this would seem to be an insurmountable obstacle to belief in the Immaculate Conception. Although the Immaculate Conception was a long-held belief, it took centuries for theologians to understand how both Mary’s Immaculate Conception and Paul’s declaration could be true.
The critical misunderstanding is that many think Mary was saved from original sin on the basis of her own merits. But this simply is not true. As Catholics we believe that Mary needed to be saved just as much as you and I. The only difference lies in the manner in which she was saved. While you and I are saved from original sin through baptism, Mary was likewise saved by the grace Christ merited on the cross, only preemptively.
This is at the heart of Pope Pius IX’s declaration, “…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 …” (Apostolic Constitution of Pope Pius IX on the Immaculate Conception December 8, 1854)
Mary was the recipient of a unique gift or “singular grace” by which God “preserved” her at the point of her conception rather than saving her after.
Let’s try to understand this by analogy. Imagine a person who cannot swim. There are actually two ways to save this person from drowning. The first is to throw them a life preserver. This is how we are all saved as we receive the grace of baptism. However, there is a second and better way to save that person. That is to prevent them from ever falling into the water in the first place. This is how Mary was saved.
But how can God save Mary by applying the grace of the cross before Jesus was born, suffered, and died? It’s a good question, and I cannot fully answer it, but we must remember that God is outside of time. The grace of the cross is eternal. It applies to both those who came before Christ and those who came after.
Is the Immaculate Conception still hard to understand? Yes, it is! And that is why it took so long to be officially declared.
Why Is It a Necessary Event in Salvation History?
Why do Catholics believe in the Immaculate Conception? If the teaching is so complicated, it is fair to ask why it is necessary that we believe it at all? “What the Catholic faith believes about Mary is based on what it believes about Christ, and what it teaches about Mary illumines, in turn, its faith in Christ. (963)” (CCC 487) In other words, the reality is that while our beliefs about Mary do reveal truths about her, they are raised to the level of dogma because they reveal a profound truth about God.
The Immaculate Conception exemplifies a fundamental truth about the nature of God and is an essential element in the union of the human race to God in Jesus. It is an indispensable requirement for Jesus to be both truly God and truly man and yet maintain His perfect holiness. So what makes it so necessary?
The most fundamental reality is that “…God is love.” (1 John 4:8) But what does that mean? The nature of love is to be full of goodness and generosity, giving oneself completely to the other while holding nothing back. But the nature of love is also receptive. To receive completely the gift of the other (both the good and bad) in order that one might give back. In fact, this is the very life of the Trinity. God the Father who from eternity is completing pouring Himself out in goodness to the Son, who being all receiving can likewise return that gift for all eternity and lacking nothing. In so doing, that gift is returned in such a profound way that we must give it a name, the Holy Spirit. This is also the life we live in marriage.
Now God’s nature is unchanging. This means that Jesus cannot simply leave His complete receptivity behind when He is born of Mary. In fact, it is His complete receptivity that will allow Him to take on the very nature of Man, His human nature.
Mary is the source of that human nature and the only source. This creates a problem. If Jesus is completely receptive, whatever Mary has Jesus will receive. And that includes sin. So a paradox exists. Jesus cannot only take what He wants from Mary (it is not the nature of love), He must take everything.
Hence, “…Mary “was enriched by God with gifts appropriate to such a role.”132…” (CCC 490) and prepared for this event by that “singular grace” of the Immaculate Conception.
What Is the Evidence and Why Do We Believe in It?
While it may be noted that the term Immaculate Conception does not appear in scripture, scriptural allusions and a long tradition of belief in the Immaculate Conception support the dogma. In fact, Pope Pius IX provides a thorough defense of the Immaculate Conception in his decree. He begins by noting that the feast existed in previous forms long before the official decree. A longer history of the varied forms of devotion can be found in the Catholic Encyclopedia. Pope Pius IX then goes on to illuminate several scriptural allusions and various teachings of the early Christian leaders before issuing the declaration of the Immaculate Conception (Apostolic Constitution of Pope Pius IX on the Immaculate Conception December 8, 1854).
So Where Is That in Scripture?
Let’s examine two scriptural allusions Pope Pius IX cites to support the Immaculate Conception. The first occurs in the Gospel of Luke as Gabriel appears Mary, “And coming to her, he said, “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you.” (Luke 1:28) which is often translated as “full of grace.” A key aspect of the greeting is its past tense. Mary who is already full of grace prior to the angel’s arrival is asked to partake in the plan of God.
Pope Pius IX draws on a long-standing interpretation from the early centuries in writing,
When the Fathers and writers of the Church meditated on the fact that the most Blessed Virgin was, in the name and by order of God himself, proclaimed full of grace by the Angel Gabriel when he announced her most sublime dignity of Mother of God, they thought that this singular and solemn salutation, never heard before, showed that the Mother of God is the seat of all divine graces and is adorned with all gifts of the Holy Spirit. To them, Mary is an almost infinite treasury, an inexhaustible abyss of these gifts, to such an extent that she was never subject to the curse and was, together with her Son, the only partaker of perpetual benediction.” (Apostolic Constitution of Pope Pius IX on the Immaculate Conception December 8, 1854).
The second line of evidence also draws on the ancient interpretation of scripture which perceives Mary as the “New Eve” the other woman born free from original sin. Pope Pius IX cites a long list of expressions from early Church writings noting that not only did they frequently compare her to Eve while yet a virgin, while yet innocence, while yet incorrupt, while not yet deceived by the deadly snares of the most treacherous serpent; but they have also exalted her above Eve with a wonderful variety of expressions…Accordingly, the Fathers have never ceased to call the Mother of God the lily among thorns, the land entirely intact, the Virgin undefiled, immaculate, ever blessed, and free from all contagion of sin, she from whom was formed the new Adam, the flawless, brightest, and most beautiful paradise of innocence, immortality and delights planted by God himself and protected against all the snares of the poisonous serpent, the incorruptible wood that the worm of sin had never corrupted, the fountain ever clear and sealed with the power of the Holy Spirit, the most holy temple, the treasure of immortality, the one and only daughter of life -- not of death -- the plant not of anger but of grace, through the singular providence of God growing ever green contrary to the common law, coming as it does from a corrupted and tainted root.” (Apostolic Constitution of Pope Pius IX on the Immaculate Conception December 8, 1854).
For those seeking more information on the Immaculate Conception, I highly encourage you to read the full document. It is not long and is simply written in beautiful prose. It thoroughly outlines our beliefs but more importantly will renew in you a new fervor for our Blessed Mother and this great Feast. As St. John Paul II reminds us about this beautiful teaching: "Let this act be a sign of hope, as the day of the Immaculate Conception is a sign of hope against the background of all the days of our Advent."
What are your questions about the Immaculate Conception?
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