Throughout the history of the Church, the challenge to orthodoxy of heretical teachings has always brought with it the fruit of a development in doctrine. Nearly every dogmatic definition has come when a particular teaching was challenged. At first glance however, the feast that we celebrate today, the Immaculate Conception, appears to be an exception to this rule. As the 19th Century emerged, many in the Church called for a dogmatic definition of the privilege of the Immaculate Conception. By the middle of the Century, Pope Pius IX began consulting theologians and convoked a “council in writing” asking bishops around the world about the possibility of its definition. The response was overwhelmingly positive and in 1854, he issued the Bull Ineffabilis Deus which solemnly proclaimed that "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." Despite its relatively recent history and the elevation to a Feast Day and Holy Day of Obligation, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception is little understood today.
When Pius IX defined the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, he was merely declaring something that the Church has believed from the beginning. It wasn’t as if he suddenly realized the Church believed this. It was always believed, but without a direct challenge to its orthodoxy, the Churched lacked some of the necessary clarity to explain how it fit into the deposit of faith. In other words, it was always a part of the deposit of faith—that which the Apostles left us—but how it connected to the other truths of the faith still needed to be worked out.
We find seeds of the Immaculate Conception throughout Salvation History, beginning with just after the Fall of Adam and Eve, when God promised not to abandon mankind, but that He would send them a new Adam and a new Eve (Gn 3:15). The woman and her offspring (a prediction of the virgin birth) will gain ultimate victory over the Serpent by crushing his head, and will enjoy enmity with the Evil One. This enmity, according to John Paul II, is “a hostility expressly established by God, which has a unique importance, if we consider the problem of the Virgin’s personal holiness. In order to be the irreconcilable enemy of the serpent and his offspring, Mary had to be free from the power of sin, and to be so from the first moment of her existence.” In other words, enmity means that the devil could have no power over Mary at any point of her existence.
Likewise, we catch a glimpse of the Immaculate Conception during the Annunciation. The angel Gabriel in his greeting addresses Mary as “full of grace.” This strange greeting is the name that she possesses in the eyes of God. The name that God gives is the essence of the person (like Peter being the rock upon which the Church was founded) and so Mary is truly the one who is full of grace. The Greek word kecharitomene is often translated as “full of grace” but it is more nuanced than that. It is in the passive participle and is more accurately translated as “made full of grace” to indicate the gift that God gave to the Virgin Mother.
With such strong Scriptural support for the Immaculate Conception, why did it take nearly 1800 years for the Church to declare it as binding dogma? Using both the liturgy (the law of worship is the law of belief—lex orandi, lex credenda) and the writings of the Fathers of the first millennium it is clearly among the things that the Church believed. But before it was to be defined, it needed to be better understood.
The first obstacle was coming to a deeper understanding of Original Sin. Because of Adam’s transgression, Scripture speaks of all of us as “born in guilt, in sin my mother conceived me” (Ps 51:7). But rather than seeing Original Sin as something merely tacked on to human nature, the Church came to understand it as a lack. Specifically it is a lack of the seeds of eternal life or sanctifying grace. The removal of sanctifying grace also brings with it other effects on human nature such as concupiscence. In order for one to be “free from the stain of Original Sin” she would need to be conceived with sanctifying grace.
Providentially, we can begin to see what the Holy Spirit had in mind when He waited so long. Nearly all the philosophical anthropology of man in the 18th and 19th C rejected the idea of Original Sin—it was society that somehow corrupted man, not something that is a result of his fallen state. In other words, it became widely believed that every man was immaculately conceived. By declaring that only one such human person was born that way, the Holy Spirit was speaking truth not just about Mary but about mankind.
Once the doctrine of Original Sin was better understood, the main theological problem that needed to be explained is related to St. Paul’s dictum that “all men have sinned” and in need “of the gift of justification come to reign in life through the one person Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:12,17). What the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was proposing was actually two things. The first is that somehow Mary was exempt from the “all” men who have sinned. Secondly it would also appear that because of this exemption, she was not in need of the “gift of justification.”
To explain the exemption, we must first acknowledge that the Supreme Authority has the power to offer exemptions to universal laws in particular cases. So that when St. Paul says that all men have sinned, he is acknowledging a universal law and like all universal laws there can be exceptions. The Immaculate Conception means that Mary is the singular exception to this law. This is why the Church has always seen in Esther a type of Mary. She alone among all the Jews was to escape the edict of King Ahasuerus that all the Jews in his kingdom must be killed.
If Mary was without Original Sin then it seems on the surface that she did not need a Redeemer either. This question was the most difficult to address because as a true daughter of Adam, she was still in need of justification. To explain this, Blessed Duns Scotus developed the idea of her redemption being preventative rather than restorative. He said that “The Perfect Redeemer, must in some case, have done the work of redemption most perfectly, which would not be, unless there is some person, at least, in whose regard, the wrath of God was anticipated and not merely appeased.”
Blessed Duns Scotus is saying two very important things here. First is that there are two ways of “saving” someone from falling into a hole. The first is to rescue them once they are in the hole. The second is to keep them from falling in beforehand. He also says that a perfect deliverer would have done both. A more perfect redeemer is the one who not only rescues mankind from the effects of sin once they are in them but also preserves from falling altogether.
This approach to explaining doctrine is a favorite of St. Thomas and he calls it “fittingness.” I have also found it a powerful tool to use in order to open Christians (Catholic and non-Catholic) up to important theological truths. With respect to the Immaculate Conception, it is fitting that Our Lord’s act of Redemption is so powerful that it could redeem at least one member of the human race before she fell. It also points out how everything we believe about Mary points back to Jesus. To take away the Immaculate Conception is ultimately taking away the greatness of Jesus’ redemptive act.
The Second Vatican Council reaffirmed this teaching about Mary saying, “Redeemed by reason of the merits of her Son and united to Him by a close and indissoluble tie, she is endowed with the high office and dignity of being the Mother of the Son of God” (Lumen Gentium, 53). But in the fallout from the Council there has been a movement to de-dogmatize the Immaculate Conception in an attempt to be more “ecumenical.” The argument goes that belief about the Immaculate Conception is not necessary for salvation so therefore it is relatively unimportant.is based on a false understanding of the idea of hierarchy of truths.
The Catechism says that “In Catholic doctrine there exists an order or hierarchy of truths, since they vary in their relation to the foundation of the Christian faith” (CCC 90). Cardinal Schönborn in his introduction to the Catechism is quick to point out that “the ‘hierarchy of truth’ does not mean ‘a principle of subtraction,’ as if faith could be reduced to some ‘essentials’ whereas the ‘rest’ is left free or even dismissed as not significant. The ‘hierarchy of truth . . . is a principle of organic structure.’ It should not be confused with the degrees of certainty; it simply means that the different truths of faith are ‘organized’ around a center.” In other words, the idea of a hierarchy of truths is that there are certain beliefs around which all other beliefs orbit. These other beliefs support the belief in the core truth.
The truth around which the Immaculate Conception orbits is the true humanity of Jesus. In order for the Son to become man, He must take on human flesh and be born of a woman (Gal 4:4). This means that in order for Mary to be a true mother, she must provide Jesus with all that a mother normally gives to her children, namely her flesh. What happens if her flesh is fallen? Then Jesus too would inherit a fallen human nature which is an impossibility for God. God could not take to Himself something that was sinful. Yes, He could miraculously intervene but then the flesh no longer comes from the woman and she is not a true mother—just an incubator. But the One who was like us in all things but sin, is a true man and like all men born of a woman. All of this makes clear why the Immaculate Conception matters—it protects the true humanity of Jesus. Take away what we believe about Mary and our faith in Jesus begins to crumble.
The Deposit of Faith is truly a seamless garment—tug at any string, no matter how seemingly inconsequential it is, and it falls apart. Tug the string of the Immaculate Conception and the garment of our faith will be left in tatters.