Monday, December 8, 2014

What The Immaculate Conception Is & Why It Matters

Q - Can you tell me what exactly the dogma of the Immaculate Conception does and does not teach for us and why it matters?

A - Thanks for the question!  The dogma of the Immaculate Conception (I.C.) is a widely misunderstood teaching of the Catholic Church, so I am glad to try and clear up some of the misconceptions (pun intended) about it.  Before I do so, I want to remind everyone that Dec 8 is a Holy Day of Obligation (Opportunity), so come celebrate with us in Mass at 5:30, if you haven't gone already!

First, the I.C. is not a teaching about Christ being without sin or being conceived without a father. These are different teachings.  The teaching of the IC is the following, from Pius IX - defined in 1854:
"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."
Here is what the Church teaches about the I.C. - Mary was conceived in the womb of her mother without original sin. This grace is the same supernatural grace we receive in baptism, but is given at the moment of her creation, thus freeing Mary from the affects of original sin - in her soul. Humans, after the fall, are not created in the state of grace, but in a fallen state and in need of grace. Mary is the one special exception, chosen not for her own sake to do this, but for the sake of being the Mother of God.

The I.C. does not teach that Mary is in any way God or non-human. She is in need of God's salvation, as we all are, but she was given this special grace because she was chosen by God to be the Mother of our Lord and be a pure vessel that could carry Christ.

Mary is sometimes called the New Ark of the Covenant by the fathers of the church. The original Ark of the Covenant was the holding place for the staff of Aaron (Jewish high priest), a piece of manna, and the tablets of the Ten Commandments. In Jesus we have the fulfillment of all that these foreshadow. Jesus is THE High Priest, He is THE Bread from Heaven, and He is THE lawgiver and fulfillment of the law. Thus, to be made ready to bear God Himself, Mary was created pure and without sin. Just as the Ark of the Covenant was considered the place of the "holy of holies", so Mary is made pure and holy in order to have the holiest thing of all (God), inside her. Below are several quotes from Church Fathers:
"Every personal sin must be excluded from the Blessed Virgin Mary for the sake of the honor of God." - St. Augustine, 390AD

"Mary, a virgin not only undefiled but a virgin whom grace has made inviolate, free from every stain." - St. Ambrose of Milan, 340AD

"You, and your Mother are alone in this. You are wholly beautiful in every respect. There is in you, Lord, no stain, nor any spot in your Mother." - St. Ephraem, 350AD
Remember that the Angel in Luke 1:38 says that Mary is "full of grace". This is more of a title than a statement. If she had sinned, she would not be full of grace, nor would she have been a worthy tabernacle to carry our Lord in. God predestined Mary for a special honor. This teaching is important because it teaches several things:
  • The utter need we have for God's grace.
  • All spiritual good comes from God acting first.
  • Mary is a model of what it means to be a disciple and say "yes" to God's grace.
  • We are all called to grow in holiness and be full of God's grace.
Come praise God this week with us as we worship Jesus - Mary's Son - and the wonderful things He has done for us, through Mary, Immaculately Conceived.

For more on this dogma, I recommend these articles:
*Deacon Greg Kandra's homily on the IC - magnificent.
*Catholic Answers article on the IC.
*Catholic Encyclopedia article on the IC.
*Fr. William Most on the IC.
*History of the IC.


  1. Although a non-Catholic, I’m aware that Immaculate Conception is a Marian dogma, not referring to Jesus. However, this particular dogma seems to be loaded with internal contradictions.
    For example, you write, “Mary was conceived in the womb of her mother without original sin. This grace is the same supernatural grace we receive in baptism, but is given at the moment of her creation, thus freeing Mary from the affects of original sin - in her soul.” As far as I know that is correct Catholic teaching. But…
    If Mary’s soul has no sin attached, and if we get the same gift at baptism, why do we die? Why do we not ‘go straight to heaven, body and soul’ as she did (if I correctly understand the related Assumption dogma). “The wages of sin is death”, is the well-known rule. Except for Our Lord, then, no sin = no death.
    And how could Mary herself, having the genetic makeup of two imperfect human parents, be sinless without the help of the Divine parentage Jesus had? Job’s statement about this makes sense to me, in both the spiritual and scientific realms: “But will anyone produce the pure from what is impure? No one can!”; Job 14:4, ibid.
    Therefore, to allow Mary’s sinlessness I would need some statement from God’s word. On the contrary, scriptural writers after Jesus, who would have had such information, instead contradict it. Perhaps the strongest such statement is in Paul’s letter: “Well then, sin entered the world through one man [Adam], and through sin death, and thus death has spread through the whole human race because everyone has sinned.” (Rom. 5:12, ibid., italics added.)
    Can you explain, in perhaps simpler language?

  2. Doug - Mary did have Divine parentage, but by adoption, like all of us.

    Job's statement, is true - no person can. But, God can! All of us will be perfectly sinless in Heaven. He will make us pure from our impurity. God can do such things.

    Just as He made Mary pure.

    As for Romans - everyone has sinned - would that include Jesus? No. So, it is already a qualified statement. Is Paul talking about personal sin, then what about babies? So, "everyone" need not be every single person. That isn't what Paul is saying.

    As for the first question - why do we die, if we have the same grace? It is because Mary was kept free from having suffered from any stain of original sin and we are not. Death is one of those consequences.