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, 390ADRemember 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:
"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
- 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.
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.