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Association of the Miraculous Medal
An explanation of the Immaculate Conception

8. An explanation of the Immaculate Conception

A glance at the headlines of a daily newspaper will show that something is seriously wrong with humanity. War, murder, crime, and evils of every description darken almost every page of the paper and of human history. A look into our own hearts reveals that something is amiss in each of us. We see the beauty of love, honesty, and mercy, but we often find it easier to hate than to love, to skirt around the truth, and to gossip rather than speak words of compassion.

The Catholic Church describes what is seriously wrong with humanity as "original sin." Following Genesis 1-3, the Church teaches that God created human beings in God's image and likeness. God gave the first humans the freedom to choose, so that they might be able to give and receive love. God invited them to do what God defined as good, and to reject what God defined as evil. Unfortunately, those first humans, named as Adam and Eve, refused to trust and obey God. Tempted by Satan, an angelic being who had rebelled against God, they decided to do what they wanted instead of what God wanted. They disobeyed God. They sinned.

Because Adam and Eve were parents of the whole of humanity, their sin affected the human nature they transmitted to their descendants. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

The transmission of original sin is a mystery that we cannot fully understand. But we do know by Revelation that Adam had received original holiness and justice not for himself alone, but for all human nature. By yielding to the tempter, Adam and Eve committed a personal sin, but this sin affected the human nature that they would then transmit in a fallen state. It is a sin which will be transmitted by propagation to all mankind, that is, by the transmission of a human nature deprived of original holiness and justice (C 404).

The Catholic Church believes that original sin does not make us or the world wholly evil, but that it damages us in many ways. We observe its harmful effects in our own conduct and in that of others. Original sin deprives us of the union with God and the holiness granted to the first human beings, leaving us in a condition where we are subject to physical death and unable to attain eternal life. It weighs us down with the tendency to do evil instead of good, making us incapable of overcoming sin or repairing the damage caused by sin. It leaves us in a world where there is suffering and evil, where we can be hurt because people misuse freedom, where we learn bad habits from others, and where we can be a bad influence on others (C 399-409). The New Testament brings the Good News that Jesus Christ frees us from the shackles of original sin. Romans 5 admits the existence of original sin, but recognizes as well that we are redeemed from it by Jesus Christ.

Romans 6:1-11 teaches that we gain a share in Christ's salvation through the sacrament of baptism. Baptism imparts the life of Christ's grace to abolish the death of sin. It erases original sin and turns us back to God. It gives us the promise of eternal life. However, we are still left with the consequences of our weakened human nature. We still have inclinations to sin and must look to Jesus for the grace to conquer sin.

The Church teaches that Mary was not touched by original sin as we are. The dogma of the Immaculate Conception proclaims that what we receive through baptism, Mary received at the first moment of her conception. She was never tainted by original sin or placed under the limits it imposes. With the help of God's grace, she remained free of all personal sin as well.

The Bible shows Mary as one uniquely privileged by God, but it does not explicitly teach that she was kept free of original or personal sin. However, the very fact that she was the Mother of Jesus Christ caused believers to consider that it was inappropriate for Mary to be stained by sin. The angel's words to Mary, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you" (Luke 1:28) and Elizabeth's description of her as blessed among women (Luke 1:42) encouraged Christians to view Mary as uniquely graced by God.

As early as the fourth century, theologians began to teach that Mary had been kept free of all sin by God because she was to be the Mother of Jesus Christ. By the seventh century, there was a liturgical observance proclaiming Mary's freedom from sin. However, there was much debate among theologians about how Mary could be free of original sin since the Bible teaches that salvation comes from Christ. In the thirteenth century, the Franciscan theologian Duns Scotus taught that Mary was preserved from all sin by the foreseen merits of Christ. God is not limited by time, and so Mary could be preserved from original sin by Christ just as those who lived and died in Old Testament times were, in the final analysis, redeemed by him.

This teaching gradually prevailed. When Pope Pius IX questioned the bishops of the world in the mid nineteenth century, he was assured that belief in Mary's Immaculate Conception was universal among Catholics. In 1854, he proclaimed the Immaculate Conception to be a dogma of the Church:

The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin (Ineffabilis Deus 1854, cited in C 491).

Jesus is truly God, and is uniquely holy by reason of his divinity. Mary is human, and is holy by the grace and merits of her Son. Jesus is free of original sin because he is God. Mary was kept free of original sin by the grace of Jesus. She was conceived by her parents in the normal way, but from the moment of her conception she existed in a state of union with God. She was granted the kind of grace and holiness which would have belonged to all human beings had there been no original sin.

It is also Catholic dogma that Mary remained free from personal sin throughout her life (C 493). She was not immune to the problems of living in a world touched by sin. She had to cooperate with God's grace, and she had to cope with evil, above all the unjust murder of her Son on the cross. Mary was tempted as we are. But she did not sin. She cooperated with God's grace, and in this she is a model for us. When we are tempted to think that sin cannot be defeated, Mary witnesses to the fact that the grace of Christ can conquer the powers of hell. Mary shows forth the goodness of God more than any other human being, except Jesus. Jesus is truly God, and is uniquely holy. Mary is the Mother of Jesus, and she is holy by the grace and merits of her Son and by her cooperation with God's grace.

The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, as we have said, is not found explicitly in the Bible, but it is consistent with Bible teaching. Matthew, Luke, and John, guided by the Holy Spirit, saw Mary as the first among believers and as one specially blessed by God. The Holy Spirit led these authors to develop a direction toward a better appreciation of Mary and of her role in God's plan. The Church followed the lines of development set by the New Testament when it proclaimed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. We can be confident, therefore, that the Church was guided by the same Holy Spirit who led the evangelists. We have every reason for believing that it is God's will that Christ's Mother be honored as Mary, conceived without sin.

And it should be added that we have far more Scriptural reasons for believing in the Immaculate Conception than people have for attacking Catholic belief. Unless the Holy Spirit was absent from the Christian Church for the first 1500 years, the Church was guided by the Spirit to its belief about the Immaculate Conception. Finally, is it unreasonable that God would want to have the most perfect possible Mother for his only Son? The Immaculate Conception says as much about our reverence for Jesus as it does for our desire to honor Mary!