Why Mary Was Born Without Sin
For the feast of Our Lady’s Immaculate Conception, MICHAEL OGUNU explains how Mary was immune to sin.
The Immaculate Conception is, according to Catholic doctrine, the conception of the Virgin Mary without any stain (immacula, in Latin) of original sin. Hence Mary is sometimes called the Immaculata, or the Immaculate One.
The Immaculate Conception was solemnly defined as a dogma by Pope Pius IX in his Ineffabilis Deus on December 8, 1854 (hence her feast day on December 8).
“We decree, pronounce and define the doctrine which asserts that the Blessed Virgin Mary, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God, and in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, saviour of the human race, was preserved free from every stain of original sin is a doctrine revealed by God and, for this reason, must be firmly and constantly believed by all the faithful,” Pius IX decreed.
The papally defined dogma declares that Mary possessed sanctifying grace from the first instant of her existence and was free from the lack of grace caused by the original sin at the beginning of human history.
The Catholic Church teaches that the dogma is supported by Scripture. Thus, Pius IX primarily appealed to the text of Genesis 3:15, where the serpent was told by God: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, between your seed and her seed.”
According to the Catholic understanding, this was a prophecy that foretold of a “woman” who would always be at enmity with the serpent—that is, a woman who would never be under the power of sin, nor in bondage to the serpent.
Some Catholic theologians have also claimed the archangel Gabriel’s salutation to Mary at the Annunciation (Lk 1:28) as scriptural evidence for the Immaculate Conception.
In 1858, the Blessed Virgin Mary revealed herself to St Bernadette Soubirous at the grotto of Massabielle in Lourdes, France, as the Immaculate Conception, thus giving heaven’s approval to Ineffabilis Deus.
In order to be born into this world, Our Lord could not take flesh from any mere human being. Our Lady was prepared from all eternity to be the Mother of God through this privilege of the Immaculate Conception. God, having decreed that Mary was to be the Mother of his Son, could not allow her soul to lack those graces that would make her a fitting shrine in which his Son was to take flesh and dwell.
An ancient belief
The dogma of the Immaculate Conception developed throughout the history of the Church. Christians always believed in the holiness of Our Lady.
The feast of Mary’s Conception was celebrated in the Eastern Church as early as the 7th century and in the Western Church by the 11th century.
But the belief in it precedes the feasts by many centuries, going back at least to the 3rd century.
The writings of the Fathers of the Church on Mary’s purity abound. Hippolytus (170-235 AD) called Mary the tabernacle exempt from defilement and corruption.
Origen (184-253) called her worthy of God, the immaculate of the immaculate, of the most complete sanctity and perfect justice, neither deceived by the persuasion of the serpent, nor infected with his poisonous breathings.
Ambrose (340-397), that saintly bishop of Milan, said she was incorrupt, a virgin immune through grace from every stain of sin.
Maximus of Turin in the 5th century called her a dwelling fit for Christ, not because of her habit of body, but because of original grace.
Theodotus of Ancyra, also in the 5th century, termed her a virgin innocent, without spot, void of culpability, holy in body and in soul, a lily springing among thorns, untaught the ills of Eve, and, when not yet born already consecrated to God.
In refuting Pelagius, St Augustine (354-430) declared that all the just have truly known of sin “except the Holy Virgin Mary, of whom, for the honour of the Lord, I will have no question whatever where sin is concerned”.
And this is only a small sample of Church Fathers confirming Mary’s sinlessness.
The belief in Mary’s immunity from sin in her conception was prevalent among the Fathers, especially those of the Greek Church.
Saints among sceptics
There were, however, theologians such as St Thomas Aquinas and St Bonaventure who opposed this teaching, stating that it removes Mary from the rest of humanity as needing salvation, and detracting from the universality of the redemption won for us by Christ.
Bl John Duns Scotus, a 13th-century Franciscan philosopher, resolved the confusion on this matter and stated that Mary was free from sin from the first moment of her conception in the womb of her mother, St Anne, only in anticipation of Christ’s redemptive death on the cross. The merits and graces of Jesus transcend time and space.
This is how the Blessed Mother was able to partake in those merits at her conception, even though the Lord had not yet died on the cross.
The Immaculate Mother of God is our mediatrix before the throne of her Divine Son. As our loving Mother, she is eager to shower down graces and blessings upon her children in order to help us remain faithful to our Catholic faith and to walk in the ways of righteousness.
Protestants and other non-Catholic Christians assert that the Virgin Mary could not have been immaculately conceived and that if she were conceived without sin, she would not have needed redemption, as she herself acknowledged that she needed in her own words in the Magnificat: “My spirit rejoices in God my saviour” (Lk 1:47).
They also maintain that St John clearly states that “if we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 Jn 1:8).
They therefore wonder how Catholics can claim that the Virgin Mary was sinless.
Another biblical text which Protestants and other non-Catholic Christians often cite is found in St Paul’s Letter to the Romans: “Sin entered the world through one man, and through sin, death and this death has spread through the whole human race because everyone has sinned” (5:12).
These texts raise a question: Does the Catholic teaching on the Immaculate Conception indicate that Mary was not in need of salvation?
The Church believes that God’s Son, who was to come into the world through Mary’s consent, was himself her saviour. Mary as a member of the human race was in need of salvation. However, her salvation was “singular” (unique).
In order to help us understand Mary’s need for salvation, theologians distinguish between a “liberative salvation” and a “preservative salvation”. Every member of the human race, with the exception of Mary, was liberated from sin and eternal damnation by the Cross of Jesus. In virtue of the Cross of Jesus, Mary was preserved from sin and eternal damnation.
Two illustrations might be helpful in coming to understand the significance of this distinction:
If you are wounded by a bullet and I remove it and help you to heal the wound, you might correctly call me your “saviour”. However, would I not be more properly your “saviour” if I had preserved you from being shot in the first place?
Again, I might save you from being burned to death in a fire. I could liberate you from the flames and save your life. Would I be any less your “saviour” if I preserved you from even falling into the destructive flames?
Every member of the human race, except Mary, is wounded by the sin of Adam. We are liberated from Adam’s sin by the grace of Jesus Christ.
Mary, also by Christ’s grace, was preserved from being wounded by the sin of humanity in her conception. In this way, Jesus saved her from sin and the effects of sin.
You and I and all mankind are liberated from the “fire” of sin and eternal death in hell through the saving grace of Our Lord Jesus. We receive this grace in baptism and if we fall into mortal sin, through sacramental confession.
Baptism, so to speak, “pulls us out of the fire”. When we deliberately fall into the fire again through our deliberate mortal sins, the Lord rescues us through the sacrament of reconciliation. Mary, by Jesus’ grace, was preserved from ever falling into that fire.
Nature’s solitary boast
The Catholic Church does not deny that the Virgin Mary needed redemption, for she was a child of Adam together with the rest of humanity. However, her redemption was effected in another, “more sublime manner”, namely, “redemption by pre-emption”.
Consequently, in reference to Mary, the Church strongly affirms these Scriptural truths: Mary is indeed saved from sin and Jesus is her saviour!
The Church finds support for the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception in the words of the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary: “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou amongst women” (Lk 1:28).
She, who was to conceive the Son of God, the Holy of Holies, must herself be supremely holy, and therefore be preserved, not only from actual sin, but also from all stain of original sin. The angel’s words would not have been entirely truthful had the Virgin Mary, for even one instant, been deprived of grace.
The Church, furthermore, asserts that God, immediately after Adam’s fall, cursed Satan and said: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head” (Gen 3:15).
It was by the Virgin Mary’s seed—that is, Jesus Christ—that the kingdom of Satan was demolished. It was not fitting that she, who was to cooperate in the defeat of Satan, should ever be infected by his breath or a slave to his kingdom of sin.
The enmity between the Virgin Mary and the serpent placed by God was her triumph over sin, her Immaculate Conception.
The sinlessness of Mary, the Church holds, is total and without exception.
Beginning with her conception, she was preserved free from the stain and effects of original sin, so that never for a moment of her earthly existence did she come under the dominion of the devil.
All other human beings inherit the consequences of the sin of Adam and Eve, and come into this world separated from God until restored to his friendship through the sacrament of baptism.
Hence, as the poet Wordsworth so beautifully puts it, Mary is “our tainted nature’s solitary boast”.
Prof Michael Ogunu is the coordinator of the World Apostolate of Fatima in Africa.