Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary—8
December AD 2007
The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in Latin and English
Immaculate Conception of the BVM
In Conceptione Immaculata - December 8
“The most blessed Virgin Mary, at the first instant of
her conception, by a singular privilege granted her by God, was preserved from
any stain of original sin....”
With these words, one hundred fifty three years ago today,
Pope Pius IX defined the dogma of the Immaculate Conception as “a
doctrine taught and revealed by God, and therefore to be believed with firmness
and constancy by all the faithful.” With this definition, the Pope put
an end to a minor controversy that had gone on since the middle ages. He
also opened a new controversy with those who denied the ability of a Pope
(or even the Church) to make infallible pronouncements—a controversy that
would come to a head a few years later when the Vatican Council issued its
formal declaration of papal infallibility in 1870.
Others objected that the Immaculate Conception was not mentioned in the Bible,
and was, therefore, not a subject of compulsory belief.
The objectors and their objections were, of course,
incorrect. The Church is the doctrinal authority instituted by Jesus
Christ, and under the rather precise conditions specified by the Vatican
Council, the Pope, as successor of Saint Peter, speaks for the Church with
infallible certainty and full authority to define what Christians must believe
in matters of doctrine, and how we must act in matters of morality. Such
definitions are “irreformable,” for they represent unchanging truths in the
mind of God.
But it might help to appreciate this dogma of Mary’s
sinlessness from the first moment of her conception if we ask ourselves: “How
did Pope Pius come to know this truth?” When it is exercised, papal
infallibility keeps the Popes from defining something that is erroneous—but it
doesn’t give them any new information that they lacked previously—it is not
a new revelation from God, but, rather, a statement of how we must interpret
what God has already revealed.
So how did Pope Pius come to know the truth of this
intimate matter, beyond the powers of human investigation? How did he know
that when Joachim and Anne conceived the child Mary in the normal human manner,
she was in no way tainted by the original sin of Adam and Eve?
The first piece of evidence is in the sacred Scripture;
that third chapter of the Book of Genesis that we sometimes refer to as the
“proto-Gospel” (“proto-Evangelium”), in which God promises to
send a Redeemer to repair the damage of sin. The serpent in that chapter
is the devil, the embodiment of all that is evil. Previously he had
alienated himself from God through his rebellious refusal to serve among the
Angels. Now, out of pure spite and jealousy. he had just alienated the
human race from eternal life with God. “I will not serve,” he said,
“and if I cannot enjoy eternal happiness, I will strive to make sure that no
one else does either.”
To this God said: “I will put enmities between
thee and the woman, and thy seed and her seed: she shall crush thy head, and
thou shalt lie in wait for her heel.”
Now, “enmity” is an interesting word. One might translate it as
“hatred,” but “antagonism” seems to capture the sentiment here more
correctly. While evil can never be perfect (for it is only a negation of
good), the devil would seem to be as close to perfect evil as possible.
Thus, the devil’s antagonist could only be someone who was as perfectly holy
as possible. Indeed, this antagonist would have to be far more holy than
the devil is evil—for opposites merely cancel one another. If you add
equal quantities of hot and cold, or positive and negative, or north and south,
they simply annul one another. We know that, at creation, the devil was
momentarily good, but then chose eternal evil. So that she might be the
superior antagonist, God created Mary eternally good, with not so much as a
moment of imperfection.
And, Mary, of course, was the Mother of God. (A fortiori)
by the same reasoning, Her seed, Jesus Christ was the perfect antagonist of
evil. It is inconceivable that His perfect holiness could have been borne
by a woman marked, even in any small way, with the imperfection of sin.
And we have the testimony of the Angel, which we heard in
this morning’s Gospel: “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou amongst women!”
Mary was “full of grace” at a time when such a thing was humanly impossible.
She was “blessed amongst women.” Like Eve, she had been created in the
state of grace; but, unlike Eve, she persevered in grace, cooperating with
God rather than with the serpent.
The early Church had little trouble understanding Mary’s
sinlessness. They had a beautiful phrase in Greek: Mary was called
holy,” to which was often added the title of “Theotokos—the bearer
of God,” exactly, “the mother who gave birth to God.” There were a
few heretics who sought to detract from her importance—the fifth
century Nestorius in Constantinople is the best known example; he held a
flawed understanding of the Incarnation, which led him to suggest that Mary
could be the mother of the human Christ but not the divine—but even he did not
stoop to assail Mary’s holiness.
Nestorius’ predecessor, Saint John Chrysostom wrote that
she was the “Virgin whose soul was adorned with virtues.... no creature at
all, whether visible or invisible, can be found greater or more excellent than
The controversy in the middle ages was unimagined in the
early Church, and may seem insignificant today. Medieval theology was
remarkably detailed in its thought—perhaps it thought “too much” on the
topic of Mary’s conception. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries a
number of the scholastic theologians held the notion that, as a daughter of Adam
and Eve, Mary was conceived with original sin, but was purified of it
immediately thereafter. Quickly, and repeatedly, the Church came down upon
those who suggested any stain of sin at all in the Mother of God.
We have a number of papal pronouncements, starting as early as 1476, condemning
this idea whenever it cropped up. Pope Pius IX summarized these in
the document he issued on this day in 1854.
The Council of Trent specifically exempted the Blessed Virgin from its
pronouncements on original sin.
As suggested by today’s reading from the Book of
Proverbs, Mary was conceived in the mind of God before the ages, “the
firstborn of His ways, the forerunner of His prodigies,” the necessary and
all-pure agent, whom He would pair off against the evil of the serpent.
“By the foreseen death of His Son (and hers), with His prevenient grace, He
preserved her from all stain of sin” to be the antagonist of the devil.
What a wonderful grace it would be to imitate our Lady’s
example. All too often we think of sin as something we might want to
pursue if it were not for the fact that doing so would bring the loss of our
souls—we view the pleasures of sin almost as a positive good. How much
better it would be to follow our Lady’s lead, recognizing that there is also
an enmity between us and the devil, recognizing that, together with her
we too can be antagonists of the devil.
This will require her help, but her help is assured in a
phrase that pre-dates the definition of the Immaculate Conception by about a
quarter of a century—the phrase on the Miraculous Medal: “Mary,
conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.”