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On this very day in
1854, Pope Pius IX declared that:
It is an article of faith that the Blessed Virgin Mary by a special
grace and privilege of God, on account of the merits of Jesus Christ,
the Redeemer of mankind, was from the first instant of her conception
protected and preserved from every stain of original sin."
To be clear about
this article of faith, we are talking about the conception of the
Blessed Virgin Mary, in the natural human manner, by her parents Joachim
and Anne. The conception of our Lord is quite a different matter.
Sometimes people confuse the two, so please understand that we are
saying that it was Mary who was conceived—and that she was the first
human being since Adam and Eve to be conceived without original sin.
Conception has been the general teaching of the Church—taught by many of
the Doctors of the Church and by many Pope's and theologians. Mary was
fee from sin and “full of Grace” from the very first instant of her
existence. When the Council of Trent explained the concept of original
sin, it clearly stated that Mary was never touched by this condition.
In the very beginning (in the book of Genesis) Mary was the one promised
by God to Adam and Eve to be “at enmities” with the devil, the one who
would “crush his head.”
“At enmities” means to be the polar opposite. In order to oppose
Satan's evil, Mary would be completely holy throughout her entire life.
Now, in our time it
has been claimed that dogmatic truth and moral laws are subject to
change. It is claimed, for example, that the Pope can declare adultery
permissible or declare capital punishment to be totally unacceptable.
Both of these (and any similar claims) are totally false. Dogmatic
truth and moral law emanate from God who never changes and never changes
His mind. Only modernists claim that faith and morals are evolving.
Quite perversely these modernists sometime point to the 1854 definition
of the Immaculate Conception as an example of a Pope making a new
doctrine. This is a blatant modernist error—Mary was just as Immaculate
on December seventh as she was after the definition on the eighth!
point to the relatively late date (1854) of the definition, and to the
debate of certain theologians before the definition. Actually, the
relatively late date is more of a sign that the Immaculate Conception
was so well accepted by Catholics that a definition was not very
necessary. The Church has never issued a dogmatic decree that God
exists—but that is clearly Her universal teaching. The Bodily Assumption
of Mary into heaven was not defined until about a century later (1950),
but it had been celebrated on August 15 in all the Churches of the East
and West—even those that have been separated from Rome for centuries.
Any argument about
the Immaculate Conception before 1854 was about how such a thing could
be possible. Some theologians suggested that the Sacrifice of the Cross
had to take place before anyone could be free from sin. Others
speculated that holding Mary to be Immaculate was to say that she had no
need of redemption—which all of Adam’s descendants need, absolutely.
Over time there were, perhaps, a half dozen mistaken ideas of how Mary
could be Immaculate from the first moment of life. Mistaken ideas are,
of course, challenged by orthodox theologians. Modernists historians of
theology like to portray these challenges to mistakes about the doctrine
as though they were arguments against the doctrine itself.
Aquinas is widely acknowledged as the Church's greatest theologians. To
be so great, Aquinas was very careful not to agree with any statement
that contained even a tiny degree of error. That means that he often
disagreed in writing with people who said the right thing for the wrong
reasons. Modernists try to claim that Aquinas' rejection of
incorrect theories about the Immaculate Conception was a
rejection of the doctrine itself!
In fact, we have
piece of Saint Thomas' writing that very clearly teaches the doctrine of
the Immaculate Conception (although it does not use that term). It is
from a work called the Commentary on the Book of Sentences. (The
Sentences were four volumes by an earlier theologian named Peter
Saint Thomas wrote:
Purity is constituted by a recession from impurity, and therefore it is
possible to find some creature purer than all the rest, namely one not
contaminated by any taint of sin; such was the purity of the Blessed
Virgin, who was immune from original and actual sin, yet under God,
inasmuch as there was in her the potentiality of sin.”
There is a lesson
to be learned from today's doctrine. And that lesson stands in evidence
that the doctrine is true, and not a modern innovation: God abhors
sin. Sin is completely contrary to the Divine Will—one might even say
contrary to the Divine Nature. God was unwilling to redeem the world by
means of someone who had even briefly been the subject of sin. The Holy
Ghost was unwilling to overshadow a woman who was anything other than
totally pure. God the Son was unwilling to take His pure flesh and
precious blood from a body that had once been tainted with sin. For the
Incarnation to take place, God—Who is not bound by constraints of time
or space—allowed the mother to benefit in advance from the Redemption to
be effected by their Son.
This same lesson
should be a constant reminder to us. At the moment of Baptism we were
freed from original sin. God Who detests sins wants us to be like His
Blessed Virgin Mother. We should strive to be like her. That may sound
impossible—but if we strive for less we are bound to make ourselves
detestable to God. We must look at ourselves as God looks at us! Only
when we can truthfully say that we are striving mightily to be like Mary
can we say that we are on the straight path.