Originally published on The Catholic Thinker:
In the Constitution Ineffabilis Deus on December 8, 1854, Pius IX pronounced and defined that the Blessed Virgin Mary “in the first instance of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace granted by God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race, was preserved exempt from all stain of original sin.” (1)
The term conception does not mean the active or generative conception by her parents. Her body was formed in the womb of the mother, and the father had the usual share in its formation. The question does not concern the immaculateness of the generative activity of her parents. Neither does it concern the passive conception absolutely and simply (conceptio seminis carnis, inchoata), which, according to the order of nature, precedes the infusion of the rational soul. The person is truly conceived when the soul is created and infused into the body. Mary was preserved exempt from all stain of original sin at the first moment of her animation, and sanctifying grace was given to her before sin could have taken effect in her soul. (2)
The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, as formally defined by Pius IX, states that Mary was sinless her entire life from the beginning of her conception. This doctrine proves to be a “stumbling block” for many non-Catholics, as they counter with the statement that God alone is sinless.
If God alone were sinless, this means that either Mary could not have been sinless, or she would have been God, correct?
Well, it isn’t as simple as that. For instance, any “Christian” will have to admit that God is not the only being to have ever been sinless, when taking a look at Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve were created by God, and for a time, before their Fall, were sinless creatures. They were sinless, and yet they were not God.
Angels presently in heaven are not God, and yet they are sinless creatures. They were created without sin, and have remained sinless ever since. A person cannot just simply say that God alone is sinless, when there have been and are other sinless creatures.
Catholic Apologist Patrick Madrid says of the Immaculate Conception:
“The Immaculate Conception emphasizes four truths: (1) Mary did need a savior; (2) her savior was Jesus Christ; (3) Mary’s salvation was accomplished by Jesus through his work on the Cross; and (4) Mary was saved from sin, but in a different and more glorious way than the rest of us are.” (3)
After hearing something like this, many non-Catholics ask, “Why would Mary need a Savior if she was sinless?”
The Immaculate Conception does not mean that Mary did not need Christ as her Savior. All men, after the Fall needed Christ as their Savior, including Mary, as she says in Luke 1:47.
Catholic Apologist Tim Staples explains:
“Not a few Protestants are surprised to discover the Catholic Church actually agrees that Mary was “saved.” Indeed, Mary needed a savior! However, Mary was “saved” from sin in a most sublime manner. She was given the grace to be “saved” completely from sin so that she never committed even the slightest transgression. Protestants tend to emphasize God’s “salvation” almost exclusively to the forgiveness of sins actually committed. However, Sacred Scripture indicates that salvation can also refer to man being protected from sinning before the fact:
” ‘Now to him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you without blemish before the presence of his glory with rejoicing, to the only God, our Savior through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and for ever.’ (Jude 24-25)
“Six hundred years ago, the great Franciscan theologian Duns Scotus explained that falling into sin could be likened to a man approaching unaware a deep ditch. If he falls into the ditch, he needs someone to lower a rope and save him. But if someone were to warn him of the danger ahead, preventing the man from falling into the ditch at all, he would be saved from falling in the first place. Likewise, Mary was saved from sin by receiving the grace to be preserved from it. But she was still saved.” (4)
Pat Madrid goes on to add:
“Mary needed Jesus as her savior. His death on the Cross saved her, as it saves us, but its saving effects were applied to her (unlike to us) at the moment of her conception. (Keep in mind that the Crucifixion is an eternal event and that the appropriation of salvation through Christ’s death isn’t impeded by time or space.)” (5)
The usual counter argument made by non-Catholics is in reference to Romans 3:23 which says:
“For all have sinned, and do need the glory of God.”
Is this a rule with absolutely no exceptions? Everyone has sinned? Well, no “Christian” would say that Christ sinned. He is a major exception. What of children below the age of reason, those who do not know what sin is? Have they voluntarily sinned? Have aborted babies sinned? Have the mentally retarded sinned, even though they cannot comprehend sin itself? There seems to be many exceptions to what Paul is saying. It is either there are exceptions or he was not speaking of literally the entire human race.
It might be that it refers not to absolutely everyone, but just to the mass of mankind, which would allow the exceptions listed above. If not that be the case, then perhaps he is referring to everyone being subject to Original Sin, which would still have a few exceptions. (6)
The only point here is that, with all obvious exceptions to “all have sinned”, one cannot conclusively say that it is impossible for Mary to be free of sin.
After dealing with a few arguments using logic, one must wonder what is the biblical basis for the Immaculate Conception. A Catholic Life blog elaborates:
“As we look at the Hail Mary we see part of the Archangel Gabriel’s address in the exclamation: “full of grace”. Grace is defined as a supernatural gift from God’s infinite goodness given by God to His sinful people for their eternal salvation. Mary is addressed as “full of grace” which shows that she must be in complete favor of God to have earned the fullness of God’s grace. This particular instance is a special one, in which God chose Mary to be conceived sinless to make her a house for God to dwell within.” (7)
In Luke 1:28, Gabriel greets Mary with “hail, full of grace”, the Greek being kecharitomene. If Mary is full of grace, then how can she be sinful? One cannot have Christ’s life of grace within them while being in the state of sin.
Catholic Answers, in its article Immaculate Conception and Assumption comment:
“The traditional translation, “full of grace,” is better than the one found in many recent versions of the New Testament, which give something along the lines of “highly favored daughter.” Mary was indeed a highly favored daughter of God, but the Greek implies more than that (and it never mentions the word for “daughter”). The grace given to Mary is at once permanent and of a unique kind.Kecharitomene is a perfect passive participle of charitoo, meaning “to fill or endow with grace.” Since this term is in the perfect tense, it indicates that Mary was graced in the past but with continuing effects in the present. So, the grace Mary enjoyed was not a result of the angel’s visit. In fact, Catholics hold, it extended over the whole of her life, from conception onward. She was in a state of sanctifying grace from the first moment of her existence.” (8)
The next piece of biblical evidence in found in Genesis.
“We see a crucial statement in Genesis 3:15: “I will put enmity between you [Satan] and the woman, between your seed and her seed; he will crush your head, and you will strike at his heel.” This passage is especially significant in that it refers to the “seed of the woman,” a singular usage. The Bible, following normal biology, otherwise only refers to the seed of the man, the seed of the father, but never to the seed of the woman. Who is the woman mentioned here? The only possibility is Mary, the only woman to give birth to a child without the aid of a human father, a fact prophesied in Isaiah 7:14. If Mary were not completely sinless this prophesy becomes untenable. Why is that? The passage points to Mary’s Immaculate Conception because it mentions a complete enmity between the woman and Satan. Such an enmity would have been impossible if Mary were tainted by sin, original or actual (see 2 Corinthians 6:14). This line of thinking rules out Eve as the woman, since she clearly was under the influence of Satan in Genesis 3.” (9)
If Mary were not free of sin, why should the angel Gabriel call her “full of grace”? By being under sin, how could there be enmity between Mary and Satan? One cannot merely look over these verses.
The Immaculate Conception is reasonable from a logical stand point. If God was to be born as a man, why would he be born in a creature of sin? God’s eyes can’t stand evil (Habukkuk 1:13). How could he be created within a creature under Satan’s power? Does that even seem logical?
If you were to create your own mother, as God the Son did, would you not make her perfect? That’s what God did.
“O God, who by the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin didst prepare a worthy dwelling place for Thy Son…”
(Collect for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8, 1962 Roman Missal)