By David Mills
“Yeah, right” is the way the more irenic of my Evangelical friends react to the Immaculate Conception, the feast day of which (a holy day of obligation) we celebrate on Wednesday. A few will go so far as to say something like “Whatever floats your boat,” while others react with something like horror or disgust. Very few, in my experience, have a very good idea of the dogma to which they’re reacting.
“It says that Mary doesn’t need to be saved,” Evangelical friends with doctorates in theology from elite universities have told me, which is, you know, and I do hate to say this, kind of dumb. I can easily understand their believing the dogma made up out of thin air, but even then they should realize that what is made up is a statement about the way Jesus saved his own mother.
So it may be useful here to explain the teaching in first week of “Mary 101” form. At least everyone will know where they stand. I thought of this when reading some of the bitter and cutting responses to David Hart’s lovely reflection on holiness, “The Abbot and Aunt Susie,” and feeling like saying, in the tones of a mother whose children are trapped inside on a rainy day, “Why can’t you just play nice?”
The word “Immaculate” doesn’t simply mean “perfectly clean, ” as we tend to think from its use in real estate ads, but “unstained.” The doctrine emphasizes Mary’s freedom from moral corruption”not, and this is the crucial point , what she is in herself but what she is by the grace of God. Issued by Pope Pius IX in the Apostolic Constitution Ineffabilis Deus on December 8, 1854, the definition declares that
the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.
She is, he wrote, “far above all the angels and all the saints so wondrously did God endow her with the abundance of all heavenly gifts poured from the treasury of his divinity.” Because God did this for her”because God did it”Mary, “ever absolutely free of all stain of sin, all fair and perfect, would possess that fullness of holy innocence and sanctity.”
Even very sympathetic Protestants think of it as a kind of devotional optional extra. But Pius thought it a very important doctrine to get right. Anyone who rejects it (he seems to be thinking only of Catholics here) is “condemned by his own judgment.” The dissenter should know “that he has suffered shipwreck in the faith; that he has separated from the unity of the Church.”
The pope explained it in terms of the fittingness that the Son of God should have such a mother, the Church’s liturgical practice in celebrating the Feast of the Conception of Mary, and the teaching and practice of previous popes, which he reviews at some length. He notes the agreement of religious orders, eminent theologians, and bishops, the “intimation” of the Council of Trent, and the testimony of “of venerable antiquity, of both the Eastern and the Western Church.” He then summarizes the biblical arguments offered by “the Fathers and writers of the Church” and their “explicit affirmation” of the doctrine.
Pius’s argument, such as it is, does not satisfy Protestants, who ask, and quite rightly given their beliefs, “Just where is this in Scripture?” It looks to them as if the Catholic Church is rationalizing a doctrine that had grown too big to fail. They can understand how the Catholic might get from Jesus’ statements at the Last Supper to a belief in Transubstantiation, but not how he can get from apparently no evidence whatsoever to the Immaculate Conception. That doesn’t look like a stretch but an invention.
Yet, in Ineffabilis Deus itself, Pius said that the Church “never changes anything, never diminishes anything, never adds anything.” The Church, he would insist, is a witness, not an inventor, a reporter, not a novelist. And he is not wrong in saying so, though the reason gets at a deeper difference between the traditions than their beliefs about the Virgin Mary.
Dogmas like the Immaculate Conception are “truth[s] revealed by God and contained in that divine deposit which Christ has delivered to his Spouse,” as Pope Pius XII said in 1950 in Munificentissimus Deus, which declared Mary’s Assumption into Heaven a dogma. In the words of the First Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith, the “divine deposit” includes “all those things are to be believed by divine and Catholic faith which are contained in the Word of God as founding Scripture or Tradition, and which are proposed by the Church as matters to be believed as divinely revealed, whether by her solemn judgment or in her ordinary and universal magisterium.”
The Church not only guards this deposit but knows what it contains. The better question to ask, the Catholic would say, is not “Is this in Scripture?” but “Is this in the Divine deposit of truth given to the Church?” As the Second Vatican Council’s Dei Verbum put it: “sacred Tradition, sacred Scripture, and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with God’s most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others.” They work “all together and each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit.”
All the dogma does, Pius might have said, is put into a shorter and more precise form the understanding of Mary that had been percolating in and shaping the Church’s thinking since the beginning of her life. We can look for a parallel at the development of the way the Church understands Jesus.
The heretics of the early third century (those we see in retrospect as heretics) could make plausible arguments, using Scripture, but the bishops gathered at the first Council of Nicaea saw what was the real teaching of Scripture, even though they had to invent a term not found in the Bible, homoousios, to define it exactly. They had not only the words of Scripture but their real meaning. There is no more to object to in the developed understanding of the Immaculate Conception being declared by Pope Pius IX in 1854 than there is to object to in the developed understanding of the nature of Christ being declared in 325 by the Council of Nicaea.
This helps to explain why the Catholic can be, to the Protestant, so bewilderingly unconcerned with pointing to chapter and verse to defend the dogma. The Catholic answer to the objection that the doctrine is not found in Scripture is that some things the Church teaches can only be found in the Bible by looking backward from what the Church knows in other ways.
The belief in Mary’s sinlessness can be seen to be assumed in Gabriel’s “Hail Mary, full of grace.” If she was full of grace, she could not be sinful. There would not be any room for sin, grace having, so to speak, filled up the space. It can also be seen to be required by the story of “the woman” whose son would crush the serpent’s head in Genesis 3:15. If she, taken to mean Mary, suffered even for a moment from the inherited stain of sin, she would not have had that “perpetual enmity” with the serpent of which the passage speaks.
That is a hit-and-run summary, but I hope it explains what the dogma says and how Catholics believe what is to their Evangelical brethren hopelessly unbiblical and therefore un-believable. We believe in man’s need for grace as firmly as you. We do not exempt even the Mother of God from that need.
One final word. A possible ecumenical appeal of the dogma is that it teaches us something about human freedom. Mary had a choice whether or not to be the mother of the Savior. But Immaculately Conceived and free from sin, she freely chose to do God’s will. That the choice was inevitable, given her character, does not mean it was not free. Her “Be it done to me according to your word” was a perfectly free act, and yet a perfectly predictable one. Mary was doing what she wanted to do.
Mary the Immaculate One shows us what we ought to be and what we shall be: creatures who in perfect freedom choose God, and find the choice not binding but liberating. As Benedict XVI has said, God wants to be worshiped by creatures who are free. In Mary, the Catholic Church declares, he has shown us such a creature, as an example and a promise of what we may be like, when we, like her, have been delivered from all stain of sin.
David Mills is the author of Knowing the Real Jesus and Discovering Mary and writes a weblog for Patheos. He has served as the editor of Touchstone and executive editor of First Things. “Delivered From All Stain” appeared on the “On the Square” section of First Things’ website on December 6, 2010.