Skip to comments.Why the Immaculate Conception?
Posted on 12/08/2004 3:17:33 PM PST by nickcarraway
I live in an age, and a country, wherein the largest single cause of death of infants under one year of age is homicide. I live at a time when, according to those who claim to know these things, Ronald McDonald has surpassed Jesus Christ in popularity among children.
What a Time for a Virgin
I live at a time when the best-known moral theologians have despaired of leading people to a more virtuous life, but are principally concerned to insulate the sinner from the consequences of his sin; logic has give way to latex as the preferred medium of instruction. I live in a country where, this very day, 4,000 of our fellow citizens, 4,000 human beings with an eternal destiny, will be summarily killed by abortion.
I live at a time when most promises will be broken, most vows will be repudiated, most marriages will fail. I live at a time when it is virtually impossible to go through a day without using some commodity which, however innocent in itself, is not hawked in terms of some base or venal allure. I am promised prosperous and intriguing companions by the folks who brew my beer; and those who sell my shaving cream are at pains to assure me that it will provoke the women I encounter into sexual frenzy. (The last claim, I might add, is an exaggeration.)
It may seem pointless at such a time, in such a place, to hold up the Virgin Mary, and especially her Immaculate Conception, as a source of nourishment for our lives as Christians. For her perfection can appear so remote from the moral sweatiness and squalor in which our personal struggles occur that it recedes entirely into the background; it is swallowed up by our furious temptations and enthusiasms, and so is lost to us. This remoteness is widened, and not helped, by a way of speaking which would present the Virgin Mary to us as "the representation of an Ideal," that is, as an abstraction, or at best a personified Virtue, like the Roman goddesses of Wisdom or Moderation. Thus, she, who begins as a real flesh-and-blood woman, "a virgin, betrothed to a man named Joseph," becomes in the end an abstract noun, a figure of speech.
And of course it's not hard to see why, in and of itself, a personified Ideal is of little consequence to the moral or spiritual life. To use an analogy from a more trivial world, we might imagine a mythological golfer who scored 18 in every round he ever played, yet few instructors would "hold up" such a figure as an example to his pupils, and even fewer players would tell themselves in preparing to make a treacherous shot, "Steady now. Remember that the Great McTavish always did the 530-yard fifth hole in one stroke..." Ideas can be beacons to guide us, but they are seldom fires at which we can warm our hands; they may be necessary to our thinking, but they don't strengthen the will.
If you think about the two or three saints to whom you yourself have the deepest devotion, is it not the case that part of what attracts and fascinates you about these saints is what you can recognize a certain kinship in the kind of fragility they possess, a fragility against which their heroism blazes with particular glory in your eyes, in your heart? Isn't it the case that, since you can see God's work in their weakness, you can come to accept the possibility of God working in your weakness too?
Even More Human Than We Are
Perhaps then we're in a little better position to understand the unique complications this presents in terms of the Virgin Mary. She says, "My soul glorifies the Lord...for He has looked with kindness on His lowly servant." Now isn't there a voice in the back of our heads which whispers at this point, "Lowly? We should all be so lowly!" That is, we assume that Mary's perfection would have been as obvious to her as it is to us, and it seems a trifle stagy in such circumstances to pretend to true lowliness. Now I apologize to those of you who have never been vexed by this problem, but I think it is common enough to be worth trying to free ourselves from it.
It seems to me that in speaking of the Virgin Mary as sinless, as immaculate, we all too often mean that she was constitutionally incapable of sinning, that she was no more capable of sin than a man is capable of giving birth or an oyster is capable of flight. There are some difficulties here. First, we are told in the Letter to the Hebrews that "we have not [in Jesus] a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, but without sin" (4:15). There is then a theological difficulty in attributing to Mary that freedom from temptation which her own Son did not cling to. Further, if we speak of the Virgin Mary as constitutionally incapable of sin, it is all the more difficult to discover in her the humanity which is by its very weakness transparent to God's power. Consequently, in an age like our own especially, she is all the more likely to be treated as precisely that sort of Ideal which cannot warm our affections or stir our courage.
One obvious, all-too-predictable solution, is to deny the Immaculate Conception and the sinlessness of Mary, under the fatuous pretense that by doing so, she will become more "human," and so more accessible to the rest of us sinners. Wrong on all counts, the most obvious being that a human who sins is less human after he succumbs than he was before. Still, there is a persistent, though imbecile, way of speaking in which some public figure who has an adulterous affair or a personal foible come to light thereby reveals a "human side" of himself. In fact, it is in keeping his commitments and displaying evidence of virtue that a man is most fully human; in giving in to temptations, even trivial or petty ones, he becomes that much more bestial.
When we fall, we fall from a human dignity, not an angelic one; our skid may well end at a level of animal savagery, but we never "tumble down" into humanity. It was natural indeed that the Legion inside the Gerasene demoniac pleaded to be cast into swine not because pigs are of themselves wickeder then men, but because the elevator, so to speak, was already at that floor. There is no point, then, in exploring this avenue further. I think the way out is more direct. A friend of mine is fond of saying, "Whenever I hear the word 'dialogue', I reach for my dogma." Let us, in the same spirit, reach for our dogma and see if it has anything to say to us.
In Consideration of the Merits of Jesus Christ
Pope Pius IX's Dogmatic Definition of 1854 runs thus: "The Blessed Virgin Mary, at the first instant of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace of omnipotent God, in consideration of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of mankind, was preserved free from all stain of original sin...." First, it should be noticed that the grace given to the Virgin Mary was "in consideration of the merits of Jesus Christ." That is, in and of herself, she too was in need of salvation and was saved through the sacrifice of her Son, although it worked "retroactively" as it were, so as to affect her even at her conception.
A very partial analogy might be drawn with a woman afflicted from birth with a progressive terminal disease, whose own child grows up to be the scientist who discovers the cure for the disease, and so heals the mother. But let's not push that too far. The second point, and this is the one I want to stress, is that it is original sin from which Mary was preserved at her conception. The contamination which we all inherited from Adam, namely, estrangement from God with its consequent warping of our human appetites, as well as death itself, did not touch her.
The fittingness of this "singular privilege and grace" was, to my mind, well expressed by the English Bishop Langdon Fox, who asked, "How could Mary be said to have been made fit to stand in the relationship of Mother to the all-pure God if the Devil could claim, and claim truly that once, even if only for moment, she had been in the state of Original Sin?" that is, if the devil had her in his control even briefly. Be that as it may, it should be clear that freedom from original sin does not bring with it an incapacity for actual sin. After all, Adam and Eve were both created without original sin; it was in fact their first actual sin whose effect we call "original" in their descendants.
Now the upshot is this: The Blessed Virgin Mary lived her life in the state in which Adam and Eve lived before their sin. She was as capable of sin as they were; her life, to this extent like ours, was a series of choices between good and bad, self and other, God's will and her own. Her glory, for which all generations will call her blessed, is that in every instance she said, "I am your servant. Let it be done to me in accordance with your word." She, who was full of grace, said, "Your will be done, not mine." When she praised God because He had looked on her in her lowliness, she was not feigning humility. She was uniquely aware that it was God's grace, and not her own merit, in virtue of which she had been set apart. And the consciousness of the gap between her humanity and God's power was uniquely acute in her case.
C.S. Lewis remarked somewhere that we are not to imagine that Jesus had an easier time with temptation than we. In fact, he said, Jesus Christ was the only one Who ever felt the full strength of temptation, because He was the only one Who never gave in to it. He said by way of explanation something like this: "After all, you don't discover the true strength of the German Army by lying down and letting it roll over you; but only by standing up to it and fighting it at every turn." If I might extend (and correct) C.S. Lewis here, I would say that the Virgin Mary is, apart from her Son, the only one who really knew humility, since it was she who, in every instance, chose obedience, who let God's will trump her own, who refused to be duped into trusting in her own resources.
Truly An Earthen Vessel
We might illustrate what this means from the Gospel: I once heard another Jesuit talk over coffee about a homily he had it give at a summer camp for retarded children. The Gospel text on which he was to preach was the account of the Rich Young Man. Unsure how he was going to communicate the message to his congregation, this priest somewhat despairingly brought out a simple coffee cup after reading the Scripture. He said, "You see, the rich young man's cup was already full of all the things he had, and so Jesus couldn't give him anything; there was no room." I still think that to be one of the most striking exegeses of that passage I've ever heard. And, when it is reversed, the same image can be applied to Mary. Her cup alone was genuinely empty; she alone had room only for God. No element of possessiveness or self-will took up the space made for God's love. She alone was truly an earthen vessel, a repository, she whom the archangel Gabriel called "full of grace."
Her humility, her lowliness, was not a sham. Alone of our race, she could point to her humility without an admixture of hypocrisy. The lowliness was hers; the glory was God's. Far from being aloof from the pain of decision, she is the only one of us who ever felt the full sting. If you think I am laying it on a bit thick here, I'd invite you to try living for ten minutes genuinely unconscious of your own dignity, genuinely reliant on God. It hurts like blazes.
There is a strain of feminist Mariology which feels repugnance at the dogma of the Immaculate Conception because it views the notion as demeaning to women. Orthodox theologians were so scandalized by the particularly feminine dimension of sinfulness (according to this school) that they found it necessary to cook up the idea of an immaculate conception in order to sanitize the event of the incarnation. I hope I have shown that this way of thinking has got things exactly backwards. In articulating its belief that Mary was free of original sin, the Church is thrusting the Blessed Virgin into the heart of the problematic struggle of temptation and grace; it is the opposite of insulation. It is not some angelic perfection, but her humanity which is vindicated by Pius IX's definition her dependence on merits of Jesus Christ, her constant re-enactment of the drama of Adam's choice. This drama is no less dramatic for its happy ending, and it is a drama which ultimately includes us all, in the vision of the Woman clothed with the sun, crushing the serpent at the world's end.
Every true Christian instinct points to this; all orthodox devotion to Mary rejoices in her triumph, because she was conscious of that profound humility of which we have ourselves only the faintest inklings; whether she is pictured at the foot of the Cross, or with a child at her breast, or as the queen and bride arrayed in splendor the prefigured bride without spot or wrinkle it is our fragility in which we give thanks for God's love, God's grace, God's fidelity to us in her.
Pure. Whole. Intact. Entire. Spotless. Stainless. Sinless. Unsoiled. Unsullied. Unblemished. Uncorrupted. Immaculate!
Father Paul Mankowski, SJ, teaches Hebrew at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome. His essays have appeared frequently in First Things and elsewhere, and he is a contributor to The Politics of Prayer: Feminist Language and the Worship of God(Ignatius Press, San Francisco, ed. Helen Hull Hitchcock).
Check out what secular sources are making of this great feast....
wow, that one left me speechless! Using a feast of Mary to promote a pill that often kills a newly conceived child is just unbelievable. Sick, sick, sick.
That is so Orthodox Kolo, so beautiful. When my grandmother died, my mother was crushed, evend though she was as Orthodox as one can be. She didn't eat or drink naything for a couple of days and was beginning to look very ill. The Orthodox priest came and blessed the house. He then sat with my mother and said to her "You are a believer?" and my mother says "Yes, Father, I am," tears running down her cheeks and her voice quivvering. He then said "Then, as a believer, you know that life is only a comma, and not a full stop." After those words my mother came back to life. It was a powerful message that reached her spirit profoundly. No big speaches, no special doctrinal statements, just a simple statement of faith. Orthodoxy!
Now, this is not exactly what the topic was, but it is that faith that keeps us going even when everything else is hopeless, and of all humans Theotokos' faith was tested to the max. One of the most memorable scenes in the "Passion of the Christ" that I keep watching over and over is not the floggin and torturing, but the scenes of our Blessed Mother of God watching her Son. She not once cast an anrgy look at the Jewish High Priests, the Romans or the crowd. How many of us could do that?! She could only watch Him, knowing that, no matter how difficult, it was God's decision. That kind of sinlessness, faith and devotion to God by an ordinary, mortal woman is our hope that we too can deny sin -- not because some of us are "elect" but because we want to.
In other words, for the Orthodox, a Theotokos who was concieved sinless, as the Immaculate Conception implies, by God's intervention, is not a feat of her faith and humanity and, consequently, not within the realm of our human capacity to even try to emulate.
I've never read anything by Fr. Mankowski that I didn't enjoy immensely and find very edifying. This is no exception. Some "old-school" Jesuit writing by (as far as I know) a relatively young Jebbie. There IS hope!! Thanks for posting!
10 as it is written, "THERE IS NONE RIGHTEOUS, NOT EVEN ONE; 11 THERE IS NONE WHO UNDERSTANDS, THERE IS NONE WHO SEEKS FOR GOD; 12 ALL HAVE TURNED ASIDE, TOGETHER THEY HAVE BECOME USELESS; THERE IS NONE WHO DOES GOOD, THERE IS NOT EVEN ONE."
23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God
I don't see in this Romans passage (which is actually a quote from Psalm 14:3) that Mary is excluded. Please show me the scripture passage that states that Mary was without sin. If all her ancestors where born under sin and she had two sinful parents, how could Mary not be of the same line?
Jesus was excluded only because His father was not of Adam!
I'm only going to say this once because this debate doesn't particularly interest me - sola scriptura (bible alone) Christianity is not biblical in and of itself.
"I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you" (1 Cor. 11:2).
"Follow the pattern of the sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus; guard the truth that has been entrusted to you by the Holy Spirit who dwells within us" (2 Tim. 1:13-14).
"So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter." (2 Thess. 2:15)
"You, then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also" (2 Tim. 2:1-2).
"First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of ones own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God" (2 Peter 1:20-21).
"Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink, but I hope to come to see you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete" (2 John 12).
Of course all these references were made prior to the New Testament's canonization. The primary method of evangelism and preaching was word of mouth since the "Good News" was not yet a published work.
Since the traditional church (Roman Catholic, in this case) was one of the chief preservers of Scripture through the ages, certainly they would have preserved reference to Mary's sinlessness if it existed? Where is the reference?
"Perhaps then we're in a little better position to understand the unique complications this presents in terms of the Virgin Mary. She says, "My soul glorifies the Lord...for He has looked with kindness on His lowly servant." Now isn't there a voice in the back of our heads which whispers at this point, "Lowly? We should all be so lowly!" That is, we assume that Mary's perfection would have been as obvious to her as it is to us, and it seems a trifle stagy in such circumstances to pretend to true lowliness. Now I apologize to those of you who have never been vexed by this problem, but I think it is common enough to be worth trying to free ourselves from it. "
Well, I must admit that I have been vexed by this inconsistency and came to the obvious conclusion that Mary certainly was lowly (surely she must speak truth) compared to God for she was due the wrath of God like all mortal men after Adam. Mary was born in sin (unless you claim she had sinless parents) and even if you claim she never committed a sin, her condition before God was unregenerate. She needed God's mercy just as much as you or I.
Pius IX 12/8/1854
I guess if Pope Pius IX says it so it must be so. Can't argue with that reasoning.
You might try this web site. It give a very detailed explanation of the history of Immaculate Conception (and is Roman Catholic friendly). The concept of Mary's sinlessness evolved over centuries and never was original teaching by Christ nor His disciples...
I have a question for you. Does the Roman Catholic Church teach that Mary died or did she ascend into heaven as did Christ? Since death is the payment for sin, and she was sinless, it would seem necessary that she not suffer death.
(Declaramus, pronuntiamus et definimus doctrinam quae tenet beatissimam Virginem Mariam in primo instanti suae conceptionis fuisse singulari Omnipotentis Dei gratia et privilegio, intuitu meritorum Christi Jesu Salvatoris humani generis, ab omni originalis culpae labe praeservatam immunem, esse a Deo revelatam, atque idcirco ab omnibus fidelibus firmiter constanterque credendam.)
This is a very rare thing, the exercise of papal infallibility, John Paul II has used it only a few times, the most famous being:
Therefore, by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, in communion with the bishopswho are various occasions have condemned abortion and who in the aforementioned consultation, albeit dispersed throughout the world, have shown unanimous agreement concerning this doctrine declare that direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder, since it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being. This doctrine is based upon the natural law and upon the written Word of God, is transmitted by the Churchs Tradition and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium.
(Evangelium vitae, #62) "
This is a great statement to use as an example since it pretty much spells out the requirements for an ex cathedra statement
Pope Pius XII 11/01/1950
"44. For which reason, after we have poured forth prayers of supplication again and again to God, and have invoked the light of the Spirit of Truth, for the glory of Almighty God who has lavished his special affection upon the Virgin Mary, for the honor of her Son, the immortal King of the Ages and the Victor over sin and death, for the increase of the glory of that same august Mother, and for the joy and exultation of the entire Church; by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory. "
You found another one heh - this isn't done often you just happened to ask about two instances where papal infallibility has been invoked and I provided you a 3rd as a means of example.