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Why Catholics Believe in the Immaculate Conception

  • DAVID M. BRISTOW

Why do Catholics believe in the Immaculate Conception? The belief means that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was preserved without sin for her entire life.

The Immaculate Conception

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It was Mary's closeness to Christ that made her receive God's "fullness of grace" to be sinless. Without God's grace, it would have been impossible for Mary to be sinless, and she too would be like the rest of humanity. However, because of her decision to say, "yes" in giving birth to Christ, she was given a special privilege by having no sin touch her. Catholics believe that God wanted a perfectly pure woman to carry His Son, the God of the universe, for nothing else short of perfection would do.

The Immaculate Conception of Mary continues to be a major disagreement point by other Christian denominations towards the Catholic faith. Many people say that the Immaculate Conception somehow takes away from Christ's glory and message. Some will say that this belief in Mary is not found in the Bible, or that it blatantly contradicts the Bible's words. There are also thousands of people who mistakenly believe what the Catholic Church teaches about the Immaculate Conception, which unfortunately has lead to many misguided opinions. What evidence do Catholics have to defend their belief in Mary's Immaculate Conception?


Evidence from the Scriptures:

"And the angel came in unto her, and said, hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women." - Luke 1:28

It is the term "full of grace" that is emphasized by the Church when dealing with Mary's Immaculate Conception. The title "full of grace" comes from the Greek word kecharitomene, which describes a "perfection" and "abundance" of grace. In other words, Mary was proclaimed by the angel to be with a perfection of grace, which was a very powerful statement. How can Mary be completely and perfectly with God's grace, yet still have sin left in her? Christians eventually came to recognize that it was extremely possible for Mary to be without sin, especially if she was completely filled with God's grace. Luke 1:28 happens to be the only place in the Bible where anyone is addressed with the important title of "full of grace."

"the Holy Ghost shall come upon you, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow you: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of you shall be called the Son of God." - Luke 1:35

Luke 1:35 shows Mary as the Ark of the New Covenant. According to the Old Testament, the Ark of the Covenant was the pure and holy vessel that held the Ten Commandments (the Old Covenant). The Ark was so holy in fact, that if anyone where to touch it they could actually fall down and die! It was housed in the Holy of Holies, which was a perfectly clean place where the Jewish high priests could enter only once a year according to their law (See Lev. 16:2-4). So how are Mary and the Ark related? The same language that describes God's "dwelling" place for the Old Ark is used again for Mary's overshadowing by the Holy Spirit. Put another way, the Old Ark held God's Ten Commandments and could not be touched by human hands because of its holiness. Mary, the New Ark, holds the New Covenant in her womb, which is Jesus Christ. How much holier is Christ than the Ten Commandments? It only makes sense that for Mary to hold God in her womb, she too would be completely pure and without any sin.

"I will put enmity between you and the woman, between your seed (offspring) and hers; He (she) will crush your head while you strike at his (her) heel." - Genesis 3:15

What does the book of Genesis have to do with Mary's Immaculate Conception? Genesis 3:15 is the first passage in the Bible that refers to Jesus defeating Satan on the cross. It is also the first verse that shows us how Mary would become the New Eve. The seed of the woman, who would crush the serpent's head, is Jesus. The woman at enmity, or hostility with the serpent, is Mary. It was God who put this hostility between Mary and Satan (the serpent), and it is believed to be in the same likeness as Christ's hostility for the seed of the serpent. What exactly does all this mean? For Mary to be like Christ in His hostility for Satan forever, it is very possible to say that this passage implies Mary's lack of sin. What better way is there to be in total hostility with Satan than to be in God's constant grace? As the New Eve, Mary undid the "no" of the Old Testament Eve by saying, "yes" to carry Jesus.


Evidence from History:

Pope Pius IX officially defined the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception in the year 1854. He did so with the understanding that this belief would help the Catholic faithful grow spiritually towards Christ. The belief that Mary was without sin was not "invented" as numerous people mistakenly think. Many are still under the false impression that the Immaculate Conception was not believed until the year 1854 when it was defined. What they fail to realize is that the belief itself has extremely strong roots in Church writings going well back into the 4th century.

"Every personal sin must be excluded from the Blessed Virgin Mary for the sake of the honor of God." - St. Augustine, 390 AD.

"Mary, a virgin not only undefiled but a virgin whom grace has made inviolate, free from every stain." - St. Ambrose of Milan, 340-370 AD.

"You, and your Mother are alone in this. You are wholly beautiful in every respect. There is in you, Lord, no stain, nor any spot in your Mother." - St. Ephraem, 350 AD.

In fact, there are literally dozens of cases where early Church fathers have mentioned Mary as being without sin, using such words as "All-Holy One," "All-Sinless One," and "Immaculate." It proves that the idea of Mary's sinlessness was not uncommon in the first few centuries of the Church. As time passed, the Eastern Church began to show its strong love for the Immaculate Conception with its own feast day beginning in the 8th to 9th century. By the 12th century, the Western Church was celebrating the feast of the Immaculate Conception all over Europe, and by the end of the 15th century, it was universally recognized and defended as true Christian doctrine.


Common Objections and Questions:


I thought that the Immaculate Conception meant that Mary conceived Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit! Could you please explain?

This happens to be a popular misconception by many people. What you are referring to is the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, and not the Immaculate Conception. The Incarnation is the belief that Jesus came into the world as fully man and fully God. The Immaculate Conception is the belief that Mary was conceived into the world without sin to carry Christ.


But doesn't the Bible say in Romans 3:23 that, "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God."

At first glance this "all have sinned" may appear to contradict a Catholic's belief in Mary's Immaculate Conception. However, on further examination, it is not an impossible verse to overcome. For Catholics, Mary is seen as an exception to this passage, as are children under the age of reason, and mentally disabled people. With both of these examples, these groups are unable to sin because of their lack of reasoning. For example, a child who does not understand what sin is cannot sin, because the child is unaware of what is right and wrong. Now granted, a child who does not understand sin is not entirely like Mary, but it does show that there are exceptions to the "all have sinned" rule.


Ok, but what about original sin? Adam and Eve passed sin down to us when they ate the forbidden fruit.

This is true, but even original sin has its exceptions. Both Adam and Eve were originally created without sin, as were God's multitude of angels. This simply shows that it is not impossible for God to create living beings without the stain of original sin!


Still, the passage reads that, "all have sinned," so both Adam and Eve and the rest of humanity must have sinned during their existence!

What the Catholic wants to show is that there are exceptions to the rule. We understand that "all have sinned," but believe that Mary – and Jesus – are not included in this verse. The "all" in Romans 3:23 was translated from the Greek word pas. Like the usage of the word "all" today, it does not necessarily mean each and every person with no exceptions. For instance, in the same letter to the Romans (11:26), St. Paul says that "all Israel will be saved," and in Matthew 2:3 it says "all of Jerusalem" were troubled. Yet, were all of Israel going to be saved, or was each and every person in Jerusalem troubled? There are plenty of other examples like these found all throughout the Bible. The main point is that the word "all" had many different meanings in the Greek language, and that it does not rule out the possibility of exceptions in Romans 3:23.


The fact remains that the words "Mary was without sin" are not found in the Bible. Why do Catholics continue to believe in it?

True, the words "Mary was without sin" cannot be found in the Bible. However, one will not find the direct wording of "Mary was with sin" either. As shown above, Catholics believe that the Immaculate Conception has implied evidence for it within scripture. Add this to the large amount of early Church writings on the topic, and it is no wonder why Catholics continue to believe in it.


But if Mary didn't sin, doesn't that mean she didn't need Christ as her savior?

No, it does not mean that Mary did not need Jesus as her savior. This is one of the most common misunderstandings with other Christian denominations. Think of it this wayif Jesus did not make Mary perfectly sinless, she too would have sinned like everyone else! As was the case with Mary, we too will one day be without sin when we are in heaven. Mary was preserved without sin before she was born, in order that she may hold Christ in her womb. So, Mary fits the "all have sinned" in an indirect way. If God did not intervene with His grace, Mary would be with sin. She needed Christ as her savior to keep her from sin in the first place, just as Christ's death on the cross will keep us from sin in heaven.


Doesn't Mary's lack of sin take away from Jesus Christ?

Why would it? To Catholics, the belief in the Immaculate Conception is as much about Christ as it is about Mary! Jesus was so holy, so awesome, and so divine, that He made a woman perfectly pure just so He could enter the world through her. How does that take away from Christ? The Immaculate Conception simply reinforces how powerful and perfect Jesus Christ truly is!


Why did it take so long for the belief in the Immaculate Conception to come about? Why was it not defined right after Jesus' death? 1854 is a long time after Jesus!

Yes, 1854 is considered by most to be a long time after Jesus. However, most Christian beliefs, including the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the New Testament Books, took centuries before they were made official Christian beliefs. This does not mean that they were not true, but that they took time to define properly. The same goes for the Immaculate Conception. There were many early Church fathers who believed that Mary was sinless, but it was not the most important issue that needed to be addressed in the early years of the Church. For example, it was more important to discuss Jesus and His divinity than Mary's complete lack of sin. How could the Church teach about Mary's lack of sin if they had not yet come to certain conclusions about Jesus' divinity?


Didn't St. Thomas Aquinas, the great Church philosopher, disagree with the Immaculate Conception? I thought he was a very significant Church father!

Yes, St. Thomas Aquinas did disagree with the Immaculate Conception, but he did not disagree with the belief that Mary was without sin! The debate arose over if Mary was conceived in her mother's womb without sin, and if this affected her need for Christ as a savior. Of course, this philosophical debate was finally settled by Duns Scotus in the 13th century whose writings cleared up all complaints over Mary's need for Christ. With his help, the belief in the Immaculate Conception became standard teaching within the Churches and Universities of Europe. This debate over when – and not if – Mary was made sinless is one of the reasons why the Church did not officially define the doctrine until 1854. It just goes to show how the Church does its research and evaluation on topics before making them official teachings.


Origen, St. Basil, and St. Chrysostom were early Church fathers! Doesn't that prove that Mary was believed to have sin?

No, it does not. Although these early Church fathers believed Mary to have sinned, there are just as many – if not more – who believed that she did not. Some examples of those who called Mary as the "New Eve" include Irenaeus, Justin, Tetullian, Cyril of Jerusalum, and Sedulius. Further examples of Mary's absolute purity include Fathers Maximum of Turin, Ambrose, Augustine, Theodorus of Jerusalem, and John Damascene. The list of names and examples continues to go on and on throughout history. Even Martin Luther, the German theologian who helped to create the Protestant Reformation, believed in Mary's complete lack of sin! Catholics are perfectly justified to say that there have been many writings about Mary's sinlessness in all periods of Church history.


You bring up some convincing evidence, but I am still not sure about the belief.

That is ok! It is not always an easy belief to grasp for non-Catholics! However, one should remember that it was by Jesus and for Jesus that Mary was created sinless. Without His grace, it would be impossible for such a thing to happen. Finally, it is important to say that Mary is not equal to Jesus in any way simply because she is without sin! Sometimes it comes off like that to people who do not understand the Catholic view of Mary. Jesus is without sin because He is God; Mary is without sin because Jesus made her so. Therefore, when we see the Immaculate Conception, we actually see Christ's perfection, His love, and His divine greatness!

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Acknowledgement

David M. Bristow. "Why Catholics Believe in the Immaculate Conception." Catholic Educator's Resource Center (April, 2003).

This article reprinted with permission from David M. Bristow.

The Author

David Bristow serves as the Youth Minister at St. Joseph Church in Herndon, Virginia. He is a member of the Youth Apostles Institute, an organization of priests, laymen, and consecrated men who devote themselves to strengthening our young people's Catholic faith. David converted to Catholicism in the spring of 2001, and enjoys reading theology and philosophy in his spare time.

Copyright © David M. Bristow
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