Not the Immaculate Conception but a Maculate One

Passion Painting, Patty Wickman, 1997 — contemporary portrayal of Mary in the suburbs of southern California, surrounded by symbols of Christ’s Passion.

The Feast of the Immaculate Conception is celebrated in the Roman Catholic Church and by some Anglicans on December 8.

Ah yes, the immaculate conception —  one of the first trivia questions thrown at new converts to the Catholic faith in RCIA class to show them how little they know and how confused the popular culture is about Catholic dogma. (Papal infallibility is another and we’ll get to that in a minute.)

So, here’s the spoiler. This Immaculate Conception that folks are always talking about is not about Jesus’s birth. Not directly anyway. It’s about Mary’s birth. The idea is that in order to have been the vessel through which Jesus was born, Mary too must have been without Original Sin.

I’m going to confess something right here. I’ve never bought it. When I was going through RCIA instruction to be confirmed a Catholic and we got to the immaculate conception stuff, I really didn’t know what to do with how absurd I found the whole thing, so I just kind of let it slide.

To me, the reasoning behind it is deeply flawed, and I’ll get to that. But also, the fact that we’re even talking about it is an example of the kind of theological nitpicking that Jesus rejected. Remember when the Sadducees tried to trip Jesus up by asking what would happen when a woman who rightfully remarried after the death of a spouse got to heaven and found multiple husbands there? He responded with, “You are wrong, because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God” (Matthew 22:29), and then explained that it didn’t make sense to try to apply the rules of this material realm to divine matters.

There’s a part of me that is fascinated by the centuries- and millennia-long debates over  questions like transubstantiation, the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus, but ultimately I believe these arguments among humans don’t matter. And if they create division between people, then they are harmful.

So, all that said, what’s the deal with the Immaculate Conception? Well, the basic idea, as I said before, is that Mary had to be totally 100% extra virgin pure. Not good enough to insist that the conception of Jesus couldn’t have happened through nasty human sexual intercourse. The argument evolved that Mary’s womb also had to be pure. Her essence had to be without sin in order to be the mother of God. So that brings us to Original Sin and that’s when the trouble starts.

Original Sin basically means that we’re born with a sinful nature. I could write thousands of words on this, and hundreds of books are devoted to the topic. But in a nutshell, Original Sin says that rather than being born pure and getting corrupted by the world around us, we have a corrupted inclination from the start. St. Augustine pointed to the selfishness of children, the impulse to get away with things, and the broader idea of wanting to live without God, to rebel against God.

I actually tend to agree with this, though I think it’s terribly terribly misunderstood. Do we have a tendency to be selfish and to try to play God? I think we do. But whatever your thoughts on that, let’s assume for the sake of this discussion that Original Sin exists.

The big problems start when people try to figure out what else that means. If you believe that people in a state of sin who have not been absolved are going to a place called Hell, then everyone who can’t or won’t avail themselves of those absolution services is damned. That means those who reject it here in the West, which leads to the kind of aggressive frenetic evangelizing you sometimes see. But does it also mean people in other parts of the world who’ve never heard of Christianity, and members of other religions who are perfectly happy? Enter the missionary drive, to save people who don’t even know they’re “lost.”

And Original Sin created a particularly thorny problem for the hyper-logical St. Augustine, my patron saint, who reasoned that, a) you can’t enter heaven in a state of sin; b) unbaptized babies who die have Original Sin and no opportunity to be cleansed of it; therefore, c) unbabtized babies who die can’t go to heaven. Augustine said he didn’t like this answer, but could see no way around it. Since he couldn’t accept they were going to Hell to be punished, he invented a silly concept called Limbo where they would float around for eternity — not being punished, but deprived of heaven too. And we’ve had that concept for two millennia. Most folks today think this is as silly as it sounds, and it’s been explicitly rejected by the pope, but those are the kinds of logical corners theologians will paint themselves into given the chance.

So back to the Immaculate Conception. The logic goes that to be totally free of sin, Mary had to have been born without Original Sin herself, thus the Immaculate Conception. You could ask — I know I did — well, why didn’t her mother also have to be conceived immaculately? Why does it stop with one generation? There’s no answer for that one except that God intervened. But then why didn’t God intervene in Mary’s case and cause her to become sinless before conceiving Jesus despite having been born normally? No answer.

A side note about papal infallibility. The idea of the Immaculate Conception first grew in the 12th century and spread slowly, but in the late 1400s Pope Sixtus IV decided for some reason that disagreeing had become a matter worthy of excommunication. Then, in the increasingly conservative and centralized Catholic Church of the 19th century, unsatisfied with almost universal belief in the concept among the faithful, Pope Pius IX decided to invoke papal infallibility — something never formally used before — to assert that the Immaculate Conception of Mary was “a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.” (Later, theologians identified five earlier infallible teachings from before the doctrine was established.) The only time since then in which infallibility has been invoked came in 1950 when Pope Pius XII proclaimed the Assumption of Mary an article of faith: that Mary, “having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.” Once again, old guys insisting that Mary must be pure, undefiled by this world and untainted by her sexual female body.

I don’t mean to be a jerk about this. The desire to revere the Mother of God is a rare hint of the divine feminine in our Christian heritage. But as with the issue of the virgin birth, I actually find it a much more compelling and attractive story to say that God acts through flawed and unlikely vessels. This is one of the most common themes throughout Scripture. The Hebrew people were the least likely to be God’s chosen people. Moses with his speech impediment was the least likely to be proclaimer of God’s messages to the people. And a poor unwed mother from a hick town was the least likely to be mother of God. That, to me, is awesome. That is miraculous. I hope Mary’s conception was ordinary and maculate, and I don’t mind one bit if Jesus’ was too.

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About Phil Fox Rose

Phil Fox Rose is a writer, editor and content lead based in New York. He is coordinator of Contemplative Outreach of New York, helping promote centering prayer, which has been his contemplative practice for nearly 20 years. Raised atheist by ex-Mormons, Phil has journeyed through Quakerism, deep ecology, Buddhism and Catholicism. Now he's a congregant, worship leader, cook and chair of the leadership team at St. Lydia's, an awesome dinner church in Brooklyn, NY, and spends as much time in nature as possible. Phil has been a political party leader, videographer, tech journalist, punk roadie, software designer, sheepherder, stockbroker and downtempo radio DJ. A common thread is the process of learning about stuff, figuring it out and then sharing that understanding with others. Follow Phil by RSS feed, email, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

  • Ann Turner

    Amen, I’m with you on this, Phil. I have always struggled with the Immaculate Conception, not seeing a need for it. But then, I don’t belive in Original Sin either (as far as I understand it, a doctrine promulgated by St. Augustine himself, but not in the early church) and so don’t see the need to turn ourselves into pretzels to make everything pure.

    • David

      You don’t think there’s anything inherent in us that causes us to be flawed? There are a lot of scientists who theorize that our technological innovations have outstripped our evolutionary stage in life… that the selfish desires and innate tendencies which may have at one point (or still do occasionally) been necessary to survive in a hostile world–prevent us from being perfectly peaceful organisms. I just don’t think it’s logical to dismiss original sin… not because I want the Church to be right on this one, but because I don’t want the Church to be misunderstood since that degrades any further arguments on the topic. There’s obviously a tension between light and dark, and sin seems to be very… natural regardless of anything Augustine ever said.

  • Steve

    Dear Phil,
    You raised the question of why the logical necessity of the Immaculate Conception stopped after one generation and concluded with: “No answer.”

    The reason why you found no answer is because the Catholic Church does not teach that Mary -needed- to be immaculately conceived to bear the Son of God. It is taught that this is a gratuitous and “fitting” privilege for Mary because of her role:

    “And indeed it was wholly fitting that so wonderful a mother should be ever resplendent with the glory of most sublime holiness and so completely free from all taint of original sin that she would triumph utterly over the ancient serpent.” – Ineffabilis Deus, 1854

    So hopefully this clears up your confusion. Also, in regards to the notion of Mary’s sinlessness being unheard of prior to the 12th Century, let’s consult our good friend Saint Augustine

    “We must exempt the holy Virgin Mary, concerning whom I wish to raise no question when it touches the subject of sins, out of honor to the Lord; for from him we know what abundance of grace for overcoming sin in every particular was conferred upon her who had the merit to conceive and bear him who undoubtedly had no sin. Well then, if with this exception of the Virgin, we could only assemble together all the aforementioned holy men and women, and ask them whether they lived without sin while they were in this life, what can we suppose would be their answer?” – Nature and Grace, 36:42, 415AD.

    So hopefully this brings about a cure to your other confusion. In the future, it would be generous of you to consult the Catechism of the Catholic Church before criticizing the teaching of the Catholic Church.


    As for you, Ann… I would point out that if you don’t believe in Original Sin, then you believe that everyone is immaculately conceived. In that case, it should be quite easy for you to accept that Mary was.

    • Ben

      Steve, you’re so right. There is no way anyone should ever be confused about this binding doctrine to all the faithful ever again. I wish everyone would just read the Catechism and agree with everything it says.

    • Phil Fox Rose

      Steve, it’s telling that you ignore my deeper themes and jump on technical issues. Whether it “needed” to be so or was so only because it was “fitting,” the fact remains that the ideas of the immaculate conception, virgin birth and assumption reflect an underlying view that Mary, as the mother of God, is more “fitting” if she is untainted by humanness and bodiliness. This to me sounds awfully close to docetism.

      Your condescension aside, I’ll address your points: on your first, I appreciate the clarification, though it doesn’t alter the broader point I was making; on the second, I did not say no one had ever raised the issue before the 12th century, only that its popularity first grew then, and anyway as I read the Augustine quote you include, he’s saying that out of respect he won’t talk about sin and Mary, not that there is none.

      • Steve

        You’ve struck upon the true beauty of the teaching on the Immaculate Conception, the real reason why it is worth celebrating.

        You say: “Whether it “needed” to be so or was so only because it was “fitting,” the fact remains that the ideas of the immaculate conception, virgin birth and assumption reflect an underlying view that Mary, as the mother of God, is more “fitting” if she is untainted by humanness and bodiliness. This to me sounds awfully close to docetism.”

        There is a notion that to be human is to be sinful, that sin is our true nature. When a person does something wrong, we say, “Well he’s only human.”

        The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is the Catholic Church’s protest against that idea. It is our fist raised into the air, proclaiming that God’s original desire for mankind was to be free of sin – and He continues to free us from sin. We are not our sins, we are not our chains, we are not our imperfections, we are made to reflect God’s glory!

        So you see, the Immaculate Conception reminds us that to be without sin is to be MORE human. That human nature is meant to be heroic, pure, and triumphant! The fact that was persevered from sin means she is the most “human” person in history.

        I hope this helps you see it in a new light.

      • Steve

        Also, regarding the Augustine quote. He doesn’t just say that it would be improper to discuss it, but he says:

        “for from him we know what abundance of grace for overcoming sin in every particular was conferred upon her who had the merit to conceive and bear him who undoubtedly had no sin.”

        So he believed she “undoubtedly had no sin”. Well… it seems the fella thought she never sinned. And it didn’t invent this out of nothing, he believed it because he was taught it by Saint Ambrose, whose writing also reflect this understanding. It was very common to see Mary as a sort of “New Eve” to go with Jesus as the “New Adam”. While this doctrine wasn’t codified until the 19th century… it was pretty widely believed by Christians before then.

        So, again, I hope this helps.

        • Steve

          *actually, it seems I’ve misread it. The important part wasn’t the “undoubetly had no sin”, but the insistence that the “grace to overcome every sin was conferred upon her”. Sorry about that.

          • ErictheLawgiver

            Check and Mate, sir.

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    Amen, I am with you on this, Phil. Totally.