Immaculate Deception?

I had been on the path to becoming a Catholic for nearly twenty years. Coming from an Evangelical, Protestant background I had become an Anglican priest, learned to pray the rosary, understood and accepted the Catholic understanding of the Church, the sacraments and the priesthood. I spent a lot of time in Catholic Benedictine monasteries and attempted to follow the way of St Benedict. But I got stuck on the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

I understood the dogma, but didn’t know why the Catholics had to go and make it mandatory. As an Anglican I was comfortable with a certain amount of ambiguity–a certain open endedness to religion. Many things, I thought, were not clear in Scripture and therefore should be allowed to be held if people came to believe it, but that it should remain a “pious opinion.” In my worst moments I thought it was just another way for Catholics to exalt Mary more than necessary and that the whole things was not a “pious opinion” but an outright intentional deception.

I can remember arguing with a Catholic priest named Father Paul about the Immaculate Conception: “Thomas Aquinas didn’t believe it” I argued, and it isn’t strictly necessary because why just start with Mary being immaculately conceived? Why not her parents and their parents before them? There were three stepping stones that helped me see things differently. Read more.

UPDATE: For an in depth debate on this topic with an Evangelical. Go here for the chapter from my book Mary-A Catholic Evangelical Debate– on the Immaculate Conception.

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  • Timothy

    There is a wonderful quote from Bl. Peter Julian Eymard: “What did God do for Mary? He associates her with His great mystery. The Father calls her His daughter, the Son loves her as His mother, while the Holy Spirit guards her as His spouse.”

  • Raymond Suda

    This never presented much of a problem for me. Then while taking a college level course with my wife from the Archdiocese I read paragraph number 488 in the catechism. The predestination was contrary to my understandings about it. This almost made it seem sort of Calvinistic/Presbyterian. It made it seem that Mary didn’t have free will. Not a major crisis but I’m left not knowing what it actually means. The PHD professor’s response was pathetic so I’m still left without an answer.

  • Bender

    “Behold, I make all things new.”

    In the eternal Lord Jesus Christ, all things are made new, including Creation itself.

    And a New Creation requires a New Eve, one who is, and chooses to remain, the human person as God intended her or him to be.

    A New Eve, from whom the New Adam, bone of her bone, flesh of her flesh, might be born.

  • Shaughn

    Most of the dogmas in the RCC, it seems to me, have their root in one of the fundamental dogmas of their faith, which is, essentially this: that salvation outside of the visible RCC is, at best, uncertain, and at worst, not possible. (As I understand Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, for example, clearly leans closer to the former than the latter.) Everything falls into place after that.

    So, for example:

    1) Salvation outside of the RCC is uncertain.
    2) The RCC teaches that the Immaculate Conception is a dogma — it simply must be true, and has been deemed so via an ex cathedra ruling.
    3) To be in the RCC, therefore, is to believe in the IC.
    4) To disbelieve in the IC, therefore, is to be something other than RCC.
    5) To disbelieve in the IC, therefore, renders the status of one’s salvation uncertain.

    If one isn’t prepared to agree with #1, there’s no real sense in debating the other dogmas individually. (And, well, I’m not quite on board with #1, which is why I won’t bother defending or attacking the IC.)

  • Bender

    All of the dogmas in the “RCC” have their root in the Holy Bridegroom of the Church — Jesus Christ, who is Love and Truth — two become one. And because He is the One Savior, it is outside of Him who is Love and Truth that there is and can be no salvation.

  • Malvenu

    Thank you, Father, this is a very helpful post. I had some difficulty accepting the Immaculate Conception (out of ignorance), but i did so because of my belief and understanding that the Catholic Church is the One True Church built by Christ upon Peter, etc. In short, i believed it because the Church says i should. It took me longer to understand it, though. Your analysis gives me a concise explanation and an organised version of my jumbled understanding and acceptance of this doctrine.

    I can’t wait for the second part of this post – getting into one’s heart!

  • Random Catholic

    I disagree with the immaculate conception bit. Look, every day brave men and women make huge sacrifices for Christ and the faith in places like Iraq, China, Nigeria, and India where Christians are persecuted. They are sometimes brutally tortured and killed for their faith. Are you trying to tell me that a woman cannot choose to have a baby for God without miraculous removal of original sin? I disagree, normal people endure more than that every day. Are you saying that the reproductive faculty cannot be miraculously intervened upon for God to remove original sin? Again I disagree. The virgin birth was already miraculous both human and divine. Are you saying the original sin is passed on genetically? If original sin were passed on genetically then God would have removed it ages ago. Surely original sin must be conveyed during ensoulment. Since Christ’s soul existed since the beginning of time, it is impossible that the purity of Mary’s soul has anything at all to do with the purity of Christ’s soul. Indeed, the soul of Christ was already pure, and Mary’s genetics had nothing to do with it other than perhaps to establish the Davidic symbolism if only to mollify our own fallen monarchist views of who the Christ had to be. I really get disgusted reading Origen’s outdated ideas of the integrity of a hymen having anything to do with a person’s purity. Origen speculates that Christ was teleported out of the womb to leave Mary’s hymen intact. All of this mariolatry only serves to diminish Mary’s saintly holiness. What’s wrong with respecting Mary’s fiat as overcoming her own original sin? What’s wrong with her giving birth the normal way, as opposed to teleportation?

  • Shaughn

    Right. Unless you’re Greek Orthodox, who often consider those under the Roman See to be the first Protestants. ;)

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    I understand your objections, but there are several difficulties with your ideas. Firstly, if Mary had been able to say ‘yes’ to God completely out of her own goodness, then this would be her own human goodness without God’s grace. The idea that we can be ‘good enough’ on our own is the heresy of Pelagianism. Instead the Catholic Church teaches that God’s grace is first given enabling us to respond with a ‘yes’ to God. Mary’s being ‘full of grace’ is the greatest witness to this divine action in the soul.

    We do not need to hold to ancient ideas of original sin being passed on ‘genetically’ in a literal sense–as if you could find a ‘sin gene’. However, it is passed on ‘genetically’ inasmuch as it is something we inherit by being members of the human race.

    Finally, we do admit that the Blessed Virgin is a completely unique individual. God may have chosen to deliver others from original sin before her, but we don’t have any evidence or suggestion that he did. Instead he chose to deliver humanity from the curse of original sin through the Immaculate conception, the Incarnation and then the passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

  • Irenaeus of New York

    Ranom Catholic,
    Origen did not have the benefit of definitively knowing what writings were inspired. He believed the ancient Clementine writings now thought to be spurious. He also quoted the Hebrew version of the Gospel of Matthew. It recounts the midwives hand withering at checking the hymen/virginity of Mary after birth, the curse was lifted and her hand restored later on. It also recounts the story of Anna and Joachim and Mary as a virgin of the Temple. There were more than one early church fathers who thought these writings authentic, but it is not considered canonical or divinely inspired. Jerome rightly saw some of the problems with it.

  • Bender

    Are you saying the original sin is passed on genetically?

    To answer a question with a question — Are you saying that the sin of an individual (either the first “original sin” or any other thereafter) has no effect on the body?

    If we consider sin to be an act of the body, then certainly it affects it in some manner. And even if we consider sin (including the sin of Adam and Eve) to be purely spiritual, given that we are not mere spiritual creatures, but body and spirit together, any sin by the spirit must necessarily impact the body as well. Sin involves the entirety of the person, not merely one aspect of him.

    Having once impacted and scarred the body — and in the case of Adam and Eve, it scarred the entirety of the human race — those scars necessarily remain in the offspring of those bodies.

    However, with Mary, it was not so. Not only was (is) she a new creation, but as the angel said, she is “full of grace” — that fullness of graces extends to the entirety of her being, soul and body, from the beginning of her existence, i.e. from the moment of her conception.

    This is important not only for Mary, but for us as well, because in always pointing us to her Son, Mary leads the way, she shows for us the eschatological destiny of the faithful. In order to be “conceived” into heaven, one must be “immaculate,” pure and full of grace. That is, it is only by being immaculately conceived into the eternal life that one can enter into heaven.

  • Ross Cobb

    All this seems to me that people just want to put limits on what God can or can’t do.
    Is the immaculate conception harder to believe than the Euchurist?
    just a laymen

  • John

    Not just the Greek Orthodox, all Orthodox do! :-)

  • Michael B Rooke

    If we degrade Mary to being just a woman then we invalidate the Divinity of Christ.
    In the words of Columba Marmion [1]
    “To separate Christ from His mother in our loving devotion is to divide Christ; it is to lose
    from sight the essential role of His sacred humanity in the conferment of Divine grace. When one forsakes the Mother, one no longer understands the Son. Is not this what has happened to the Protestant nations? In having rejected devotion to Mary, on the plea of not derogating
    from the dignity of the one and only Mediator, have they not even ended up by losing faith in the divinity of Christ Himself?”

    Our Blessed Lady was THE woman of Genesis 3:15. I will put enmities between you and the woman, and your seed and her seed: she shall crush your head, and you shall lie in wait for her heel.
    Our Lady is the new Eve. If Mary had not been full of grace she could not have been the mother of our Saviour.

    It may also be noted that Columba Marmion (1858-1923) was Franco Irish and mostly wrote in French. His books are all translations from the French. When he quoted Galations 4:4 on page 473 he does not use the word “born” but says ‘formed of a woman’. that is more in keeping with the Douai-Rheims use of “made of a woman” “Born” seems to be a modern paraphrase (as in the New American Bible and the later Revised) that is not in the Latin Vulgate (see the New Advent on line bible of Latin along side the English) nor in the KJV for that matter.

    Blessed Columba writes:
    “Mary is the mother of Christ, for, like all other mothers for their sons, she formed and nourished the body of Jesus from her substance most pure. Christ, says St Paul, was ‘formed of a woman’. That is a dogma of faith. If, by His eternal birth in holy splendour. Christ is truly Son of God-’God from God,” He is truly Son of Mary by His birth in the sphere of time. The only Son of God is also the only Son of the Virgin. Such is the ineffable union that exists between Jesus and Mary: she is His mother, He her Son. This union is indissoluble; and as Jesus is at the same time the Son of God, come to save the world, Mary is, in actual fact, associated intimately with the life-giving mystery of the whole of Christianity. The foundation of all her greatness is this special privilege of her being Mother of God.”

    Blessed Columba Marmion. Christ The Life of the Soul, Page 470.