The Immaculate Conception: It’s Complicated

Article by Mark Galli

December 08, 2021

Share

For many today, the Immaculate Conception is more than a puzzle. The teaching that the mother of Jesus was preserved free from sin from her conception is, well, a source of irritation. As someone who was embedded in evangelical Christianity for fifty years, I get it.

Among the objections, three come to the fore, while others are more subtle.

First, it is assumed by many that the teaching is not biblical. True enough that the Bible doesn’t express it in these words. At the same time, neither does the Bible articulate the doctrine of the Trinity or original sin, among other revered doctrines, in those exact words or phrases. And yet we trust the wisdom of the Church as it developed doctrines that have their roots in Scripture. The root Scripture of the Immaculate Conception? When the angel Gabriel announced that Mary was “full of grace.”

Much ink has been spilled over this phrase, as to whether it is the correct translation of the Greek word behind it (kecharitōmenē). Suffice it to say, having learned Greek in seminary and having followed many exegetical debates about many biblical passages, it seems to me that on grammatical and linguistic grounds, it is legitimate to say that kecharitōmenē suggests that Mary was “completely, perfectly, enduringly endowed with grace.” Is it a slam dunk, take no prisoners translation? Of course not. There is a rare translation issue that is. But the traditional Catholic interpretation falls well within the bounds of honest and legitimate scholarship.

The other biblical concern is building a dogma on one isolated verse. But this is to be unaware of the fuller biblical reasons for the dogma (too involved to go into here), as well as a failure to see that there are other singular biblical phrases from which have developed complex and intricate doctrines (e.g., Jesus as “the Word,” “I am who I am,” etc.).

Bottom line: the biblical concerns, while giving me pause, never seemed significant enough to reject the dogma offhand.

Then there is the historical concern: It is said to be a dogma that was “created” in the nineteenth century. Again, this shows an understandable ignorance. We cannot expect every believer to be well read in Church history. Nor is this the place to detail that history. Suffice it to say, the early Church began pondering Mary’s moral state, especially after the Council of Ephesus (431) declared that Mary is “the Mother of God.” It only made sense, early Christians reasoned, that the Mother of God was herself a pure vessel.

To be sure, there were theological debates about the timing of her moral purity. Most notable were the differing views of Thomas Aquinas, who spoke of the sanctification taking place at Mary’s ensoulment shortly after conception, and the Franciscan theologian John Duns Scotus, who spoke of the purification occurring at the very moment of her conception (though in one of his later writings, Thomas seems to articulate a position similar to Scotus). Even some Protestant Reformers held one view or another—for example, Martin Luther wrote in 1540 of the purification of Mary taking place at the conception of Christ. This suggests that by the sixteenth century, anyway, it was more or less settled that Mary was free from sin when she gave birth to Jesus. The only debate was about when that happened.

Scotus’s view slowly won the day in theological circles. In the meantime, lay Catholics increasingly assumed Scotus’s take in their devotion to the Lord’s mother. By the middle of the 19th century, it was such a common view that Pope Pius IX, urged by the majority of Catholic bishops throughout the world, declared that the doctrine was revealed by God and hence was to be believed by all Catholics.

If there is an historical novelty here, it is the relatively new belief that arose in the sixteenth century that Mary was a sinful woman, something that had not been seriously entertained for 1,500 years. In short, the historical concerns didn’t hold water for me.

Which brings us to the third objection: “What right does the pope have to declare that a doctrine is revealed by God and required to be believed by Catholics?” First, it wasn’t the pope but the pope in conversation with bishops across the world. Second, and more to the point, this objection gets to the heart of epistemology: how one determines truth. For Protestants, because of a deep suspicion of any authority outside the self, that happens in the lonely recesses of the individual’s heart and mind. The older I’ve become, the more untrustworthy I have found that as a reliable source of authority. I get its attraction. But I’d rather take my chances with a venerable tradition that, in collective and time-tested wisdom, seeks to understand the ways of God.

All this is standard apologetics regarding the Immaculate Conception. Still, I think there are other objections to consider. They are more subtle and more powerful, at least for someone like me. 

The first is an aesthetic problem: It is commonplace in literary circles that one cannot hope to hold a reader’s interest by presenting a character as flawless in a story, whether fictional or historical. Readers will not be able to identify, having never been or met a flawless person. If a writer does create such a character, the charges of “simplistic,” “naïve,” and “unrealistic” fill the air.

It’s the reason sophisticated readers regard hagiographies, in which a saint is described without any blemishes, as fanciful or even ridiculous. And I believe it’s one reason that readers with modern sensibilities balk at the Immaculate Conception, the story of a woman with no sin. We live in a deeply skeptical age, saturated with literature that gives admirable protagonists serious flaws and immoral protagonists admirable virtues. When it comes to those who read widely and deeply in contemporary fiction and biography (and I count myself as such), the story of Mary’s conception and consequent virtue comes across as aesthetically embarrassing at best.

That hesitancy is combined with a certain envy. That is, sometimes I balk at recognizing that there has existed a human person who was free from sin from the moment of conception, when I have to fight sin and regularly lose day after day, year after year. It’s not fair. Jesus was fully God as well as man, so I can accept his moral perfection. But Mary was fully human, full stop. What makes her so special?

What makes Mary special, I’ve concluded when I’m in this funk, is what makes every man and woman, boy and girl special. This is the way C.S. Lewis put it in The Weight of Glory: “It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship. . . . There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.”

If Mary was no ordinary person, no mere mortal—and more, a living example of redeemed humanity, free from sin and full of grace—well, no wonder Catholics have been tempted to treat her almost as a “goddess” and someone they are “strongly tempted to worship”! One can find examples of when Catholics have crossed this line, but the Church has been keen to clarify that she is not divine nor to be worshipped but only venerated, in the way that C.S. Lewis suggests.

Finally, there is a moral dimension. When we encounter the holy, we’re tempted in one of two ways. We can fall on our knees and say “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man”—as does Peter before Jesus, after the great catch of fish. Or we lash out at the holy: “Crucify him! Crucify him!” When we’re in the presence of the holy, our wretchedness is revealed for what it is. There is no hiding from our sin or divine judgment. At that point, we either let the holy kill our sinful flesh, or we strike out and try to kill the holy, and that’s another reason I believe the Immaculate Conception makes some feel deeply uncomfortable.

In the end, I’m not sure the biblical and historical objections are as troubling for many today as are these psychological stumbling blocks. Yet every dogma has them. Is not the Trinity an embarrassment to philosophers? And the Crucifixion an over-the-top, cruel, and bloody way to affirm forgiveness? And belief in the ultimate goodness of God and the glorious culmination of history a fool’s errand when every day we witness a world replete with wars and rapes and the slaughter of children?

To be a Christian in the modern world is to be assaulted day after day with powerful reasons to deny every cardinal doctrine of the faith. It’s why one of the most common Christian prayers of our age is “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.” It was certainly a regular refrain of one of my modern heroes, Dorothy Day.

In the end, I wonder about all the fuss regarding the Immaculate Conception. If I can believe that God became man, that his death effected the forgiveness of the world, that he rose bodily from the grave, that God exists as a Trinity of persons—to mention a few of the mind-bending dogmas of the Church—well, the Immaculate Conception seems like child’s play. Besides making me feel mighty uncomfortable at times, it also prompts me to veneration and praise.