This past Saturday’s Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception occasioned no little debate on social media as certain Catholics and Protestants who are co-laborers in many cultural and political endeavors­—publications, pro-life work, and the like—went after each other hammer and tongs in theological agonies, as various champions entered the virtual arena for the contest. Passionate but never ad hominem (at least in my feeds), ornery but not mean, the combatants sparred, parrying and thrusting, throwing out this argument, that Bible verse, this quotation, that rejoinder.

The dogma of the Immaculate Conception

One serious evangelical Protestant called out a relatively popular modern image of Eve and Mary, with Eve downcast in red holding an apple, and Mary in blue and white comforting her, holding Eve’s hand on her swollen belly, pregnant with the hope of redemption, the Christ child. (The image was created by Sr. Grace Remington of Our Lady of the Mississipi Abbey, whose sisters belong to the Order of the Cistercians of the Strict Observance, following the Rule of St. Benedict.) In a tweet, he called it “heretical theology (i.e., Mary as co-redemptrix),” and followed up with a later tweet claiming “I’d have no objection to interpreting the image that way if the straightforward meaning (Mary crushes the serpent) wasn’t an entrenched heresy. Because it is, I just think it’s better to avoid confusion than hope all viewers read into it an orthodox meaning.”

Co-Redemptrix is not an official Catholic title for Mary, though many pious Catholics would like to see that move made. In my recollection, John Paul II once broached it with his prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Joseph Ratzinger, who dissuaded him from pursuing the matter.

Being that as it may, for many the root issue is the Catholic dogma of the Immaculate Conception, the teaching that the Blessed Virgin Mary was conceived without sin through the retroactive merits of Christ. The Church found the doctrine necessary, I think, for two fundamental reasons. First, Christ needs sinless human flesh, for he cannot be a sinner, and second, he must take his flesh from his mother really and truly if he is to be fully human. Indeed, the Eve-Mary typology iconographed in the image assumes Mary’s sinlessness, for she has to be in the prelapsarian (i.e., pre-fall) position of Eve to be able to undo what Eve did. She obeys freely, where Eve disobeyed, in parallel to Christ’s obedience undoing Adam’s disobedience (see Romans 5:12–19 and 1 Corinthians 15:21–22, 45–49).

And so that we may have the precise and mature claims before us, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (§§ 490-93) teaches:

To become the mother of the Savior, Mary “was enriched by God with gifts appropriate to such a role.” The angel Gabriel at the moment of the annunciation salutes her as “full of grace.” In fact, in order for Mary to be able to give the free assent of her faith to the announcement of her vocation, it was necessary that she be wholly borne by God’s grace.

Through the centuries the Church has become ever more aware that Mary, “full of grace” through God, was redeemed from the moment of her conception. That is what the dogma of the Immaculate Conception confesses, as Pope Pius IX proclaimed in 1854:

“The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.”

The “splendor of an entirely unique holiness” by which Mary is “enriched from the first instant of her conception” comes wholly from Christ: she is “redeemed, in a more exalted fashion, by reason of the merits of her Son.” The Father blessed Mary more than any other created person “in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” and chose her “in Christ before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless before him in love.”

The Fathers of the Eastern tradition call the Mother of God “the All-Holy” (Panagia) and celebrate her as “free from any stain of sin, as though fashioned by the Holy Spirit and formed as a new creature.” By the grace of God Mary remained free of every personal sin her whole life long.

The teaching summarized: (1) Mary was sinless from conception on (2) through the forthcoming merits of Christ so that (3) she could “give free assent” to her calling and (4) provide Christ with a sinless human nature.

Read more at Catholic World Report. 

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