Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
I had always assumed the Church thought so. But then I discovered that, in fact, the Church does say Mary needs a Savior, and says it—every single evening. I discovered the Catholic Church has a regular cycle ofprayers called the Divine Office and, every evening, the Office includes a recitation ofMary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46– 55) , which includes the crushing proof text I had assumed no Catholic had ever thought ofbefore: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior “ (Luke 1:46–47, emphasis added) . It turned out that countless generations of Catholics were perfectly aware that Mary’s spirit rejoiced in God her Savior.
But that raised a new puzzlement: How could Jesus be her Savior if she never sinned or even suffered from original sin? Curiously, I had never really asked that question and expected a real answer. Now I was doing so. And to my surprise, it turned out Catholics had one:
Consider an analogy: Suppose a man falls into a deep pit, and someone reaches down to pull him out. The man has been “saved” from the pit. Now imagine a woman walking along, and she too is about to topple into the pit, but at the very moment that she is to fall in, someone holds her back and prevents her. She too has been saved from the pit, but in an even better way: She was not simply taken out of the pit, she was prevented from getting stained by the mud in the first place. This is the illustration Christians have used for a thousand years to explain how Mary was saved by Christ. By receiving Christ’s grace at her conception, she had his grace applied to her before she was able to become mired in original sin and its stain.
There are two ways Christ saves us from sin, just as there are two kinds of medicine—curative and preventative. A repentant sinner is naturally inclined to think of Christ the Physician primarily in his curative capacity. We see prostitutes and tax collectors rescued from a life of death, or a persecutor knocked off his horse, or some prideful hard-charging guy like Charles Colson get born again and we say, “That’s what salvation is! Rescue from the quicksand of sin in which we were drowning.”
That’s fine and true, but it shouldn’t blind us to the possibility that Christ the Physician can apply preventative medicine, too. It’s possible to rescue somebody from quicksand by keeping them out of it in the first place. And so Mary, according to the Church, was saved from original sin by Christ in much the same way I was saved by Christ from being a drug dealer. Just as he never let me fall into that particular sin in the first place, so he never let Mary fall into any sin in the first place. That, in sum, is the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. And that’s what I still found hard to accept. So I went searching for other ammo to shoot it down. The problem was, I couldn’t find any.
Of which more next time.