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.
Before we continue with our look at the Immaculate Conception, we need to deal with two complete red herrings. The first red herring is the claim that that saying a creature has been freed (or, in Mary’s case, preserved) from sin is somehow saying that that creature is God or a goddess. But a moment’s thought shows this can’t be true, since all the saints and angels in heaven are completely without sin, yet remain creatures. Likewise, Adam and Eve were created without sin and they were most emphatically not gods. Indeed, trying to become gods was exactly what constituted their sin.
The second red herring is that there’s some sort of cutoff date for the development of doctrine. In other words, some people have the vague idea that the Church can legitimately take three centuries to iron out what “Jesus is Lord” means and arrive at the definition of the Trinity, but it can’t legitimately take eighteen centuries to iron out what “Kaire, Kecharitomene!” (“Hail, Grace-Filled One!”) means and arrive at the definition of the Immaculate Conception.
In response to this notion, I recommend a reading of Irenaeus, who writes around a.d. 180 about the “ancient” apostolic Church at Rome.
That’s a.d. 180.
One hundred and fifty years after the Church was founded. What could Irenaeus be thinking of? He’s an ancient Christian himself! Doesn’t he know he lived a long time ago? He’s closer in time to the apostles than we are to George Washington. Why would he call the newly-minted Church “ancient”?
Answer: He didn’t think he was an “early Christian” just as we Americans don’t think we’re “early Americans.” He thought (as all Christians have been taught to think by Our Lord) that he was living in the Last Days—as indeed he was and we are. He did not consider himself “early,” “primitive,” or as belonging to “antiquity,” much less the “Dark Ages.” He thought he was ordinary, contemporary, and modern, as we do.
That’s the trouble with calendars. They tell you what day it is, but they can’t tell you when it is. For all we know, the “present age” of the Last Days could go on for another fifty thousand years. We might be early Christians and the 1854 definition of Mary as Immaculately Conceived may not be a “late” development at all. So let’s put behind us the whole business of trying to tell truth from falsehood by the clock. Things are true or false because they do or do not correspond with reality, not because of the time of day we say them.
Then, let's move on to the next issue: What do the Eastern Churches Think About the Sinlessness of Mary?