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.
Since folks seemed to benefit from the recent series I did on the Perpetual Virginity of Mary, I decided I would follow it up with another series leading up to the next big Marian feast, the Immaculate Conception. In order to discuss it, we need to know 1) what it is and 2) why people have difficulties with it. In future articles we will systematically look at the answers to those objections and at the reasons the dogma is important.
What is the Immaculate Conception?
A lot of people confuse the Immaculate Conception with the Virgin Birth. The Virgin Birth refers to the birth of Jesus Christ. The Immaculate Conception refers to the conception of Mary, not Jesus. It is the dogma defined by the Catholic Church in 1854 that:
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 Church not only teaches that Mary never sinned in thought, word, or deed, she teaches that Mary never even suffered from ‘‘original sin,’’ that hole in our souls where the life of God was originally intended to be. Original sin is the source of concupiscence, the haywiredness in our makeup that weakens our will, darkens our intellects, and disorders our desires so that we labor under the continual tendency to selfishly and sinfully put ourselves before everybody else, including God. It comes of being born of a race descended from our fallen first parents, Adam and Eve, who lost the life of grace when they rebelled against God (Gen. 3) and so had nothing to pass on to us. According to the Church, every son and daughter of Adam and Eve who ever lived is born with original sin—except for Jesus and Mary.
A Boatload of Objections
Probably no Marian doctrine has provoked more controversy than this one. For Evangelicals, no teaching of the Church is harder to square with their traditional reading of Romans 3:23: "[A]ll have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." As a recipient of that Evangelical tradition, I had always thought that this verse, coupled with Mary’s own declaration, "[M]y spirit rejoices in God my Savior" (Luke 1:47, emphasis added), proved the Immaculate Conception was against the inspired word of God. It’s a no-brainer, I thought. If all have sinned, how could Mary be sinless?
And why would she need a savior if she never had anything to be saved from? It amazed me that the Church could be so dumb (and I secretly cast an admiring glance at that sage in the mirror for Noticing what the wise elders of the Catholic Church had missed). The gratifying thought would steal over me: "I thank thee, Father, Lord of Heaven and earth, that thou hast hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes; yea, Father, for such was thy gracious will" (Luke 10:21).
This sense of certainty that the Church had blown it in a major way was only increased by stories like Mark 3:21–35, where Jesus’ family (including Mary) comes looking for him because the word has gone out that he’s out of his mind, and Jesus (at least to me) appeared to rebuke their lack of faith. It was bolstered as well by the discovery that the Eastern Orthodox still don’t accept the Immaculate Conception of Mary, not to mention the fact that some of the Church’s greatest medieval theologians, such as St. Thomas Aquinas, had also put forward doctrines that had no room for the Immaculate Conception either. And besides, I thought, how could she be without sin? She’s human, not God!
Unfortunately for my towering humility, the day eventually came when each one of my objections encountered very serious difficulties, and I had to acknowledge that, once again, an apparent contradiction of Scripture is not necessarily the same thing as a real one. It began when I stopped reading Paul for proof texts and started reading him for what he was saying.
Of which more next time.