The Blessed Virgin Mary Is Absolute Pure and Sinless

O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, “Immaculate Conception,” 1662
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, “Immaculate Conception,” 1662 (photo: Public Domain)

On Dec. 8, 1854, the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary was solemnly defined and proclaimed by Pope Pius IX as follows:

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 Immaculate Conception is the Virgin Mary’s glorious privilege of being preserved by a special grace of God from Original Sin through the future merits of Jesus Christ.

Protestants and other non-Catholic Christians (Pentecostals, etc.) assert that the Virgin Mary could not have been immaculately conceived and that if she were conceived without sin, she would not have needed redemption — as she herself acknowledged that she needed when she said, “My spirit rejoices in God my savior” (Luke 1:47).

They also maintain that St. John clearly states that “if we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). They therefore wonder how Catholics can claim that the Virgin Mary was sinless.

Another Biblical text that Protestants and others often cite as being negated by the Catholic Church’s teaching on the Immaculate Conception is found in St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans (5:12):

Sin entered the world through one man, and through sin, death and this death has spread through the whole human race because everyone has sinned.

These texts raise a question: Does the Catholic teaching on the Immaculate Conception indicate that Mary was not in need of salvation? 

The Church believes that God’s Son, who was to come into the world through Mary’s consent, was himself her savior. Mary, as a member of the human race, was in need of salvation. But her salvation was “singular” (unique). In order to help us understand Mary’s need for salvation, theologians distinguish between a “liberative salvation” and a “preservative salvation.” Every member of the human race, with the exception of Mary, was liberated from sin and eternal damnation by the Cross of Jesus. In virtue of the Cross of Jesus, Mary was preserved from sin and eternal damnation.

Two illustrations might be helpful in coming to understand the significance of this distinction.

If you are wounded by a bullet and I remove it and help you to heal the wound, you might correctly call me your “savior.” However, would I not be more properly your “savior” if I had preserved you from being shot in the first place?

Again, I might save you from being burned to death in a fire. I could liberate you from the flames and save your life. Would I be any less your “savior” if I preserved you from even falling into the destructive flames?

Every member of the human race, except Mary, is wounded by the sin of Adam. We are liberated from Adam’s sin by the grace of Jesus Christ. Mary, also by Christ’s grace, was preserved from being wounded by the sin of the race in her conception. In this way, Jesus saved her from sin and the effects of sin. You and I and all mankind are liberated from the “fire” of sin and eternal death in hell through the saving grace of Our Lord Jesus. We receive this grace in baptism and (if we fall into mortal sin) through sacramental confession. Baptism, so to speak, “pulls us out of the fire.” When we deliberately fall into the fire again through our deliberate mortal sins, the Lord rescues us through Confession.

Mary, by Jesus’ grace, was preserved from ever falling into that fire. 

The Catholic Church does not deny that the Virgin Mary needed redemption, for she was a child of Adam together with the rest of humanity. However, her redemption was effected in another, “more sublime manner,” namely, “redemption by preemption.”

Consequently, in reference to Mary, the Church strongly affirms these Scriptural truths: Mary is indeed saved from sin, and Jesus is her savior!

The Immaculate Conception has always been the belief of the Church, being implicitly contained in the Church’s teaching of the Virgin Mary’s absolute purity and sinlessness. Just as Our Lord “grew in grace and wisdom,” that is, manifested increasing signs of wisdom as he increased in age, so the Church, which possesses the wisdom of God from her origin, manifests it only according to the order of Providence and her children’s needs.

In the centuries before 1854, popes and councils made continuous and explicit references to the Immaculate Conception in their pronouncements:

  • Pope St. Martin I, Lateran Council (649), Canon 3 on the Trinity
  • Pope Sixtus IV, Constitutions Cum Praeexcelsa (1476); Grave Nimis (1483)
  • Pope Paul III, Council of Trent (1546), Decree on Original Sin
  • Pope St. Pius V, Bull Ex Omnibus Afflictionibus, (1567)
  • Pope Alexander VII, Bull Sollicitudo Omnium Eccl. (1661)

The Church finds support for the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception in the words of the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary: “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou amongst women” (Luke 1:28). She, who was to conceive the Son of God, the Holy of holies, must herself be supremely holy, and therefore be preserved, not only from actual sin, but also from all stain of Original Sin. The angel’s words would not have been entirely truthful had the Virgin Mary, for even one instant, been deprived of grace.

The Church, furthermore, asserts that God, immediately after Adam’s fall, cursed Satan and said (Genesis 3:15):

I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head.

It was by the Virgin Mary’s seed, that is, Jesus Christ, that the kingdom of Satan was demolished. It was not fitting that she, who was to co-operate in the defeat of Satan, should ever be infected by his breath or a slave to his kingdom of sin. The enmity between the Virgin Mary and the serpent placed by God was her triumph over sin, her Immaculate Conception.

The writings of the Fathers of the Church on Mary’s purity, as cited in the Catholic Encyclopedia, abound:

  • The Fathers call Mary the tabernacle exempt from defilement and corruption (Hippolytus, “Ontt. in illud, Dominus pascit me”);
  • Origen calls her worthy of God, immaculate of the immaculate, most complete sanctity, perfect justice, neither deceived by the persuasion of the serpent, nor infected with his poisonous breathings (“Horn. i in diversa”);
  • Ambrose says she is incorrupt, a virgin immune through grace from every stain of sin (“Sermo xxii in Ps. cxviii”);
  • Maximus of Turin calls her a dwelling fit for Christ, not because of her habit of body, but because of original grace (“Nom. viii de Natali Domini”);
  • Theodotus of Ancyra terms her a virgin innocent, without spot, void of culpability, holy in body and in soul, a lily springing among thorns, untaught the ills of Eve, nor was there any communion in her of light with darkness, and, when not yet born, she was consecrated to God (“Oral, in S. Dei Genitr”)
  • In refuting Pelagius, St. Augustine declares that all the just have truly known of sin “except the Holy Virgin Mary, of whom, for the honour of the Lord, I will have no question whatever where sin is concerned” (On Nature and Grace 36).
  • It is evident that Mary was pure from eternity, exempt from every defect (Typicon S. Sabae);
  • She was formed without any stain (St. Proclus, “Laudatio in S. Dei Gen. ort,” I, 3);
  • She was created in a condition more sublime and glorious than all other natures
    (Theodoras of Jerusalem in Mansi, XII, 1140);
  • When the Virgin Mother of God was to be born of Anne, nature did not dare to anticipate the germ of grace, but remained devoid of fruit (John Damascene, “Hom, i in B. V. Nativ.,” ii).
  • To St. Ephraem, Mary was as innocent as Eve before her fall, a virgin most estranged from every stain of sin, more holy than the Seraphim, the sealed fountain of the Holy Spirit, the pure seed of God, ever in body and in mind intact and immaculate (“Carmina Nisibena”).

The sinlessness of Mary, the Church holds, is total and without exception. Beginning with her conception — by the foreseen merits of Christ — she was preserved free from the stain and effects of original sin, so that never for a moment of her earthly existence did she come under the dominion of the devil. All other human beings inherit the consequences of the sin of Adam and Eve and come into this world separated from God until restored to his friendship through the sacrament of baptism. Hence, as the poet Wordsworth so beautifully puts it, Mary is “our tainted nature’s solitary boast.”

O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.