December 7, 2012

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Year of Faith: Immaculate Conception and original sin

John F. FinkDec. 8 is the feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. Just for the fun of it, ask some of your friends what the Immaculate Conception means. See if any say that it means that Mary remained a virgin when Jesus was conceived. Certainly, most non-Catholics think that’s what it means, but so do many Catholics.

The Virgin Birth is a dogma of the Church, but it has nothing to do with the Immaculate Conception.

The Immaculate Conception means, as Blessed Pius IX solemnly defined on Dec. 8, 1854, that “Mary, in the first instant of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin.”

Original sin? Does the Church still teach that? You bet it does. It’s one of the fundamental teachings of the Church, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells why. The Church “knows very well that we cannot tamper with the revelation of original sin without undermining the mystery of Christ” (#389).

If original sin didn’t exist, there would have been no need for God to become man and redeem a fallen humanity.

The Immaculate Conception is a perfect example of the development of doctrine. Some of the doctors of the Church believed that Mary was always free from any personal sin, but they couldn’t accept it as a revealed truth of faith that she was free of original sin.

St. Augustine thought that original sin was transmitted from one generation to the next through sexual intercourse. Since Mary was conceived in the womb of her mother, St. Ann, in that manner, how could she be free of original sin?

The 13th-century doctors Sts. Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure thought that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception would have exempted Mary from being redeemed by her Son since she wouldn’t have required redemption. They insisted that Jesus was the Savior of the whole world, including his mother.

Blessed John Duns Scotus solved this theological problem at the end of the 13th century. He taught that Mary received this singular privilege as the anticipated fruit of Christ’s Passion, death and resurrection. She was redeemed by her Son by a unique kind of redemption called “preservative,” Duns Scotus said.

There is no explicit revelation of the Immaculate Conception in the Bible, but some texts are seen as support for the doctrine. One is the archangel Gabriel’s salutation to Mary, calling her “full of grace” or “highly favored” (Lk 1:28). If she was full of grace, she would not have had original sin on her soul, and that is why she was highly favored.

Besides Mary, only Jesus was conceived without original sin since he was God. Adam and Eve, of course, were created without original sin since they committed it.

And John the Baptist was born without original sin since he was purified through the merits of Jesus at the time of the visitation of Mary to his mother, Elizabeth. †

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