On December 8, 1854, Pope Pius IX promulgated the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Pope did not declare this doctrine out of the blue. It was promulgated only after years of study on his own part and on the part of learned scholars; centuries of debate among some of the greatest theologians in the Church; and almost a millennium of popular devotion to Mary on the part of the Church faithful.
Although immediately accepted by the faithful, the doctrine was a source of controversy in the time of Pius IX and today remains an obstacle to ecumenical efforts. Before we can discuss the doctrine and its meaning we have to clear up a basic misconception. The Immaculate Conception does not refer to either the conception of Jesus in Mary's womb or the subsequent birth and delivery of Jesus. In other words, it should not be confused with the virgin birth. Nor does it refer to Mary's own birth. She herself was begotten like any other child. Simply, the doctrine affirms the preservation or freedom of Mary from original sin from the first moment of her conception.
To understand the meaning of the doctrine we have to examine the concept of original sin even though in our time the notion of sin, especially original sin, has fallen into disfavor. Today the only sin our culture seems to recognize is smoking. Concurrently, the very notion of evil has fallen into disfavor. Until the September 11, 2001 tragedy the only people we were likely to recognize as evil were Nazis or people who behaved like Nazis. For our purposes let us use the word imperfect rather than sin or evil. Instead of calling ourselves sinful or evil, let's just think of ourselves as imperfect.
To say that we have not been preserved from original sin means that all of us are merely imperfect--something few of us would deny. Where did this notion come from? Theologians and philosophers throughout history have tried to deal with humankind's imperfection. Some have called it the problem of evil. You can pick up a newspaper on any given day and never fail to be shocked by the evil in the world. War, terrorism, murder, rape, sexual abuse, theft of all kinds, lying and deceit on every level of society, all confront us daily. Where does it come from? Who or what is responsible for the world's imperfection or evil?
It is safe to say that in the Judeo-Christian tradition the origins of evil were to be found in each of us. As Shakespeare said, the fault lies in us, not in our stars. In this tradition it is clearly understood that there is something wrong with our nature. Although created in a state of perfection or good (another word for perfect is good), mankind has fallen into a state of imperfection.
In the story of Adam and Eve we find an attempt to explain the problem of evil. God is good; God is perfect; and His creation had to be good. It had to be perfect. Yet, when the biblical authors composed the Book of Genesis they lived in a world as full of evil and imperfection as ours. And so we have the story of the temptation and fall of our first parents to explain how we have all inherited a fundamental flaw, a kind of genetic defect. It had to come from our first parents because it is observable in all of us.
Long before Sigmund Freud wrote of the "ego" and the "id" and the psychic warfare that goes on in all of us, biblical authors like St. Paul and St. James alluded to this "psychomachia" and called it the source of all evil. What are the effects of this psychic or spiritual warfare? Basically, we have a divided nature--we lack integrity in the true sense of the word. We have knowledge of both good and evil. We can admire Mother Teresa but at the same time know that we are capable of understanding and committing the worst crimes that we read of in the newspapers. There but for the grace of God go we!
What is the cure for our imperfection? How can we attain perfection? As the song says, "We've got to be taught.” We've got to be taught not to hate and fear but to love and trust. Our first teachers are our mothers and fathers; then our extended families; then our customs and traditions, chief of which is our religion with its guidelines or warnings
which we often mistake for rules and regulations; and then our governments and their laws that are supposed to keep us at peace with one another. This is why these institutions are so important and why when they become corrupted or perverted there is literally "hell to pay." Jesus always called himself teacher and promised that if we would follow Him, peace would be with us.
A few hundred years ago this Judeo-Christian tradition of original sin came under serious attack during the period known as the "Enlightenment" that immediately preceded the French Revolution. Philosophers during that period came to believe that human nature was perfect, that man had begun as a kind of "noble savage" who had become corrupted by human social institutions.
For the intellectuals and the revolutionaries who followed the teachings of the Enlightenment, the source of evil was not in man but in institutions like motherhood, fatherhood, the family, religion, government, and the rule of law. In particular, they singled out the Catholic Church with its sacramental system, especially the Sacrifice of the Mass. They sought to destroy these institutions and build a new perfect society which they believed would be based on reason rather than on custom, superstition, and ignorance. Despite over two hundred years of horror and bloodshed these "enlightened" ideas live on today, and those institutions that are the sole protector and defender of mankind are still under attack by those who cannot accept the idea of original sin.
Ironically, those who do not believe in original sin unwittingly believe that they and the rest of mankind must have been conceived immaculate. The only person that they will not allow to have been immaculately conceived is Mary. On the other hand, for those who do believe in original sin and accept its corollary, the need to attain perfection or redemption, Mary is the Immaculate Conception.
If we view Mary in this way then her role takes on new meaning. The Church has always regarded her as the new Eve free from the knowledge of evil. We believe that through God's grace she was created without that fatal division in her being. She had integrity and she knew inner peace not war. This is why the angel at the Annunciation called her full of grace. This is why her assent at the Annunciation was so meaningful. She who through her nature could know no pain or suffering was asked to experience all the pain and suffering that a mother could know. At the Presentation Simeon said to her that this day "your soul a sword shall pierce." Since we've also forgotten the meaning of the word "soul" today, modern translations say that her "whole being" would be severed. Imagine a person created without flaw or imperfection living among us.
In the Gospels the Apostles represent us with all of our faults and failings. Some were silly, some were vain, some doubted and disbelieved, and even St. Peter denied the Lord three times. They were what we are. When the Church proclaimed the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, however, it was saying that Mary is what we once were and could be again through the grace of her Son, Jesus.
* Image by Melissa DeStefano. Click on image to enlarge.
* Image by Melissa DeStefano. Click on image to enlarge.