Last December, I wrote an article for Catholic World Report on the Immaculate Conception: “Why I came to believe that Mary was conceived without sin.” I argued that it was (1) a matter of typology, that Mary had to be sinless so that she could be in Eve’s original state to undo through her obedience what Eve did through her disobedience, and showed how the stories of Zechariah, Elizabeth, and Mary suggested Mary’s sinlessness. I also pointed out (2) how Marian teachings are a reflex of Christology; we Catholics believe what we do about Mary because of what we believe about Jesus.
I received some correspondence from faithful, thoughtful Catholics concerned that I had described the Immaculate Conception as “necessary” and not merely fitting. Claiming the Immaculate Conception is necessary (so my interlocutors assert) involves a necessary infinite regress, that St. Anne and her mother and her mother before her would need to be sinless for Mary to be sinless, and, further, that by using the word “necessary” I had given Protestants ammunition to deride the doctrine as absurd (thanks to the infinite regress needing to make even Eve sinless at the time of the delivery of her children, which of course is not the biblical case) and also ammunition for them to deride the doctrine as a raw exercise of authoritarian power.
Neither follows. The necessity of the Immaculate Conception does not demand an infinite regress of sinless ancestors, which would absurdly negate the very Original Sin for which it’s supposed to be a remedy. Nor does the dogma’s necessity involve ecclesiastical voluntarism. Rather, it’s a necessary part of the Catholic conception of the economy of salvation.
I’ve given a lot of thought to the questions, and thought it would be worthwhile to share my reflections in hopes of giving readers a deeper understanding of the logic of this Marian dogma. Above all, the Catechism itself uses the strong word “necessary” (“In fact, in order for Mary to be able to give the free assent of her faith to the announcement of her vocation, it was necessary that she be wholly borne by God’s grace,” §490), so we are obligated (if we would be thinking Catholics for whom the truths of the faith nourish devotion) to understand just how that necessity comes about in the economy of salvation. We will find that Mary needed to be sinless from conception, not a moment after, and that no one in her line needed to be sinless before her.
Some assert that since Christ alone needed to be protected from Mary’s sin, God could simply have “zapped” Jesus himself from his conception in utero Mariae Virginae. The problem here is that Christ would not be fully human, for to be human is to share the very flesh of one’s mother. Jesus inherits human nature from his mother, not abstract human nature separated from his mother. (As then-Cardinal Ratzinger once put it, “If Mary no longer finds a place in many theologies and ecclesiologies, the reason is obvious: they have reduced faith to an abstraction. And an abstraction does not need a Mother.”) So Mary needs to be sinless so that Jesus can be sinless (and he needs to be; God’s presence cannot abide sin, and so the Incarnation requires Jesus’s sinlessness). In short, if God zaps only Jesus, we wind up with a docetic, even Gnostic conception of Christ who hasn’t assumed true human nature, and what is not assumed is not saved. We would be left to die in our sins.
I think that my interlocutors were willing to rely simply on the authority of the Church’s magisterium and find the doctrine merely “fitting,” not necessary, but in doing so they were operating with the implicit, unrecognized understanding that the necessity of Mary’s Immaculate Conception would be a sort of voluntarism, in which the Church simply declares it to be true because it’s fitting, even though it need not be true. That’s the sort of thing that, in my experience, Protestants (ironically, being voluntarists) really don’t like because it smacks of authoritarianism. It sounds like the Church idolized Mary so much it declared her Immaculate even though she didn’t have to be. And so even though my interlocutors were concerned to avoid the language of necessity for interconfessional apologetic reasons, they wound up with the same authoritarian voluntarism they wished to avoid.
For God “zapping” or just fixing things ad hoc with Jesus himself would be a much more Protestant way of thinking given the idea’s inherent voluntarism (which, God being conceived of as pure will but not intellect, means there’s no rhyme or reason to God, and so theology becomes il-logical, irrational). Part of the reason the immaculate conception seems convoluted to Protestants and others is because Catholics, not being voluntarists, believe there’s a theo-logic to how God works; he’s rational, logical (the Divine Word, the Son of God, is the logos, after all), not random. It’s voluntarism, which Protestantism ran amok with, in which God is random, arbitrary. So if we speak of God “zapping” Mary at her conception, it’s a matter of (theo)logical necessity, not rank voluntarism in the fashion of a Deus ex machina.
What of infinite regress? One answer is that God likes to be efficient, or better, that the economy of salvation history is indeed economical. All that needs to be done is for Christ to have a (1) true and (2) sinless human nature, so only Mary herself needs to be sinless. Therefore God “zaps” her proleptically with the retroactive merits of Christ (as Pius IX’s declaration quoted in the Catechism asserts, Mary was preserved from original sin “by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ,” §491). Important here is the fact that Jesus has two natures, Mary one.
Because of this qualitative difference in Mary’s and Jesus’s Persons, then, a series of sinless parents is not necessary. Mary has only one nature, a human one, and thus it is only necessary that she be kept from the stain of original sin. But Jesus Christ, having both a human and a divine nature, needed a sinless human parent, for divinity cannot abide sin. He needed to assume true sinless human flesh and unite the two natures human and divine without separation and confusion in one Person. So Christ is qualitatively different from Mary and from us, even while he shares his humanity with us (by the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist) that ours might be made sinless like his.
Put perhaps more simply, from Jesus’s conception there is the perfect Chalcedonian unity of divine and human natures. The human nature needs to be true and sinless so Mary needs to be sinless, but only Mary had to be sinless from conception so as to pass on that true sinless human nature to her Son.
A few other considerations have come to me, which I think are important for delving deeper into the dogma. First, only Mary needs the preservation provided by the Immaculate Conception—and not her parents behind her—because as a normal non-divine human she’s a potential sinner before conception. She’s saved by grace, again proleptically, but still really and truly saved by the merits of Christ applied graciously to her. She can be sanctified from conception, but Ss. Anne and Joachim don’t have to be. If it helps by way of analogy, some people regardless of parentage are touched by God’s grace and cooperate to the point that they are saints on earth, while other people aren’t, and remain sinners. So too with Mary’s line.
But second, this also means that for Mary that preservation needs to be from conception and not an instant after—one could argue that God could have zapped her in utero sanctae Annae after animation (as I believe St. Thomas wrongly held; see ST III.27.2), or as a teenager, for instance, and sanctified her flesh at some later point. But that would mean she’d have had sin in her flesh for a time, even if for an instant, and even after zapping concupiscence would have remained (assuming Mary is a regular human, and after contracting Original Sin with its concupiscence, she certainly would have been), as with Baptism in the case of others saved by Christ’s grace. Christ’s human nature, then, would have been infected by concupiscence.
A third consideration flows from this second: The immaculate conception of Mary recognizes and affirms a distinction between Mary and Jesus. She’s not a superhuman or some sort of deity, but needs sanctification because she was liable to sin in principle before conception; she is truly saved. Christ, however, is the Savior, not one in need of being saved. Precisely because of the Immaculate Conception, the flesh of Jesus Christ could never have been liable to the possibility of Original Sin, and, conversely, the sinless human nature of Jesus Christ requires he never be liable even to the possibility of contracting Original Sin in the Incarnation. (Of course, it was possible for him to sin actively, as he was in the position of the New Adam, with real free will, and was tempted by sin; see of course Matthew 4:1–11, the Temptation, and Hebrews 4:15.)
And that, I think, is something those who deny the Immaculate Conception who would otherwise be orthodox Christian believers need to answer: Exactly how does Christ get sinless flesh, if not by the mechanism spelled out in the Catholic economy of salvation? Protestant Christology ends up breaking down, I think, precisely because the original Reformers (for all their esteem of Mary) saw Mariology as a potential obstacle to Christ, not a gateway, as if the two were in theological competition, not cooperation. Substitutionary, vicarious atonement appropriated by means of justification through faith alone means Christ’s person is cut off from us. There is no sacramental connection either to Jesus’s sinless nature or his divine nature since all is by faith, Protestants having downplayed the necessity and efficacy of sacraments for salvation.
Later Protestants who have tried to explain the importance of Christ’s humanity for our salvation have fallen into the error of asserting that Christ’s humanity was fallen (if not sinful, assuming that the distinction between fallen and sinful could even be meaningful); Christ enters into our fallen condition to redeem it from within. Karl Barth writes,
There must be no weakening or obscuring of the saving truth that the nature which God assumed in Christ is identical with our nature as we see it in the light of Fall. If it were otherwise, how could Christ be really like us? What concern would we have with him? We stand before God characterized by the Fall. God’s Son not only assumed our nature but he entered the concrete form of our nature, under which we stand before God as men damned and lost. (Church Dogmatics I.2, p. 153)
The answer to Barth’s rhetorical question is that we weren’t meant to be fallen. Instead of stooping all the way into fallen human nature, the divine Son of God stoops down into perfect sinless humanity to bring us up to that level, and beyond, as being also divine the Son of God infuses us with God’s very life (see John 1:4, “In him was life,” zōē, divine life, God’s own life, and 10:10, “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly”).
Protestants often operate theologically with two levels or states of humanity, Edenic or paradisal (and thus unfallen) and postlapsarian (thus fallen). The point of salvation is to restore fallen humans to an Edenic, paradisal state. Endzeit (the end time) recapitulates Urzeit (the primordial, Edenic time), paradise lost (as Milton poeticized so elegantly) becomes paradise regained. So for Christ to enter time as a man, he has to take on fallen human nature or he takes no human nature at all, for Protestant theology sees no other option. But limiting theology to two levels or states is a mistake, for there are actually three levels, three states of humanity, and Endzeit does not merely restore or recapitulate Urzeit. Paradise regained is actually paradise transformed.
Level/State 2 (yes, 2; this is the middle state between fallen and divinized): Before the Fall, Adam and Eve were normal humans, but sinless. They weren’t yet divinized, and (I believe, with certain Church Fathers) they were mortal but meant to be raised to immortality. (God tells Adam not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of Good and Evil, for “in the day you eat of it you shall die,” Genesis 2:17, but when Adam and Eve eat the fruit, they do not in fact die literally, leading some Fathers to opine they must have died spiritually.) The point may be immaterial, for whether mortal or immortal at their creation, they were normal human beings (unless one adopts the earlier St. Augustine’s radical, hyper-Platonist, nearly Gnostic allegorical reading of Genesis, in which they are souls and don’t even have bodies until God gives them “garments of skin” well after the Fall, Genesis 3:21); Adam and Eve in Eden do not resemble Christ in his resurrected state as we see it in the Gospels.
Level/State 1 (the lowest): Although made normal as body and soul composites, if not mortal, Adam and Eve were intended by God to go from level/state 2 to divinization, that is, to level/state 3 (as St. Irenaeus teaches), but their sin intervened, knocking them down to level/state 1. And so after the Fall, Adam and Eve and their descendants are tainted by Original Sin with its concupiscence, and have a longer and harder road to divinization.
Level/State 3: (the highest): This is the state of humanity in heaven (and it is experienced even now on earth). If we use the example of Jesus’s risen body as depicted in the Gospels, and consider his Transfiguration, which is a proleptic disclosure of resurrection glory, and think about what St. Paul is getting at with his theologizing regarding his conception of a “spiritual body” in 1 Corinthians 15, we get an idea of what resurrected life looks like. The resurrected, now spiritual body of Jesus Christ walks through walls (John 20:26–29). It’s unrecognizable unless God enables one to perceive it (Luke 24:16, 31). It seems to eat fish, though it need not (John 21:9–14). It’s not a normal body. It’s beyond the normal bodies that Adam and Eve had in Eden. This is the sort of glorified body given believers at the end of time.
So we see three levels or states of human nature in the biblical story, not two: sinless human nature, fallen human nature, and resurrected and divinized human nature. In the Incarnation the Son of God takes on sinless human nature because of his own divine nature. Christ does not need to enter into fallen human nature; rather, he takes fallen humans up from that state towards and to an unfallen state and finally to a divinized state. And that begins even now not only through faith as trusting love but also through the sacraments, which unite us to Christ and purge us of sin and ultimately give us resurrection life, zōē, even in the here and now (see Romans 6:1–11).
Modern Protestant theology, then, is stuck having to come to the point where it asserts Jesus must take on sinful human flesh if he is to save us. Catholic theology observes that we don’t go merely from sinful to sinless, but ultimately to divinization. The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary thus provides the middle level/state of a sinless human nature for Christ to bridge the gap between our sinful mortality on one hand and sinless immortality on the other. We come to share in his sinless humanity and move thereby into also sharing his divinity, and become eventually immortal ourselves.
(Editor’s note: This essay was originally posted on July 30, 2019.)
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