The dogma of Immaculate Conception was officially defined by Pope Pius ix in 1854. Dogmas are formally defined only when there is a controversy that needs to be cleared upon or when the magisterium (the church in its office as teacher; Matt.28:18-20; 1Tim.3:15,4:11) thinks the faithful can be helped by particular emphasis being drawn to some already existing belief. The doctrine of Immaculate Conception stems from this singular purpose i.e. the second reason. In the history of the Marian dogma, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception has witnessed the greatest opposition within the Catholic Church and outside. Before we continue, it is good we explore where their confusion lies
WHAT IMMACULATE CONCEPTION IS NOT
One should keep in mind what the Immaculate Conception is not. Some non-Catholics think the term refers to Christ’s Conception in Mary’s womb without the intervention of a human father; the proper name for that is the virgin birth. Others think the Immaculate Conception means when Mary herself was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, In the way Jesus was, but it does not. The Immaculate Conception means that Mary, whose conception was brought about the normal way, was conceived in the womb of her mother without the stain of original sin. The essence of original sin consist in the lack of sanctifying grace. Mary was preserved from this defect; from the first instant of her existence she was in the state of sanctifying grace.
Fundamental reason for objecting to the Immaculate Conception and Mary’s consequent sinlessness which is what her lifelong state of sanctifying grace implies is that Mary was but a creature, and we are told that “all have sinned” Roman 3:23. Besides, they say, Mary said her “spirit rejoices in God my saviour” Luke 1:47, (and only a sinner needs a saviour. Since Mary was a sinner, she could not have been immaculately conceived).
Take the second citation first; the church has a simple and sensible answer to this difficulty. It is this, Mary too required a saviour. Like all other descendants of Adam, by her nature she was subject to the necessity of contracting original sin. But by a special intervention of God, undertaken at the instant she was conceived, she was preserved from the stain of original sin and certain of its consequences. She was therefore redeemed by the grace of Christ, but in a special way, by anticipation. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception thus does not contradict Luke 1:47.
What about Romans 3:23, “all have sinned”. Fundamentalists, as a rule, think it means more than that everyone is subject to original sin. They think it means everyone commits actual sins. They conclude it means Mary must have sinned during her life and that certainly would speak against an Immaculate Conception. Is the fundamentalists analysis solid? Not really. Think about a child below the age of reason by definition, he cannot sin, since sinning requires the ability to reason and the ability to intend sin. If the child dies before ever committing actual sin, because he is not mature enough to know what he is doing, what act of his brings him under their interpretation of Romans 3:23? None of course.
Paul’s comment to the Christians in Rome thus would seem to have one of two meanings. Despite the phrasing, it might be that it refers not to absolutely everyone, but just to the mass of mankind(which means young children and other special cases such as Mary, would be excluded without having to be singled out). If not that, then it would mean that everyone without exception, is subject to original sin which is true for a young child, for the unborn, even for Mary but she, although due to being subject to it, was preserved from its stain. It took a positive act of God to keep her from coming under its effects the way we have. We have the stain of original sin removed through baptism, which brings sanctifying grace to the soul thus making the soul spiritually alive and capable of enjoying Heaven, and makes the recipient a member of the Church. We say that Mary received a very special kind of baptism at her conception, but, because she never contracted original sin, she enjoyed certain privileges we never can such as entire avoidance of sin.
On occasion, one will hear that the Immaculate Conception cannot be squared with Mary’s own description of herself, “he has looked graciously on the lowliness of his handmaid”.( Luke 1:48). How could she be lowly if she were as Catholics say ,the highest creature, what the poet Wordsworth called “our tainted nature’s solitary boast”. If she understood herself to be lowly, does that not mean she understood herself to have sinned?.
The key is that sin is not the only motive for lowliness. Compared to God, any creature no matter how perfect, is lowly Mary included. Jesus, referring to his human nature, said “learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart”(MT.11:29). Certainly he was without sin and if he could describe as lowly, there can be no argument against Mary describing herself in the same way.
WHAT THEN IS IMMACULATE CONCEPTION?
Our Igbo catechism explains virgin Maria di ngozi ka aturu ime ya site na afo nne ya, obuteghi atutu njo ekeluwa, oketeghi njo site na Chi. In a brief translation, Mary was conceived without stain of sin. As a mother of the Lord, Mary is entirely a unique person like her son, she was conceived as a human being (and lived her whole life) exempt from any trace of original sin, this is Immaculate Conception. Thus Pope Pius IX in the bull “ineffabilis deus” promulgated the doctrine as dogma faith revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful. The Dogma states “the most Blessed Virgin Mary, was in the first moment of her conception, by a unique gift of grace and privilege of Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the redeemer of humankind, preserved free from all stain of original sin. “December 8, 1854”.here we recall that from the council of Trent, original sin is properly defined as privation of the sanctity of Grace.
REV. FR. HENRY OPARA is the parish priest, St. Mary’s Umuawuka Emii, Owerri Archdiocese