Common Misconceptions on the Immaculate Conception

The Dogma

Ineffabilis Deus is the Apostolic Constitution issued by Pope Pius IX on December 8, 1854, which formally defines the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The document begins thusly:

“From the very beginning, and before time began, the eternal Father chose and prepared for his only-begotten Son a Mother in whom the Son of God would become incarnate and from whom, in the blessed fullness of time, he would be born into this world. Above all creatures did God so loved her that truly in her was the Father well pleased with singular delight. Therefore, far above all the angels and all the saints so wondrously did God endow her with the abundance of all heavenly gifts poured from the treasury of his divinity that this mother, ever absolutely free of all stain of sin, all fair and perfect, would possess that fullness of holy innocence and sanctity than which, under God, one cannot even imagine anything greater, and which, outside of God, no mind can succeed in comprehending fully.”

No mere creature, including holy Angels, Saints and Doctors and Popes of the Church, nor all the Elect Redeemed in Heaven put together, can fully comprehend the perfection and holiness of the Blessed Virgin Mary. She was given “all heavenly gifts” and she possesses the “fullness of holy innocence and sanctity”. She is the perfect human person.

Certainly, God-made-man in Jesus Christ is greater than Mary. Even his human nature considered alone is greater than her. But aside from the Most Holy Trinity, including God-incarnate, no one full comprehends the perfect sanctity of Mary. She has “the glory of most sublime holiness” and she is “completely free from all taint of original sin”, as the document goes on to say.

But the infallible dogma of the Immaculate Conception has this particular wording:

We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance 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, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.

The Latin text phrases the dogma this way: “ab omni originalis culpae labe praeservatam immunem”, which I would translate literally as: “preserved immune from all stain of original sin”.

According the dogma of the Council of Trent, original sin includes harm to the body as well as the soul [Fifth Session, Decree on Original Sin]. We fallen sinners are conceived without the state of grace — that is the consequence of original sin for our souls. But we are also conceived with fallen bodies, subject to disease, injury, and death — that is the consequence of original sin for our bodies.

Mary was conceived without any stain of original sin, in other words, without the corporate guilt of original sin, without the lack of the state of grace in the soul (a double negative meaning she had the state of grace from conception), and without any of the harm to the body implied by original sin. Mary’s body was never in a fallen state. She had no concupiscence. She was not subject to disease, injury, the bodily failings of old age, or death. Her body and soul were in a state of original innocence.

Mary died at the end of her life on earth. Subsequently, she was resurrected and assumed into Heaven. But she could only die because she consented to the will of God to imitate Jesus even in death. See my post: The death of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Some Misconceptions

One common misconception among many Catholics is that the Immaculate Conception only affected Mary’s soul, not also her body. But the dogma of the Immaculate Conception and the dogma of original sin absolutely require the belief that her Immaculate Conception preserved her from the effects of original sin on body and soul, not the soul alone. The claim that the Immaculate Conception only affected the soul of the Virgin Mary, and not also her body, is heresy in opposition to dogma.

A second common misconception is erroneous, but not heretical: that the Immaculate Conception preserved Mary from all future personal sins.

Certainly, it is a dogma that the Virgin Mary remained sinless for her entire life. This truth is taught infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium. However, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception only teaches that Mary was preserved from original sin, not also personal sin. These are two different types of sin, and two different dogmas. Pius IX’s definition refers only to the freedom from original sin and does not explicitly include the freedom from personal sin throughout Mary’s life.

The assertion that preservation from original sin does not necessarily preserve from personal sin is evident from the examples of Adam and Eve. Each was created without original sin, in a state of original holiness (including the state of grace and unfallen bodies). Yet both Adam and Eve committed personal sins subsequently.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church is often cited to support the above error, but the CCC makes no such error. Rather, there is a set of paragraphs detailing various teachings on the Blessed Virgin Mary, including her freedom from original sin at conception, and her freedom from personal sin during her entire life, and other aspects of her holiness and life.

508 From among the descendants of Eve, God chose the Virgin Mary to be the mother of his Son. “Full of grace”, Mary is “the most excellent fruit of redemption” (SC 103): from the first instant of her conception, she was totally preserved from the stain of original sin and she remained pure from all personal sin throughout her life.

Mary is a descendent of Eve, the Mother of the Son of God, full of grace, the most excellent fruit of redemption, preserved from original sin, and also she remained free from personal sin. These are various teachings about the Blessed Virgin Mary. The CCC and the documents of the Magisterium contain no assertion, to my knowledge, that Mary’s freedom from personal sin is included in the dogma of the Immaculate Conception.

One might argue that the plan of God for Mary necessitates both dogmas, and that they are closely related. Yes, I agree. In addition, the Immaculate Conception does entail, as a positive consequence, her subsequent freedom from all personal sin. For she was freed from original sin at conception so that she could be perfect in holiness subsequently and could become the Mother of God subsequently. But just as the dogma of the Immaculate Conception does not include the dogma that Mary is the Mother of God, so also it does not include the dogma of her freedom from all personal sin.

But it is a misconception to say that the Immaculate Conception itself preserved Mary from both original sin and personal sin. These are two distinct dogmas and two distinct acts of God. And here’s why:

The Immaculate Conception occurred at “the first instant” of her conception. It was a one-time event, a miraculous and unique intervention of God, which required no cooperation by the Blessed Virgin Mary at all. Her sanctification at the first instant of life was prevenient, involving no cooperation by the free will of Mary — just as is the case for the baptism of an infant. The “prevenient grace of God” brought Mary into the state of grace at conception, brings infants into the state of grace, brings adults into the state of grace — absent any cooperation from the free will of the person so redeemed.

However, to remain in the state of grace, particularly as an adult, the fallen sinner must cooperate with grace and avoid every actual mortal sin. The state of grace does not continue without such cooperation. A fallen sinner, who is in the state of grace, can fall away from that state by an actual mortal sin of commission or of omission. So if the free will does not cooperate with actual graces, the state of grace can be lost.

Mary certainly never sinned at all. But she remained free from personal sin by cooperating with actual graces by acts of her free will, whereas she was preserved from original sin without any act of her free will. So the fact that she never committed personal sin extends beyond the dogma of the Immaculate Conception for at least three reasons.

First, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception concerns only “the first instant” of her conception, not the rest of her life. Second, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception only mentions original sin, not also personal sin. These are different dogmas, the teaching that Mary was never touched by original sin and the teaching that Mary never chose to commit any personal sin. Third, the grace regarding her Immaculate Conception is habitual grace, whereas the grace regarding her freedom from personal sin is actual grace.

Was Mary at least theoretically able to commit personal sin, if she so chose? It’s a difficult theological question. She certainly had free will, and she lived in a fallen sinful world. Eve would have sinned in that situation. Mary was full of grace, but she had free will.

My answer to the question is that Mary was entirely unable to commit personal sin due to the prevenient grace of God. But the prevenient grace of God at her Immaculate Conception concerned habitual grace (the state of grace), whereas the prevenient grace of God that preserved her from all personal sin, even the least venial sin, was actual grace. Similarly, the holy souls in purgatory can no longer commit any personal sins, even the least venial sin, despite lacking the Beatific Vision of God, due to the prevenient grace of God.

A third common misconception about the Immaculate Conception is that the dogma includes the assertion that Mary’s conception occurred in the usual way, by natural marital relations between her parents, Saint Joachim and Saint Ann. To the contrary, the Magisterium has never taught that Mary’s conception occurred in the usual manner; it is an open question. People assume that she was conceived in the usual manner, but no such teaching exists.

Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich stated, based on her visions from God, that Mary was conceived in a virginal manner, by a miracle. This assertion is in two of her books, which have been published numerous times in numerous languages and nations, always with the imprimatur. My opinion is that Mary’s Immaculate Conception was also a virginal conception. Saint Ann was NOT a virgin. But Mary’s conception occurred in a virginal and miraculous manner. By that miracle, she was conceived of both Ann and Joachim, yet without marital relations. The conception was effected entirely by a miracle. The point is speculative; it is an open question as yet unanswered by the Magisterium. But it is false to claim that the Church teaches any answer on this point.

My post: The Immaculate Virgin Conception of the Virgin Mary

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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