Did the Immaculate Conception preserve Mary from all sin?

Over at the National Catholic Register, author Mark Shea has a quiz on Catholicism (part I). Question 2 reads as follows:

“2. Which answer is false? The Immaculate Conception is

A) the conception of Jesus Christ in the womb of Mary
B) the conception of Mary in the womb of her mother
C) the term to refer to the fact that Mary was preserved from all sin from the moment of her conception.
D) a dogma proclaimed by the Church in 1854.”

The question implies that three of the answers are true and one is false. Yet there are several theological problems with answer “C”, so it is not a correct answer. (Answer “A” is also incorrect.)

First, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception states:

“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.” [Source]

So this particular dogma does not assert that Mary remained sinless her entire life. That truth is a separate dogma, though not one defined under Papal Infallibility, as the Immaculate Conception is. The dogma of the Immaculate Conception concerns only Mary’s preservation from original sin, which preservation occurred “in the first” moment of her conception. It is true that Mary remained free from all sin for her entire life. But original sin is only inherited at conception, and personal sin is not possible in the earliest months of life from conception.

Mary was sinless her entire life. However, we do not say, theologically, that she “was preserved” from all personal sin, since free will applies to her freedom from personal sin. Her preservation from original sin was an act of prevenient grace: God operating and Mary not cooperating. Her preservation from all personal sin her entire life was due to prevenient grace as well as free will cooperating with subsequent grace.

Did the Blessed Virgin Mary cooperate with every grace God gave or offered to her in her life? No, of course not. For grace can be divided into two types:
1. prevenient grace, in which God operates without cooperation from the person
2. subsequent grace, which can be accepted or rejected by the free will of the person

Holy Saints as well as wicked persons, and all us mediocre sinners in-between, receive prevenient grace, whether we like it or not. Prevenient grace makes human reason truly able to understand transcendent truths, and therefore able to subsequently seek and find the truth on religion and morals, in cooperation with grace. Prevenient grace makes the human will truly free, and therefore able to subsequently choose between good and evil, between cooperation with grace and rejection of grace.

Shea misunderstands or at least misstates the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, blurring it together with the dogma of Mary’s perpetual sinlessness. His error in this regard seems to indicate a lack of understanding of Catholic doctrine on grace.

Mary’s Immaculate Conception was her justification, in that she entered the state of grace in the first moment of her existence. And for all human persons, this justification is prevenient, whether it occurs at conception, or infant baptism, or adult baptism, or by a baptism of desire or of blood. Cooperation with subsequent grace is not prevenient, and does involve human free will. We remain in the state of habitual grace by our cooperation with actual graces (at least to the extent of avoiding mortal sin). But the initial grace of justification, the act of God that places us in a state of grace, whenever that occurs, is prevenient, involving no cooperation of our free will.

More on grace and salvation in my books The Catechism of Catholic Ethics and Forgiveness and Salvation for Everyone.

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

Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.

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