“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” (Pius IX. Ineffabilis Deus).
With these words, Pope Pius IX declared ex cathedra the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception; only twice in recent history has this occurred (the other being Pius XII’s declaration on the Assumption). For centuries, the faithful have commemorated the belief that Mary, from the moment of her conception, by a loving act of God, was free from sin. This, of course, does not mean that Mary was exempt in some way from Jesus’ redemption of humanity. Rather, as Blessed John Duns Scotus put it, she acquired the greatest of redemptions through her special role in Salvation History (Lectura III Sent., 119).
Many who do not agree with the doctrine argue that if Mary was not born with Original Sin or did not sin at any point in her entire life (as Church teaching proclaims), then she could not have been fully human. Therefore, if the Blessed Mother had never been born into sin and never sinned in her life, how could she have been truly human? Some reason, how could she have experienced what humanity really goes through if she didn’t live with sin? Basically, how could she have been truly free to be a person, struggling with the temptations, the ups and the downs, the “messiness” that is life? The concept of a sinless life, to many, seems boring and totally reliant on some higher being. How can one be totally dependent on God’s love?
In one of his earliest homilies as Pope, Benedict XVI answered these questions quite definitively. He stated, “The human being lives in the suspicion that God's love creates a dependence and that he must rid himself of this dependency if he is to be fully himself.” Indeed, many of us feel reluctant to fully give in to the love and mercy of God for fear that we would be giving up our ability to choose to be whomever we want to be. In that case, we rely not on God’s love, but on our own powers and abilities. This may sound preferable to some, but the Pope-Emeritus reminds us, “Love is not dependence but a gift that makes us live. The freedom of a human being is the freedom of a limited being, and therefore is itself limited.” Our knowledge and abilities as humans are but a speck in comparison to God’s love. Therefore, in choosing not to live in accordance with what is right and true, we actually limit ourselves from fully living.
Mary, the Immaculate Conception, is the prime example of total abandonment to God’s love – she is truly free. Though she was sinless throughout her life, Mary still faced the temptation to sin. However, because she lived in complete openness to the Lord’s will, Mary did not choose sin, but rather, chose God. In his homily, Benedict notes, “The closer a person is to God, the closer he is to people…The fact that she is totally with God is the reason why she is so close to human beings.” Sinless, she was the pure vessel, the new Ark of the Covenant, through which “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14) She is the mother of God, and thus, the mother of Love itself, for God is Love. (cf 1 Jn 4:8) Living in that love, she calls out to us: “Have the courage to dare with God! Try it! Do not be afraid of him! Have the courage to risk with faith! Have the courage to risk with goodness!...so that your life will become broad and light, not boring but filled with infinite surprises, for God's infinite goodness is never depleted!”
Today, on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, Pope Francis has proclaimed the opening of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy. Please visit our Year of Mercy resources by clicking here.
Victor David is a collaborator with the Catholic Apostolate Center and a staff member at The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC.