Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception
by Rev. Langton D.Fox D.D. 1971
The Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception
does not refer to the moment when Our Lady
conceived Our Blessed Lord,
but to the moment in which she herself was conceived by her
mother, Saint Anne. Nor does
it suggest that Mary's
coming into being was physically in any way an exception to the
ordinary laws of nature. What it
does tell us is this: that even at that first moment
of her conception,
by which is meant the very first instant of Our Lady's existence as a human
individual, she was (by
God's favor granted in
anticipation of the merits of
preserved from all stain
of original sin.
But this is to plunge into the midst of the doctrine.
The aim of this Treatise is rather to see this doctrine
(and the justification of it) in its setting, as part of the whole
plan of God for our redemption.
May we, then, start with a word about God?
There is no need to say much, but because we are going to use His
name so frequently in the paragraphs that follow, particularly when we
shall refer to Our Blessed Lady as the Mother of God, it
is, I think desirable to say a little.
Briefly then, our reason shows us that there must be, and is, one
Supreme Being upon Whom
everything else entirely depends, even for its very existence. It is this Supreme Being that we call 'God'.
As to what God is like, reason, starting
from His being the Maker
and Supporter of all, and applying the
principle that no one can give what he does not possess, can come to the easy but
tremendous conclusion that God Himself
possesses all the power that we admire in
creation, all the beauty and goodness that stirs our hearts
to love when we find it in the
people and things He holds in existence. It
is not difficult to show also that He
possesses those qualities without any limitation or shadow of imperfection. He is, then, Beauty
and Goodness and Power
without limit. This much reason can tell us
God Himself has told
us more. He has told
us some facts about His own inner life which
reason could never discover, but which also
have a bearing on what we are going to say. He
has told us that the boundless Purity
and Power which is the Godhead
belongs to three distinct Persons,
and Holy Spirit, and belongs to Them in such a way that each
possesses the whole Godhead fully, and is
therefore wholly and fully God; wholly and
fully one and the same God. He has also told us (and
this is most important for our purpose here), that the Second
Person, One of the Three Who are truly
God, while remaining fully God,
has become also a human being. So that in this Person
two distinct things, Godhead and manhood, are joined.
Both belong to the same Person. That Person is Jesus Christ. He can say, 'I am God:
one and the same God with the Father and the Holy Ghost.' He, the very same Person,
Jesus Christ, can also say, 'I am a man: I have a human body and a human soul. I was born of a
woman.' For the truth of all
this God gives His
Jesus Christ is true God and true man
Mary is the Mother of God
Let us think about Jesus Christ.
He is wholly and fully God,
yet He has a human
body and soul. That is a
fact. It is another fact that He was born of
a woman. This is a new fact, for the human body and soul
which belong to God the Son might have been
produced for Him out of
nothing. But that would not have met so well the special
purpose of His becoming
man. This was to make atonement for the offenses of this human race to
which you and I belong. In order to make atonement for us, He wanted to become a member of our family, He wanted to be of the same stock as each of us.
Therefore He chose to take His origin as a human
being from a woman, a descendant
of Adam. He chose
Mary, the Virgin
of Nazareth, to be that woman.
It was her tremendous privilege
that His human
body should be formed from hers:
not just in hers,
or through hers,
but from hers. We
must grasp the full force of this. In her
relation to Him she
is not like an aqueduct, which simply conveys
what it does not produce, but like a spring, which itself
produces what it offers to the world. He
became a man by being conceived
in her womb by the overshadowing
power of the Most
High. Thereafter she contributed
to His development and growth all that any
mother contributes to the development and growth of her son.
After nine months bearing Him in her womb she
brought Him forth,
and fed Him at her breast. In a word, she
is His mother.
She is the Mother
of Jesus Christ. And Who
is He? There is
only one Person
in Jesus Christ,
the Person of God the
Son. She is the Mother of God. He Whom she
wrapped in swaddling clothes is He Whose providence
even then was ruling the course of the furthest stars. He
is God, the all-powerful,
the all-beautiful: and she,
the Mother of God.
She is Mother
of God. We must dwell on that fact. It is
all-important. It is no verbal trick. It is the plain consequence of the
other fact that her Son
is one Person,
one of the Three Persons, Each of Whom is the one
gave Him His Body,
formed from her own.
If He were a human
person, she would be the mother of that human person. But this living
body of His was
never possessed by a human person.
From the first moment of its existence it
was the body and soul
of the Son of God. To repeat just
once more the crucial point: there is only one
Person in Christ and she
is His Mother. Because that Person
is God, she is the Mother
That is the literal truth. We have found it contained in the basic
doctrines of Christianity. That our analysis of them is correct
was guaranteed by the Council of Ephesus which, in the year 431, proclaimed under the safeguard of infallibility, that the fact
that Mary is Mother
of God is part of God's
message to us. This message
we are clearly under an obligation to accept. If we did not, we would be refusing to
believe something for which God gives
His Word. Mary
is His mother then. Think what that implies. It means for
one thing that the relationship that Mary enjoys with God
is that relationship of affection and intimacy which exists between mother
and son. All the consequences of that relationship also apply between God and Mary.
For one thing, God's
honor is inseparably bound up with hers.
The honor or disgrace
of a mother inescapably affects her son.
If she is honored, so is he.
If she is disgraced, so is
he. Mary, then, must be raised to every dignity
that befits the Mother of God. Besides, God
is wise and just.
He never calls anyone to a post
in His service without offering them all
they need in order to be able to be what He
wants them to be, effectively and well. Mary He chose to be His Mother.
To her therefore He
will have given all the gifts necessary to
make her fit to be
She is sinless
What are these splendid gifts, the gifts necessary to make a human
creature fit to be the Mother of
God? Many of them
must be beyond our comprehension. But one is easily understandable, and
it is the one that concerns us here. It seems an elementary one; she must be free from sin. It does not seem much to claim for the Mother of God, but
we must dwell upon it, for it is directly on our subject. If God
makes Mary His Mother,
He must make her
sinless. Why? Because if a mother's honor is an honor
to her son, and her disgrace is also his;
then, were Mary to have incurred even the slightest
sin, the slur of
it would have passed to her Son.
The All-Holy God would have incurred the slur of sin! It is unthinkable! Imagine men being able to
point to God-made-man and allege
with truth that His Mother
had been a sinner! No! His own honor was at stake. It could not be. She must be sinless.
What of Original sin?
Thus far we have not been making distinctions among sins.
But now we must make an important distinction: that between what is called 'Actual' sin,
and what is called 'Original' sin. The need for the distinction will appear as
we make it. Actual sin is sin in the ordinary sense of the word: any
thought, word or action against the law of God.
We ourselves are responsible for it by our
own personal decision to commit it.
The Fall - by Hugo van der
from Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
Original sin is the offense
which was committed by Adam,
the first man, from whom we are all descended. Adam was responsible
for this sin as we are responsible
for our own Actual sins. We are obviously not
responsible for this sin of Adam by
reason of any personal decision on our part. But nevertheless we do incur
it because we are responsible for it
in a different way: by reason of our relationship with Adam as father and head of the human race. He made a decision to displease God.
In a way that was his business. In another it was ours, because he was our head. It is
because he was our head that we are committed by his decision, committed to a condition
which is displeasing to
What precisely makes up this 'condition displeasing
to God' ?
Substantially, the lack of gifts which God
intended us to have. It was God's intention
that from the first moment of our existence
we should enjoy several splendid gifts quite
above the power of human nature
to develop for itself. The greatest of them was a gift
of a share in God's own life. But this was
to be given us on the condition that the head of our race should use his freedom to
acknowledge his dependence upon God. Because
he chose to do the opposite, we are all born already suffering
from the lack of
the gifts that God
designed for us. This lack, which of itself could evoke only pity from
the heart of God, actually evokes
displeasure because it is a lack
for which, through Adam our head, we are responsible. We lack
a share in God's life because we are the
children of one who, at the suggestion of the devil,
rebelled against God.
We are like people who are descendants of a man once honored, favored and made wealthy
by his king, but who find themselves born in poverty and without honor or favor, because
their ancestor turned traitor.
We are born without the wealth and honor God
intended us to have. Nor is our poverty just a misfortune.
It is a disgrace. It carries with it the stigma of the crime of which it is the consequence. It is the result of the treacherous conduct of the man from whom we are
descended, and although we had no say in what he did, by the laws of
human solidarity we cannot escape being involved in what he did.
Now, was Our Lady free from Original sin? On the
one hand it would seem to be already established that she was, for we have seen how
her vocation demands that she must be without sin.
Original sin is sin. As effectively as Actual
sin it deprives the soul of
the share in God's own life and happiness which He
desires it to have, and the responsibility
for the lack is (in however subtle a way)
ours. So it is sin.
Mary therefore must be ever free of it. But on the other
hand Original sin is so very
different from Actual sin that before we
finally decide that Mary's sinlessness always excluded
Original sin (this is precisely the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception),
it is only right that we should carefully examine our reasons for doing so, and make sure
that they do apply to Original sin. After
all, a person could be said to be (and proved to be) 'sinless'
in a way if, even though she had once incurred Original
sin, she were free from all Actual sin. So let us face the question: Does Mary's sinlessness
mean that she never incurred even Original sin?
The argument from her destiny
Does her destiny to be the Mother of God demand
the exclusion from her soul
of Original sin?
It is hard to see how anyone could maintain that it does not, for even Original sin is sin, and is a state displeasing
to God. So how
could Mary be said to have been made fit to
stand in the relationship of Mother to the all-pure God if the devil
could claim, and claim truly, that once, even if only for a
moment, she had been in the
state of Original sin? Admittedly it is not
so revolting a thought as the thought of Actual sin
in the Mother of God, but surely it is revolting enough to make us
sure that God would never have allowed it to
be realized. Every mind that has even the vaguest appreciation of the repugnance of God to sin will see at once that God
would preserve His Mother
from even Original sin. If she incurred
it, even for a moment, it would come too blasphemously
close to Him. From the
first moment of her existence
as a human individual, she
must have been preserved from
it, that is to say, she
must have been conceived immaculate.
This is an important stage in our inquiry. We have come to the doctrine
of the Immaculate Conception. We have found it
simply by putting together and reflecting upon some of the basic
truths of God's
revelation to us through Christ.
But we must not leave the matter there. The doctrine
of our Mother's complete preservation from
Original sin is too important to be left
resting upon the basis we have already found it
to have. We must see how the truth of our theological reasoning is guaranteed for us by Scripture and Tradition.
SCRIPTURE is made up of the Books
of the Bible. Of these God is the
principal Author, using a human author as His
instrument in writing them. It is He
therefore Who vouches for the truth of what we read there.
TRADITION is the unwritten
word of God, taught in every age of
Christian history by the Pope and the Bishops,
and handed down by them to the age which follows. It originated with Christ
and His Holy Spirit, Who
gave it to the Apostles. At
every stage, whether it is a question of its
being expounded or handed down, it is under God's guarantee that no error
will be introduced into it. Scripture and Tradition then
can be thought of as the storehouses of the information God
has been pleased to give us. Let us check our conclusion that Mary
never for one moment incurred
Original sin, against what is there
Tradition and the Immaculate Conception
As regards Tradition
we can settle the whole matter at once by pointing to the declarations of later
Popes, and supremely to the definition of the doctrine
in 1854. In the official history of the
pontificate of Pope Pius IX we read that on the 8th
December, 1854, in Saint Peter's at Rome,
in the presence of a vast gathering of Cardinals and Bishops,
the Pope solemnly declared and defined:
'That the teaching which says that in the first moment of her
conception the most blessed Virgin Mary was, by a unique favor and privilege of God
Almighty, in consideration of the merits of Jesus Christ the Savior of the human race,
preserved immune from every stain of Original sin, is revealed by God and therefore must
be firmly and constantly believed by all the faithful.'
The wording is plain. 'In the first moment of her conception',
that is, in the first moment of
her existence as a human
individual, she was 'preserved immune from every stain of Original sin'. Never
for one single moment was she touched by it.
And that, so we are assured under the safeguard of
Christ's promise of infallibility, is part of the message
entrusted by God to
His Church for us to accept because He asserts it. With the whole
Catholic world we rejoice
and believe. Rome
has spoken. The truth of our conclusion is
Four years after Pius IX's infallible pronouncement, Our
Lady herself confirmed this dogma
at Lourdes when she
proclaimed to the visionary Saint Bernadette, "I
am the Immaculate Conception." )
It is still, however, fascinating for us (and perhaps helpful to some who suspect that
the doctrine is new in itself and not simply
in the clarity of its expression), to look back to early
Tradition. By early Tradition
I mean the doctrine of Christ as it was expounded by the Catholic
Bishops of the first six or seven centuries.
To estimate what the teaching was in those now remote
centuries we accept the evidence of the learned and saintly
writers and preachers of that time whose words have come down to
us. These men are referred to as the 'Fathers of the Church',
and they are universally accepted as witnesses to the Tradition
as it was taught in their day.
Of the sinlessness of Mary many of these Fathers speak
with lyrical enthusiasm, and as they sing the praises of Mary we see shining through their words their
clear conviction that she is immaculate, untainted by any sin
whatsoever. They compare her to the Ark
of Noah, designed by God to remain
safe and unharmed by the flood of sin which overwhelms the rest of mankind.
For them, she is like the tower hung about
with a thousand shields, unassailable by the enemy;
or like the walled garden which nothing can violate, nor any evil
spoil. She is the lily among briars; the flawless
paradise of innocence planted by God
Himself and defended by Him
from all the wiles of the serpent;
the tree which never suffers the decay of sin; the
ever-limpid fount, scaled by the power of
the Holy Ghost.
Surely the men who wrote these words believed Mary
to have been preserved from every
form of sin. The ark
is completely safe and unharmed. The tower
is simply unassailable. The walled garden
nothing can violate. There is no reservation about the purity
of the lily. The tree
is never decayed, the fount ever-limpid.
There is no hint in these passages of an exception such as in all honesty there would have
to have been if Mary's soul
was thought to have been besmirched
with Original sin.
But if any doubts remain there is another
comparison, and it is one to which these saintly and learned writers constantly return. It
brings the mind very close to the thought of Original sin
and therefore to the expression of any reservation concerning it
in connection with the sinlessness of Mary. It is the comparison of
Mary with Eve, the first woman. Yet when this comparison is made, not
only is no exception from what has been said of Mary's
spotless innocence so much as suggested, but
she is declared positively to be like Eve
as she was in her innocence,
before there was any such thing as Original sin.
'Mary and Eve were both innocent,' wrote Saint
Ephraim, 'both without guile, for they were made
absolutely equal to one another. It was afterwards that one became the cause of death, the
other of our life.' Eve became the cause of death by sharing with Adam the guilt of Original sin. Mary
was made 'absolutely equal' to her
as she was before that sin
was ever committed. The conclusion
is obvious. Her freedom from sin is a freedom from even Original
sin. It is like the innocence
of her Divine
Son. 'Thou and Thy Mother alone are in every way
entirely beautiful. There is no blemish in Thee, O Lord, nor in Thy Mother any stain.'
Is it possible to doubt that the men who wrote like this and those who received their faith through them were entirely convinced that Mary never for one
moment incurred the
stain of Original sin?
Scripture and the Immaculate Conception
Turning to Scripture,
we find two principal passages to our
purpose. The first is called the Protoevangelion.
It consists of the words of God to the devil when he
has been convicted of leading the original human pair into sin. He
is told (Genesis 3:15) that as a punishment
for his crime, God
will set up a state of war between him and the Woman,
between her offspring
and his. This war
will result in a crushing defeat for
him. Now who are the Woman
and her offspring?
On purely scriptural grounds it can be shown to be most probable that they are Mary and her Divine Son. But if we are willing to let the voice
of Tradition be
heard in the interpretation of Scripture,
that probability is turned into reasonable certainty. And we should, of course, listen to Tradition in such a matter. Scripture
and Tradition, being the twin storehouses of God's
revelation, are not to be kept rigorously
apart. It is manifestly the function of Tradition
to tell us which writings make up the Bible, and to assure us that God is its Author.
How else should we know? It is also its function to guide us, when need
be, in the interpretation of what we read there.
Now Tradition gives us this guidance,
that the Fathers who identify the Woman
of the Protoevangelion as Mary the Mother of
Christ are sufficiently numerous to make us certain
that this is a true interpretation and that
it is she who is linked with her Son
in hostility to
words then must be applied with their full
weight to Mary.
But if they are to be always true of Mary, then she
must never be in Satan's camp by being in a
state displeasing to
God, even an inherited state. She must always be free of even Original sin.
God speaks also of the crushing of the serpent's head. Thus He
describes the triumph of the Woman and her
Son over the devil.
His head is to be crushed.
Does that not mean that the triumph over him is to be complete
and perfect? It would not be if by her incurring
Original sin even for one
moment, he could claim
the Woman as his
Of course all this turns upon the point that God
does mean that the hostility of the Woman towards Satan is to be absolutely
perpetual, and that her triumph over him
is to be absolute as well. God's words will certainly bear that sense, and
that it is a correct understanding of them
is underlined by the fact that He groups the
hostility and triumph
of the Woman together with the hostility and triumph
of Him Who is 'the
seed of the Woman', Christ Himself.
Now His hostility
most certainly is absolutely perpetual. His triumph is fully perfect. They
manifestly include the total exclusion of Original sin.
It is this triumph that Mary shares.
Finally, the occasion of God's speech and the purpose of it encourage us to give His
words their full weight. His purpose
in this passage is to pass sentence upon
a criminal. It is justifiable
to give their fullest weight to the words of any judge when he passes sentence: much more
so when it is God Who judges.
As to the occasion, that further supports us. The effect of our giving full weight
to God's Words is to find in them the implication that Mary
was ever free of Original sin, and
the occasion of His words was precisely that
of assigning blame and punishment for having caused
Original sin. To speak humanly, it was the
occasion when God had
Original sin uppermost in His mind. We can, therefore, feel confident that
we are not going beyond His intention when
we find an implication concerning Original sin
in the hostility He
foretells between the Woman
and the serpent.
In the New Testament
there is similar evidence in the form of two titles
addressed to Our Lady. It is best to take them together. They
are both to be found in the same first chapter
of Saint Luke (verses 28 and 42), and they
are closely linked in sense. The first comes
from the Archangel Gabriel. Speaking as God's messenger to Mary, he
calls her 'full of
grace', or 'perfected in grace'. This is
a unique title: a form of salutation which
is never addressed to anyone else in Scripture.
What can be implied by addressing it to Mary alone?
Surely that the quality of which it speaks belongs to her
in a unique way. This uniqueness of her distinction
is emphasized by the other salutation, which
comes from her cousin Elizabeth:
'filled with the Holy Ghost.' Thus inspired, she
hailed Our Lady: 'Blessed art thou among women.' Hearing this we gather, as
we gathered from the Archangel, that Mary has some blessing
that is unique among womankind. What is this blessing
? 'Blessed', says Elizabeth. 'Full of grace', says the Archangel.
What does it mean ? The sacred text offers
We turn to Tradition, and at once we are
overwhelmed with assurances. It means that Mary
is made perfect in that gift of God which is nothing less than a
share in the life of God Himself. Mary is made perfect
in this. So perfect that Elizabeth
goes on, in the spirit of
the Protoevangelion, to link her in her
blessedness with her
Divine Son Himself. 'Blessed
art thou among women,' she says, 'and
blessed is the fruit of thy womb.' And this quality in which she is made perfect,
so uniquely perfect as to be associated with
the peerless perfection of her Son,
is of all qualities that which of its nature is most diametrically opposed to sin. Mary
is thus perfect in this. Is she so perfect
in it as to be without even Original sin,
and that even from the first moment of
If the words of Scripture are to
be given their full weight, yes. Otherwise her perfection
would not be complete, nor could Elizabeth, inspired
by the Holy Ghost, link it with that of her Divine Son.
Nor again would it be unique. Apparently Saint John the Baptist, having incurred Original
sin, was freed from it even
before his birth. God
promised his father that he should 'be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother's womb'.
If Mary's privilege
then was truly unique, and her perfection truly complete and truly comparable
with that of her Son,
then it must have been that she never incurred Original
sin at all, but was conceived immaculate.
The 'Development' of the Doctrine
It remains only to add a word about the history of the Church's
progress from implicit to explicit recognition of Mary's
Immaculate Conception. At the beginning, as
soon as God's message was examined to
discover what it contained about Our Blessed Lady, it was generally seen that it implied that she
was sinless. The only clear and positive
evidence of its being appreciated in the early centuries
that her sinlessness
was so perfect that
it meant the exclusion of even Original sin
from her soul
is the way in which that sinlessness is
compared with that of Eve before the fall.
It was left to the Middle Ages to consider
the point explicitly. It then happened that a number of
learned theologians, and even a few great
ones, thought that Mary must
have incurred Original sin, at least for
just the one first moment of
her existence. It was possible for this mistake to be made because of the way in which the
doctrine had remained hitherto almost
entirely implicit in the faith of the Church.
The theologians who slipped into the error
were preoccupied with the truth that
absolutely everybody who is pleasing to God
is so only because they have been redeemed
by Christ. They came to their false conclusion by making the erroneous deduction that if Our
Lady were conceived immaculate
she would not have been redeemed by Christ.
To the everlasting glory of our country,
it was in England that the faith
was vindicated and the fallacious argument against it dissolved. Men like Eadmer of
Canterbury, Anselm of Bury, Saint Edmunds and
Osbert of Westminster strenuously defended the doctrine.
It was the great Franciscan, Duns Scotus, who
in his lectures at Oxford showed
that the fact that all
are dependent upon the redemption of
Christ in no way contradicted
the fact of the Immaculate
Conception. Our Lady was preserved from Original sin by the merits of her
Son, as we are released
from it by the same merits. He
is her Redeemer
as well as ours: in fact, more perfectly hers than ours, for she
more perfectly who
is shielded by Him
from ever incurring
evil, than we who are released
by Him from
the evil He
has permitted us to incur.
The Church rejoiced
in the vindication of her faith,
and from that day the history of the doctrine has been the history of
an ever clearer and more universal realization, and ever more triumphant
assertion that it has always
been part of the revelation confided
by God to
the Universal Church that Mary was conceived immaculate.
O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us,
who have recourse to thee.