This is probably the most misunderstood doctrine among non-Catholics. Even some Catholics don’t understand it. To be clear, let’s define it. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is a dogma, meaning that is is a required belief of all Catholics. In other words, if you don’t believe in the Immaculate Conception, then technically speaking, you’re not fully Catholic. It is defined as the belief that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was herself conceived without the stain of original sin.
Some Protestants contend that the doctrine is “unbiblical,” that it “deifies Mary as a goddess,” and “diminishes the role of Christ in the redemption of humanity.” Such contention is unwarranted, and a little paranoid, as I’ll demonstrate below.
The stain of original sin was defined by St. Augustine as the mark of sin inherited by all people from the time of their conception. This means that when the first humans (Adam and Eve) sinned against God, they did so before any of their children were born. Because of this, all children conceived after their sin (i.e. the whole human race), would inherent the stain of the sin they committed. The sin they committed was one of selfishness and rebellion against God. The stain of this sin penetrated all the way through their souls to the flesh itself — staining it and corrupting it. Thus, all children born of their flesh would inherit this stain of original sin. Think of it as a hereditary trait. It is manifested in the form of pride, selfishness and rebellion. It creates in people the desire to commit various sins: lying, cheating, stealing, lust, rage, etc. It can be seen from the earliest ages of childhood. Every time a small child acts in a selfish way, or becomes rebellious toward his parents, he demonstrates the stain of original sin in his own mind and body. God designed human beings to be totally selfless, giving, and obedient creatures. But this does not describe the human race today. That’s because the stain of original sin, inherited from our first parents (Adam and Eve), has twisted and corrupted what God has created. Instead of being selfless, we are selfish. Instead of being giving, we are greedy. Instead of being obedient, we are rebellious. Such is the nature of our fallen human race. Now many Protestants think of original sin as a type of depravity — moral corruption or innate wickedness — as if people are “evil” at their core. Catholics tend to see original sin more as deprivation than depravity — meaning that original sin deprives human beings of what they need to be holy. The desire to be loving and selfless is there, but the deprivation of original sin makes that impossible to achieve on our own.
God cannot tolerate sin, and it must be dealt with. Before mankind can be restored to God, we must first be freed of the original sin that stains and deprives us. This is the reason why God sent Jesus Christ (God made flesh) into the world. His sacrificial death on the cross frees us from all sin, including original sin. But in order for this sacrifice to be atoning for the human race, it must come from a member of the human race. Only a perfect and spotless human being can undo the damage done by our first parents. A perfect duplicate (or copy) of a human being wouldn’t be enough. This spotless sacrifice must be a direct descendant of the sinful human race, and he must be divine himself, so that he may atone for all human sins, not just the first one. Protestant Christians understand this concept very well, and teach it in their churches. They know that Jesus must atone for all the sins of the world, and they know he is fully human as well as fully divine. In this sense, Protestants are very “Catholic” in their thinking. What they often fail to consider is that the flesh of Jesus Christ must be truly descended from the sinful human race in order for Jesus to be truly “one of us.” If God created a whole new body in Mary’s womb from “the dust of the earth” so to speak, essentially a copy of humanity, totally separate from any sinful human genetics, he really wouldn’t be human at all. He would be a whole new race, entirely separate from the human race, and completely disconnected from the rest of humanity. He might look like us, but he wouldn’t really be “one of us.” In order for Jesus Christ to truly be “one of us,” he would have to be genetically linked to the human race, and since Jesus only has one biological parent, there is only one person through whom that link can be made. That person is the Blessed Virgin Mary.
When Jesus was miraculously conceived inside Mary’s womb, at the time of the annunciation by the Angel Gabriel, his human genetic make-up came directly from her. True, his divine nature came directly from the Godhead, but his human nature came from Mary. So Mary is the human genetic link between Jesus Christ (God made flesh) and mankind. There is only one problem. If Mary’s flesh was stained with original sin (like the rest of us), than Jesus would have inherited that same original sin nature. Yet the Scriptures clearly tell us that Jesus was without sin. So we have a theological problem. How could Jesus’ flesh and blood be “without sin” if he inherited his human flesh and blood from Mary? Granted, he is God, so he can do whatever he wants, but he chose to do it a certain way that was fitting to his desire. Enter the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.
From the earliest times, Christians have always believed that Mary was immaculate — meaning perfect and without sin….
“He (Jesus) was the ark formed of incorruptible wood (Mary). For by this is signified that His tabernacle (body) was exempt from putridity and corruption (sin).”
— (Hippolytus, AD 235)
“This Virgin Mother of the Only-begotten of God, is called Mary, worthy of God, immaculate of the immaculate, one of the one.”
— (Origen, AD 244)
The idea here is that God miraculously preserved Mary from original sin from the time of her first existence (i.e. conception). The idea comes from the Holy Scripture in which the Angel Gabriel says to Mary:
“Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you.”
— (Luke 1:28)
The phrase “full of grace” is a translation of the Greek word kecharitomene. It expresses a characteristic quality of Mary that is unique. The traditional translation, “full of grace,” is better than the one found in many recent English versions of the New Testament, which give something along the lines of “highly favored one.” Mary was indeed a highly favored daughter of God, but the Greek implies more than that. The grace given to Mary is both permanent and unique. Kecharitomene is a perfect, passive, participle of the Greek word charitoo, meaning “to fill or endow with grace.” Since this term is in the perfect tense, it indicates that Mary was given this grace in the past, but it has a continuing effect in the present. So, the grace Mary enjoyed did not begin at the angel’s visit. In fact, according to meaning the Greek word kecharitomene, it extended over her whole life, from conception onward. She was in a state of grace from the first moment of her existence (i.e. conception).
Now there is nothing particularly new about this concept. Scripturally speaking, Mary wasn’t the first person God fashioned in a perfect state of grace — immaculate — or without sin. The very first examples we have are Adam and Eve themselves. Both Adam and Eve were in a perfect state of grace at their “conception.” Though the Scriptures tell us God fashioned them using a different method than normal procreation, it doesn’t change the fact that they were made “without sin” (i.e. immaculate). So we could say the first immaculate conception happened in Eden when God formed the first man (Adam) and the first woman (Eve). In many ways, we could even consider the Immaculate Conception of Mary a “less dramatic miracle” (if we dare) because God still used the normal procreative processes when he fashioned her.
The question that arises is how? How would God fashion Mary “without sin” when both her parents were obviously stained by original sin, and they conceived her naturally? That is the mystery of the miracle. We can only conclude that God had already chosen Mary as Christ’s mother, even from the first moment of her conception in the womb of her own mother. That being the case, the only reason why Mary was conceived without sin is because of Jesus Christ. Her body (flesh and blood) was redeemed retroactively, by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, that wouldn’t happen until three decades later, because she was chosen to be the vessel through whom Jesus Christ (The Eternal Word) would enter this world as a human being.
Theologically this is very important, because Jesus received all of his human flesh and blood from Mary. That flesh and blood ought to be unspoiled and unstained by sin. Furthermore, modern science tells us that cells from the mother and child do exchange between them during pregnancy. Jesus and Mary literally shared flesh and blood, as all mothers and their babies do during normal human pregnancy. They were in a state of physical communion during that nine months of pregnancy. That means for Jesus to inherit and maintain a perfect body from his mother, without sin, his physical mother should be without sin as well. Likewise, if Mary was to be in a state of physical communion with her son Jesus, receiving his flesh and blood while he was in her womb, it would be necessary for her to be in a perfect state of grace — immaculate. While God can do anything he wants, it is only fitting and proper for things to be done this way, and the Scriptures seem to support this with the angelic salutation “full of grace.”
So the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception does not “deify” Mary as many Protestants falsely believe. Nor does it diminish the role of Christ in the redemption of the human race. You can’t even say it’s “unbiblical” since the Greek word kecharitomene in Luke 1:28 practically defines the doctrine. Rather, it simply states that Mary was no different than the sinless Eve before the fall. Does this mean that Mary was better than Eve? No. Does this mean that Mary was greater or less than Eve? No. It means she was exactly the same as Eve physically, mentally and spiritually speaking. Does this mean that Mary could have sinned? YES! She most certainly could have followed the example of Eve and disobeyed the command of God. If she had, she would have suffered the same fate as Eve, and carried the stain of original sin herself. But the difference is that when the test was given, Mary chose to obey God whereas Eve did not. Eve’s test was in the fruit of the tree. Mary’s test was in the fruit of the womb. Eve failed her test, while Mary joyously passed hers. From the moment she responded to the angel, “Behold I am the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word” — (Luke 1:38), she accepted the Lord’s will for her, even though she knew it would bring her hardship. Because of that, Mary’s purpose was fulfilled. God preserved her without sin, to be like Eve, so she could become the “New Eve,” and bring forth the “New Adam” (Romans 5:12-21) who is Christ the Lord.
So now, the question of “why?” arises. Why did Mary choose to obey God, while Eve chose to disobey? Any answer we give is pure speculation, of course, but I think a fair speculation would be the Old Covenant itself. Mary was a Jew. She was raised her whole life to follow the Jewish laws. Tradition tells us she was educated as a child in the Jerusalem Temple, where she served as a consecrated virgin for the Lord (Protoevangelium of James). Thus Mary had a grace that Eve was not given — the Mosaic Law. Because of this, she had an understanding of God that was somewhat of a mystery to Eve. Beyond that, unlike Eve, Mary was able to personally witness the effects of original sin all around her. Eve learned that lesson the hard way, having no prior experience with sin, she introduced original sin to the world with Adam her husband. Mary, in contrast, spent a lifetime toiling in the effects of that original sin, working for survival in a broken world filled with pain and suffering, even though she herself was sinless. This experience, combined with the Mosaic Law, certainly helped to give Mary the courage to say “yes” to a plan that would ultimately bring much more pain and suffering into her own life.
The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary is rich in ancient Jewish symbolism. It is foreshadowed in the Old Testament with the Ark of the Covenant. Hebrews 9:4 tells us that the contents contained inside the Ark of the Covenant were; the stone tablets of the Law (the word of God), along with a jar of manna (bread from heaven) and Aaron’s rod (a symbol of the holy priesthood). All of these are images foreshadowing Jesus Christ, who is the incarnate Word of God (John 1:1-4,14), the Bread from Heaven (John 6:31-65) and our eternal High Priest (Hebrews 4:14).
Now the Ark of the Covenant was consecrated to God and considered holy. It was not to be touched by sinful man under penalty of death, and God himself had no problem exacting this penalty, even when a man touched it in an attempt to prevent it from falling (2nd Samuel 6:6-7; 1st Chronicles 13:9-10). This Old Testament example is designed to illustrate that the ark, which carried the symbols of the Old Covenant, was just as holy as the Old Covenant itself.
Now as I said, the stone tablets, manna and rod were signs foreshadowing Jesus Christ. He is the New Covenant. Thus the “ark” that carried him in her womb is holy too, just as the ark that carried the symbols that foreshadowed him was holy. Mary is the Ark of the New Covenant because she carried Jesus Christ in her womb. Jesus, who is the Word of God, the Bread of Life and our eternal High Priest, was carried for nine months inside the “ark” of Mary. She carried him in her arms and on her hip for another two years at least. If the ark of the Old Covenant was holy, than surely this ark of the New Covenant is even holier.
The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception points more to Christ than Mary. Though Mary is the object of the doctrine, she is not the subject of it. The subject is Christ, and it is his perfectly sinless body that is being addressed. Through Mary, Jesus inherited the “flesh and blood” of mankind. He bore the genetic code of the fallen human race, yet he did so with one modification, the stain of original sin was removed. The flesh he inherited was immaculate. That immaculate flesh was the gift of his mother — Mary — who herself received it as a gift from God. So Jesus really and truly was descended from Adam and Eve through Mary. He really and truly was “one of us,” having the same ancestors and genetic code that originated from them. God rehabilitated the original, immaculate nature of humanity in Mary, but her sinlessness didn’t help anybody but herself. She was the only beneficiary of this filling of grace (kecharitomene). Mary’s sinlessness doesn’t save anybody else. It doesn’t save me, and it doesn’t save you. All God did with the Immaculate Conception was reset the clock, so to speak, to give one person another chance. For the sake of humanity, and revealing himself in the Law of Moses, God gave one more human being, schooled in that law, a chance to say “yes” for humanity. Her “yes” brought forth the Messiah who would fulfill the Law of Moses, and effectively save the rest of us. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, is a doctrine that points entirely to Jesus Christ. Without him, the Immaculate Conception of Mary makes no logical sense.
In following Jesus Christ, we all become “immaculate” upon our baptism. This is the promise that is given to us. Granted, our bodies (and minds) remain damaged by sin, but this is a temporary condition. Those who are faithful, and endure to the end, not only get to look forward to an afterlife in heaven, but also a future resurrection, in which our recreated bodied will be like those of Jesus and Mary — perfect and immaculate. In this life, the Christian is privileged to experience an immaculate soul upon the sacraments of baptism and reconciliation. In the next life, however, Christians will be privileged to experience an immaculate body as well.