"It is fitting for the Queen of Virgins, by a singular privilege of sanctity, to lead a life entirely free from sin, so that while she ministered to the destroyer of death and sin, she should obtain the gift of life and justice for all." -St. Bernard of Clairvaux
"It is faith which reveals to us that the immaculate conception...is a pledge of salvation for every human creature. Again, it is faith which reminds us that by virtue of her unique position, Mary is our steadfast support in the arduous struggle against sin and its consequences." -Pope John Paul the Great
Today is the feast of the Immaculate Conception. This is a special day not only for Catholics (it should be for ALL Christians however), but especially for Catholics in America, since Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception is the patroness of the United States!
On December 8, 1854, Pius IX made the declaration:
"The Doctrine which holds, that the most Blessed Virgin Mary at the first instant of her conception was preserved immune from all stain of sin by a singular grace and privilege of the omnipotent God in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, savior of the human race, was revealed by God and therefore must be firmly and constantly believed by all the faithful."
The recipient of this privilege was the person of Mary at the first instant of passive conception (when God infuses the soul to the fetus). From conception, Mary is free from original sin, and its effects. To understand this privilege of Mary we have to go back to our first parents.
Adam and Eve were created with three sets of gifts: natural, preternatural and supernatural.
-Natural gifts are intellect, will, body, and soul.
-Preternatural (preter means above) are gifts above ordinary human nature.
1) Infused knowledge-greater knowledge and recognition of supernatural.
2)Integrity-perfect harmony between reason and the passions. What reason dictated, the passion obeyed.
3)Incorruptible and natural immortality of the body- immune to disease
-Supernatural gifts refer to justice within the family of God from the moment of creation.
Adam and Eve, with the fall lose the preternatural and supernatural, yet keep the natural gifts.
Thus we need baptism to restore grace. We are also born with a decaying body and an obscured knowledge. It is possible, yet hard, to see the light of God. Instead of integrity we have concupiscence: an interior inclination to evil. We are not totally evil. We are still good by nature, yet we have an inclination towards evil.
All this applied to Mary means that because of her immaculate conception, Mary retains all the preternatural gifts as well as supernatural gift with a plenitude of grace. She does not experience corruption of body (hence assumption is natural effect). She does not experience concupiscence.
Mary is truly saved by the merits of Jesus Christ! Even though Mary was born without the stain of original sin, She still needed Jesus. She needed to be saved and was saved by an application of graces by Jesus Christ. In fact, Mary owed more to her savior than any other saved creature, because she is saved in a more glorious fashion. Duns Scotus called this "preservative redemption." The Immaculate Conception is a singular privilege. No one else was conceived with a fullness of grace at moment of conception. Even though Adam and Eve were created in original justice, they did not have a plenitude of Grace as Mary did. It is a grace of vocation. Adam and Eve are not called to be the co-redemptrix and to suffer with Christ. Adam and Eve are in God’s family, yet not God’s greatest masterpiece as Mary is and are not in proximity of Our Lord as Mary was.
Immaculate Conception In Tradition
From the 1st to the 4th century, there was the model of Mary as the New Eve.
She is compared to Eve, but before the fall of Eve. Likewise, by the Eastern Fathers she is called, All holy, all pure, miracle of grace, purer than the angels, altogether without sin.
St. Ephraim (Syrian deacon d. 373), Says that Mary and Eve were created utterly equal, but afterwards one became the cause of our death, the other the cause of our life. He also refers to Mary being "immune from all sin."
St. Ambrose: (397) Refers to Mary as being "free from all stain."
St. Severus (bishop of Antioch 538) uses the word "immaculate." "Pure from all taint and immaculate."
St. Sophronius (patriarch of Jerusalem) in the 7th century, was first to talk about Mary receiving a unique grace, by being pre-purified.
St. Andrew of Crete (8th century) calls Mary the "entirely immaculate virgin."
Theognostes (9th century Greek Father) specifies that Mary had been "conceived by a sanctifying action.
Eastern Tradition is what contributed most to the development of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. This being the case, it is interesting to note that Orthodox theologians only disagreed with the Immaculate Conception AFTER it was defined by the Pope!
It is important also to note the medieval controversy over the Immaculate Conception to bring forth more clarity in our own time.
Some theologians opposed the doctrine due to an erroneous concept of how Original sin is transmitted. They held that it is transmitted from an infected body to souls newly infused. The objection was that if Mary is the Immaculate Conception, than Anne would have to be and also her mother and on and on.
This erroneous view is clarified by Blessed Duns Scotus who later becomes the champion of the Immaculate Conception. In 1308, Scotus points out that Original sin is not passed from infected body to soul, but rather a privation of grace at the moment of infusion of the soul by God. Because Adam and Eve sinned, when God infuses the soul now, it is absent of grace that we would have received had Adam and Eve not sinned. That absence has bodily ramifications– bodily death.
The second objection concerned the universality of redemption and the Immaculate Conception. This is an issue that also concerns our Protestant brethren in modern times.
The concern was, if Mary is Immaculately conceived, then Jesus Christ is not a universal redeemer, because he didn’t redeem Mary. Scotus responded with the concept of preservative redemption. He asked, "Is it possible that it could be done?" He presents that Mary was in fact saved by the merits of Jesus Christ. She is saved thru an application of graces of Jesus that are foreseen. Mary was saved by Jesus as a daughter of Adam and Eve. She would have inherited the effects of Original sin had she not been preserved from original sin. It is possible that Christ could preserve His mother from sin, AND HE DID!
Technically, Mary was not redeemed. Because to redeem is to buy back and to buy back presupposes bondage, or slavery. Mary never had a bondage to buy back. She was saved by the preemptive merits of Jesus Christ.
Pope Sixtus IV in 1477, approved the Mass and office of the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady. This was in the midst of a bitter battle between Franciscans and Dominicans on this issue. The Pope had a public debate commissioned in Rome by the leading theologians of each order. The Franciscan theologian was victorious in the debate, yet the Mass and office was still approved.
With the approval of the Immaculate Conception in the Liturgy, by Pope Sixtus, the Immaculate Conception became a doctrine of the Church.
From Sixtus IV to Pius IX, there was gradually increasing magisterial teaching on Immaculate Conception.
In 1849 Pope Pius IX sent a letter of consultation to the bishops of the world asking them if they would like the Immaculate Conception to be defined as a Dogma of the Church. Out of 665 bishops, 590 respond in favor of the definition! The Pope didn’t have to consult the bishops, yet he did. Only 7 bishops are opposed to the definition. Others were unsure, because either they didn’t think there were enough sources or because they didn’t think that the time was right even though they agreed with the definition.
Two factors confirmed the definition for Pius IX:
1) He received a great number of petitions from priests, bishops, kings, and lay faithful asking him to make this definition. The country of Spain was prominent in petition drive.
2) Private Revelation of Our Lady of Grace in 1830 to St. Catherine Labouré. On the Miraculous Medal given to St. Catherine, the insignia around the first vision was "O Mary conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee. Pius thought that if Heaven is declaring the Immaculate Conception, he should too!
Go here, for the Scriptural Foundations of the Immaculate Conception.
For more on the Immaculate Conception go to Mother Of All Peoples.