Q – Can you tell me what exactly the dogma of the Immaculate Conception does and does not teach for us?
A - Thanks for the question! The dogma of the Immaculate Conception (IC) is a widely misunderstood teaching of the Catholic Church, so I am glad to try and clear up some of the misconceptions (pun intended) about it. Before I do so, I want to remind everyone that Dec 8 is a Holy Day of Obligation (Opportunity). Check Mass times for St. Marys here.
The IC is not a teaching about Christ being without sin or being conceived without a father. These are different teachings. The teaching of the IC is the following, from Pius IX – defined in 1854:
“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.”
Here is what the Church teaches about the I.C. – Mary was conceived in the womb of her mother without original sin. This grace is the same supernatural grace we receive in baptism, but is given at the moment of her creation, thus freeing Mary from the affects of original sin – in her soul. Humans, after the fall, are not created in the state of grace, but in a fallen state and in need of grace. Mary is the one special exception, chosen not for her own sake to do this, but for the sake of being the Mother of God.
The I.C. does not teach that Mary is in any way God or non-human. She is in need of God’s salvation, as we all are, but she was given this special grace because she was chosen by God to be the Mother of our Lord and be a pure vessel that could carry Christ.
Mary is sometimes called the New Ark of the Covenant by the fathers of the church. The original Ark of the Covenant was the holding place for the staff of Aaron – the high priest, a piece of manna from the desert, and the tablets of the Ten Commandments. In Jesus we have the fulfillment of all that these foreshadow. Jesus is THE High Priest, He is THE Bread from Heaven, and He is THE law. Thus, to be made ready to bear God Himself, Mary was created in purity and without sin. Just as the Ark of the Covenant was considered the place of the “holy of holies”, so Mary is made pure and holy in order to have the holiest thing of all (God), inside her.
Come praise God this week with us as we praise Mary’s Son, Jesus Christ and the wonderful things He has done for us, through Mary, Immaculately Conceived.
For more on this dogma, I recommend these articles:
*Deacon Greg Kandra’s homily on the IC – magnificent.
*Catholic Answers article on the IC.
*Catholic Encyclopedia article on the IC.
*Fr. William Most on the IC.
*History of the IC.