Today is the feast day of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
I think the Immaculate Conception is the most misunderstood doctrine of the Catholic Church. Many Catholics think it refers to Mary’s miraculous conception of the child Jesus when she received the visit from the angel at the Annunciation. I think that people are confirmed in their error when the Church assigns the Gospel of the Annunciation to today’s Mass of the Immaculate Conception (Luke 1, 26-38).
The Immaculate Conception refers to Mary’s conception in her mother’s womb, and means that from the first moment of her conception Mary was free from all sin.
It is a fair question to ask why anyone would want to declare that Mary was sinless at the moment of her conception. I think it all goes back to Saint Paul and Saint Augustine, and their interpretation of the Bible story of Adam’s disobedience in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3).
Saint Paul seemed to believe that because Adam sinned, all his descendants are born in a state of sinfulness (Romans 5, 12-18). Saint Augustine called this state Original Sin, and suggested that people contract this sinfulness in the moment of their conception.
But people believed that Mary was different, that God did not allow her to contract the sinful state at her conception. So they said Mary’s conception was sin-free, or immaculate.
I think the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is the theologians’ way of explaining the belief that God preserved Mary from the sinful effects of Adam’s sin. The proponents of the doctrine of Original Sin teach that, because Adam sinned, every human person, with the exception of the Virgin Mary, is born not only free to sin but actually inclined to sin. They teach that Mary is conceived not only free from sin but also with no inclination to sin.
This leaves me with the question of why God would want to create the rest of us sinful by nature. Do the proponents of Original Sin mean to say that God freely decided to create us flawed with an inbuilt inclination to sin? That would seem contrary to God’s goodness. Or do they imply that Adam, by sinning, forced the divine hand so that God had no option?
In 1893 Cardinal John Henry Newman wrote, “Many, many doctrines are far harder than the Immaculate Conception. The doctrine of Original Sin is indefinitely harder. It is no difficulty to believe that a soul is united to the flesh without original sin; the great mystery is that many, that millions on millions are born with it” (Meditations and Devotions p.84).