on the Immaculate Conception of Virgin Mary
The dogma of Immaculate Conception of Virgin Mary is certainly one of stumbling blocks for most Protestants and “Bible only” Christians to understand Catholicism. After all, does the Bible says that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23)? First let us look at the definition of the dogma of Immaculate Conception as stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
Through the centuries the Church has become ever more aware that Mary, “full of grace” through God was redeemed from the moment of her conception. That is what the dogma of the Immaculate Conception confesses, as Pope Pius IX proclaimed in 1854:
The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Saviour of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.
Catechism of the Catholic Church # 491
The dogma says that Mary, like any of us, did indeed need Saviour. In Luke 1:47 she referred God as her Saviour and Catholics believe that God did save her through the merits of her Divine Son, Christ. God granted her, and only her, this special privilege – she was born immaculate. Catholics also believe that by God’s Grace she committed no sin in her earthly life (Catechism of the Catholic Church # 411).
All of these will certainly irritate most (or all) Protestants and “Bible only” Christians. Their two standard questions are: “Where does the Bible say that?” and “why was it declared in 1854?”. To answer the latter, the dogma of Immaculate Conception belongs to what the Catholic Church refers as development of doctrine: “The tradition which comes from the apostles develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down (Dei Verbum 8). To answer the former, let’s look at the following verse:
I will put enmity between you [devil] and the woman, and between your seed and her seed
Generally Christians agree that this verse is proto-evangelicum (first gospel), the woman and her seed prophesy Mary and her divine Son – note that both of them are in enmity with the devil. Christ, being sinless (1 John 3:5), is obviously in enmity with the devil. Suppose Mary committed sin in her life, even only once, then she cannot fulfil Genesis 3:15 – Scripture says “who commits sin is of the devil” (1 John 3:8). The reason why we commit sin is because we inherit original sin from Adam – we were born with inclination to sin. As Mary did not commit any sin then she must also be preserved from Original sin as well. Keep in mind that her special state comes from God’s Grace, not from herself as she is only human. According to Scripture she is the only human to whom God gives the fullness of His Grace. The angel greeted her: “Hail, full of grace” (Luke 1:28). The Greek word translated (in RSV) as “full of grace” is kecharitomen. It is the passive form of perfect participle conjugate of the verb charito, which means to give grave. Thus she was given fullness of God’s Grace and it always remained with her.
How to reconcile this dogma with Romans 3:23: all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God?. Well, does the word “all” (Greek pas) here means “absolute all” or does not allow any exception? Even Protestants and “Bible only” Christians believe that babies and children who lived and died before age of reason were sinless – i.e. they are exempted from Romans 3:23. As a parallel, consider Hebrews 9:27: it is appointed for men to die once, and after that comes judgment (emphasis added). Yet we know Lazarus (John 11:1-44) died twice while Enoch (Hebrews 11:5) never dies.