The Immaculate Conception

Catholicism is an adventuresome religion, not designed for dullards, sissies, or the faint-hearted. Actually, it is not a “religion” at all. Religion is about what obliges men to God insofar as they can figure it out with their reason. Religion is a form of “justice.” It differs from justice because we cannot figure out exactly what we “owe” to God.

God does not “need” anything from us. Imagine a “god” that needs us to give it something! Yet the best things are beyond “owing.” No one who is given something is complete without acknowledging the gift. We human beings are even given what we are. Our very being is a gift to us. Indeed, we are gifts to one another.

Revelation is what God has informed us about Himself. The only way we know how to relate to God is if God Himself informs us. “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Catholicism is based on a fact. God did inform us about Himself and about ourselves. We do not deal with a human invention, but a divine intervention.

Only when the event of the Incarnation happened can we further try to figure out what it means. And we do try. Faith does seek reason, a reason that is actively reasoning. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, officially defined by Pius IX on December 8, 1854, is part of this seeking understanding.

Pope Mastai-Ferretti wrote 155 years ago that Mary was preserved from original sin through the “merits” of her Son, “Jesus Christ, the Savior of the Human Race.” Once we understand what the Incarnation is, this teaching about Mary’s beginning makes perfectly good sense. But I doubt if Joachim, at the birth of his daughter, Mary, said to his wife, Anna: “Look, dear, she is without original sin!” Yet one suspects that, from the beginning, both parents knew that something hovered about this child of theirs.

Theology is what we can figure out using our minds about what is revealed. God informed us, as it were, that He was not a mother, but that He had a mother. At first sight, these affirmations will sound confusing if not preposterous. But we are given information that we might think about it. Usually, if we are persistent, we come up with something worthwhile knowing for the good of our very being.

The Church did not first speculate about Mary and then turn to figure out who this Son of hers was. It began with the Son and worked its intellectual way backward to what His mother was and is. “Hail, Mary, full of grace.” Hints about her were found along the way.

In the readings for the Mass of the Immaculate Conception, we find these hints. We recall Eve and the Fall, the promise of redemption. To the Ephesians, Paul says: “Before the world was made, He chose us, chose us in Christ.”

In the Gospel, Mary is told “not to be afraid.” And she isn’t. She has “found favor”; she will “bear a Son who will be called the Son of the Most High.” At this point, she tells the angel to hold up. “How can this be?” Gabriel explains. This young woman wants the facts.

Once she understands, Mary replies: “Let it be to me according to your word.” And so it is. Even though she lived in an obscure town, the whole future of the world depended on her response. Whether acknowledged or not, the very being of the human race depended on the response of this young woman. The Incarnation of the Son of God had to come from within our kind. It depended on the free response of this Mary. No wonder she herself was, as they came to say, conceived without original sin.

In the Breviary for the Immaculate Conception, the second reading is from Saint Anselm, the great English bishop: “Blessed Lady, sky and stars, earth and rivers, day and night – everything that is subject to the power or use of man – rejoice that through you they are in some sense restored to their lost beauty and are endowed with inexpressible new grace.”

We still find those who maintain that Catholics “worship” Mary and that Trinity means three gods. But we speak precisely. We do not worship Mary. We do not have three gods. Mary is the Mother of God. Her Son is the Word, the Second Person of the Trinity.

The Word, we affirm, was made “flesh” and dwelt amongst us. This is where we find Mary at Christ’s birth. When found at Nazareth in the house of Joseph, Gabriel no doubt knew of her own “beginning.”

“Blessed Lady,” we rejoice that the “lost beauty of things” is restored “through you.”

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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