Saturday, September 3, 2011

Apologetics toolbox: The Immaculate Conception (Part I)

Non-Catholics — especially Protestants who reject what they call “Mariolatry” — have several issues with the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. Of course, as with many other distinctively Catholic/Eastern Orthodox beliefs, it’s crucial that the sola scriptura block be settled before addressing these objections, especially if the non-Catholic refuses to ascribe any authority to anything other than Scripture; otherwise, you probably won’t get as far as first base.

It’s not as common an error as it used to be for Protestant non-Catholics to confuse the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin with the conception of Christ. However, when dealing with a non-Catholic, especially one raised outside of Christianity or whose religious formation was sketchy, it’s best to make sure you understand which topic you’re addressing, so you’re not solving the wrong problem.

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Objection 1: The early Christians didn’t believe in Mary’s immaculate conception.

One concept from our argument against sola scriptura bears repeating here: the occasional nature of the individual books of Scripture, especially the New Testament. By “occasional nature”, we mean that the Gospels and letters were written to address the particular needs and specific questions of their intended audiences, even though they’re useful for us to study today. The least likely thing for the writers to mention would be that which everyone believed or knew, except so far as they contributed to the topics to be discussed. We write letters and books like this even today; it would be tiresome and time-consuming to have to restate everything known and uncontested every time we tried to write about the little-known or the debated and debatable. In sum: Just because it isn’t in the Bible doesn’t mean the first Christians didn’t believe or teach it!


A generous understanding of sola scriptura and the Protestant conception of the “priesthood of the individual believer” doesn’t deny the Church[1] the right to extrapolate from Scripture other doctrines necessary to support what’s found in Scripture. It simply sets such doctrine on a lower priority level, denying that those doctrines can be binding on the individual Christian on pain of sin.

This is important to remember, because the Immaculate Conception wasn’t first explicitly argued until the early twelfth century by Eadmer, a student of St. Anselm of Canterbury, and Osbert of Clare. It didn’t gain immediate traction, finding opposition from St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Bonaventure, St. Albert the Great and St. Thomas Aquinas, to name some heavyweights. Not until Bl. John Duns Scotus introduced the concept of preredemption, reconciling Mary’s freedom from original sin with her need for redemption, were the Scholastics satisfied. From then on, the dispute eventually waned among Catholics, eventually raised to dogma, after episcopal consultation, by Bl. Pius IX in the apostolic constitution Ineffabilis Deus on December 8, 1854.[2]

While her immaculate conception may not have been an explicit belief for over a thousand years, the roots of such a belief were implicit from some of the earliest records we have. One of them, the apocryphal Ascension of Isaiah (ca. 70-100), records:

And the story regarding the infant was noised broad in Bethlehem. Some said: “The Virgin Mary hath borne a child, before she was married two months.” And many said: “She has not borne a child, nor has a midwife gone up [to her], nor have we heard the cries of [labor] pains.” And they were all blinded respecting Him and they all knew regarding Him, though they knew not whence He was (op. cit., 11:12-14).

Another, the Odes of Solomon (ca. 70-100), sings:

So the Virgin became a mother with great mercies. And she labored and bore the Son but without pain, because it did not occur without purpose. And she did not require a midwife, because He caused her to give life. She brought forth like a strong man with desire, and she bore according to the manifestation, and she acquired according to the Great Power (op. cit., 19:7-10).

This very early tradition asserting that the Blessed Mother gave birth without labor pains should give us pause for thought: “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children” (Gen 3:16 NIV). Pain, especially the pains of childbirth, is one of the legacies of original sin; this gives us some early support that God had brought Mary to a state of original justice at some point before Christ’s birth.

The reference back to God’s curse upon Eve is also connected with the passage known as the protoevangelium, when God said to the serpent: “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” (Gen 3:15 NIV). Many writers, including the Church Fathers, saw a Messianic prophecy in this verse, and hailed Mary as the “New Eve”, just as they called Christ the “New Adam” following after St. Paul (1 Cor 15:21-22). Thus St. Justin Martyr:

“… [Jesus] became man by the Virgin, in order that the disobedience which proceeded from the serpent might receive its destruction in the same manner in which it derived its origin. For Eve, who was a virgin and undefiled, having conceived the word of the serpent, brought forth disobedience and death. But the Virgin Mary received faith and joy, when the angel Gabriel announced the good tidings to her that the Spirit of the Lord would come upon her, and the power of the Highest would overshadow her: wherefore also the Holy Thing begotten of her is the Son of God; and she replied, ‘Be it unto me according to your word’” (Dialogue with Trypho 100; cf. Lk 1:35-38).

And we also have this reference in Tertullian:

For it was while Eve was yet a virgin, that the ensnaring word had crept into her ear which was to build the edifice of death. Into a virgin’s soul, in like manner, must be introduced that Word of God which was to raise the fabric of life; so that what had been reduced to ruin by this sex, might by the selfsame sex be recovered to salvation. As Eve had believed the serpent, so Mary believed the angel. The delinquency which the one occasioned by believing, the other by believing effaced (On the Flesh of Christ 17).

The parallel with Eve practically begs an equal starting point, that of original justice. For if Eve without original sin was free to believe the servant and disobey God, then Mary without original sin would still be free to believe the angel and submit herself to God’s Will. It is concupiscence, the corruption of free will, and not free will itself that is the result of original sin.


[1] In this context, not a specific reference to the Catholic Church.
[2] Ott, Ludwig. Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, tr. James Bastible (Rockford, Ill.: TAN Books and Publishers, 1974 [orig. copyright 1952]), pp. 201-202.