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What does the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception Actually Mean?

One of Our Holy Days of Obligation
There are several holy days of obligation during the Church's year.  On these days the faithful are asked to gather for eucharist as a visible sign of the importance of the particular aspect of our faith that we are reflecting on.  Sometimes, while we may be very familiar with the name of the feast we are less clear on what it is we are actually celebrating.  In other words, if we were asked to explain to a non-Catholic what the feast means, many of us would be in difficulty.  Such is the case with the feast of the Immaculate Conception which is celebrated on the 8th of December each year and is considered a holy day of obligation.

Firstly, the words "Immaculate Conception" mean "conceived without Original Sin".
St. Augustine, in his polemic against the Pelagians, first introduced the idea of Original Sin into Catholic theology.  This doesn't mean that he invented Original Sin but that he defined it.  The doctrine of Original Sin arises in the context of Augustine's defence of the necessity of Baptism for salvation.  He argued that Baptism is necessary since it is through Baptism that we come to form part of the Body of Christ, the Church.  If we are not baptised we cannot be saved since through Baptism we are given the grace of salvation (The word "grace" means free).  The Pelagians, however, argued that the human being was capable of earning salvation by doing good works.

Augustine resisted this idea which came to be defined as a heresy.  The reason that it was important to rebut the Pelagians is because if it is possible for human beings to earn salvation by doing good works then there is no necessity for Christ.  Augustine saw clearly that this would mean that the act of salvation was a human act and not a divine one.  This made no sense to Augustine since "man cannot save himself".  The free gift (grace) of God is the only way we can be saved.

Certainly, we should do good works, but our good works should be expressions of our faith.  They should be inspired by our faith and sustained by our faith but our faith does not depend on our works - rather it is the other way around.

Salvation from Sin
So, the issue centred around salvation.  The obvious answer to this was salvation from our sins or from the possible punishment that might be due to our sins.  Thus, Baptism makes us members of Christ and as such frees us from the burden of sin and so, allows us to be saved by the free gift of God.

But, the Pelagians protested, what about unbaptised babies who have never sinned?  Why would those who have never sinned need to be saved from their sins?  Furthermore, if they have not been baptised, and if it is true that Baptism is necessary for salvation, can it be true that these innocent, unbaptised babies are to be condemned.

To safeguard the importance of Baptism Augustine says that he doesn't know what happens to such babies but that he is sure that God, being all-forgiving and merciful, would not condemn them.  He concludes that they must therefore go to a third state - neither saved nor damned, but not suffering.  This is the rather dubious teaching of Limbo with which older people will be familiar.  It is interesting to note that Limbo, while it was widely and enthusiastically taught and preached about, was never official teaching of the Church.

It is to explain this difficulty that Augustine introduces the idea of an Original Sin by which every human being is marked.  This sin is called original since it has to do with the origins of humanity.  It is often called the sin of Adam.  Probably, in modern terms, we might call it the human condition.  By mere virtue of the fact of being human, we are subject to Original Sin.  This is why Original Sin is said to be transmitted by generation.  In other words, by being conceived.

Without being baptised these babies were, nonetheless, marked by Original Sin and so, even though they had no personal sin (and therefore no accruing guilt) they still needed to be redeemed.  This, original sin, marked the human person in a fundamental way - right from the beginning of life - right from conception.

What does it mean to be immaculately conceived?
To be immaculately conceived means to be preserved, by a special act of God's grace, from Original Sin.  This means that the individual concerned is understood to be free from sin.  This is possible because of God's action in the very act of conception.  One example of this that we sometimes forget is John the Baptist who, according to tradtion, was conceived immaculately.

The Immaculate Conception of Mary
Today's feast marks the immaculate conception of Mary (not the immaculate conception of Jesus as many seem to think).  This dogma (a teaching of the Church which each and all of the faithful are obliged to believe as a matter of faith) was defined by the Pope in 1850.  Through it the Church teaches that when Mary was conceived (by her parents, Joachim and Anna), God intervened to preserve her from Original Sin.  This was done in preparation for her being the Mother of God.  This was necessary because God, clearly, is without sin.  Jesus was fully human and fully divine.    To be fully divine it was necessary for Jesus to be without sin.  He, therefore, had to be conceived without Original Sin.  For this to happen, since immaculate conception is taught to be transmitted by generation, not by personal guilt, it was necessary for his mother to be without sin.

Thus, Mary's Immaculate Conception is presented by the Church as being, like all the titles of Mary, to do with Christ.  Her being preserved from Original Sin was to enable Jesus to be born without Original Sin.


Article posted on 7th of December 2011

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