What Is Meant by The Immaculate Conception, by Father Francis Cuthbert Doyle, OSB

detail from the painting I. When Pius IX defined ‘the Blessed Virgin to have been immaculate in the first instant of her conception,’ he did not add a new dogma to the creed of the Church. He simply formulated the belief of the faithful, a belief implicitly contained in the deposit of faith, declared it to be free from all error, and to be held from that time forth with the unwavering assent due to the revelation of God. Like all the doctrines of the Church, it is expressed in the most precise and clear terms; and yet, while non-Catholics rail at it, without knowing even what it means, there are not a few, among the faithful, whose knowledge of it is either altogether incorrect or hazy in the extreme.

Some imagine that our Lady conceived Our blessed Lord without detriment to her virginal integrity. This is per fectly true; but it is not the Immaculate Conception. Others, that the power of the Holy Ghost overshadowed Saint Anne, the mother of the Blessed Virgin, and that she conceived her highly privileged daughter in the same way as that in which the Blessed Virgin conceived Jesus Christ. This is false, and is not the Immaculate Conception. It is neither of these things. Its nature will best be understood by defining it in the exact words of the dogmatic decree. ‘We define,’ said the Pope, ‘that the doctrine which holds that the Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instant of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of Almighty God, and in view of the merits of Christ Jesus, Saviour of the human race, was preserved intact from all stain of original sin, has been revealed by God, and must therefore be firmly and constantly believed by all the faithful.’

Before proceeding to establish the doctrine enunciated in this proposition, there are three things to which theologians call our attention. In the first place they point out that the conception spoken of is that which is called passive. Then they bid us observe that the stain of original sin is contracted neither from the body only, nor from the soul only, but from the union of the two, by which union the individual is constituted a child of Adam; consequently, that the Immaculate Conception was wrought at the very instant of the soul’s union with the body by the positive influx of divine grace upon the soul, by which grace it was made pleasing to God. Lastly, they carefully notice that the Church does not teach that the Virgin did not need redemp tion; for the decree states that God bestowed upon her this stupendous privilege ‘in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, Redeemer of the world.‘ This, in a few words, is the teaching of the Church about the Immaculate Conception.

II. ‘But,’ we immediately ask, ‘what is the scriptural authority which can be adduced in support of this doctrine?’ The most famous is that contained in the words uttered by Almighty God, after having heard the excuses of our first parents for their disobedience. For, turning to the serpent, He cursed him for having deceived them; but while so doing, He promised them a deliverer. For, addressing the evil one, the cause of their ruin, He said: ‘ Iwill put enmities between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed. She shall crush thy head, and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel.’

No one will dare to deny that the deliverer here spoken of as the seed of the woman, is Our Redeemer, Christ Jesus; and that the woman, whose seed or offspring He is, is the Blessed Virgin. As, therefore, God proclaimed by the words, ‘I will put enmities between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed,’ that the hostility between the serpent and the woman is identical with that existing between the serpent and her seed, it must follow as a logical consequence that, as the enmity between Jesus Christ and the devil is an enmity absolute, perpetual, and precluding all antecedent friendship whatsoever, so also the enmity between the Virgin and the devil must likewise be absolute, perpetual, and exclusive of all foregoing friendship with, or subjection to him.

Moreover, by the words, ‘She shall crush thy head,’ or, according to the Hebrew version, ‘He, or it, that is to say, the seed, shall crush thy head,’ God foretold the effect of that enmity against the devil, both on the part of the woman’s seed, and on the part of the woman herself. They were both to obtain a full and complete triumph over him. If we take our version, it will mean that the woman will obtain this triumph by the power of her Son. If we take the Hebrew version, it will mean that Christ will gain this triumph over the devil – a statement which comes to the same thing. This triumph must be full and complete; if the devil had in fected the woman with his poison-that is to say, if the woman had not always been free from stain – instead of her having crushed the head of the serpent, it would be the serpent that had crushed her head. That which is said of the woman must with still greater reason be said of her seed, since the triumph to be gained by the woman and by her seed is foretold by God, as the fruit of the enmity between the serpent and the woman, and between the serpent and the woman’s seed.

Therefore, as the enmity in both cases is said to be identical, it must follow that the triumph also over the devil will be identical and common to the woman and to her seed – with this difference, however: the seed of the woman gains the victory by His own inborn power; the woman, only in virtue of her Son’s omnipotence. This is one out of many Scriptural authorities for the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.

III. Besides the text from Genesis – a text which, even if it stood alone, would furnish a sufficiently solid foundation on which to build this dogmatic truth – there are in the Sacred Scripture other passages, which, though weak, if taken by themselves, nevertheless acquire no inconsiderable force, when viewed in the light which that wondrous oracle throws upon them.

Of this nature, for instance, is the Archangel’s salutation, when sent to ask the Virgin’s consent to be the Mother of Our Lord. His greeting has in it much meaning: ‘Hail!’ he says to her, ‘full of grace.’ Such, again, are the words which he uses, when the Virgin, disturbed at the appearance and the address of her heavenly visitant, began to ponder, in some trepidation, upon the meaning of his embassy. ‘Fear not, Mary,’ he says, ‘for thou hast found favour with God.’ Also, her cousin, Saint Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Ghost, at the approach of Mary cried aloud in words inspired by that Holy Spirit: ‘Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.’

This fulness of grace, this favour with God, this special blessedness, greater than any woman had ever before enjoyed, what do they point to, when we bear in mind that enmity put by God between the Mother of the Redeemer and the infernal serpent, except to that special privilege, to that im munity from the original stain – an immunity which God, from a prevision of the merits of Christ’s Passion and death bestowed upon her, that she might be the Mother of Jesus Christ, Our Lord and Saviour? This is the scriptural basis of the dogma, defined in our days.

Now, what is the lesson which you are to learn from it? It is that sanctity, the greatest, the most exalted, becometh the house of God. Your heart is often made the throne, the resting-place, the house of Jesus Christ, when He comes to you in Holy Communion. Therefore, let the consideration of Mary’s Immaculate Conception inspire you with the resolution to keep your heart clean, pure, free from every stain of sin- but most especially from the slightest taint of that sin which is most hateful to the purity of God, and most opposed to His awful and unapproachable sanctity.