The Possibilty of the Immaculate Conception, by Father Francis Cuthbert Doyle, OSB

detail from the painting I. It will be seen that the Immaculate Conception signifies that, by a special privilege, Almighty God exempted the Blessed Virgin from the stain of original sin. On hearing this, it is natural for us, with all reverence, to ask whether this is possible? We ask it with out for a moment supposing that there can be any limit to the power of God. Yet, in the face of Saint Paul’s positive assertion ‘that all men have sinned in Adam, and that all in his person have died the death of sin,’ how can it be that the Blessed Virgin has escaped the infection of that poison which flowed from him into his descendants?

In the words of the Church, we answer: ‘She escaped it by a special privilege.’ This privilege is one of those exceptions to those general laws of God which may be suspended, or reversed, or altogether abrogated, whenever it pleases Him to manifest His supreme dominion over created things. The record of these exceptions is frequently to be met with in the pages of Sacred Scripture. For instance: God preserved the three children from the fire of the Babylonian furnace; He rolled back the waters of the Jordan to allow the Israelites to pass over to the Promised Land; He called back Lazarus from the tomb. Yet, it is a general law of nature, that fire should burn, that rivers should flow onwards from their source, and that the dead should not return to life. Therefore, as God has, at certain times, and for His own wise purposes, held in abeyance the ordinary laws of nature, we argue that He could also hold in abeyance the law by which the original stain is transmitted by parents to their children. Nay, we are emboldened to go a step farther, and to say, that since He has already made so many, and so stupendous exceptions to His ordinary laws, in favour of His blessed Mother, it is but logical not to deny that He could make this other one also.

What has He not done for her? The great Saint Augustine says, ‘that He made her so pure as to be exempt from those involuntary defects into which the saintliest men fall many times each day.’ According to the teaching of the most approved Doctors, He freed her from the rebellion of the senses; exempted her from the pains of child-birth; gave her flesh free from all frailty; and – greatest and most indubitable of all others – worked in her person a marvel, ‘whereat,’ says Bossuet, ‘nature stood amazed, in momentary expectation that all her laws were about to be reversed – He caused her to conceive, and to bring forth Our blessed Lord, with out the intervention of a human father, and to have the glory of maternity, without losing the bloom of virginity.’

If, then, God could do all this, it is little to say that He could also make an exception to the general law, by which all men died in Adam, and by which they were infected with the stain of his primal transgression.

II. If, then, Almighty God had the power to make this exception, as everyone will admit that He has, let us, in the next place, consider whether it is not becoming that He should exercise that power. For, suppose for a moment that He had not done so; then, it would not be quite evident that He is omnipotent over evil, and that there is no limit to His power.

In order to bring out this truth in its clearest light, we will use the argument which Bossuett employs, to reassure those who imagined that the sinlessness attributed to Mary by Saint Augustine detracts somewhat from the special prerogative of Jesus Christ. After first pointing out that God conferred upon her the innocence spoken of by the great Doctor of the Western Church, whereas the sinlessness of Christ is His by nature, and not by gift or by privilege, he establishes, in the first place, that Jesus surpasses Mary in an infinite degree. He is God, Mary is but a creature. He then goes on to say: ‘Yet she is the most favoured of His creatures, and consequently must in point of sinlessness, have over them an advantage, to which no other can lay claim. You will admit,’ he says, ‘that God sanctified her in her mother’s womb. But that is not enough. This privilege He granted to Saint John the Baptist, and, according to the opinion of some Fathers, to the Prophet Jeremias. Great as this favour undoubtedly is, it does not satisfy me. Mary must have some privilege which does not trench upon the prerogatives of Christ, and yet is hers, in a way in which no one else can share it with her. This is no other than the Immaculate Conception. By conferring upon her this privilege, God has proved to us that His empire over evil is infinite. For, when man is born into the world, he enters upon the stage of life, stained with the sin of Adam’s rebellion. Over this God triumphs by baptism, which washes away the guilt of sin, without, however, ridding man of its baneful effects. But, even before man is constituted a wayfarer, that is to say, while he is still in his mother’s womb, the devil has an empire over him, and sets his mark upon him. Consequently, God has there also shown His power, by freeing from the devil’s dominion, even before their birth, some of His special favourites, and most distinguished champions. Of this number is the great fore runner of Christ, the austere and saintly Baptist.

‘But, notwithstanding this and other exceptions to the ordinary law, there is still one intrenchment, behind which the devil holds sway, and where the arm of God does not reach him. This is the very instant when the soul is joined to, and animates the embryo body, and thus constitutes the individual a child of Adam. If God did not prevail over evil, even in this first instant of conception, the devil could boast that he had been able to vitiate the root, though he could not vitiate the rest of the tree. Hence, every rational man will see how suitable it is, that God should exercise His power, by choosing out at least one solitary creature, the Mother of His Son, to preserve her, even from the beginning, from ever passing under the power of the devil.’ He had the power to do so, and we have seen, from the argument of Bossuet, how becoming it is that He should exercise that power.

III. Saint Anselm, arguing in the same way, very beautifully illustrates how it is at once both possible for God to make this exception, and consonant with sound reason, that He should be willing to make it. ‘If,’ he says, ‘God is able to endow the chestnut with this property, that it is formed within a thorny covering, and there lodged, nourished, and brought to maturity, without suffering any puncture, why should He not be able to cause that the human temple, prepared by His own hands, to be the dwelling-place of His Christ, should be conceived under the thorns of sinners, without receiving from them any wound? Most certainly He could do so.’ Then this enlightened Doctor, this profound philosopher, this devout client of Mary, going a step farther, devoutly says: ‘He had the power to do so; He willed to do so; and, being God, with Him to will is to do; He did so.’ Potuit, voluit, fecit.

As, therefore, the whole doctrine of the Immaculate Conception seems to bring out before our eyes, in the boldest way, the awful sanctity of God, let it be your aim, daily to purify yourself more and more. You will feel, no doubt, the bitter and wearying nature of the struggle requisite to effect this; but do not, like a coward, yield to the devil. Do not listen to that lying spirit, saying: ‘It is impossible.’ No, it is not impossible; for God is able to make you pure, holy, and spotless. Moreover, it is His will that you should be so: ‘This is the will of God, your sanctification’; and, being able and willing, He will make you holy, on one condition, which is, that you yourself will it. Pray, therefore, to God to strengthen your will. You can be as pure as an Angel; will to be so, and that which is wanting to your strength will be supplied by the almighty power of God. He is able to make you pure, He wills to make you pure, He will make you pure.