As a parish catechist, I once found myself having to teach a rowdy group of sixth graders about the Immaculate Conception — the Catholic belief that Mary was, from the first moment of her existence, preserved from original sin.
Quite honestly, I dreaded the lesson, which I knew was going to be tricky to impart to a class of fidgety pre-teens whose main theological questions centered on whether God liked to play Fortnite, and whether having to go to the bathroom was a direct result of the fall of man.
Even more candidly, I wasn’t sure I myself really “got” the Immaculate Conception.
I decided to prepare by researching the history of the doctrine, hoping to gain a better grasp of it while heading off any doubts or questions the kids might have.
As I read, I felt somewhat relieved, since apparently some of our faith’s intellectual all-stars have had similar difficulties in comprehending the Immaculate Conception. St. Augustine, St. Bernard, St. Anselm, St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Bonaventure all struggled to understand how Mary could have been born utterly sinless without snarling the whole logic of the divine plan of salvation.
If, as St. Paul affirmed, Adam’s disobedience meant that “death came to all, inasmuch as all sinned” (Rom 5:12), didn’t Mary need to be redeemed like the rest of us? And if she didn’t, wouldn’t that make her … well, divine?
Two thirteenth-century Franciscans helped to untangle these knots. William of Ware observed that God certainly had the power to create a sinless being, and that doing so was most fitting, “for the Son should honor the Mother.”
Besides, William of Ware said, it was better to “err in excess by giving a privilege to Mary, than … diminishing or taking from her a privilege which she had.”
Blessed John Duns Scotus unraveled the mystery still further, asserting that God drew on the anticipated merits of Christ’s saving death in creating Mary without the stain of sin. You might say that the Lord borrowed against the future, but he stands outside of time itself, enjoying a perspective where, in the words of T.S. Eliot, “all time is eternally present.”
Several hundred years later, Pope Pius IX relied on the brilliant reasoning of Duns Scotus, solemnly declaring the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception in his 1854 apostolic constitution, Ineffabilis Deus.
But what does Mary’s preservation from sin mean for a restless group of sixth graders, or an anxious catechist, or for that matter any of us?
Much more than we realize, according to Karl Rahner, one of the most influential theologians of the last century.
Rahner wrote that “the Immaculate Conception means that Mary possessed grace from the beginning,” and that “sanctifying grace, fundamentally, means God himself. … light, love … freedom, strength, a pledge of eternal life, the predominant influence of the Holy Spirit in the depths of the soul, adoptive sonship and an eternal inheritance.”
And all of us, Rahner added, are called to share in these riches: “Mary does not differ from us because she possessed these gifts,” he explained. “It is her possession of them from the beginning, and incomparably, that is the sole difference between her and us.”
In lavishing the gift of salvation, then, the Lord first deferred to his Mother — and on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, he beckons his brothers and sisters to do the same, that his entire family might be blessed.
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