What is the Immaculate Conception?

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In the Gospel of Luke, an angel visits a young woman from Nazareth named Mary and asks her if she will bear the Messiah. Mary says yes. So, boom! Mary becomes pregnant with Jesus. It’s called the Immaculate Conception, isn’t it?

Bad. Although many Catholics associate this story from the Gospel of Luke with the term immaculate conception, the doctrine itself refers to something different. It still refers to Mary, but it’s not about how Mary got pregnant with Jesus. It is about how Mary’s mother became pregnant with her – deemed immaculate due to the lack of transmission of original sin.

In the 19th century, the church faced a theological enigma. If St. Augustine and subsequent millennia of tradition were correct that sexual intercourse transmitted original sin, then Mary, while in her mother’s womb, would be stained with original sin. If Mary was stained with original sin, then she could not have carried the sinless Son of God in her womb without exposing him to original sin. And if Jesus was born with original sin, then he could not serve as a proper sacrifice on the cross to atone for a wounded world, as required by St. Anselm’s theory of atonement, which has guided the logic of many theologians. of the 19th century. Thus, if Jesus were exposed to original sin, there would be no possibility of salvation for mankind.

Rather than revise the doctrine of original sin, Pope Pius IX and his theologians proposed another solution: the Immaculate Conception of Mary. In doing so, they protected the impeccability of Jesus – and therefore the possibility of salvation for mankind – and further elevated the most revered and beloved of all saints: Mary of Nazareth. Moreover, in a context where many European Church leaders felt attacked by the Enlightenment and the intellectual tools of modern reason, they did not have to give ground to the rational logic of modernism which was later condemned in 1864 by Pius IX The error program.

Therefore, Pope Pius IX declared the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception in his Apostolic Constitution of 1854 Ineffabilis Deus (Ineffable God). Later it was acquired in the declaration of papal infallibility of the First Vatican Council in 1870. It is one of only two teachings to be declared. ex cathedra, or infallibly, by a pope. The other is the bodily assumption of Mary into heaven which was declared by Pope Pius XII in 1950.

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Today, Catholics remember that Mary conceived Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. Mary’s courageous assent to a strange pregnancy and her yes to God and God’s plan are important to commemorate and venerate, but the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception does not refer to Mary’s pregnancy with Jesus. This refers to when Mary herself was conceived by her parents and God intervened to stop the transmission of original sin.


This article also appears in the April 2022 issue of US Catholic (vol. 87, no. 4, page 49). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.

Picture: Wikimedia Commons/Cégep de Granby Haute-Yamaska, Immaculate Conception fresco

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