On 8th December, 1854, Pope Pius IX proclaimed as a dogma of faith that: “the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin” (Ineffabilis Deus, Pope Pius IX). About four years later, the Blessed Virgin gave a seal of approval to this dogmatic definition when on 25th March,1858, She appeared at Lourdes to Saint Bernadette Soubirous and said to her: “I am the Immaculate Conception”.
What the doctrine teaches is that in that precise moment of conception in the womb of her mother, when Mary’s soul was created and infused into her body, the sentence of original sin was excluded from her soul. For the rest of mankind, the sentence of original sin is removed after Baptism. But in the case of Mary’s soul, the sentence of original sin was never there, Mary was preserved from original sin at the moment of conception.
But together with this exclusion of sin, Mary’s soul was simultaneously endowed with the abundance of all heavenly gifts, such that at the Annunciation the angel Gabriel addressed by the title: Full of Grace. Pope Pius IX did affirm that “far above all the angels and all the saints so wondrously did God endow her with the abundance of all heavenly gifts poured from the treasury of his divinity that this mother, ever absolutely free of all stain of sin, all fair and perfect, would possess that fullness of holy innocence and sanctity than which, under God, one cannot even imagine anything greater, and which, outside of God, no mind can succeed in comprehending fully.”
What this means is that Mary never committed a single sin. The early Fathers of the Eastern Church called Mary the ‘All-Holy’ to indicate her freedom from any stain of sin. This absence of sin in Mary is indicative of the radical enmity between her and Satan. In Genesis 3:15, God said to the serpent: “I will put enmity between you and the woman…” The word ‘enmity’ has the sense of a radical hatred between the two which shall not cease until the destruction of one of them. So, not only at the moment of conception, but also during all her life was Mary exempt from the stain of any sin whatsoever. The radical enmity between Mary and Satan would not make sense if Mary participated in any way in the effects of Original Sin.
To say that Mary was conceived without the stain of original sin does not imply that Mary was not in need of Redemption. The preservation of Mary from the stains of original sin was a unique privilege granted to her “in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race.” As a descendant of Adam, she, like every other human being, should have been subject to sin. But because she had been chosen from all eternity to become the Mother of God’s Son, the merits of the Passion and Death of Jesus Christ were applied to Her thus preserving Her from original sin. This doctrine, taught by Blessed John Duns Scotus, is known as preservative redemption. Mary, more than anyone else, was more indebted to redemption of Jesus. And by preserving her from sin, Christ worked a higher form of redemption. The Venerable Fulton Sheen explains this by saying: “Mary is the first effect of redemption, in the sense that it was applied to her at the moment of conception and to us in another and diminished fashion only after our birth.”
Mary was granted this unique privilege of preservation from sin for a reason: because from all eternity she had been chosen to be the Mother of God. St Maximilian says: “She was immaculate because She was to become the Mother of God: She became the Mother of God because She was immaculate.” Because She was to be the Mother of God, it was fitting that She be endowed with a splendour of holiness far above that of all the angels and saints in heaven.
O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to you!