Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Stumbling Block of Mary

A Protestant reader writes to me concerning Mary ...

Surely she sinned.
And what is this way around, His grace stopped her from sinning? What does
that even mean?  [MY NOTE: His grace did not "stop her" from sinning; she was free to sin; see below]
No. That would have been quite significant. Surely there would have been
more mention of her if this had been so.
All have sinned!

I have been in a long correspondence with this reader, a true lover of Christ who feels drawn to the Catholic Church, but confused by many of her teachings, this one most especially.  I have helped him along the way the best I could, all in private emails (for the most part) - but this one requires a bit more work.

Let me see what I can do to address this concern on one of the most controversial teachings of the Catholic Church, which is not only the Immaculate Conception of Mary, but also her lifelong sinlessness.


First let me say that concerns about Mary never played a role in my conversion.  I don't know why.

I suppose it's because one is faced with some choices early on when considering the claims of the Catholic Church.

1. First, once you accept that God exists and that Jesus Christ was God incarnate - well, that's the big one.  If what the New Testament tells us about Christ is true, then it's not only possible that He established a Church that continues to act with His authority (a Church St. Paul over and over again calls The Body of Christ) - it's not only possible that Christ established an ongoing visible and corporeal presence of Himself on earth, but actually quite likely, for it's not possible to imagine how the Faith can be effectively promulgated without this ongoing divine presence.  Therefore, once you begin to have faith in the Holy Trinity, and especially in the Holy Spirit, belief in His willingness and ability to guide believers in matters of Faith and Morals follows almost as a necessity.
2.  Next, if this authority (the Church) can decide what books constitute Sacred Scripture, and if the Church, which is "the pillar and bulwark of the truth" (1 Tim. 3:15) encourages us to "stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter." (2 Thes. 2:15), then the Bible is rightly seen as a part of the Deposit of Faith, and not as the source of it, for the teachings have been passed down both "by letter" and "by word of mouth".
3. The question then becomes, if this Church teaches things that are not expressly stated in Scripture, are these things necessarily wrong?   Of course not, for the Gospel, like Salvation History itself, is written in large letters across all of creation, and is not confined to the books of the Bible.  As St. John tells us, "Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written." (John 21:25)  Divine Revelation, therefore, can include truths not taught expressly in Scripture.

Now when it comes to Mary, we seem to have an example of something in Divine Revelation that is not included in Scripture, but worse than that - it's a teaching that seems to be contradicted by Scripture.  Indeed, as my reader points out, "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23), and "There is none who does good, not even one." (Ps. 14:2-3)

Of course already we have a problem, for my reader is using Catholic doctrine to contradict Catholic doctrine.  How do we know Holy Scripture is infallible?  Because the Church tells us.  How do we know that these above quoted Bible verses support the dogma that all men, since Adam, are stained by original sin?  Because the Church tells us - the Catholic Church (whose authority we have already decided to accept - see #1 and #2 above).  For "original sin" as such is not expressly stated in Scripture, but is a teaching - like the dogma of the Trinity- that is implied in the Bible, but only understood outside of the Bible.

At any rate, even if you accept Church authority on these matters, you're still left with a problem.

If the Church teaches that all men are sinners, and if Scripture affirms this, then how is Mary an exception?  Is the Church not contradicting herself in teaching that Mary, alone of all humans (other than Jesus) did not sin?

Well, "other than Jesus" - that's important.  When Paul says, "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God", we know that his "all" does not include Jesus Christ, who "has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin." (Heb. 4:15)  Therefore Paul does not mean literally "all".

Still, it's a stretch to believe that Mary was conceived free from the stain of original sin and to believe that she never actually sinned, isn't it?  Even if Paul's "all have sinned" means "all who are neither God incarnate nor His mother, filled with all grace", it's still a stretch.

Except when you start thinking about other things, which are both within Scripture and within Sacred Tradition.

The Church tells us Mary is the New Eve, the one from whom would come the One who would crush the serpent's head (Gen. 3:15).  Certainly, the woman of Revelation 12 is an echo of the woman whose seed would crush the serpent.  If this is true, and if Mary is the New Eve (for Christ is clearly the New Adam - see 1 Cor. 15), then she, like Eve, would have to be free from the stain of original sin from her conception on, as was Eve.  How does God do this?  Well, God can do anything, but the Church teaches that Mary was sanctified at the moment her life began by the sacrifice Christ would later make for her and all of us on the cross, gracing working backwards through time - "prevenient grace".  

Now even in this kind of miraculous act of "cloning" (so to speak), this great experiment of creating a fresh start for humanity with the New Eve, the new "mother of all living", there's still a big risk.  The first Eve began her life without the stain of original sin - the first Eve was (as the Church teaches Mary was) immaculate.  But what did the first Eve do?  Even though she was not compelled by the effects of original sin to sin - she sinned anyway!  Free will is like that.  Even when our will is not damaged or compromised, we can still use it to do wrong.  The fallen angels prove that in spades.  See C. S. Lewis' Perelandra for an imaginary treatment of the question - what would happen if Eve didn't sin?  Well, Mary answered that question 2,000 years before Lewis did.

For Eve was free either to sin or not to sin.  The Church teaches so was Mary.  It was a fresh start.  A fresh start in Christ.

Unlike the rest of us lugs, Mary had a clean slate - so that she could serve both as a fitting model for us of the perfect Christian and the most holy of saints, and also so that she could serve as the only fitting mother of the Man Who was God.  And she simply did what Eve didn't do, but could have.  She simply kept her slate clean, allowing God to write on it as He saw fit - "Be it done unto me according to thy word" (Luke 1:38).

But Mary was only able to avoid Paul's observation that "all have sinned" because of her Immaculate Conception, because she was conceived without the stain of or the effects of original sin.  Mary's lifelong holiness would not have been possible had she not been immaculately conceived.  


Now why is all this so important?

Well, for one big reason.

Jesus Christ could not be born from sin.  He could bear all sin - as He did on the cross - but he could not be born from sin, or from a sinful woman.  Holiness does not come from sin, but from grace - and grace - like the Immaculate Conception itself - is always and everywhere a miracle.

We cannot give birth to Christ in our hearts or in our lives through sin.  And the more attached we are to sin - even venial sin - the less able are we to bear Him into the world.

And if you doubt this, look at the saints who bear Him forth so well.

Look especially at Mary.


By the way, my friend Mark Shea has written a trilogy of books on Mary, which are well worth reading.  And it takes a trilogy, for I have only scratched the surface here.


Mark Shea said...

The trilogy is currently out of print, but will be back as a single volume from Marytown Press in just a few months.

Mary Alice Calhoun said...

I have only a tiny bit of advice, which I'm quite sure uve already used... I used 2 worry on & on bout very specific biblical phrases & how I was 2 interpret them alongside all the others. They WILL contradict eachother if u take them literally. U can go round & round w/no end proving the Bible cancels itself out if u look close enuf. I found out the hard way that that attitude (even if born of the sincere & hearfelt worshiper) is wrong! Each verse, sentence, word, MUST b understood in context and along w/an actual foundation of faith. The different concepts from the Bible all fit together @ the end like a jigsaw puzzle, instead of ensuring the puzzle cannot b completed cuz of contradictions. Divine understanding is there- but, it takes patience & lots of common sense. Oh- & u may wanna remind ur friend that the people God used 2 write His words r from a strange & distant culture. Studying bout the Greek & Hebrew world of that time period may just help... it helped me & kept the Bible in perspective 4 me. Thankx 4 sharing all this Kevin!

Anonymous said...

While sadly for some Mary may be a stumbling block, for this former agnostic, she was the starting block!
Hail Holy Queen, Mother of God!

From: Grateful Mom

Martin Moleski said...

I love the way you describe Scripture as a special fruit of the Deposit of Faith. One day on the air I said, "When Jesus ascended into Heaven, He left a Body, not a book." It was one of those peak moments when I felt that the words were not really my own, but a great gift to me.

It has become more clear to me late in life how "non-Scriptural" the doctrine of Original Sin is. I don't think the Jews saw that lesson in their own scriptures. We have come to know it only after seeing the mystery of God the Son suffering and dying on the Cross. Until God solved our problem on the Cross, we had no idea how much trouble we were in. I agree with you completely that understanding the doctrine of Original Sin in depth comes long after the writing of the books of the New Testament. We cannot even get started on the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception until the doctrine of Original Sin is developed.

I think your strongest argument is the proof that "all" cannot mean "all" because Jesus Christ is a true human being. Paul is not using formal terms when he writes "all," but is using a figure of speech. We have the same problem in the accurate translation of the formula for consecration. "Many" is a term filled with Scriptural connotations and associations, and should not be interpreted as "Jesus did not offer Himself for all of God's lost children."

Although Mary is the clearest and most perfect example of "prevenient grace," I think the whole of Old Testament history has to be dealt with from the same standpoint. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, the prophets, the judges, the repentant sinners like David, the authors and editors of Scripture, Elizabeth, Zechariah, John the Baptist, Simeon, and Anna were likewise filled with God's mercy and love through the death of the Son on the Cross. How else could Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus "in glory" in the Transfiguration if they were not lifted up by prevenient grace? How else could the Good Thief have received saving faith before Jesus' work was finished?

Mary's gift is not a solitary jewel. It is surrounded by a myriad of jewels in Jesus' crown of glory. The flawlessness of Jesus and Mary is not sterile. The purity of their love reveals our destination (or pre-destination) in eternity. What they were from the beginning of their lives we shall become at the end of our lives.

Martin X. Moleski, SJ

stickman said...

"That would have been quite significant. Surely there would have been more mention of her if this had been so."

Instead of holding a grudge against my wife when she had obviously wronged me ( ;) ) I not only fed the kids and put them to bed, but cleaned up the house before she returned home late that night. And she *never* noticed! And to point this out to her would have surely blown the good deed as well.

Maybe this has never happened to your friend? Maybe if it does some day happen, he'll understand that it is indeed quite likely that a life lived without sin --- minus the miracles and just lived quietly at home --- could go without much mention.

Gladius said...

Our Lady is a true stumbling block to the conciliar popes and bishops. Despite the droning of experts, the critical request made by Our Lady of the Rosary at Fatima was for devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary to be established throughout the world. This devotion would have saved the Church from the Great Apostasy that has ravaged her for the last half century.

Anonymous said...

You wrote at the end of your article--"Jesus Christ could not be born from sin. He could bear all sin - as He did on the cross - but he could not be born from sin, or from a sinful woman. Holiness does not come from sin, but from grace - and grace - like the Immaculate Conception itself - is always and everywhere a miracle."

Birth is not the problem with sin but conception. Only the Lord Jesus did not have a human father involved in His conception. Adam's sin is passed on through the man.

Secondly, you have a problem with Mary's conception. Her parents were sinners and so how was she conceived without sin?


Kevin O'Brien said...

Hey, Devin, thanks for your comment.

The short answer is God can do anything; the more complex answer is Mary was conceived by a singular miraculous act of grace in which the merit Christ would earn by His sacrifice on the cross was applied beforehand to Mary.

The Immaculate Conception is a difficult teaching, and it's not so much that teaching that stands between Catholics and Protestants. It's the mistaken notion (that even many Catholics share) that sin can produce good, without God's divine intervention.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kevin,
Its not necessarily true that God can do anything. The issue here is: did He create Mary without sin or keep her from sinning? Since the Scripture is all we know of Mary the answer is no. The Scripture gives no indication, no hint that she was conceived without sin or kept from sinning.

Kevin O'Brien said...

Devin, did you read the post itself? I go over that objection.

Scripture does not constitute the entirety of divine revelation; Christ left a body, not a book. Plus there are Scriptural indications of her sinlessness, she is the only person in the entire Bible referred to by God's messenger as "full of grace", i.e. entirely of God - therefore (it follows) sinless. Throughout the New Testament she is never shown to sin, or even to be drawn toward sin, as all of the apostles are. The woman who gives birth in Revelations is almost certainly an image of Mary, showing a role in salvation history that is quite stunning.

But I also grant, in this post, that it's harder to prove the Immaculate Conception from Scripture than it is to prove, say, the Trinity, which is also an extra-Scriptural teaching. Even the divinity of Christ is not explicitly and clearly stated in the New Testament, but comes to us as much from Tradition and the Creeds as it does from the Bible - and again, the Bible comes from the Church, not vice-versa; the Church is the "pillar and bulwark" of the truth (1 Tim 3:15), and teaching comes "by word of mouth or letter" (2 Thes. 2:15)as St. Paul states.

So your presumption that Scripture alone is all that is needed clouds your mind on this issue; for even Scripture alone insists on the Church and Tradition.

Nevertheless, I will concede that the Immaculate Conception is a stumbling block.

I will go one step further, however, and say that the Incarnation can not fully be understood or appreciated without the Holy Family - as Chesterton says, you can't draw a picture of a baby alone; a baby must have a mother. This does not mean she must needs be sinless; but it does show how understanding Mary (and Joseph) helps us to understand Christ.

And it's Christ, Devin, knowing Him and loving Him and following Him more fully, that you and I are both after.

God bless.

Anonymous said...

If "Scripture does not constitute the entirety of divine revelation" then what else is considered to be divine revelation? How would you go about proving this assertion?

As for Mary being sinless because she was highly favored by God does not mean she was sinless. That term does not mean that.

Lots of people mentioned in the NT do not mention their sins and yet we would not say they did not sin. Actually a case could be made that Mary did sin when she rebuked Jesus for being insensitive when He was in the temple at 12.

The woman of Rev 12 is also problematic. Even RC scholars admit that the details of chapter 12 don't fit Mary well but they do the church.

The divinity of Christ is easily supported by Scripture. In fact that is the only way to make the case for it.

Kevin O'Brien said...

Devin, I have written a new blog post to address your questions - see

Deacon Don Bourgeois said...

I have a problem with a statement made by Martin Moleski, S.J. who said "or pre-destination". This is not taught by the Catholic Church. It comes from the Calvinist Tradition. God does not desire anyone to sin or go to hell. This is heresy in the eyes of the Church, because it negates the truth that God has given us "Free Will".

Deacon Don Bourgeois

Anonymous said...

Deacon Don Bourgeois,
The doctrine of election whom some call predestination is taught in Rom 8:29; Eph 1:4-5; John 15:16

Kevin O'Brien said...

Deacon Don, it seems Fr. Marty was using that phrase a bit loosely. He was certainly not saying that anyone is predestined to hell, which is Calvinism and which the Church condemns. He was, on the contrary, saying that we are destined for the holiness and purity Jesus and Mary reveal - a fully Cathlolic concept. We can obviously reject this destiny, and God may know from all time that we will freely choose to do so, but that is not "pre-destination" in the Calvinist sense.

Deacon Don Bourgeois said...

Yes, you can find references to predestination in the scriptures as you can in the Catechism of the Catholic Church #257,#600, #2012, #2782, and #2823 but that is not what the Calvinist interpretation of predestination is. They beleive that God predestines those who will go to heaven and those who go to hell. That's why I said it negates "Free Will".

Deacon Don Bourgeois said...

Kevin O'Brien you are probably correct in what he was trying to say.
So with that I retract my objection and apologize for being judgmental.