Christ's Grace Preserved Mary From Sin

Author: Pope John Paul II


Pope John Paul II

In proclaiming Mary’s Immaculate Conception, the Church shows that Christ not only frees us from sin but also preserves us from its power

The explanation of how Mary's Immaculate Conception came to be accepted and explained by theologians was the topic of the Holy Father's catechesis at the General Audience of Wednesday, 5 June. "Christians look to Mary, the first to be redeemed by Christ and who had the privilege of not being subjected, even for an instant, to the power of evil and sin, as the perfect model and icon of that holiness which they are called to attain", the Pope said. Here is a translation of his catechesis, which was the 22nd in the series on the Blessed Virgin and was given in Italian.

1. The doctrine of Mary's perfect holiness from the first moment of her conception met with a certain resistance in the West, on account of St Paul's statements about original sin and about the universality of sin, which were taken up again and explained with particular force by St Augustine.

This great doctor of the Church certainly realized that Mary's status as Mother of a completely holy Son required total purity and an extraordinary holiness. This is why, in the controversy with Pelagius, he stressed that Mary's holiness is an exceptional gift of grace and stated in this regard: "We make an exception for the Blessed Virgin Mary, whom, for the sake of the Lord's honour, I would in no way like to be mentioned in connection with sin. Do we not know why she was granted a greater grace in view of the complete victory over sin, she who merited to conceive and give birth to him who obviously had no sin?" (De natura et gratia, n. 42).

Augustine stressed Mary's perfect holiness and the absence of any personal sin in her because of her lofty dignity as Mother of the Lord. Nonetheless, he could not understand how the affirmation of a total absence of sin at the time of conception could be reconciled with the doctrine of the universality of original sin and the need of redemption for all Adam's descendants. This conclusion was later reached by an ever more penetrating understanding of the Church's faith, explaining how Mary had benefited from Christ's redemptive grace from her conception.

Duns Scotus overcame the objections to the Immaculate Conception

2. In the ninth century the feast of Mary's Conception was also introduced in the West, first in southern Italy, in Naples, and then in England.

Around 1128, a monk of Canterbury, Eadmer, writing the first treatise on the Immaculate Conception, complained that its respective liturgical celebration, especially pleasing to those "in whom a pure simplicity and most humble devotion to God was found" (Tract. de conc. B.M.V., 1-2), had been set aside or suppressed. Wishing to promote the restoration of this feast, the devout monk rejected St Augustine's objections to the privilege of the Immaculate Conception, based on the doctrine of the transmission of original sin in human generation. He fittingly employed the image of a chestnut "which is conceived, nourished and formed beneath its bur and yet is protected from being pricked by it" (Tract. 10).Even beneath the bur of an act of generation which in itself must transmit original sin, Eadmer argues, Mary was preserved from every stain by the explicit will of God who "was obviously able to do this and wanted to do so. Thus if he willed it, he did it" (ibid.).

Despite Eadmer, the great theologians of the 13th century made St Augustine's difficulties their own, advancing this argument: the Redemption accomplished by Christ would not be universal if the condition of sin were not common to all human beings. And if Mary had not contracted original sin, she could not I have been redeemed. Redemption in fact consists in freeing those who are in the state of sin.

3. Duns Scotus, following several 12th-century theologians, found the key to overcoming these objections to the doctrine of Mary's Immaculate Conception. He held that Christ, the perfect mediator, exercised the highest act of mediation precisely in Mary, by preserving her from original sin.

Thus he introduced into theology the concept of Redemption by preservation, according to which Mary was redeemed in an even more wonderful way: not by being freed from sin, but by being preserved from sin.

The insight of Bl. Duns Scotus, who later become known as "the Doctor of the Immaculata", was well received by theologians, especially Franciscans, from the very beginning of the 14th century. After Sixtus IV's approval in 1477 of the Mass of the Conception, this doctrine was increasingly accepted in the theological schools.

This providential development of liturgy and doctrine prepared for the definition of the Marian privilege by the Supreme Magisterium The latter only occurred many centuries later, and was spurred by a fundamental insight of faith: the Mother of Christ had to be perfectly holy from the very beginning of her life.

4. No one fails to see how the affirmation of the exceptional privilege granted to Mary stresses that Christ's redeeming action does not only free us from sin, but also preserves us from it. This dimension of preservation, which in Mary is total, is present in the redemptive intervention by which Christ, in freeing man from sin, also gives him the grace and strength to conquer its influence in his life.

The dogma sheds light on the effects of grace

In this way the dogma of Mary's Immaculate Conception does not obscure but rather helps wonderfully to shed light on the effects in human nature of Christ's redemptive grace.

Christians look to Mary, the first to be redeemed by Christ and who had the privilege of not being subjected, even for an instant, to the power of evil and sin, as the perfect model and icon of that holiness (cf. Lumen gentium,n. 65) which they are called to attain in their life with the help of the Lord's grace.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
12 June 1996, page 11

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