WHAT DOES IT MEAN?
What does the Church mean when it speaks of the Immaculate Conception? Of the many, many non-Catholics whom I have heard object to this teaching, not one has ever really known what it meant. They were all angry about something the Church never taught. They objected to a supposed truth which is not Catholic truth at all.
Even George Bernard Shaw, I caught explaining the Immaculate Conception as if it meant that Mary had no father.
“I violently object to your Immaculate Conception,” says my good non-Catholic friend. “Only Jesus Christ was born without a father.”
“One virgin birth is enough for Christianity,” says another, expressing the same objection slightly differently. “I believe in Christ’s Virgin Birth; I do not believe in any other.”
Now it is very important to remember that the Virgin Birth of Christ and the Immaculate Conception of Mary are two entirely different things.
Jesus had no earthly father. Mary certainly did.
Jesus was not born as the result of marital relationship between a husband and a wife. Mary was.
Jesus had one divine Father in Heaven; one human Mother on earth. Mary had a father, Joachim, and a mother, Ann.
The birth of Jesus was a miraculous thing. The birth of Mary was wholly natural.
SOMETHING FAR DIFFERENT
The fact is that most people who object to the Immaculate Conception haven’t the slightest idea of what is meant by Original Sin. And if you don’t understand Original Sin, it’s a waste of time talking about the Immaculate Conception.
The word “immaculate” is clear enough in use. It means that a person is absolutely pure, spotless, without taint or blemish, and totally filled with grace.
We speak of an immaculate or spotless reputation. In so doing we are using the word a little carelessly, but we know what we mean. We say a man has immaculate or unquestionable honesty. Here is a girl of such purity that we think of her as immaculately virgin. That is a very high compliment, and hard to merit.
Now when we speak of the Immaculate Mary, the Immaculate Virgin, the Immaculate Mother, we use the adjective correctly. We mean that she did not know sin in any way that touched herself. She did not sin in thought or word or deed or desire. She was “full of grace” in all the states of life that were hers; and “the Lord was with her” every moment of every day.
But we Catholics believe that this immaculate character of her soul was something that began the instant her soul was created. At the very instant that her parents united in their marital love and her tiny germ-like body was formed in Ann’s holy womb, the soul that came to give it life was totally free from sin.
She was immaculate the instant she was conceived. This is what we mean by the Immaculate Conception.
ADAM’S STRANGE SIN
But, the puzzled will insist, isn’t that true of everyone?
Am I suggesting that the rest of the human race is guilty of sin when the soul enters the body at conception? Is a little tiny infant, without power or will or reason or movement, capable of sinning? Isn’t this absurd? What makes Mary any different from any child of good, sound, wholesome, God-fearing parents?
To understand that we have to backtrack a bit and remember Adam and the first human sin of all.
The sin of Adam was a sin of disobedience. God had given him a simple command which was the test of his obedience and love and gratitude. Adam disobeyed God, broke the command, and sinned.
This was, of course, his own personal sin. The guilt rested on his own soul. Because of it, he was no longer God’s friend. He had lost the right to call himself the son of God. His soul was dead within him; the divine life of grace destroyed.
Thus far, except for his greater light and knowledge and strength of character and closer association with God, his sin was like all human sins. He was a disobedient son, but the world has been filled with disobedient sons. He had flouted the law of God, but so would countless millions of murderers and criminals. He had turned to the love of a woman, preferring her to the all-good, all-generous, all-loving Father, as other millions would do as long as men are men and women women. He had become the partner of Satan, God’s relentless enemy; but then, the Devil was to win the co-operation of more men than he bothered to count until they were checked in for final judgement.
This personal sin was terrible, but was not the end.
For Adam was the Father of the Human Race.
So the sin of which he was guilty, under a second aspect was called Original Sin.
Sometimes we talk of Original Sin as we talk of original music or original inventions. You’d think it was something fresh and new and different and hitherto undiscovered. In a way, that is true, for this was the first sin, the start of sin, something new on the earth. Yet some of the angels had sinned through disobedience in Heaven. They had rebelled and tried to drive God out of His own kingdom. In the sense of first and fresh and new and undiscovered, this angel rebellion was the original sin.
Adam’s Original Sin means something different. It is sin at the origin of our race, It is sin of the original man. It is the sin committed by him, Adam, who is the originator of life for all the rest of mankind. It is the origin of our woes and misfortunes. It originated the great problems that were to stain the course of history and the record of human life.
To understand this a little more clearly, let’s take a comparison: Suppose that somewhere back in history you had a rich and noble ancestor. He is trusted by his country, high in the confidence of the king, honoured with titles, and rich in lands and resources. It happens to the amazement of his contemporaries and the bewilderment of historians ever since, that your ancestor turns traitor. He goes over to the side of the invader; he rebels against the country, government, and king; he takes up arms, fights with the rebels and invading forces and in the end goes down with them to defeat.
His crime of high treason is, of course, his own.
What he suffers by way of just punishment when he falls into the hands of the king and the loyal government is his own personal affair.
Unfortunately for you, however, that is not the end. He had those titles, that rank, those lands, that wealth. All are lost when he takes part in the rebellion. He was a rich man; he dies poor. He would have left you a title, the castle, his vast wealth. Actually he leaves you nothing, for he has nothing left to leave.
Today you look back regretfully and wonder why he was such a fool. People have a way of remembering you are a descendant of a famous traitor. You have none of the things he once had and tossed away in the folly of his rebellion. You may blame him; you are poorer because of his crime. Though you are not punished by the present government because of his personal crime, you actually suffer very considerably because of things you might have had but never will have because he threw them all down the drain by his crime of treasonous rebellion.
THE PARALLEL IS SIMPLE
We do not share in Adam’s and Eve’s personal sin.
That was their own crime, and for that they knew their own personal punishment.
But Original Sin is something different. It is the loss of all the precious things, those supernatural and preternatural gifts, which God had given Adam for himself and, through him, for us and which he lost in his treason and rebellion.
You see, there are certain things which God gave us that belong to our nature: our power to digest, to propagate, to walk, to use our senses; our power to think, to choose right or wrong; our immortality. This is part of our nature; and God took none of these things away from the rebellious Adam and Eve.
But in addition to these, God had given His son and daughter marvellously generous gifts. They did not properly belong to human nature but were added to it. That is why they were called Supernatural Gifts, gifts above our nature.
Man was immortal; but God added to this the promise that our immortality would be something like His own eternity. We would be happy not as mere men could be, but as God is; for we would possess Him and see and know and love Him as He sees and knows and loves and possesses Himself.
To make that possible, God adopted Adam and Eve as His children and gave them divine power which we call grace. This is a tremendous power, like the very power of God. We have no right to it by our nature; God gave it to men because He wanted them to be like Himself.
God gave Adam and Eve the right to inherit Heaven. God’s own Heaven at the end of earthly life would be theirs.
All this they lost in their treason. Had they kept these lovely and gloriously rich blessings, they would have passed them on to us their children. Once they were lost, Adam had nothing to leave us. He was poor and we were born poor.
This loss of those things which God had given to Adam and Eve is Original Sin. We are born in Original Sin because we are born without the right to Heaven, without grace which is the divine power, and without the “adoption of the sons of God.”