Roman Catholics who utilize the devotion of the Medal of Our Lady of Grace, otherwise known as the Miraculous Medal devotion, will often pray “O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee“. This is based on private revelations from the Virgin Mary to St. Catherine Labouré in the early to mid 19th century.
Those Christians who have been trained or indoctrinated in the schools coming out from the Protestant Reformation almost instinctively look at this as idolatry, superstition, and heretical. Besides this being a dubious revelation to reinforce the errors of Rome, this prayer “O Mary, conceived without sin” is surely an aberrant idea in direct contradiction with the Gospel and Holy Scripture.
I’d like to point something I observed today as I was reading one of the best works on Mariology one could find, Rev. M.J. Schebeen’s 2 Volumes Mariology. Schebeen does not make this observation, but I was drawn to it by reading his section on the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. Here, Schebeen was pointing out the fact that the principles by which the early Church fathers justified their beliefs that the Virgin Mary was “all-holy”, “spotless”, “immaculate”, and “without any stain of sin” likened unto Jesus Christ, would have easily justified the doctrine of the immaculate conception. Those familiar with the debates which took place in the Latin Church on the subject of the Virgin’s conception in the womb of St. Anne will be familiar with the difficulty of trying to say whether she must have been sanctified at the precise moment of her conception, effectively preserving her from any and all contact with sin, or perhaps a moment after that. It should be kept in mind that no party in this debate ever questioned the Virgin’s absolute sinlessness, nor her preservation from all actual sins. The theologians were already of one mind on this question – Mary was sinless.
But how did Christian arrive at such an “aberrant” perspective on this, asks the Protestant. The biblical authors, as well as the consensus of the Church fathers, all testify to the fact that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:24). Christ’s mission to save sinners is universal, and therefore every human being who is to receive this salvation (and this includes the Virgin Mary) is certainly a sinner in need of it. St. Augustine, above all others, was adamant on the universal depravity of the human race marred by its first parent, Adam. For Protestants, saving an exception to the mighty current of this universal rule of human sinfulness to anyone, whether it be the Virgin Mother of God or anyone else, would take quite an exceptional force. So clear and unmistakable, they say, are the words of Holy Writ: “If we say we have no sin, we deceived ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). Even the slightest entertainment that someone might not be subject to this divine decree would appear the fall guilty of wanting people deceived.
It is only a sign of good health in the mind of a theologian to hold it as a given that Mary would be included in the universal contagion of original sin and its effects in the life of each individual (i.e. enslaved to sin), unless some extraordinary grounds would provide for an exception. It was just the mind of St. Augustine who, even amidst his arguments which demonstrated all humanity as subjugated under the power of sin, had ample reason in his own mind to save room for the Virgin Mary.
In his De Natura et Gratia, St. Augustine responded to Pelagius who stated that so many Old Testament saints had lived without any sin including, most especially, the “‘mother of our Lord and Saviour, for of her’, he says, ‘we must needs allow that her piety had no sin in it'”.
For Pelagius, St. Augustine’s doctrine of massa damnata would engulf those who were sinless under the power of sin. And so he thought he could contradict this by pointing to the lives of certain Saints, but above all, the Virgin Mary who he thought required the belief that she had no sin.
To this St. Augustine responds: “We must except the holy Virgin Mary, concerning whom I wish to raise no question when it touches the subject of sins, out of honour to the Lord; for from Him we know what abundance of grace for overcoming sin in every particular was conferred upon her who had the merit to conceive and bear Him who undoubtedly had no sin.“. So here is the early Church theologian of original sin himself, the chief scholar of universal damnation and the need for God’s grace, and the best expositor of unconditional predestination, and yet he is not found having the trouble which the Protestant finds himself when he instinctively is repulsed by the thought that the Virgin Mary could be counted as excepted from the law of sin. And why? No particular compelling rationale is given other than the Virgin’s close proximity to our Lord Jesus Christ, in particular, her being His mother. The divine maternity of the blessed Virgin Mary was sufficient enough for this Patristic doctor to make exception for the Virgin Mary, on account of God’s mercy and grace.
It is therefore to no wonder that other Church Fathers were consistent with St. Augustine in here in referring to the Virgin as absolutely sinless and without any stain whatsoever. What could cause such conservative men who were well aware of the universality of original and actual sin, to make an exception for the Virgin? It could only be because the early Christian tradition provided ample testimony to do so. And if this was already acceptable at so early a time and by so conservative a theologian, then this should be just enough reason for the Protestant to reconsider. And if the Virgin Mary is to be thought preserved from all actual sins, quite appropriately, then the same principle, only applied stronger, would equally justify the idea that the Virgin was preserved from all sin such that even at her first moment of existence, the sanctifying grace of God snuffed out any chance of sin being contracted in her life.
Interestingly enough, St. Augustine’s doctrine on original sin was so scandalous to certain theologians, not least Pelagius, and one such as the famous anti-Augustinian Julianus had objected to original sin with these words:
“Jovinianus destroyed the virginity of Maryby the manner of her giving birth; but you surrender Mary herself to the devil by the manner of her birth”
In other words, the heretic Jovinianus insulted the Virgin by his insistence that she had more children than our Lord (c.f. St. Jerom’s refutation), and now St. Augustine’s doctrine of original sin adds a second insult by the insistence of all men being born subject to original sin, thereby rendering our Lady’s birth as that of being subjugated under sin. Well, let’s be clear here: the worries of 5th-century theologians regarding the Virgin aren’t anything close to modern Protestant worries. Who is worried in the Protestant realm of having their theology entail that the Virgin is touched by sin, or that she had other children besides the Lord? This goes to show the difference between the Protestant world and the Patristic church. In any case, St. Augustine responds to this charge by saying the following: “We do not surrender Mary to the devil by the manner of her birth, but because the condition of her birth is explained by the grace of her rebirth” (Opu imperf. contra Julianum, IV, 122; PL, XLV.1418; text from Julian above quoted by Augustine, ibid.1417; English taken from Schebeen, Mariology p. 73). Schebeen comments on this saying, “If St. Augustine had wished to say simply, that because of her later rebirth (later in life), he did not consign Mary to the devil forever, his answer would miss the mark and would have to be understood quite differently. In other words, he sees in this an insinuation that the Virgin was cleansed, in St. Augustine’s mind, somewhere near her birth in order to stave off the refutation of Julianus.
Whether this has any merit, it is clear that the principles underlying the theology of both Julianus and St. Augustine, namely, that the purity and sinlessness of the Virgin must be protected as the ideal necessity and the most appropriate assumption, would only lead one to conclude that something like Blessed Dun Scotus’s reconciliation of how the Virgin could have been sanctified at the very precise moment of her conception follows by the force of reason, if nothing else.