Can you point me in the direction of why the Immaculate Conception is important in regards to salvation?
A follow up or clarification might be how does Mary’s Immaculate Conception point to Christ’s redeeming act on the cross?
First of all, let’s deal with a common misunderstanding: The Immaculate Conception does not refer to the conception of Christ by the Virgin Mary. Instead, it refers to the conception of Mary in such a way that she was preserved free from all stain of original sin.
I gather that the first question may be based on a common Protestant objection to the Immaculate Conception.
This objection is based on the fact that the Immaculate Conception has been infallibly defined by the Church and so is required belief for Catholics. To know that it is infallibly defined, to know that beliefs that are infallibly defined must be accepted, and to deliberately reject such belief would fulfill the conditions for mortal sin.
So what makes the Immaculate Conception so important that our salvation should hinge on it?
At First Glance
The concern expressed in the objection is understandable. At first glance, the Immaculate Conception does not seem like something that our salvation ought to hinge upon.
After all, it’s not a truth directly connected with how to achieve salvation. It’s not like accepting belief in God, repenting of sin, having faith in Christ’s atonement, and being baptized. It’s not one of what theologians would call soteriological beliefs (from “soteriology”–the doctrine of salvation).
Compared to the the Trinity, the central mystery of the Christian faith, the Immaculate Conception is lower down on what the Second Vatican Council referred to as the “hierarchy of truths.”
This is illustrated, among other ways, by the fact that the Immaculate Conception was not infallibly defined until 1854
So what makes it important enough that our salvation should hinge on accepting it?
Another Way of Looking at the Issue
Consider this fact: The Bible discusses angels and the fact that they are rational, non-physical beings created by God.
We are obliged to believe in the existence of angels because the Bible is the inspired, written expression of God’s word, and as such it has the Holy Spirit as its primary author. Consequently, whatever Scripture asserts (in the proper sense) is something asserted by the Holy Spirit.
You might look at the doctrine of angels (angelology) and say, “This isn’t directly related to our salvation. It might be helpful to us in some way to know about the existence of angels, but they are clearly far down the hierarchy of truths.”
In fact, knowing about the existence of angels is not dissimilar to knowing about the existence of aliens. If God has created other rational physical beings in the universe, it might be of some use to know about them, but that knowledge isn’t essential to our salvation.
One might object that angels have, in fact, interacted with our race, which is true, but that doesn’t make their existence a truth of soteriology. (Just as if it turned out that aliens had interacted with our race, that wouldn’t make their existence a truth of soteriology, either.)
The point is this . . .
It’s a Question of What God Reveals
The reason that we are obliged to believe in the existence of angels but not aliens is that God has revealed the existence of the former to us but not the latter.
For us to reject the existence of angels would be to reject the authority of God as our teacher, and to do that knowingly and deliberately would be a mortal sin.
For those who have been exposed to God’s revelation such that they know he has revealed the existence of angels, their salvation does hinge on their believing in angels–not because the doctrine of angels is high up in the hierarchy of truths, and not because it is a truth directly connected with salvation, but because it is a truth God has revealed.
We are obliged to accept whatever God has revealed. We may have questions at times about what the meaning is of something he has revealed, but if we know for a fact that a particular proposition has been declared to us by God, we must accept it in order to be in union with him.
This is what the Church refers to as having divine faith, which includes belief in God and in whatever he reveals–because of the authority of him who reveals it.
There is another mode of faith, though . . .
Catholic faith refers to the faith that we are called to exercise when the Church has definitively proposed something. It also ultimately rests on divine faith, because the Church has no teaching authority apart from God.
However, God has given the Church the authority to teach us and even to infallibly proclaim things to us in certain situations. He also has revealed that this is the case, and so divine faith entails Catholic faith.
One of the key functions of the Church’s teaching authority, or Magisterium, is to help us understand what God has revealed, to make sure that we don’t ignore or misinterpret it, and it has done so in a variety of ways down the centuries.
Early in Church history, the truths that are at the top of the hierarchy of truths were infallibly defined–the existence of one and only one God, the divinity of the Son, the divinity of the Holy Spirit, etc. And over time, once the most important issues were taken care of, the Church has deemed it appropriate to define truths that are lower in the hierarchy.
The Immaculate Conception
By 1854, the Magisterium determined that the time had come to define the Immaculate Conception of Mary, and so Pope Pius IX defined it in that year.
It had already been divinely revealed and thus called for divine faith, but not that it had been infallibly proclaimed by the Church, it came to call for catholic faith as well.
As such, it is obligatory for us, not because it is a truth at the top of the hierarchy of truths, not because it is directly connected with how to be saved, but because it has been infallibly proposed by the Church using the authority given to her by God. To know all this and to deliberately reject it would thus be to reject the teaching authority of God, and thus commit a mortal sin.
That’s true of anything that must be believed by divine faith or by catholic faith, for both are backed by the authority of God.
God, for reasons known to him, deemed it useful for us to know about the existence of angels, and so he revealed that truth. He also deemed it useful for us to know about the Immaculate Conception of his Son’s mother, and so he revealed that as well.
To promote knowledge and ensure belief in the latter revelation, the Church deemed it useful to exercise the authority God gave it to infallibly define it.
The reason why has to do with the reader’s section question . . .
The Immaculate Conception & the Cross
The Immaculate Conception can be related to Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross in various ways. Some of these go beyond Church doctrine and into the realm of theological elaboration. But here are two ways that seem certain. . . .
The Immaculate Conception Prepares for the Cross
First, the Immaculate Conception prepares for the Cross by making Mary a fitting mother for the Son of God, who came to die on the Cross. It isn’t that God had to make Mary immaculate in order to send his Son into the world. He didn’t. God is omnipotent, and his power is not limited. He could send his Son into the world without an immaculate mother if he chose.
But it was fitting that the mother of Christ be a holy woman, and in fact a woman who was a perfect example of holiness. Thus he prepared her for this role from the moment of her conception by giving her a special grace to preserve her from all stain of original sin.
This is why in the apostolic constitution Ineffabilis Deus, in which he defined the Immaculate Conception, Pius IX spoke of it being “fitting” that Christ’s mother would be so prepared, not that it would be “necessary” that she be so prepared.
The Immaculate Conception Reflects the Cross
Second, the Immaculate Conception reflects the cross in that it is what Jesus did on the Cross that made the Immaculate Conception possible.
By preserving Mary from all stain of original sin, God thus redeemed her. He redeemed her in an even more spectacular way that he does us, for he preserved her from falling into sin rather than pulling her out of it after she had fallen into it.
This is why the Catechism of the Catholic Church, quoting in part the Second Vatican Council, explains the Immaculate Conception by saying:
508 From among the descendants of Eve, God chose the Virgin Mary to be the mother of his Son. “Full of grace”, Mary is “the most excellent fruit of redemption” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 103): from the first instant of her conception, she was totally preserved from the stain of original sin and she remained pure from all personal sin throughout her life.
But since all redemption comes to mankind through the Cross, it was the Cross itself that made the Immaculate Conception possible.
There is also another way in which the Immaculate Conception reflects the Cross . . .
An Icon of Our Destiny
Although God does not redeem us the same way he redeemed Mary, at the beginning of our lives, he will eventually free us of all stain of original sin as well. We will all one day be “stainless” (immaculate) if we persevere in his grace.
Thus, by redeeming Mary in such a way that she was given this gift while still in this life–and at the very beginning of her life–he made her an icon of what he will one day do for all of us.
Mary thus shows us what we an be–and will become–as a result of Christ’s death on the Cross, if we only persevere in the Christian life. She shows us the fruit of the Cross in one who is a mere human being, like us.
Christ also show us what we will become, for as Scripture says, when he appears again we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.
He, of course, is not just human but also the divine Son of God. Mary, however, is just human, and thus she serves as a direct example of what it is like for a human to be fully conformed to the image of her Son.
All these may offered as reasons why God–and the Church–deemed it important for us to know about the Immaculate Conception.
By the Way . . .
I’m currently preparing a mailing for the Secret Information Club in which I talk about Pope Benedict’s book recommendations for summer reading.
I had to delay the mailing a few days while I’m waiting on eye surgery. (I was able to get the piece composed, but not loaded into the highly graphical interface to send it.)
As a result, there’s still time to sign up!
Assuming all goes well with the eye surgery (prayers appreciated!), I should be sending out the special mailing with Pope Benedict’s summer reading recommendations later this week.
You’ll also get additional fascinating things. In fact, the very first thing you’ll get when you sign up is an “interview” I did with Pope Benedict on the Book of Revelation (I composed the questions and took the answers from his writings). Its fascinating stuff, so be sure not to miss out!
To find out what Pope Benedict recommends for summer reading (and it’s not big heavy theological works but stuff anybody can read–sometimes in an hour or less), sign up at www.SecretInfoClub.com or use this handy form:
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