Last Updated: Tuesday - 01/04/2011
May 7, 2001
The Immaculate Conception
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTE
In 1854, Pope Pius IX declared that the teaching that Mary was conceived without taint of original sin — the Immaculate Conception — was a doctrine of the faith and must be believed by all Catholics.
This declaration drew negative reactions from Protestants, Anglicans and Orthodox. One point raised by the Orthodox was that this doctrine seemed to deny Mary's humanity and to separate her from the rest of creation.
This point seemed to be given credence in the ensuing decades by the art inspired by the doctrine that depicted a saccharine image of Mary, too demure and passive to resist evil. One 20th-century feminist went so far as to say Mary was being portrayed as the perfect rape victim - pretty, smart and utterly uninterested in defending herself.
Such criticism should lead us to seek behind 19th-century piety for the real Mary.
We can look to the Mary of the Magnificat who praises the Almighty by showing the strength of his arm and routing the proud of heart. We can also look to the Mary of Cana who was undeterred by a seeming rebuke from Jesus when she noted, "They have no wine."
But we should also examine the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception to see what is contained there. God did not free Mary from any taint of sin in order to separate her from humanity, but rather to show us who we might become ourselves. Her Immaculate Conception is a sign that all the baptized, not just the Apostles and martyrs, are called to be saints. Mary is not a goddess, but rather a hopeful sign of who we are called to be.
The declaration of this doctrine was seen as a strong assertion of papal authority. While it was that, it also expressed the voice of the faithful. Catholics had petitioned the pope to declare this dogma, especially in the years after St. Catherine Laboure received the "miraculous medal' from Mary in 1830 with its prayer - "O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee." Theologians were wary of this doctrine, but the ordinary people were not.
Feminist theologian Els Maeckelberghe published a study in 1991 of the attitudes of 19th century women in Belgium to the Immaculate Conception. These women lived in tightly circumscribed roles, were forced by law to obey their husbands and often involved in constant childbearing. Others were forced to work in factories where they had a high death rate.
For these women, Maeckelberghe concluded, the Immaculate Conception was a popular image of Mary. It held out the possibility of a better life for them and the chance of having their own voices heard.
Mary, the Immaculate Conception, triumphed over evil - not by her own doing, to be sure, but by the power of God. Her triumph came because of her close union with the Holy Spirit.
We might be tempted to interpret the Immaculate Conception negatively — as the absence of sin. But sin was only absent in Mary because she was filled with the Holy Spirit right from the moment of her conception.
St. Maximilian Kolbe, the Auschwitz martyr, typically referred to Jesus' mother not as the Virgin Mary but as the Immaculata. Kolbe believed Mary's very identity was defined by her relationship with the Holy Spirit. He maintained that at her conception Mary was configured "in a special and ineffable way to the Holy Spirit." This configuration was similar to a sacramental grace, which marks the soul indelibly.
Because of this grace, just as the Holy Spirit is totally receptive to the eternal love between Father and Son, so Mary is receptive to the power of God. And just as the love of the Holy Spirit is fruitful in the continual outpouring of the divine love that he receives, so Mary's love is abundantly fruitful for the salvation of the world.
Kolbe saw Mary as the human presence of the Holy Spirit in the world. He went so far as to maintain that the Holy Spirit is "quasi-incarnate" in Mary — her identification with him is that complete.
Practically, what does this mean? It means the gifts of the Holy Spirit - reverence, fortitude, piety, counsel, knowledge, understanding and wisdom — are fully realized in Mary. Mary is not a wimp or "the perfect rape victim." Through her Immaculate Conception, she is filled with the strength of the Holy Spirit.
Nor is she considered to be more than human. Rather, she is the realization of what it means to be fully human. Because we have the tendency to be drawn to sin and Mary doesn't, we can't attain the height of being fully alive that she has. But we can see where one humble woman has gone and head off in that direction. It is a path that leads not to some form of slavery, but rather to the fullness of life.
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