The project known as Evangelicals and Catholics Together is now in its thirteenth year following its initial statement, “The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium,” with much-discussed statements on salvation, Scripture, and the Communion of Saints.
The group is currently engaged in studying what can be said together about the Blessed Virgin Mary, and a number of participants were asked to prepare preliminary papers. With the permission of the authors, we will be posting five of these papers over the next five days—papers by Edward T. Oakes, J.I. Packer, T.M. Moore, Cornelius Plantinga Jr., and Matthew Levering. —eds.
Protestants and Catholics differ across a range of issues, but never more obviously than over the Catholic doctrine that the mother of Jesus was immaculately conceived, meaning that from her conception on she was free from sin, very much including from the “stain” of original sin (“immaculate” = without stain). But even those who disagree with the doctrine can admit its meaning: the grace given to Mary is above all the premier example of the grace of meritless predestination.
This absence of merit on Mary’s part is obviously no mere concession to the Protestant stress on sola gratia but is required by the very meaning of the words immaculate and conception. Since this grace became operative at the very inception of her existence, it had to come to her prior to any deeds she might later perform. Furthermore, the doctrine explicitly states that the grace of the Immaculate Conception was given to Mary in view of the later merits of Christ. As Pope Pius IX says in his encyclical solemnly defining the doctrine for Catholics, Ineffabilis Deus, “To the glory of the holy and undivided Trinity, to the honor and renown of the Virgin, . . . the most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and in view of the merits of Christ Jesus the Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.”
But Pius IX also makes clear that, although singular, this grace was not given to Mary purely for her own glorification but to effect a turning point in salvation history:
“I will put enmity between you and the woman.” In these words the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary was announced to our first parents. It was to be the reversal of the friendship with the serpent contracted by Eve, when she listened to his voice and fell under his power. The second Eve was never to be under the power of the devil; the enmity between them was to admit of no possible exception. This involved the grace of being conceived immaculate. Mary’s Immaculate Conception was the foundation of all her graces. The absence of any stain or spot of sin distinguished her from all the rest of mankind. It distinguished her from the holiest of the Saints, since they, one and all, were sinners. Her perfect sinlessness was the source of all her glory and all her majesty; it was this which opened the door to the unlimited graces that she received from God; it was this that qualified her for her divine maternity and raised her to the throne as Queen of heaven. (emphases in the original)
In other words, Mary is the perfect example of sola gratia at work: Everything she later did and was given came from this first grace of predestination, won for her purely and entirely by the merits of Christ, not her own; and even those “merits” she “earned” came from the graces given her aboriginally, in view of her predestined status as the chosen Mother of the Savior. As Pius IX clearly asserts, by a venerable exegetical tradition dating from patristic times, she was predestined to be sinless when God spoke thus to the Serpent in the Garden of Eden after our first parents’ first sin: “I will put enmity between you and the woman and between your seed and her seed. He shall bruise your dead, and you shall bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15).
By placing the promise of Mary’s sinlessness in the Garden, Pius definitively altered the usual perspective on what predestination means. Unlike both Protestant and Catholic views of predestination in the Augustinian tradition (which tends to see predestination in terms of the fate of the individual soul at the end of time), recent Catholic mariological thought picks up on Pius IX’s salvation-historical perspective by interpreting Mary’s predestined status to be the mother of the Lord as part of God’s wider intentions for the world. For example, in his essay “The Sign of the Woman,” located in his book Mary: The Church at the Source (coauthored with Hans Urs von Balthasar), Cardinal Ratzinger speaks this way:
The Fathers saw God’s words of punishment to the serpent after the Fall as a first promise of the Redeemer—an allusion to the Descendent [Seed, Offspring] that bruises the serpent’s head. There has never been a moment in history without a gospel. At the very moment of the Fall, the promise also begins. The Fathers also attached importance to the fact that Christology and Mariology are inseparably interwoven already from this primordial beginning. The first promise of Christ, which stands in a chiaroscuro and which only the light to come finally deciphers, is a promise to and through the woman. (emphases added)
In other words, Mary is wholly enclosed within the biblical narrative of God’s dispensation to his people, an insight deftly caught by Dante when he places on the lips of St. Bernard of Clairvaux this address to Mary: “Virgin Mother, daughter of your Son” (Paradiso), a coinage that forms a nice chiasmus to another of her titles, “Mother of God.”
The juxtaposition of these two titles points to an important feature of all authentic Mariology, one already touched on by Pius IX in Ineffabilis Deus: the circularity of cause and effect in the dispensation of salvation. By that I mean, Mary could not be kept free from sin except by the merits of Christ won on the cross; but of course Christ could not have entered history to save us by dying on the cross except by the free consent of Mary, whose free assent to the angel was a truly graced assent vouchsafed by the future death of her Son. The implications of this circularity can be dizzying, but they are helpfully elucidated by Hans Urs von Balthasar in this passage in the third volume of Theo-Drama:
In the course of unfolding these implications, two difficulties were encountered that have occupied theology right up to medieval and modern times. The first arose from the realizing that God’s action in reconciling the world to himself in the Cross of Christ is exclusively his initiative; there is no original “collaboration” between God and the creature. But as we have already said, the creature’s “femininity” possesses an original, God-given, active fruitfulness; it was essential, therefore, if God’s Word willed to become incarnate in the womb of a woman, to elicit the latter’s agreement and obedient consent . . . . God could not violate his creature’s freedom. But where did the grace that made this consent possible come from—a consent that is adequate and therefore genuinely unlimited—if not from the work of reconciliation itself, that is, from the Cross? (And the Cross is rendered possible only through Mary’s consent.) Here we have a circle—in which the effect [Dante’s “daughter of her Son”] is the cause of the cause [Mother of God]—that has taken centuries to appreciate and formulate, resulting in the dogma of the Immaculate Conception and the exact reasoning behind it.
It is my thesis that ecumenical discussion of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception must begin with a recognition of this important circularity of cause/effect surrounding the Incarnation. The need for constant meditation on this circularity, requiring centuries for its full implications to become clear, is probably the reason that Thomas Aquinas erred when he denied that Mary was immaculately conceived—because the development of doctrine had not reached the point where this circularity was fully appreciated. On the one hand, Thomas rightly says in De Veritate: “It was not right that so great a benefit [the Incarnation] be granted without consent.”
Yet he did not think through fully the implications of what kind of consent Mary could give if it had been, however slightly, affected/infected by original sin. But if, as part of its logic, the cross itself is made possible only through Mary’s consent at the Annunciation (which Luke clearly holds), then the implications of the denial of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception should become clear. For such a denial would then make our very salvation dependent on Mary’s free will operating independent of grace. Her Yes to God would have had to have been made, even if ever so slightly, under her own power, which would have the intolerable implication of making the entire drama of salvation hinge on a human work—the very apogee of Pelagianism.
The dogma of the Immaculate Conception also has implications for ecumenical dialogue regarding the nature of the Church (ecclesiology). For once the full dimensions of this dogma are understood as the premier instance of sola gratia, then we can begin to understand how the Church, too, has been predestined to be “without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (Eph. 5:27). John the Divine speaks of the Church as the bride ready for marriage: “She has been able to dress herself in dazzling white linen, because her linen is made of the good deeds of the saints” (Rev. 19:8). Protestants rightly interpret these passages about the immaculate nature of the Church as being the result entirely of Christ’s work atoning work on the cross (sola gratia again). The Church is immaculate only because Christ made her so, having cleansed her in his blood. As Paul says in Ephesians in the verse immediately preceding: “Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word” (5:26) after which he then can present her to himself as a radiant Church (v. 27).
By denying the Immaculate Conception, Protestants in effect see Mary as also needing this cleansing, which again they see as brought about by grace alone. But is this all that can be said? As Balthasar again points out in Theo-Drama III: “There is no question of a collective group—not even the ‘faithful people’—producing the Redeemer-Messiah out of itself, in virtue of its own faith. The fact that the Church can become the ‘Mother’ of those who believe in Christ always presupposes that Mary conceived the Messiah and brought him to birth.”
Which brings us back to the graced quality of the response God had been looking for in the human race since the time of Adam: one that would be totally free, yet entirely graced, from which would come not only our redemption but also a predestined immaculate Church without stain or wrinkle. For Mary is not just the Mother of those who believe (hence her title “Mother of the Church”), but is so precisely because she is the Mother of the divine Savior. As the embodiment of everything the Church is meant to be, she becomes the essential image of the Church’s eschatological destiny: a truly spotless Church.
In his book Our Lady and the Church, Hugo Rahner rightly stresses this eschatological implication to the doctrine: “Mary Immaculate is already an essential symbol of the restoration to grace, a work which began on the Cross and will have its entire fulfillment at the end of time by presenting to the eternal Father Adam’s family, redeemed into the one glorified Body of Christ.”
Or as Balthasar put the same point in a radio sermon delivered on the feast of the Immaculate Conception:
Now, suddenly, we see the meaning of this feast. The God who pulls down the barriers erected by men does not want to keep his own total lack of barriers to himself: he wants to bring this absolute positivity into the world, and communicate it, like rain and dew falling on the soil, to the earthly realm itself. Somewhere on earth there must ring out, in response to this word, not a half answer but a whole one, not a vague answer but an exact one . . . . By the power of heaven, the earth must accept the arrival of grace so that it can really come to earth and carry out its work of liberation . . . . [But] such a word of consent can only be given to earth from heaven’s treasure house of love.
Just as Mary’s free consent to the angel Gabriel begins the great fulcrum-shift in the drama of salvation, so too she expresses what a saved and redeemed humanity can be once it has been purged of sin and washed clean in the Blood of the Lamb: Here in Mary consent is truly free because truly graced, totally graced. Here we see what it means to be saved sola gratia, a doctrine so radiantly beautiful that it also captured the imagination of that great Protestant Romantic William Wordsworth and which he expressed in his lovely poem to Mary, “The Virgin”:
Mother! whose virgin bosom was uncrossed
With the least shade of thought to sin allied;
Woman! above all women glorified,
Our tainted nature’s solitary boast.
Edward T. Oakes, S.J., teaches theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake, the seminary for the Archdiocese of Chicago.