A couple of decades ago, when I was a theology professor, I got a call from my father. He had two colleagues on the line, young lawyers who had been arguing with him about the Immaculate Conception. Both had been raised Catholic and were convinced that the doctrine applied to Jesus. Brought in as an expert witness, I backed up my father: “No, that’s the Virgin Birth. The Immaculate Conception refers to the Virgin Mary. It means that she was free from sin from the moment of her conception.”
Most people, including most Catholics, don’t understand the Catholic Church’s distinctive teachings about the Virgin Mary—the doctrine of her Immaculate Conception, and that of her Bodily Assumption. We’re all vaguely aware of these doctrines, but the details, especially the why, remain obscure. And of course hardcore Protestants find all Catholic Marian teaching (and piety) hopelessly extra-biblical—a signal instance of Catholicism’s errant inventiveness.
But neither of these Marian doctrines is an extra-scriptural invention. Nor are they peripheral to the faith. They underline the Catholic belief in the universal call to holiness, and they defend the fittingness of supernatural life for finite, created beings like us.
The biblical warrant is clear. After a series of demanding commandments in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus sums up: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church puts it less poetically: “All the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity” (para. 40). We are not to impose artificial limits on our capacity for conformity to the divine.
But of course we do exactly that. Our sinfulness directs us away from God. The doctrine of Original Sin explains that inevitability. By their fall, our original parents enrolled us in the ongoing project of human rebellion.
We feel our bondage to sin very acutely, so much so that we’re often tempted to assume that a supernatural perfection of charity is impossible for us. We explain away our failures as inevitable. The high things of God are beyond our ken, we say. Or we presume that mortal flesh cannot attain heavenly perfection. These abstractions become concrete when we encounter the hard teachings of the Sermon on the Mount—the blessedness of poverty and persecution, the imperative of forgiveness, the prohibition of divorce, the commandment to turn the other cheek and love even our enemies. All of this is intensified with a warning that we’re not to take it as hyperbole. “Whoever annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called the least in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:19).
In this context, we are consoled by the notion that we cannot be perfect as our heavenly father is perfect. These demanding teachings aren’t realistic, we tell ourselves. They’re meant to inspire, perhaps, but we should not be too hard on ourselves if we fail to live up to them.
In a worldly sense, this is accurate. But we need to be careful in our use of the term “realistic.” Given our bondage to sin, attaining perfection is a remote prospect. But we must remember that sin is not natural. Sin stems from human freedom; it does not flow from the fact that we are created, finite, embodied beings, made in the image of God.
There is a further dimension to our “realistic” acceptance of human limitations. Our heavenly father’s perfection is divine, not human, and even if we were free from original sin, we could not use our natural talents and aptitudes to engineer our way to that perfection. On this point, Luther was absolutely right: It is grace alone that allows us to abide in Christ, and through him to abide in the Father’s sinless perfection.
But our embodied existence does not impose limitations on God’s grace—and this is what the Marian doctrines boldly emphasize. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception teaches that, if God so chooses, he can create a human being who is free from sin, a perfect instrument for his holy purposes. The doctrine of the Assumption teaches that the corruption of death is punishment for sin, not an intrinsic element of creation. And if God so chooses, the finite flesh of a human being can participate in the spiritual perfection of fellowship with God.
The Marian doctrines affirm that God has so chosen, in the person of the Blessed Virgin Mary. She does not thereby become a demi-goddess, as many Protestants imagine. On the contrary, she is theologically central to Catholic piety because she is a human being, just like us. With the grace of God, we too can be freed from sin and draw near to God. This is a supernatural hope. It is a hope that depends upon God’s love. But Mary’s example shows that it is a realistic hope.
People often speak of modern secularism as the era in which man “grows up” and assumes free responsibility for his life, rather than remaining dependent on an imagined deity. By this way of thinking, post-Christian society in the West provides opportunities for existential enlargement and energetic self-realization. I’ve found it to be otherwise. We are increasingly satisfied with less and less. The therapeutic language of self-acceptance epitomizes our limited vision. When “being yourself” becomes our highest ambition, we’ve surely hit bottom.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that the Marian doctrines were officially promulgated in the modern era. (The Immaculate Conception was defined in 1854 and the Assumption in 1950.) By clarifying what God has done in the person of Mary, the Church raises our eyes toward the highest goals, teaching the faithful that human flesh is capable of remarkable feats of holiness—even to the point of sinless perfection and fellowship with God in our flesh. This is much-needed good news, in our epoch of self-imposed mediocrity.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.