On December 8, 1854, Pius IX solemnly declared the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary. The belief that the Blessed Virgin was the sinless vessel for the incarnate Son of God was longstanding in the Western Church. But the declaration represented a striking assertion of papal authority, marking the first time the bishop of Rome appealed to his supreme teaching authority as the source of infallible doctrine. That power was to be formally defined less than twenty years later at the First Vatican Council.
It was fitting that this Marian doctrine was the occasion for the assertion of papal authority. The dogma of the Immaculate Conception teaches that from the very moment of conception Mary was exempt from the stain of original sin. This is not a claim about biology. Instead, it is a theological claim about how God’s grace does not operate at a distance. Divine love claims territory in the flesh and blood of human life, even to the point of defeating the seemingly invincible power of sin and creating the conditions for a sinless life.
Too often we think of “spiritual” as a synonym for an ethereal, disembodied existence that floats above embodied life. In the modern era, this understanding of “spiritual” has tended toward the subjective. The Christian life is rooted in feelings, as the great modern Protestant theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher argued. Or it concerns our deepest intentions, as Karl Rahner argued with his theory of “fundamental option.”
Feelings matter, as do intentions. They are both aspects of human existence enrolled in the divine plan of salvation. But that plan has greater ambitions. Grace perfects nature, as St. Thomas teaches. And nature includes our bodies and habits, our relationships and institutions. In short: Salvation in Christ affects every element of human life and brings it to sinless perfection. To live in the spirit, as St. Paul urges, therefore means to live in Christ’s power over sin and death, not to live outside or above our human frame. “Spiritual” contrasts with “worldly,” not “creaturely.”
All Christians believe this, which is why they affirm the resurrection of the body when Christ returns in the fullness of his power. Our finite, corruptible bodies are not shed in an ascent toward the Eternal. Rather, the Eternal descends to us to infuse the finite with the power of the infinite.
Catholicism goes a step further. In the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, the Church teaches that this victory is already unfolding in human history. The first wave of commandos has liberated territory, as it were—in this case, the person of Jesus’s mother, the Virgin Mary. The doctrine of the Assumption puts an exclamation point on this claim, teaching that the embodied person is not only capable of sinless perfection, but also can enter into the fullness of fellowship with God without shedding the body.
Catholicism makes similar claims about the Church herself. Although certainly not sinless and perfected, Mother Church participates in the conquering grace of God in Christ in a real way. God is powerful enough to secure the inviolable sanctity of the Eucharist. Just as Mary’s parents, however meritorious, remained subject to sin, so also are the priests who offer the sacrifice of the Mass. Yet in Christ this impediment is overcome. The spotless victim is present in the bread and wine.
The Catholic claims about infallible teaching make an analogous theological assertion. By the merits of Christ (and not by the always insufficient merits of sinful humans), the successors to St. Peter can teach the faithful with a supernatural trustworthiness (the theological meaning of “infallibility”). Just as God is powerful enough to wrest an entire human life away from sin’s corrupting bondage, so also can that power secure a permanent beachhead in the Church’s teaching office.
I’m not sure Protestants disagree, at least not entirely. The doctrine of Scriptural inerrancy claims that God has inspired the writers of the New Testament, and in so doing claimed their witness as his own, giving the words of Scripture a supernatural trustworthiness that will never fail the faithful. This amounts to what might be called a doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Bible.
I do have some sympathy for Protestant friends who reject the Immaculate Conception. Accepting the authority of its formal definition by Pius IX requires adherence to the full sweep of Catholic claims about the Church and her role in the divine plan of salvation in Christ. And the cogency of that adherence depends, in turn, on innumerable particular judgments, most of them implicit.
But I must warn those same friends not to reject the logic of this gracious dogma of the Catholic Church. It harkens back to the revelation in Genesis that we can see God face-to-face and yet live. It is sin and sin alone that bars the way to heaven. There is nothing about being human that is alien to the consuming fire of God’s holiness.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.
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