The doctrine of the immaculate conception is one of that protestants hate-proves we’re just a bunch of Mary worshippers. Since most of my friends are protestant and as annoyingly argumentative as I am, it is one I have turned over in my mind for a long time.
Now the doctrine is that the virgin Mary was cleansed of original sin at the moment of her conception. Defined by Pius IX and, with the support of the Bishops, declared an infallible doctrine in the mid 19th century. Despite claims that it was invented right then and there, the issue had been debated by Catholic theologians since at least the ninth century; it was hardly a new idea or a hasty decision.
The overarching rational is that this was necessary for the dignity of the one who carries Christ; the woman who was a living tabernacle and altar for nine months could hardly be called ordinary. There is much to be said for this thought I think; enough that I am too lazy to actually dig into the arguments for and against it. They are literally centuries long.
Now as a Catholic, this is reason enough to accept it. We have a very rational basis for believing that the Church has the authority to define doctrine in exactly this manner. Nevertheless, I like to have a scriptural basis. I was raised protestant after all and what’s more, it’s protestants I am most likely to be discussing this with and they are hardly going to be satisfied with, “Well, the Pope said so.”
The scripture used in support of the doctrine for the most part just implies the rationale, but does not explicitly say anything on the topic. These verses are typified by Wisdom 2:24 which goes “through the devils envy death entered the world and those who belong to that company partake of it”. The meaning of which, or so I gather, is that we are all of this world and so of death in our fallen state. Mary then, since we already accepted her sinlessness and her assumption, must have somehow been spared this effect. Reasonable, but certainly open for the same debate the church itself had on the topic for centuries so not definitive by any means. And it faces the additional problem that most supporting scripture is from deuterocanonical texts.
We get our more direct inference from the angel Gabriel’s greeting to Mary, “Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with you.” The strongest scriptural argument explains that the expression “full of grace”, when properly read in the Greek, implies a superabundance of grace and this then justifies the doctrine. I never was quite certain of this: I know no Greek. Proper interpretation of a dead language is not the strongest of proofs.
My doubts were confirmed when I read in a protestant theological dictionary that this argument was fallacious because the verb used in Luke to say “full of grace” was used elsewhere for all Christians. There was nothing special about the expression. It was the same grace we all shared. This was particularly confounding because I had was trying to build something stronger for a friend who found this a major stumbling block in his path to Catholicism. There was nothing special about the nature of the grace Mary received if it was the same grace all of us had.
And then a week or so later I was thinking about not this topic at all, about GK Chesterton actually, and I suddenly realized that far from disproving the immaculate conception, whoever that protestant encyclopedist had skillfully underlined the basic idea behind the immaculate conception in his very attempt to disprove it.
The issue is not whether the grace granted to Mary is fundamentally different from the grace given to you and me. The grace given to Mary is the grace we receive in baptism (freedom from the stains of original sin) and in acceptance of Christ (salvation, the Holy Spirit): that is the sanctifying effects of grace are indeed the same. What is unique about Mary is how she received these gifts: namely through the immaculate conception.
It doesn’t disprove a thing that the exact verbiage of “full of grace” is applied to Christians elsewhere in the New Testament. It proves it: Mary was filled with the same grace that we receive because of Christ’s death and resurrection before Christ’s death and resurrection. She received the grace found in baptism without being baptized, received it in fact before St. John has even begun baptizing! She is full of grace before, according to protestant thinking, grace is even existant.
Now then, I admit this reasoning does not go so far as to prove that Mary received all this at the moment of her conception. But it certainly makes that a rational choice. There was no conversion for her to make in her life up to this point, no baptism for her to be given. Clearly God has given her grace in some special way; entirely different from the way we get it. And when we couple this with other scriptures that infer this doctrine, and the idea that some special attention would be given to the person who was the living tabernacle for nine months, it makes sense that this would happen at conception.
Mary was given grace in a way we weren’t, uniquely filled with grace before grace was manifest. Scripture is clear on that point: Mary was filled with grace. Mary was immaculate. And once we have established that, it is only reasonable to assume it was at conception.