by Pope John Paul II
According to this dogmatic definition, it has been revealed by God that Mary was preserved from original sin from the moment of her conception
At the General Audience of Wednesday, 12 June, the Holy Father continued his catechesis on the Immaculate Conception, this time discussing the dogmatic definition of the doctrine by Pope Pius IX. “We declare, pronounce and define that the doctrine which asserts that the Blessed Virgin Mary, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God, and in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, Saviour of the human race, was preserved free from every stain of original sin is a doctrine revealed by God and, for this reason, must be firmly and constantly believed by all the faithful”, the Pope said in his Bull Ineffabilis. Here is a translation of the Holy Father’s catechesis, which was the 23rd in the series on the Blessed Virgin and was given in Italian.
Down the centuries, the conviction that Mary was preserved from every stain of sin from her conception, so that she is to be called all holy, gradually gained ground in the liturgy and theology. At the start of the 19th century, this development led to a petition drive for a dogmatic definition of the privilege of the Immaculate Conception.
Around the middle of the century, with the intention of accepting this request, Pope Pius IX, after consulting the theologians, questioned the Bishops about the opportuneness and the possibility of such a definition, convoking as it were a “council in writing”. The result was significant: the vast majority of the 604 Bishops gave a positive response to the question.
After such an extensive consultation, which emphasized my venerable Predecessor’s concern to express the Church’s faith in the definition of the dogma, he set about preparing the document with equal care.
Blessed Virgin is free from every stain of sin
The special commission of theologians set up by Pius IX to determine the revealed doctrine assigned the essential role to ecclesial practice. And this criterion influenced the formulation of the dogma, which preferred expressions taken from the Church’s lived experience, from the faith and worship of the Christian people, to scholastic definitions.
Finally in 1854, with the Bull Ineffabilis, Pius IX solemnly proclaimed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception: “… We declare, pronounce and define that the doctrine which asserts that the Blessed Virgin Mary, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God, and in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, Saviour of the human race, was preserved free from every stain of original sin is a doctrine revealed by God and, for this reason, must be firmly and constantly believed by all the faithful” (DS 2803).
The proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception expresses the essential datum of faith. Pope Alexander VII, in the Bull Sollicitudo of 1661, spoke of the preservation of Mary’s soul “in its creation and infusion into the body” (DS 2017). Pius IX’s definition, however, prescinds from all explanations about how the soul is infused into the body and attributes to the person of Mary, at the first moment of her conception, the fact of her being preserved from every stain of original sin.
The freedom “from every stain of original sin” entails as a positive consequence the total freedom from all sin as well as the proclamation of Mary’s perfect holiness, a doctrine to which the dogmatic definition makes a fundamental contribution. In fact, the negative formulation of the Marian privilege, which resulted from the earlier controversies about original sin that arose in the West, must always be complemented by the positive expression of Mary’s holiness more explicitly stressed in the Eastern tradition.
Pius IX’s definition refers only to the freedom from original sin and does not explicitly include the freedom from concupiscence. Nevertheless, Mary’s complete preservation from every stain of sin also has as a consequence her freedom from concupiscence, a disordered tendency which, according to the Council of Trent, comes from sin and inclines to sin (DS 1515).
Granted “by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God”, this preservation from original sin is an absolutely gratuitous divine favour, which Mary received at the first moment of her existence.
The dogmatic definition does not say that this singular privilege is unique, but lets that be intuited. The affirmation of this uniqueness, however, is explicitly stated in the Encyclical Fulgens corona of 1953, where Pope Pius XII speaks of “the very singular privilege which was never granted to another person” (AAS 45 , 580), thus excluding the possibility, maintained by some but without foundation, of attributing this privilege also to St Joseph.
The Virgin Mother received the singular grace of being immaculately conceived “in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, Saviour of the human race”, that is, of his universal redeeming action.
The text of the dogmatic definition does not expressly declare that Mary was redeemed, but the same Bull Ineffabilis states elsewhere that “she was redeemed in the most sublime way”. This is the extraordinary truth: Christ was the redeemer of his Mother and carried out his redemptive action in her “in the most perfect way” (Fulgens corona, AAS 45 , 581), from the first moment of her existence. The Second Vatican Council proclaimed that the Church “admires and exalts in Mary the most excellent fruit of the Redemption” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 103).
Solemn definition serves the faith of God’s People
This solemnly proclaimed doctrine is expressly termed a “doctrine revealed by God”. Pope Pius IX adds that it must be “firmly and constantly believed by all the faithful”. Consequently, whoever does not make this doctrine his own, or maintains an opinion contrary to it, “is shipwrecked in faith” and “separates himself from Catholic unity”.
In proclaiming the truth of this dogma of the Immaculate Conception, my venerable Predecessor was conscious of exercising his power of infallible teaching as the universal Pastor of the Church, which several years later would be solemnly defined at the First Vatican Council. Thus he put his infallible Magisterium into action as a service to the faith of God’s People; and it is significant that he did so by defining Mary’s privilege.