From a dialogue on the CHNI forum. The probing questions of one participant (a convert to the Catholic faith) will be in blue.
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I wrote about this very issue in one of my papers: Was Mary's Immaculate Conception Absolutely Necessary?
That said, Catholics believe that her sinlessness is extremely fitting and proper, by God's design, on the principle that the closer we get to God, the more holiness is present. That's how it will be in heaven, when God finally takes all sins away. Mary is a foreshadowing of the sinlessness that is to come for all who are saved (just as her Assumption was the "firstfruits" of the resurrection that Jesus made possible for all men), and she hearkens back to Adam and Eve before the Fall (hence her title of "Second Eve" from the fathers).
The Immaculate Conception is a return to the state of things for all human beings before the fall and rebellion against God by the human race. She is what God intended all human beings to be, if we would have simply cooperated and obeyed. So what better person to be freed from sin, than the Mother of God the Son, who bears God in her own womb?
That's altogether fitting, plausible, and believable. But it was not necessary in the nature of things.
As usual, the Church comes down in the sensible middle, between the extremes of a sinful Mary on the one hand and a necessarily immaculate Mary on the other. "Appropriate and fitting" is how the Church sees it.
I have a question about this. If Mary had not been saved through her immaculate conception, would she not, of necessity, communicated her sinful nature to Christ? Am I flawed in my reasoning here?
Jesus, being God, is impeccable: it is not possible for Him to have sinned. Therefore, He could not have been subject to transmission of original sin, even if Mary had not been immaculate.
Nor can God contradict Himself. God couldn't have rebelled against Himself. Therefore, Jesus could not have received original sin, which means a participation in the rebellion against God.
Everything you have written makes sense, I understand that of course the path God chose was most fitting, and I also understand that as God, Jesus could not sin. But what I am trying to get straightened out in my mind (because I have an ongoing discussion with Protastants about the role of Mary, and I don't want to present flawed reasoning) is : If all people are subject to original sin through the transmission of our human nature, and Jesus received His human nature from Mary at the moment of His conception, then Mary must have been without original sin at the time of His conception. Does that follow? Or, am I making too much of a distinction between His taking on human nature, and His receiving it from the Blessed Virgin?
I think what I really want to ask is: How do we know that Mary communicated her human nature to Jesus, as opposed to Him taking human nature and using her womb as a host (so to speak)? To me it seems obvious, she was his mother, therefore she communicated her nature as every other mother does, in addition, the Holy Spirit waited for her agreement before overshadowing her, indicating that this was a cooperation on her part. I am at a loss to show the necessity of Mary's cooperation, and therefore the neccesity of her sinlessness. I hope that makes it more clear.
Did Mary give her DNA to Jesus, or did he make his own, and then implant in her womb? Did she contribute a zygote? Or do we know? has the Church ever speculated in any concrete way about this? The reason the Immaculate Conception does work is that Jesus applied His own atonement to Mary's soul at her conception, so it was not a simple matter of making a pure body out of a contaminated body. However, Jesus could not have done that for Himself - if His sinlessness was contingent on His sacrifice on the Cross, then that sacrifice would not have been sufficient since He would need that sacrifice to be made sinless,
It's not contingent upon the cross, because of His impeccability: being God He has always existed and has doe so without sin or even the possibility of sin. God doesn't need to be saved, and to say that He saved Himself is nonsensical.
but He could (and did) apply that atonement to Mary's soul at the moment of conception which left her free to choose grace and communicate her own sinless nature to Him without relying on his own sacrifice to atone for himself.
Yes (setting aside the hypotheticals for a moment) everything of that nature came from Him in the first place. Thus, St. Anselm wrote in his classic, Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man):
- Anselm: Moreover, the virgin, from whom that man was taken of whom we are speaking, was of the number of those who were cleansed from their sins before his birth, and he was born of her in her purity.
Boso: What you say would satisfy me, were it not that he ought to be pure of himself, whereas he appears to have his purity from his mother and not from himself.
Anselm: Not so. But as the mother's purity, which he partakes, was only derived from him, he also was pure by and of himself.
The only other option I see is that He created His own human nature, and merely took up residence in Mary's womb, and I just don't buy that either. So, the question is: did Mary give Jesus His human nature, or not?
In pondering your question further, I believe I may have hit upon an answer:
Insofar as original sin is transmitted by DNA, ultimately indirectly, in the sense that the union of sperm and egg creates another person, and all persons are subject to original sin, this difficulty is overcome in Jesus, not by Mary's Immaculate Conception, but by the Virgin Birth.
Mary's egg (ovum), that she contributed to the process of the birth of Jesus; from which He did indeed receive her DNA, was not yet a person, since it is an egg, which is necessary to personhood as an immediate precursor, but not identical with it. If Jesus had been born of Joseph and Mary, then it would have been a non-miraculous process, and original sin would have (arguably) only been avoided by Joseph being immaculately conceived (having had original sin removed) and sinless, just as Mary was.
As it was, Joseph is taken out of the equation, since Mary became pregnant miraculously by means of the Holy Spirit.
Therefore, if Mary's egg was not subject to original sin, since it was not a person, and only persons are subjected to that, and the Holy Spirit has no original sin (being God), then original sin would not have been transmitted to Jesus, by straightforward deduction from all of the above.
Conclusion: Mary's Immaculate Conception was not, strictly speaking, necessary for Jesus to be born sinless, without original sin, yet with human DNA and a human nature, whereas the Virgin Birth seems necessary in order to avoid "corruption" from physical human descent. There is such a thing as a human nature without sin and original sin, just as Adam and Eve possessed before the fall.
And this line of argument should be agreed to by any Protestant who denies neither original sin nor the Virgin Birth, since these are usually held by Protestants as well. It's a "general" argument that doesn't depend on prior Catholic dogma (the Immaculate Conception).
Dave, the question that your argument leaves me with is: If Mary had not been Immaculate, would Jesus have been able to receive His human nature from her?
Yes. My above reasoning accounts for this. This is one reason why we can say that the Immaculate Conception was not absolutely necessary in order to preserve Jesus from sin. It was extremely fitting and appropriate: Mary being the "ark of the New Covenant." Therefore God chose to do it that way. It makes perfect sense. And the Church in her Spirit-guided wisdom (after many centuries of pious reflection) has decided that this is a belief that all Catholics must hold.
But as for Jesus receiving His human nature (or, human qualities deriving from DNA: Jesus may very well have looked like Mary, just as any son might look like his mother) from Mary independently of whether she was immaculate and without original sin herself, that is "solved" by the miracle of the Virgin Birth.