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Mary's Sinlessness


From Mariology by Rt. Rev. Msgr. Joseph Pohle, Ph.D., D.D.

B. Herder Book Co., 1953, pp. 72-82. 


The Blessed Virgin Mary was free from concupiscence, which is the source of personal or actual sin. It follows that she was absolutely sinless, and, in a sense, impeccable. We shall make our meaning clear in three theses.


Thesis 1: The Blessed Virgin Mary was throughout her life actually exempt from every impulse of concupiscence.


This proposition is theologically certain.


Proof. The term concupiscence may signify either a habit (habitus concupiscentiae, fames peccati), or the exercise of that habit (actus concupiscentiae, motus inordinati).


As a habit, concupiscence does not involve a state of enmity with God. So long as the will withholds its free consent, the first inordinate stirrings (actus primoprimi) of concupiscence are not formally sinful and, therefore, do not per se involve a moral defect. Objectively and materially, however, they run counter to the moral law, and the only reason 'why they are not sinful is the absence of free consent, which is a subjective condition of sin. For this reason St. Paul calls concupiscence sin, and the Council of Trent explains that it " originates in and leads to sin." In this sense concupiscence, both as a habit and as an act, involves a moral taint, especially if the habit be conceived as seeking vent in inordinate movements.

Revelation does not tell us whether or not concupiscence existed as a habit in the soul of the Blessed Virgin Mary. If it did, it never manifested itself in objectively sinful motions, because Our Lady, for the sake of her Divine Son, was preserved absolutely pure and immaculate. This is Catholic teaching which has at all times been so generally acknowledged that the opponents of the Immaculate Conception never ventured to attack it.

1) The Protevangelium and the Angelic Salutation furnish no stringent proof for our thesis, because concupiscence does not necessarily entail enmity with God. The argument rests mainly on Christian Tradition, which, since about the fifth century, so consistently developed the idea of Mary's absolute sinlessness that it became an axiom with the Scholastics that "the Mother of God must have been endowed with a purity inferior only to that of God Himself and His Christ." 5 Now, though concupiscence is called sin only in a figurative sense, its indeliberate stirrings, as we have said, involve a moral taint, which cannot be harmonized with the notion of absolute purity. Consequently, the Blessed Virgin Mary, as the pure Mother of God, must have been entirely exempt from concupiscence.

a) Some of the traditional witnesses give explicit utterance to this conclusion. Thus Hesychius of Jerusalem refers to our Lady as " she whom the odor of concupiscence hath not touched, nor the worm of pleasure harmed." 8 St. John of Damascus greets her as a "holy book, imperviable to evil thoughts." 'I Other Patristic writers exalt her purity above that of the angels, and thus virtually declare her immune both from original sin and concupiscence. Thus we read in the works of St. Ephrem Syrus: "Mother of God . . . all-pure, all-immaculate, all-stainless, all-undefiled, all-blameless, all-worthy of praise, all-incorrupt; . . . after the Trinity, mistress of all; after the Paraclete, another consoler; and after the Mediator, the whole world's mediatrix; higher beyond compare than Cherubim and Seraphim, . . . fulness of the graces of the Trinity, holding the second place after the Godhead."

b) The theological argument rests partly on the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, and partly on that of our Lady's perpetual virginity to Neither of these prerogatives could coexist with concupiscence, which is an effect and a remnant of original sin and utterly repugnant to the high ideal of virginity which the Christian Church has always admired in our Lady. 

But if she was exempt from concupiscence, how could she perform meritorious acts? The answer is easy: by the conscientious practice of humility, obedience, mortification, and other virtues.

2) Theologians at one time disputed the question whether concupiscence (tomes peccati) was merely checked (ligatus) or entirely extinct (ex tinctus) in the Blessed Virgin. Now that her Immaculate Conception is an article of faith, this question can be decided by simply saying that concupiscence did not exist at all in our Blessed Mother. Being a penalty of sin, concupiscence cannot have dwelled in a soul which was never even for an instant defiled by iniquity.

Following the lead of St. Thomas, most older theologians divide the earthly life of our Lady into two periods and hold that during the first period concupiscence lay dormant in her soul, while during the second, it was totally extinct.14 This distinction can be defended only on the assumption that our Lady's so-called first sanctification consisted in her being cleansed from original sin in her mother's womb, rather than in her being entirely pre- served from it. The definition of the dogma constrains us to believe, both on theological and philosophical grounds, that the habit of concupiscence was radically destroyed in the soul of our Lady by virtue of her Immaculate Conception. This is really the only consistent view to take. It was espoused by some of the earliest defenders of the dogma, e. g., Duns Scotus and Gabriel Biel. The objection that so sublime a prerogative would exalt the Mother at the expense of her Divine Son, was refuted by Suarez, who showed that, rightly understood, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception tends rather to enhance than to diminish the glory of Christ.

The foregoing considerations enable us to form a solid opinion with regard to the question whether or not the sinlessness of the Blessed Virgin may be described i as a state of original justice analogous to that of our first parents in Paradise. The answer depends on how we define the term justitia originalis. If we take it to mean the totality of those supernatural and preternatural prerogatives which our first parents enjoyed in the Garden, then Mary was not conceived and born in the state of original justice, because, unlike Adam and Eve, she was subject to death and suffering and in need of being redeemed. But if we define iustitia originalis as perfect sanctity and sinlessness, we can and must say that the state of original justice was more fully realized in Mary than in Adam and Eve.


Thesis II: The Blessed Virgin Mary was by a special divine privilege actually exempt from personal sin.


This thesis embodies an article of faith. Proof. The Council of Trent declares: "If anyone assert that man, after he is once justified, is able ,to avoid throughout his lifetime all, even venial sin, except by a special divine privilege, as the Church holds in regard to the Blessed Virgin, let him be anathema."


Hence it is an article of faith that Mary, in contradistinction to all other human beings, was by a special privilege preserved from venial as well as mortal sin throughout her lifetime.


It should, however, be noted that this dogma merely asserts the fact of Mary's sinlessness, but does not say that it is based on impeccability.


a) That the Blessed Virgin Mary was pre- served from sin may be inferred (1) from the Scriptural and Patristic teaching that she enjoyed the fullness of grace,18 and (2) from the fact that her purity surpassed that of the angels. The argument is strengthened by a consideration of her intimate union with Christ, the "second Adam," and her own antithetical relation to the "first Eve."


Mary was incapable of committing mortal sin for the reason that God had put absolute and permanent enmity between her and the devil, which fact is incompatible with original, and a fortiori with mortal, sin. She could not even commit venial sin; for though venial sin does not destroy the bond of friendship with God, it involves a positive moral defect which we can not attribute to the Blessed Virgin Mary without running counter to the traditional conception of her absolute sinlessness. If Mary were not absolutely stainless, the Church could not exhort us to address her in the terms of the Canticle of Canticles: "Thou art all fair. 0 my love, and there is not a spot in thee."


b) As regards Tradition, the dogma of the sinlessness of the Blessed Virgin, unlike that of her Immaculate Conception, did not undergo a process of clarification, but existed from the beginning in the fully developed form in which it has come down to us. "We must except the Holy Virgin Mary," says St. Augustine, "concerning whom I wish to raise no question, when it touches the subject of sin, out of honor to the Lord." In other words, the Blessed Virgin Mary was without sin because the honor of her Divine Son demanded it.


This quotation from St. Augustine fairly represents the belief of Western Christendom. Strange to say, the dogma of the personal sinlessness of our Lady suffered temporary obscuration in the East, where the Immaculate Conception was so tenaciously professed. St. Chrysostom holds that the petition which Mary addressed to her Son at the marriage feast of Cana was prompted by feminine vanity and her desire to speak to Jesus when He was preaching to the multitudes, by imperiousness. St. Basil and St. Cyril of Alexandria interpret the prophecy of Simeon as implying that a doubt in the Divinity of Jesus would enter the heart of Mary under the Cross. Petavius boldly censures these opinions as  “preposterous.” However, the fact that they were held by such eminent authorities proves that during the first four centuries the dogma of the personal sinlessness of our Lady was not so generally believed in the East as in the West, where SS. Ambrose and Augustine proclaimed and defended it. The attitude of the Greek Fathers may perhaps be explained by the fact that they were imbued with the Oriental notion that woman is inu ferior to man and subject to certain frailties and defects which are not strictly speaking faults. In judging their attitude, therefore, it will be well to distinguish between an accidental popular notion and the tradition of the faith. The Madgeburg Centuriators were certainly not justified in appealing to the Fathers in their endeavor to represent Mary as a sinful woman, for St. Andrew of Crete and St. John of Damascus, and long before either St. Ephrem Syrus, faithfully voiced the true ecclesiastical belief.


Thesis III: The proximate cause of our Lady's sinlessness was a kind of impeccability; its remote and ultimate cause was the grace of Divine Motherhood.


We are now dealing with a merely probable theological opinion.


Proof. Sinlessness (impeccantia) is actual freedom from sin; impeccability (impeccabilitas), absolute inability to sin. The former does not necessarily imply the latter, because God could preserve a human being from sin by simply with- holding his physical concurrence. In the case of our Lady, however, we are justified in assuming that her purity was due to a kind of intrinsic impeccability.


Impeccability may be either metaphysical or moral. Metaphysical impeccability belongs exclusively to God, whereas moral impeccability may also be enjoyed by creatures. It is enjoyed, e. g., by the angels and saints in Heaven. God is impeccable because He is absolutely and infinitely holy; Christ, in consequence of the Hypostatic Union; the angels and saints, by virtue of the beatific vision of the Godhead which they enjoy. How are we to conceive the impeccability of the Blessed Virgin Mary? It is quite obvious that her impeccability must differ specifically from that proper to God and the God-man Jesus Christ. Hers is not a divine attribute, nor is it conditioned by or based upon a personal union of divinity with humanity. It cannot be a result of the beatific vision, because Mary during her sojourn on earth was a wayfarer like ourselves and did not enjoy beatitude. Comparing her impeccability to that of the angels and saints and to that of our first parents in Paradise, we may define it as an intermediate state between the two. It would be asserting too much to say that the Blessed Virgin was capable of committing sin like our first parents; and too little to assert that during her life-time she was in- capable of sinning as the angels and saints of Heaven are now, in consequence of the beatific vision. In what, then, did her impeccability consist? We are probably not far from the truth when we assume that God gave her the gift of perfect perseverance as against mortal sin, and that of confirmation in grace as against venial sin. Together with her freedom from concupiscence these two graces may be regarded as the proximate cause of Mary's impeccability. For its ultimate cause we must go back to the higher and more comprehensive prerogative of her divine motherhood.85 God owed it to His own dignity and holiness, so to speak, to bestow the grace of perfect perseverance and confirmation in grace upon her from whom His Divine Son was to assume human nature. This idea is aptly illustrated by" the woman clothed with the sun" whom St. John visioned in the twelfth chapter of the Apocalypse. The analogy between Mary's impeccability and that of her Divine Son would seem to render this theory all the more acceptable, though we must, of course, never forget that the impeccability of Christ is based upon the Hypostatic Union of Godhead and manhood, whereas that of His Mother rests merely upon the grace of divine motherhood.


READINGS: - *St. Thomas, S. Theall., 3a, quo 27, art. 4, and the commentators.-*Suarez, De Myst. Vitae Christi, disp. 4, sect. 3-6.- Vasquez, Comment. in S. Th., disp. 118.- Petavius, De Incarnatione, XIV, I sqq.-Albertus Magnus, Mariale, quo 133 sqq., Lugduni 1651.- Christopher Vega, Theologia Mariana, palaestr. VII, cert. 4; IX, I, Lugduni 1653.- *Scheeben, Dogmatik, Vol. III, § 2&>, Freiburg 1882.-Tepe, Institutiones Theologicae, Vol. III, pp. 7~ sqq., Paris 1896.-J. Bucceroni, Commentarii de SS. Corde Iesu, de B. Virgine Maria et de S. Josepho, ed. 4, pp. 81 sqq., Rome 1896.- J. Niessen, Die Mari- ologie des hI. Hieronymus, Munster 1913, pp. 181 sqq. 86 Cfr. Scheeben, Dogmalik, Vol. III, I 280.



Copyright © 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved