First, I want to preface what I am about to say by stating that I do not believe in such a thing as “Marian doctrine.” That is, I reject the idea that we have doctrines about people other than God. For example, I do not consider the dogmatic expression Theotokos to be a “Marian doctrine.” This is rather a dogmatic Christological doctrine that also happens to concern Mary. We call Mary the “Mother of God,” not because it is a statement about Mary, but because it is a statement about Christ. This may not sound like a relevant distinction to make, but this could constitute a cosmic rift in how one approach the presence of Mary in doctrine. This leads to the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, which is defined as the following:
The Immaculate Conception means that Mary, whose conception was brought about the normal way, was conceived without original sin or its stain—that’s what “immaculate” means: without stain. The essence of original sin consists in the deprivation of sanctifying grace, and its stain is a corrupt nature. Mary was preserved from these defects by God’s grace; from the first instant of her existence she was in the state of sanctifying grace and was free from the corrupt nature original sin brings. (Catholic Answers)
Catholics will also point to a supposedly implicit reference found in the angel’s greeting to Mary. Depending on the translation, the angel Gabriel said, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you” (Luke 1:28). It is this “full of grace” part that will be argued to represent the idea that Mary was without the stain of Original Sin. However, it is beyond a stretch to suggest that the meaning is clear. It could simply refer to the special honor that Mary had in being the one selected to give birth to God. Also, there is no mention of Mary’s sin (or lack thereof) anywhere in the text. Therefore, because of the ambiguity, this verse should simply be left out of the conversation because it serves only to distract from the doctrinal assertions. I also want to avoid leaning on the authority of certain church fathers, because I am primarily interested in discussing the logical progression of the content.
The Immaculate Conception (if you notice) actually has nothing to do with Christ and everything to do with speculating about Mary (as a subset of Original Sin). The fact that the Immaculate Conception is about Mary, and not about Christ, makes the doctrine irrelevant to my practical life. Whether or not Mary was conceived without the stain of Original Sin has no effect on my life in church, my prayers, my Christology, or my salvation. It is superfluous to theology, and I speak as someone who loves theology. I cannot even call it a Theologumena because it is not an opinion about God. Perhaps it would be more properly called a Mariologumena. I disagree with the Immaculate Conception as a doctrine in of itself, not because it is a Catholic formulation. I have to make this clear, because there are many Orthodox Christians who reject the Immaculate Conception not because they have wrestled with it and simply disagree, but because they know it is Catholic, and they think they are supposed to reject anything that is Catholic. This is not my approach to things (and have even explicitly lamented this mentality here), so I wanted to lay out my own personal reasons for rejecting the Immaculate Conception (or at least how it is popularly articulated). Also, I do not write this to “stick it to the Catholics.” I am not interested in rhetoric for rhetoric sake, I am only interested in throwing arguments in the furnace and see if it can withstand the heat or be consumed. I could be misunderstanding certain aspects of the teaching, so the responses will be helpful for me to further understand the opposing perspective.
The Theological Implications
In a YouTube video, Fr. Mike Schmitz compares the Immaculate Conception to the distinction between healing sickness and getting a vaccine. There is also another analogy that makes a distinction between saving people who fell into a pit, and saving someone who is about to fall into a pit. He said Mary was saved retroactively, “By the merits of her Son’s future life, death, and resurrection,” because Christ’s merits transcend time. Christ chose to save all of us after we fell into the pit, but Mary was prevented from falling. Christ chose to save all of us after we were diseased, but chose to give Mary the vaccine. In other words, Mary is the exception, so I will name this concept “The Marian Exception.”
The Marian Exception (that Mary was retroactively saved from Original Sin) undermines what we know of God’s salvific plan, because it immediately reveals an alternative plan that is inherently better than what is. I can accept the notion that Christ’s salvific acts transcend time, obviously, because if they didn’t, then none of us could be saved (by virtue of not living in the first century). However, if it were possible for God to intentionally have Mary without the stain of Original Sin, then it is also possible for God to do it for others (unless one will admit that it is an act of natural process on the part of Mary rather than a monergistic intentionality on the part of God). And if this is true, then He would do it for others: not just because we already know that God’s will is that none should perish (2 Pet. 3:9), but also because there would be a whole lot less sin in the world because of it. Just imagine if everyone was like Mary; if everyone was given vaccines from the beginning; if God prevented everyone from falling into the pit, and saved everyone retroactively through the cross. This is the alternative plan I mentioned. If we grant that God does not need sin to accomplish His goals, and if we grant that less sin in the world is better than more sin, then is this plan not inherently better than the one which is revealed? Therefore, the Marian exception suggests that God intentionally chose to have more sin in the world, rather than less. God could have prevented everyone from having the stain of Original Sin, yet chose not to, and instead only did it for Mary. This is counter-intuitive to His own goals to make Mary an exception rather than the norm, as I have already demonstrated. If a Marian exception were possible, then He would do it for everyone. If everyone is not saved like Mary, then the exception is not possible. God would not choose to not save everyone retroactively if He could (simply because the outcome is better than the alternative). These are the only logical options based on the rules of revelation (ie: forming a developmental and rhetorical foundation based upon that which has been revealed). So we must ask the question: “If God had the option to retroactively save everyone without messing with free will, and we know He wants to save everyone, would God willfully go against His own interests just to make an exception out of one woman?”
We know that Mary did not have a unique nature because she died. Under the Athanasian paradigm, people die because they exist under the “law of death” in Adam. Thus, every human being is mortal, because every human being receives the words given to Adam: “ye shall surely die.” For one to be an exception to this actually undermines the entire framework. It would mean, for Athanasius, that God is a liar, and that such a person is somehow not in Adam. Therefore, if we grant the validity of this understanding, then the mere fact of Mary’s death proves that she inherited Adam’s nature (One might bring up Elijah and Enoch ((if one accepts the tradition of them not dying as being literal history)), but these two are eventually slain in Revelation 11).
I have also heard it said that Mary, at her conception, cooperated with grace in a unique manner such that no other individual before her did, and thus she was preserved from original sin from conception. This synergistic explanation being a response to understanding the Immaculate Conception in a monergistic sense. However, one cannot “cooperate” with God prior to one’s own conception (unless of course you believe in the preexistence of souls). It is the conception itself that would, in theory, transmit original sin. In such a framework, it would have to be God who actively spared her in an active monergistic sense (because nature precedes the conscious will). Will is an energy which eternally proceeds from desire (the essence of the fall was not a restriction of the will, but the cosmic shift in desire). “Desire” has to do with a subject’s potential steadfastness to commune with an object, whereas “will” is actualized communal steadfastness itself. Cooperation is an act of the will. The will (being an energy of desire) is influenced by nature (even though nature can be changed by the will if there is a shift in desire, as seen with Adam and Eve). Thus, my formulation would be Nature —> Desire —> Will (which is then repeated after the fall with a different nature, which leads to different desires and a blinded will). For Mary to have cooperated with grace from the beginning, she would have first needed a nature without original sin, which she could have no part in causing, since we have a nature before we have a will with which to cooperate with God.
These are just some quick thoughts on the matter because I was asked to write on this, so they are by no means set in stone. I could be mistaken in some of my rhetorical foundations/assumptions, so I welcome discussion and clarity.