The dogma of the Immaculate Conception refers, as we know, to the blessed Virgin Mother of God as having been preserved from all sin (including the stain of original sin) from the first moment of her conception. The dogma, of course, is about the Immaculate Conception of Mary – even though many Catholics mistakenly think it refers to the virginal conception of the Christ Child.
Still, this common misconception about the Immaculate Conception leads us to a further point of reflection: Was Christ immaculately conceived? Our answer to this Christological question will help us to understand the Marian dogma in a new light.
What do we mean by “Immaculate Conception”?
The dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary is not simply that our Lady was without all sin (including original sin), but specifically that (in view of the merits of Jesus Christ) God preserved her from contracting the stain and guilt of original sin.
Without this singular grace, Mary would have been conceived in sin. Thus, it is clear that Mary needed to be redeemed – but her redemption is unique insofar as it took place at the very instant in which she was conceived. Hence, she has been preserved from both the stain and the guilt of original sin (though she still incurred the debt of sin and had need of a Redeemer).
Thus, in regards to our Blessed Lady, we say that she would have been conceived maculate (with the stain of sin) excepting for the grace of God in view of the foreseen merits of Christ. And this is what the Church means by “Immaculate Conception” – Mary was redeemed by Christ her Son in a preservative (rather than a reformative) manner. According to the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, Mary was redeemed at the first moment of her existence and was preserved from the guilt of original sin.
Did Christ need to be redeemed?
Our Savior did not need to be redeemed, since he was conceived in grace on two accounts: First, as a divine Person it is clear that no sin (not even original sin) could possibly accrue to him; second, since original sin is passed on through the process of generation and since Christ was conceived without any active generative power on the part of man (for he was conceived of the Virgin by the power of the Holy Spirit), it is clear that he did not inherit original sin from Adam.
The Lord Jesus did not need to be redeemed, but was himself the Redeemer. While it is true that all (and even the Blessed Virgin, in one sense) “died” in Adam, the Lord Jesus most certainly did not die in Adam, nor did he contract original sin from him – for his human nature was actively generated by the power of the Holy Spirit and not according to the seminal power of man (thus, he did not and could not inherit original sin).
Unlike the Blessed Virgin Mary, there is no sense in which the Christ had need of a redeemer.
Only Mary received this singular grace – Christ did not require it
When defining the dogma, Pope Blessed Pius IX states that the Immaculate Conception was a “singular grace” given only to our Lady – hence, it is clear that the Lord Jesus did not have need of the grace of the Immaculate Conception.
Beyond the nature of the incarnation itself, there was no need of any additional grace to preserve the Christ Child from contracting original sin from Adam. And this is the great difference between the Savior and his Mother: Mary would have had original sin without a special preservative grace; but the Lord could not possibly have had original sin, since he was God himself and was not conceived according to the mode of human generation.
The difference between Jesus and Mary
And this is the great difference between Jesus and Mary: She required a special grace to preserve her from the stain of sin, but our Savior (by virtue of the Incarnation itself, and on account of his divinity) could not possibly have contracted the guilt or debt of original sin in any respect.
While our Blessed Lady, even though Immaculately Conceived, required a Redeemer (namely, her own Son, Christ Jesus), the Lord did not have any need of a Redeemer. No special grace was required (beyond that of the Incarnation itself) to keep the Christ Child from original sin – he could not possibly have contracted it.
In this sense the dogma of the Immaculate Conception is seen to be fitting and true while (in itself) not absolutely necessary, but the sinslessness of the Lord Jesus is absolutely necessary and super-eminently fitting. Thus, there can be no comparison between the Savior and our Mother Mary, for she was only a creature and was in great need of a Redeemer, but the Lord Jesus was in no way subject original sin and had no need of redemption himself (since his humanity was created by the Holy Spirit and not by the propagation or generation [thus, he did not inherit original sin]).
The dogma Immaculate Conception declares that our Lady was preserved from the stain of sin which she would have ordinarily contracted, but Jesus was conceived in such a manner as to be absolutely free from original sin such that there was no possibility of him contracting it.