Immaculate Conception and the Church Fathers
Question: The Church Fathers believed in the Immaculate Conception. St Augustine writes this about Mary: “With the exception of the holy Virgin Mary, in whose case, out of respect for the Lord, I do not wish there to be any further question as far as sin is concerned, since how can we know what great abundance of grace was conferred on her to conquer sin in every way, seeing that she merited to conceive and bear him who certainly had no sin at all?”
Answer: Read out of context, this bare quotation seems to prove that Augustine believed in the immaculate conception of Mary. In fact, it was Pelagius, the great heretic, who taught such a thing, not Augustine. Augustine believed that all humans, all the descendants of Adam, are conceived in sin, with the singular exception of Jesus Christ, who was born of the virgin mother, Mary.
In this particular writing, he is answering the Pelagian argument that there were many saints who lived a perfectly moral life. The question is about their conduct and not their conception. Augustine answers, in part:
Augustine argues that none of the saints mentioned by Pelagius, except Mary, “lived without sin.” He believed that Mary was given grace to overcome sin and lead a sinless life. But please note that he is speaking about Mary's conduct in life, and not about her conception!
Following Augustine, several scholastics also believed that Mary led a perfect life; and yet they denied the idea of her immaculate conception. Thomas Aquinas would be a good example. He believed that Mary was sinless throughout her life, “We must therefore confess simply that the Blessed Virgin committed no actual sin, neither mortal nor venial.” Yet he also affirmed that she contracted original sin at her conception: “For Christ did not contract original sin in any way whatever, but was holy in His very Conception, according to Lk. 1:35: ‘The Holy which shall be born of thee, shall be called the Son of God.’ But the Blessed Virgin did indeed contract original sin, but was cleansed therefrom before her birth from the womb” (Summa III: 27).
Elsewhere Augustine speaks directly about original sin:
Augustine taught that no person born of natural procreation ("of a man and a woman") is free from sin. With the exception of Christ, everyone since Adam and Eve were born in this way, including Mary. Therefore it is implied that Mary too was not free from original sin since she was conceived by a man and woman. Jesus is the exceptional case because of His unique conception by the Holy Spirit. Augustine emphasizes that the Lord Jesus alone did not experience the contact of the earthly corruption.
© Dr Joseph Mizzi