A Dogma for Today
The Immaculate Conception tells of both our littleness and God’s immensity
In The World’s First Love, Fulton Sheen draws attention to the timing of the definition of the Immaculate Conception. The first televangelist sees in Pope Pius IX’s declaration a certain prophetic character that stood in stark contrast to the spirit of the times. Fueled by Rousseau, Darwin, Marx, and Mill, the modern mind was convinced that Immaculata was nothing special. All men are immaculately conceived and capable of becoming gods through their own efforts. Original Sin, rather than remaining within our collective awareness, had faded into irrelevance.
The denial of Original Sin is at the heart of most of our social ills. In this regard, we are most certainly post-Christian. Without the Bad News, the Good News amounts to little more than shouting in the wind. Now the disordered has replaced the ordered with chaos. Feelings have displaced reason and repression becomes the only sin. Ordered liberty is ousted by license. But rather than remaining optimistic, the regime of libidinous liberty has paved the way for a pessimism that borders on nihilism. From within the framework, the Immaculate Conception is a dogma for our age. It tells us of both our own littleness and of God’s immensity.
G.K. Chesterton once quipped that Original Sin is the “only part of Christian theology that could really be proved and… can be seen in the street.” In the street, Original Sin has become like the Emperor’s New Clothes. Collectively we deny its existence, rationalize it away and play the victim’s card, but in the privacy of our own hearts we cannot run away. How many of us will fail at our New Year’s resolutions because, to echo St. Paul, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (Romans 7:15-16). The dogma of the Immaculate Conception reminds us that we are fallen and that only the Mother of God received this “singular grace.”
But this need not be a reason for pessimism. Mary’s Immaculate Conception also tells us just how powerful Christ’s redemptive act is. His death on the Cross sent shockwaves even backwards in time to redeem the New Eve before she even fell. If it is that powerful, then it can raise each one of us out of our nihilistic slumber. This is why Protestant attacks on the Immaculate Conception are so tragic. Rather than taking away from Our Lady’s greatness, such attacks reduce the power of the Cross. A redemption that does not include a pre-demption is less powerful than one that does. A rejection of this dogma destroys faith, which might explain how we have gotten into the mess we have. The dogma also carries with it a promise that helps us to see our otherwise hidden greatness. But this greatness is nothing we can achieve on our own. Only when we echo Mary’s fiat can we begin to receive it. She is the greatest of the great, but nevertheless she serves as a beacon of hope of the promise that we will all share.
At the heart of culture is cult, meaning that culture is at root liturgical. This makes the celebration of the Immaculate Conception especially important, not just for Catholics but for all men and women. We have forgotten who we are, and the Immaculata reminds us of both our smallness and our greatness.
Mary Immaculate, Pray for us!