Mary’s faithful co-operation in the saving work of her Son made it
fitting that she should be completely free from sin and share fully in
The scriptural texts on which the dogma of the Immaculate Conception
is based were the subject of the Holy Father's catechesis at the General
Audience of Wednesday, 29 May. The images in these texts, "although
not directly indicating the privilege of the Immaculate Conception, can
be interpreted as an expression of the Father's loving care which
surrounds Mary with the grace of Christ and the splendour of the
Spirit", the Pope said. Here is a translation of his talk, which
was the 21st in the series on the Blessed Virgin and was given in
1. In the doctrinal reflection of the Eastern Church, the expression
"full of grace", as we saw in the preceding catecheses, has
been interpreted since the sixth century as a unique holiness which Mary
enjoys throughout her existence. She thus initiates the new creation.
Along with Luke's account of the Annunciation, Tradition and the
Magisterium have seen in the so-called Protoevangelium (Gn 3:15) a
scriptural source for the truth of Mary's Immaculate Conception. On the
basis of the ancient Latin version: "She will crush your
head", this text inspired many depictions of the Immaculata
crushing the serpent under her feet.
On an earlier occasion we recalled that this version does not agree
with the Hebrew text, in which it is not the woman but her offspring,
her descendant, who will bruise the serpent’s head. This text then
does not attribute the victory over Satan to Mary but to her Son.
Nevertheless, since the biblical concept establishes a profound
solidarity between the parent and the offspring, the depiction of the
Immaculata crushing the serpent, not by her own power but through the
grace of her Son, is consistent with the original meaning of the
Mary was granted power to resist the devil
2. The same biblical text also proclaims the enmity between the woman
and her offspring on the one hand, and the serpent and his offspring on
the other. This is a hostility expressly established by God, which has a
unique importance, if we consider the problem of the Virgin's personal
holiness. In order to be the irreconcilable enemy of the serpent and his
offspring, Mary had to be free from all power of sin, and to be so from
the first moment of her existence.
In this regard, the Encyclical Fulgens corona, published
by Pope Pius XII in 1953 to commemorate the centenary of the definition
of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, reasons thus: "If at a
given moment the Blessed Virgin Mary had been left without divine grace,
because she was defiled at her conception by the hereditary stain of
sin, between her and the serpent there would no longer have been—at
least during this period of time, however brief—that eternal enmity
spoken of in the earliest tradition up to the definition of the
Immaculate Conception, but rather a certain enslavement" (AAS 45
The absolute hostility put between the woman and the devil thus
demands in Mary the Immaculate Conception, that is, a total absence of
sin, from the very beginning of her life. The Son of Mary won the
definitive victory over Satan and enabled his Mother to receive its
benefits in advance by preserving her from sin. As a result, the Son
granted her the power to resist the devil, thus achieving in the mystery
of the Immaculate Conception the most notable effect of his redeeming
3. By drawing our attention to Mary's special holiness and her
complete removal from Satan's influence, the title "full of
grace" and the Protoevangelium enable us to perceive, in the unique
privilege the Lord granted to Mary, the beginning of a new order which
is the result of friendship with God and which, as a consequence,
entails a profound enmity between the serpent and men.
The 12th chapter of Revelation, which speaks of the "woman
clothed with the sun" (12:1), is often cited too as biblical
testimony on behalf of the Immaculate Conception. Current exegesis
agrees in seeing in this woman the Community of God's People, giving
birth in pain to the risen Messiah. Along with the collective
interpretation, however, the text suggests an individual one in the
statement: She brought forth a male child, one who is to rule all the
nations with a rod of iron" (12:5). With this reference to
child-birth, it is acknowledged that the woman clothed with the sun is
in a certain sense identified with Mary, the woman who gave birth to the
messiah. The woman-community is actually described with the features of
the woman-Mother of Jesus.
Identified by her motherhood, the woman was with child and she cried
out in her pangs of birth, in anguish for her delivery" (12:2).
This note refers to the Mother of Jesus at the Cross (cf. Jn 19:25),
where she shares in anguish for the delivery of the community of
disciples with a soul pierced by the sword (cf. Lk 2:35). Despite her
sufferings, she is "clothed with the sun—that is, she reflects
the divine splendour—and appears as a "great sign" of God's
spousal relationship with his people.
These images, although not directly indicating the privilege of the
Immaculate Conception, can be interpreted as an expression of the
Father's loving care which surrounds Mary with the grace of Christ and
the splendour of the Spirit.
Finally, Revelation invites us more particularly to recognize the
ecclesial dimension of Mary's personality: the woman clothed with the
sun represents the Church's holiness, which is fully realized in the
Holy Virgin by virtue of a singular grace.
4. These scriptural assertions, to which Tradition and the
Magisterium refer in order to ground the doctrine of the Immaculate
Conception, would seem to contradict the biblical texts which affirm the
universality of sin.
The Old Testament speaks of a sinful contamination which
affects everyone "born of woman" (Ps 50 :7; Jb 14:2). In
the New Testament, Paul states that, as a result of Adam's sin,
"all men sinned", and that "one man's trespass led to
condemnation for all men" (Rom 5:12, 18). Therefore, as the Catechism
of the Catholic Church recalls, original sin "affected human
nature", which is thus found "in a fallen state". Sin is
therefore transmitted "by propagation to all mankind, that is, by
the transmission of a human nature deprived of original holiness and
justice" (n. 404). Paul however admits an exception to this
universal law: Christ, he "who knew no sin" (2 Cor 5:21), and
was thus able, "where sin increased" (Rom 5:20), to make grace
abound all the more.
St Irenaeus presents Mary as the new Eve
These assertions do not necessarily lead to the conclusion that Mary
was involved in sinful humanity. The parallel, established by Paul
between Adam and Christ, is completed by that between Eve and Mary: the
role of woman, important in the drama of sin, is equally so in the
Redemption of mankind.
St Irenaeus presents Mary as the new Eve, who by her faith and
obedience compensated for the disbelief and disobedience of Eve. Such a
role in the economy of salvation requires the absence of sin. It was
fitting that like Christ, the new Adam, Mary too, the new Eve did not
know sin and was thus capable of co-operating in the Redemption.
Sin, which washes over humanity like a torrent, halts before the
Redeemer and his faithful Collaborator. With a substantial difference:
Christ is all holy by virtue of the grace that in his humanity derives
from the divine person; Mary is all holy by virtue of the grace received
by the merits of the Saviour.