One of our basic beliefs as Catholics is that Mary is, in a curious way, always referred to Jesus. Her own words at the wedding in Cana (John 2) stand as a sort of emblem of all that she has to say to us: “Do whatever he tells you.” She directs us to her Son.
And yet, in the text of Scripture, her recorded words constitute such a tiny bit of documentation that it is understandable many Christians get the impression Catholic piety concerning Mary is a vast exegetical mountain build a minuscule textual molehill. Not surprisingly then, many non-Catholics (and, alas, not a few Catholics) believe that Catholic Marian teaching can be eliminated or ignored with little consequence for the integrity of the gospel.
I used to believe the same thing. “How is the gospel improved,” I used wonder, “by tacking on these Marian teachings?” What I eventually came to realize was that I was asking wrong question. The real question is, “What happens to the coherence of the gospel if these teachings are rejected from the seamless weave of the Tradition?”
Take the Immaculate Conception. Even after it is clarified that the church only believes Mary was sinless because of the grace of God and “not on her own steam,” it is still often argued that she must have been a sinner because “all have sinned” (Romans 3: 23). But if we press St. Paul into rigorously meaning by this “every last human being on earth, especially Mary” there is no way to keep that steam roller from running over Jesus too since Paul does not say “all have sinned except for Jesus.” In short, Paul assumes his readers will know he has exceptions in mind to his general rule. If we try to soften the objection by saying she was only human and not divine like Jesus and that’s why she’s sinful, we may seem to make progress, but are, in fact, no nearer the mark. For, at bottom, we are really taking a biblical teaching (“sin is normal”) and using it as a platform from which to lead to an unbiblical conclusion (“sin and humanness are identical”).
In light of the Incarnation, it is profoundly mistaken to think that humanity is necessarily or naturally sinful. It isn’t. Sin is normal, but never natural. Nature is not corrupt; corruption is corrupt. Sin is precisely what is contrary to our human nature. It is damage to nature, not nature itself, which constitutes sin. Thus, sin (which we all inherit in Adam) is always a warping and a deformation of our nature. In Christian understanding, nature is essentially good since it and grace (not sin) have the same author: God. Grace does not build on sin. It heals sin, eradicates sin, repairs the effects of sin, forgives sin. When that process is complete (as it shall be for the saints in heaven) those saints shall no longer be afflicted by sin in any way. That would be impossible if sin and humanness were identical.
Very well then, if there is nothing intrinsically impossible with the idea of sinless humanness in heaven for people who don’t happen to be Jesus, there is also nothing intrinsically impossible with Mary is being preserved from sin right here on earth by the same God who gets people to heaven. It is true that, apart from the authority of the church, there is no way we could know this about Mary. But then again, apart from the authority of the church, there is no way we would know that the Holy Spirit is God either. All that means is that Scripture is intended to be read in light of the full teaching of the church. When we do, we find that to deny the sinlessness of Mary on the mere ground that she’s human and therefore must be sinful has the surprising effect of messing up our understanding of the Incarnation.
And there is an understandable reason for that. Mary is the source of the Incarnation. Christianity is not merely a religion of the word. It is a relationship with the Word made flesh. But the Word gets his flesh from somewhere. All Christians believe in the blood of Christ shed on the cross. But God the Son, in his divine nature, had no blood to shed till the received it in purity from his mother. No Mary, no Incarnation; no Incarnation, no death on the cross; no death on the cross, no resurrection; no resurrection, no salvation for the world. Get rid of Mary and you don’t get a purified faith: you get nothing. That is the consequence of overlooking this often neglected truth.