The Marian dogma of the Immaculate Conception was first successfully defended by the Franciscan friar, Bl. John Duns Scotus. He was able to maneuver his way through the intellectual deadlock surrounding this theological issue and paved the way for its eventual proclamation in 1854, by Pope Pius IX.
This summary is taken from the book, Blessed John Duns Scotus: Marian Doctor, by Fr. Stefano M. Manelli, Fl (Pg. 84-88).
The two chief objections to the radical immunity from original sin in Mary were based on two truths of faith.
- The universality of original sin: If it is true, as it is very true, that all the children of Adam ‘have sinned’ in him (Rm 5:12), then Mary Most Holy must also have sinned in Adam as she too is his descendant.
- The universality of redemption: If it is true, as it is very true, that the redemption of Christ is universal, i.e., wrought for all men, it would not, in reality, have been universal were Mary conceived without original sin and so have had no need of redemption.
In the face of these indubitable truths of faith, even the great masters of Paris did not know how to explain the total immunity of Mary Most Holy from original sin.
Let us take, for example, the case of Saint Bonaventure. When he speaks of Our Lady, he uses sublime terms and images; he exalts her above the stars, and he contemplates her as all pure and radiant, more beautiful than the dawn and every flower of creation. In all this, Saint Bonaventure appears to be exactly in harmony with the Faith of the Fathers of the Church, and of the Christian people who believed in the Immaculate Conception of Mary.
But Saint Bonaventure, speaking theologically, could not resolve the difficulties urged against the Immaculate Conception of Mary, and so he found himself on the side of theologians who admitted only the sanctification of Mary in her mother’s womb.
Such was the situation and the position of the renowned University of Paris up to that time. It is here that John Duns Scotus, the Subtle Doctor, the holy and magnificent knight of the Immaculate enters the scene. Enlightened by God, he succeeded in breaking the stalemate and theological paralysis in which the University of Paris – the greatest of the universities of higher learning – found itself with its rejection of the truth of the Immaculate Conception.
From the very start, we must affirm and understand that in defending the original purity of Mary Most Holy, Blessed John’s point of departure is the marvelous vision of the eternal predestination of Christ and Mary, of their absolute primacy over all celestial and terrestrial creation. In such a meta-historical vision, he could not but see Mary utterly immaculate from the first moment of her conception.
But apart from this absolute predestination of Mary with Christ before every creature, he relied upon the Scriptures and the authority of Saint Augustine and Saint Anselm to exclude any taint of sin from the all Holy Virgin, even of original sin.
St. Augustine said: ‘When speaking of Mary, I do not want to speak of sin.’ And St. Anselm: ‘It was fitting that the Virgin should enjoy a purity without equal after God.’
These are affirmations of capital importance, even if St. Augustine and St. Anselm did not expressly draw out their application to questions touching the holiness of Mary at her conception. But how can one concretely resolve the two critical problems which arise from the transmission of original sin through descent from Adam on the part of Mary, and of the universality of the redemption which cannot exclude a descendant of Adam such as Mary?
Blessed Scotus approached the two difficulties with depth and subtlety of argument.
‘Mary Most Holy,’ argues Blessed Scotus, ‘is a daughter of Adam like all mankind, yet she did not contract original sin.’
How can he affirm this? He can affirm this because he maintains that Mary was preserved from contracting original sin, i.e., she was redeemed not by a liberative action (as happens for all other men), but by a preservative action. She was not freed from sin already contracted (as in the case of St. John the Baptist in his mother’s womb), but she was preserved from contracting original sin that threatened to stain her.
But is this preservative redemption in fact redemption? ‘Certainly,’ responds Blessed John Duns Scotus! It is, in fact, a more perfect redemption than liberative redemption, because it is more perfect to preserve a person from a fall than to lift him up after falling. ‘It is a more excellent benefit’ writes Blessed Scotus, ‘to preserve someone from evil, rather than permit him to sin and need to be freed from it.’
But was such a preservative redemption only something of benefit to Our Lady? ‘No,’ responds Blessed Scotus. It was above all benefit to Jesus, because in this way, He has achieved a most perfect redemption; whereas had He not accomplished this preservative redemption, such perfection in His work would have been lacking: ‘Therefore,’ writes the Blessed, ‘if Christ is the most perfect Reconciler, He must have merited that someone be preserved from sin. Such a person is none other than His Mother.’
Precisely with regard to His Mother, therefore, Jesus has been the most perfect Redeemer. Applying the merits of the redemption to her in advance is a sign of His immense love and filial veneration. In such a way, this solution to the difficulties not only harmonized with faith in the dogma of the universality of original sin and redemption, but also made the figure and work of Jesus, most perfect Redeemer, shine more brightly in the figure and privilege of Holy Mary, daughter of Adam, pre-redeemed, dazzling with the fullness of grace from the first instant of her conception.
– Lucas G. Westman