Mr. Shaun McAfee, O.P. is the author of Reform Yourself! and other books, is the founder and editor of EpicPew.com, and contributes to many online Catholic resources. He holds a Masters in Dogmatic Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary. Shaun has made his temporary profession as a Lay Dominican and temporarily lives in Italy.
Upon converting to the Catholic Church, a huge stumbling block was the dogmas regarding Mary. Not only did they not make sense, but frankly, I didn’t want them to be true. I think most Protestants feel that way. When they hear a good argument, it can challenge their beliefs and if their life is based on those beliefs, this new truth can alter everything.
Such is the nature of conversion. It’s expected. It’s supposed to change your life! Lukewarm conversions stay lukewarm. But a good argument can cause anyone, lukewarm, cold, or hot, to reconsider their religion or at least plant seeds of doubt.
Eventually, I got over my fear of Mary. I guess that’s what I’ll call it. Someone wisely said, “Don’t worry, you can never love Mary more than Jesus.” I didn’t want anyone to be on par with or exceed the apparent glory deserving of Jesus, God’s Son. But Mary, like Jesus, continues to grow with me in knowledge and in devotion. I am better equipped year after year to defend the resurrection, and yet be completely compelled to love Him. With Mary, I continue to be amazed much the same that I grow in love with her, and I develop better understanding of the Church’s teaching on her.
So one of those topics is the sinless soul of Mary. This was a tough one to get through. Every Protestant can recite Paul’s words to the Romans, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (3:23). You can’t really look at those words, on first examination, not mince the universality of them. “All” is all. Right? Then there is John 1:8, “If any man says he has no sin he is a liar and the truth is not in him.” I guess I can get childish and say, “yeah but Mary is a woman.” I’m just kidding. But really, these were stumbling blocks for me.
In the process of navigating this teaching, one of the arguments I heard from Catholic friends was that the angel Gabriel tells Mary she is “full of grace” and that means she is sinless. Okay, there’s something to think about. There are online resources still available that argue for this position, with good arguments, but there is one particular theologian who disagrees to an extent. Thomas Aquinas addresses this in his Summa Theologiae, with very convincing acumen.
But in fact, the argument stems from a question regarding Jesus: “Is the fullness of grace proper to Christ?” In other words, Thomas is asking, “Is Christ the only one who is full of Grace?”
If you’ve never read the Summa you need to know that Thomas dissects everything, and has a flow of logic that builds a philosophical foundation, point by point. So for Thomas, this is not a mere ‘the Bible says this’ or ‘this Greek word means that’, but rather this is an argument of what actual can belong to a thing, and what can belong to a person.
Thomas tells us that we must consider grace in two ways: first, on behalf of grace itself, and second, on behalf of the one that grace is given. On the first, “fullness of grace” is attainted when the limit or excellence of grace is achieved and this is by essence or by power. In this regard, Jesus is truly the only human being who is full of grace because, by his essence, he is and commands grace at once. On the second, a subject (a person) may be “full of grace” inasmuch as their condition allows. For example, limited in how much grace God allows one to have (Eph. 3:8). In this way, grace is not proper to Christ, but proper to those whom grace is communicated to (the rest of us).
With that set-up, Thomas explains which category Mary is in and why:
The Blessed Virgin is said to be full of grace, not on the part of grace itself — since she had not grace in its greatest possible excellence — nor for all the effects of grace; but she is said to be full of grace in reference to herself, i.e. inasmuch as she had sufficient grace for the state to which God had chosen her, i.e. to be the mother of His Only-begotten. So, too, Stephen is said to be full of grace (Acts 6:8), since he had sufficient grace to be a fit minister and witness of God, to which office he had been called. And the same must be said of others. Of these fulnesses one is greater than another, according as one is divinely pre-ordained to a higher or lower state.
Read this in Tertia Pars, Question 7, Article 10 at New Advent.org.
To make this as simple as possible, Thomas is saying that Mary’s nature was gifted by God to be completely full of sufficient grace. She was full of grace as a recipient, but not as a giver. Each of us, like Stephen, can be “full of grace” to the limit and purpose of our condition (Act 6:8). What enables that fullness, for those who are not God, which is all of us, is our cooperation with grace. Mary, uniquely, happened to be so cooperating and so full, that she was withheld at the same time from original (the full part) and actual sin (the cooperating part). It’s mind-boggling, but it is sound theology.
There are great arguments to prove our Marian dogmas, and when we use them, we need to be sure they are used correctly. Simply saying that “the Bible says Mary is full of grace”, ergo she is sinless, does not cut it. Yes, this verse points to her uniqueness, but in the ways you and I are uniquely limited in grace (again, double read Ephesians 3:8), Mary is full of grace in reference to herself, which is ultimately in reference to her Savior — which is exactly how she references Him: “my spirit rejoices in God my savior” (Luke 1:47).