When Christians engage atheists about the character of the prophet Muhammad, they often bring up the fact that medieval Arabic sources say Muhammad was betrothed to a six- or seven-year-old-girl named Aisha and then consummated the marriage with her when she was nine or ten years old.
In response, some Muslims reinterpret the historical data to try to make Aisha a teenager or young adult when the marriage was consummated. Others accept that Aisha was a pre-teen when the marriage was consummated but then try to trip up Christians by pointing out that Mary was probably a teenager, or possibly a pre-teen herself, when God asked her through the angel Gabriel to bear his Son.
Of course, God did not have sexual intercourse with Mary, but Christians still have to grapple with the fact that God chose to bring his son into the world through a teen pregnancy (the Catholic Encyclopedia, for example, says she was possibly twelve or thirteen years old). And as I’ll note in a moment, secular critics also latch on to this fact to say that the God of the Bible is some kind of predator.
Before I share how the dogma of the Immaculate Conception provides a helpful way to respond to these objections, let me address some common, less effective responses.
For example, if you say there is nothing scandalous about Mary becoming pregnant at twelve or thirteen because that was a cultural norm in first-century Israel, then you’d have to say Muhammad marrying a child wasn’t scandalous because that was a cultural norm in medieval Arabia. It’s one thing for God to tolerate an evil aspect of the human condition during times of revelation. It’s another for him to directly cause it.
Or if you say that, unlike Muhammad, God didn’t have sex with Mary but only caused her to become pregnant, I still think issues related to consent arise. For example, I’m sure even non-Catholics would say that a fifty-five-year-old man shouldn’t impregnate a twelve-year-old girl, even if he used a non-sexual way to do it like in vitro fertilization.
But along with the Muslim “you too” objections involving a child becoming pregnant, there are the secular “me too” objections that say a child or even any woman would be a victim if God chose to impregnate her to bring his son into the world.
These critics say that even if someone verbally consents to sex or pregnancy, if the person she consents to is an authority figure, she may not be free to say “no,” and so the sex or pregnancy isn’t truly consensual. This is why it’s often illegal for therapists to have sexual relations with their clients or employers to have sexual relations with their employees. There is too much of a power imbalance, and so the weaker party may say “yes” only because she fears the consequences of saying no to the stronger party.
Returning to Mary, there is no bigger power imbalance than what exists between a creature and the infinite all-powerful Creator. It would seem, then, that even if Mary were an adult and not a teenager, she wouldn’t be fully free to say “yes” to pregnancy through the Incarnation. Part of the reason she might say “yes” is because she was worried about what would happen to her if she said no. Would you be afraid of doing something that contradicted the will of God?
But God would never make it be the case that Mary agreed to him impregnating her in order, even in a slight way, to avoid a divine punishment or to hasten a divine reward. God must have made it so that when he asked Mary, through Gabriel, to bear the Son of God, Mary was in a position where she knew that a “no” would not displease God or represent a disordered desire that contradicts God’s will.
Mary would have to be free from any disordered desires that would contradict God’s will. She would have to have been given a gift of grace from God so that whatever decision she makes is always in accord with God’s will. Mary would then be the kind of person who never acts against God’s will—is never subject to sin. And here is where the dogma of the Immaculate Conception comes into play to provide a unique answer to this objection.
Because she was not subject to original or personal sin, Mary was never in a position of worrying that a decision not to accept the Incarnation would displease God. Through God’s grace, Mary could choose to say no if she wanted to, knowing that this would not displease the Creator in any way. In his book God Is Near Us, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said, “Without the freely given assent of Mary, God cannot become man. Certainly, this Yes Mary says is wholly by grace” (19). That’s why the Catechism says,
The Father blessed Mary more than any other created person “in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” and chose her “in Christ before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless before him in love” (492). . . . To become the mother of the Savior, Mary “was enriched by God with gifts appropriate to such a role.” The angel Gabriel at the moment of the annunciation salutes her as “full of grace.” In fact, in order for Mary to be able to give the free assent of her faith to the announcement of her vocation, it was necessary that she be wholly borne by God’s grace (490).
One could also argue that this gift of grace allowed Mary to have the proper emotional maturity to consent to becoming pregnant, which is different from Muslims defending teen pregnancy in general. When it comes to secular critics, I find this objection hypocritical, since many of them believe that teenagers are mature enough to have abortions or choose their own genders. But regardless, the Immaculate Conception not only distinguishes Mary’s pregnancy from the teen pregnancies defended by Muslims, but also distinguishes it from the teen pregnancies and marriages condemned by secular critics, because an all-powerful God can make it so that Mary’s dignity is not harmed in any way by being part of the Incarnation.
This argument has been defended at length by the philosopher Jack Mulder, Jr., who provides some solid answers to common objections. For example, there is the claim that this line of reasoning would mean that whenever God was involved with other pregnancies, like Sarah’s in the Old Testament or Elizabeth’s in the New Testament, those women would also have to have been immaculately conceived. Or that for any woman to consent to sex, she would have to be free from sin.
Mulder responds, “None of these are cases in which God is directly and uniquely the spouse of a woman.” He appeals to God’s direct involvement in Mary’s impregnation and the associated espousing of the Holy Spirit. Luke 1:35 uses spousal imagery when Gabriel tells Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.”
Some Protestants might say that at best, this proves only that Mary was free from sin at the Annunciation, not necessarily since her conception. Martin Luther, for example, moved away from belief in the Immaculate Conception, but even in 1540, he said with regard to the Annunciation, “The flesh and blood of Mary were entirely purged, so that nothing of sin remained.” In response, I would just say that it seems arbitrary to say God chose this moment to give Mary grace rather than at any other moment and that the angel’s greeting, “Hail, full of grace,” signifies that her being full of grace was a part of her identity even before the announcement about the Incarnation.
With all of these things in mind, we need to be careful to not overstate our argument. I don’t consider this “consent” angle to be a knock-down proof of the Immaculate Conception, but I do think it is a strong argument that can be a valuable part of a more cumulative case. And I do think it is a big help when secular critics say that Christianity involves God basically “raping” Mary or taking advantage of her through the Incarnation. It’s also helpful when Muslim apologists say there is no difference between a Muslim man impregnating a thirteen-year-old girl and God causing a thirteen-year-old Mary to become pregnant.
God is not some man in the sky who impregnated a scared thirteen-year-old girl. He is instead the perfect Creator, who gave the Blessed Virgin Mary grace to be free from all sin so that she could freely consent to give her body over to God in order to cooperate with his plan to save mankind.