Jack Mulder, Jr. is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Hope College.

I am pleased to see that my argument for the Immaculate Conception generated a response, although I am a bit surprised at the sort of response it generated. R. Gary Chiang and Evelyn M. White present an interesting analysis of the biological data surrounding human reproduction as it concerns the issue of original sin. In this response, I want first to discuss some concerns I have about their methodology and then I will go on to discuss some more substantive points about their paper. One of the points of Chiang and White’s analysis seems to be to demonstrate their claim that the biological data show that “there is no need to invent a mechanism by which the ovum of Mary escaped the stain of original sin”1 especially since no human male, but rather the Holy Spirit, is responsible for Mary’s pregnancy. It is surprising to me that this would have been the response occasioned by the paper I wrote, since I explicitly eschewed relying on the nature of generation to suggest that something about bearing a sinless individual or even God the Son would have required the Immaculate Conception. Chiang and White cite my claim to this effect,2 and are, at times, aware of the irrelevance of these biological data to my argument, but they also note, “Unknown to many proponents of the Immaculate Conception, a modern understanding of the biology of human reproduction has revealed a means by which an immaculate ovum could be produced from a body that is tainted with the stain of original sin.”3 I am honestly not sure which proponents of this doctrine they are discussing. They do not cite any. For my part, I am happy to admit that I learned some things from their biological presentation, but the things I learned were not the sorts of things I had ever thought were positively false or upon whose falsity I had relied in crafting my argument for the Immaculate Conception.

Maybe they mean Pope Pius IX and those responsible for authoring Ineffabilis Deus, the 1854 Apostolic Constitution in which the dogma of the Immaculate Conception was defined. But they do not appear to mean that, since they note that “the bull states that there was no biological need to make Mary immaculate.”4 Yet maybe that is who they really have in mind nevertheless, since they note, “When Pope Pius IX thought it fitting to officially accept the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, the inheritance of acquired characteristics was believed to be the means by which the stain of original sin infected the whole human race.”5 If Pius IX is the real target, then it is worth keeping two things in mind. First, even if Ineffabilis Deus relies on outdated biology, that need not affect the dogma itself.6 The meaning of the dogma is what matters, not the historical trappings of its articulation. Secondly, however, I think Chiang and White will search Ineffabilis Deus in vain to find an explicit endorsement of the kind of outdated biology they reject.

The other methodological concern I have is that it appears there is some confusion over basic terms. Early in their paper, they claim that “Neither author of the present paper believes in the Immaculate Conception, but it is not because we do not accept the logic of Mulder’s argument…. based on his premises, his argument appears sound.”7 At this point, we should observe that, in logic, to call an argument “sound” is to say both that all of its premises logically entail the conclusion should they be true and that those premises are true. Thus, it is to say that the conclusion is true and that the argument is successful in delivering it. Chiang and White go on to claim that I use psychology (I am a philosopher, but this probably qualifies as philosophical reflection on a moral psychological matter) to argue for the Immaculate Conception. They, however, use biology to argue against this doctrine.8 They hope that theologians and scientists will seek truth by not limiting their understanding to one discipline (I, of course, hope for that, too).9 But the trouble is that they are already suggesting that the disciplines themselves are at loggerheads. No one wins if that is the case. What they need to do is to find some hole in my argument, because this is not a disagreement between psychology (or philosophy or theology) and biology. In my view, this is a disagreement concerning Mary’s consent and what would be needed to preserve it. I hold that the Immaculate Conception, in effect, indemnifies God from being a kind of rapist, and that the denial of the doctrine will entail that Mary’s consent is less than fully free for the majority of Christians.

Chiang and White note that “Mulder admits that he really cannot define the stain of original sin.”10 If by that they mean that I am not ready to trot out a theory of the transmission of original sin as the final truth of the matter, then I plead guilty. However, it is not at all clear that this is what is necessary to defend the argument I put forward. An immaculate ovum is beside the point; we need an immaculate “yes” from Mary. My argument requires only that if Mary inherits original sin then her psychological state at the time of the Annunciation will fall short of the fully free consent that God would have every reason to desire. Throughout most of their paper, Chiang and White do not answer the question of how to get an immaculate “yes.” Their biological analysis regarding the possibility of the hereditary transference of the “mortogenic factor” concedes all that my argument would require. It is only in their conclusion that they present an actual challenge to my argument, which I will discuss shortly.

Chiang and White concede the truth of something like monogenism, or the view that the human race descended from one set of first parents, for the purposes of argument, whether or not they actually accept it.11 It may be worth noting that the current position of the Catholic Church still favors monogenism over polygenism.12 Regardless of that issue I think it is fair to say that Catholics, myself included, who wish to express fidelity to their Church’s teachings13 would avoid two distinct extremes (though they would presumably avoid others as well) on the transmission of original sin. First, they would avoid the view that original sin is imputed by God to the descendants of our first parents in a way that is merely extrinsic.14 Second, they would avoid the rigidly biological view that original sin is, to be frank, a sexually transmitted infection (which Chiang and White seem to suggest). There are good theological reasons to be wary of the latter view. After all, if original sin could be biologically pinpointed, then, theoretically, it could be eradicated without Christ’s redemption. Perhaps for reasons such as these, the Catechism of the Catholic Church notes that “the transmission of original sin is a mystery that we cannot fully understand.”15

Kenneth Kemp has recently made a distinction between the biological human species, the philosophical human species (which requires a rational soul), and the theological human species (which requires an eternal destiny), where mere membership in the biological species is insufficient to qualify one as “truly human.”16 Perhaps there is a way in which our heredity tracks more than just biology. Indeed, perhaps our own eternal destinies, while distinct, are knit together in ways we do not fully understand. In 1984, Pope John Paul II suggested that there is a certain “communion of sin, whereby a soul that lowers itself through sin drags down with itself the church and, in some way, the whole world.”17 More recently, Pope Benedict XVI has emphasized that “Our lives are involved with one another, through innumerable interactions they are linked together. No one lives alone. No one sins alone. No one is saved alone.”18 While I am not ready to formulate a precise theory at this point, there are possibilities to explore that do not commit us to quite the rigidly biological view discussed by Chiang and White.

In their conclusion, Chiang and White suggest that every female born of Jewish parents “would freely give themselves to the Holy Spirit should they be confronted by an angel bearing this message.”19 They go on to say “[God] had ensured this attitude would exist among Jewish youths even in a stiff-necked people by encouraging and rebuking this nation to continue in His ordinances that ultimately point to the hope of a coming Messiah.”20 To this claim, I can only point to my work on the nature of coercion in which I argue that any sense in which Martha (a counterfactual Mary impostor) considers a divine rebuke for her refusal in her deliberation is a sense in which her decision is mixed with freedom and coercion. Further, given her inheritance of disordered inclinations, Martha would experience this offer as jarring and would be positively inclined against it (even if she decided for it), or disordered inclinations mean nothing at all.

Citing my analogy of Sally giving her money to Tony, Chiang and White prefer their analogy of another Sally who is a “pious non-gambler being given winnings of a lottery that she did not participate in.”21 Chiang and White even suggest that Mary’s disordered inclinations would propel her to accept this proposal out of self-interest. First of all, the idea that Mary did not participate in the drama of salvation in early Judaism is strange. Not only would she be aware of how God had dealt with rebels in the past, she would be presented with an offer that, however wonderful to a docile servant of God, would be frightful in the context of a society that would look upon her pregnancy with scorn. Secondly, I think that there may be a misunderstanding about disordered inclinations lurking here. What I think really makes disordered inclinations disordered is not primarily that they lack principle and could fall on just anything. Rather, the problem with disordered inclinations is that they are rebellious. They are disinclinations to do God’s will. In Christianity, God is a person’s blessedness. Every self-interested person who is adequately informed should do God’s will and delight in it. But the person with disordered inclinations, like Milton’s Satan, is inclined to reign in the misery of hell rather than serve in the bliss of heaven. Regenerate Christians still struggle with these inclinations to disobey God, and so would Chiang and White’s Mary if she were not immaculate.

In closing, I will just note that Chiang and White have their misgivings about mediation in Mary, especially the claim, in Ineffabilis Deus, that “she will obtain pardon for the sinner.”22 They then cite “the Reformed perspective that through Christ, and Christ alone, our salvation is assured” as a reason why Reformed Christians might reject the Immaculate Conception. It is worth noting that this and the Immaculate Conception are two different issues. Christ is the one mediator between God and humanity, as 1 Timothy 2:5-6 famously notes. But Mary’s mediation, as well as the mediation of the (other) saints is simply the way the divine pleasure chose to dispense Christ’s mediation; it is mediation in Christ.23 Anyone who has ever said “God worked through so-and-so” should consider how this is the case in regard to such matters as, say, intercessory prayer. How is working through Christ not a mediation in Christ? If Chiang and White choose not to believe that the communion of saints and their mediation continues even into death, I suppose they are at their leisure, but I confess I find it strange.24

Cite this article
Jack Mulder Jr., “A Response to Chiang and White on the Immaculate Conception”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 43:3 , 261-265


  1. Chiang and White, 252.
  2. See Mulder, “Why More Christians Should Believe in Mary’s Immaculate Conception,” Christian Scholar’s Review 41 (2012): 117-134 at 119. See also Chiang and White, 258.
  3. Chiang and White, 243.
  4. 241.
  5. 248.
  6. See the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith’s declaration Mysterium Ecclesiae, 5 (in Church documents these are paragraphs or sections and not pages) at: http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_19730705_mysterium-ecclesiae_en.html.
  7. Chiang and White, 242.
  8. 243.
  9. 243.
  10. 249.
  11. 248.
  12. See Pope Pius XII’s Humani Generis, 37, at http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/pius_xii/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xii_enc_12081950_humani-generis_en.html. For a very fruitful defense of monogenism that works within the framework of contemporary genetic and evolutionary science, I refer the reader to Kenneth Kemp’s “Science, Theology, and Monogenesis,” American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly 85 (2011): 217-236. For a suggestion that monogenism might not be an irreformable position of the Church, see Germain Grisez, The Way of the Lord Jesus, vol. 1 (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1983), 351.
  13. See Lumen Gentium, 25 at http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19641121_lumen-gentium_en.html.
  14. See Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, ed. James Canon Bastible, trans. Patrick Lynch, 4th edition (1955; reprint Rockford: Tan Books, 1960), 110. It is also worth noting that the “brute fact” view I discuss on 118n4 of my original article is even more extreme than this imputation view, since all the “brute fact” view appears to hold (or all I understood it to hold) was that it just turns out that everyone is sinful even though it might not have. Chiang and White erroneously cite me offering “‘brute force’ associated with survival of the fittest” as one view of original sin (249). This is a misreading.
  15. See Catechism of the Catholic Church, 404 at http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/_INDEX.HTM.
  16. Kemp, “Science, Theology, and Monogenesis,” 230 and 232.
  17. See Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, 16 at http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_jp-ii_exh_02121984_reconciliatio-et-paenitentia_en.html.
  18. See Spe Salvi, 48 at http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/encyclicals/documents/hf_ben-xvi_enc_20071130_spe-salvi_en.html.
  19. Chiang and White, 258.
  20. 258.
  21. 258.
  22. 241.
  23. See Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium, 60 at http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19641121_lumen-gentium_en.html and John Paul II, Redemptoris Mater, 38 at http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_25031987_redemptoris-mater_en.html.
  24. I am indebted to Chikara Saito for many helpful comments on drafts of this response.

Jack Mulder Jr.

Hope College
Jack Mulder Jr. is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Hope College.