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The Church Fathers believed in the Immaculate Conception. St Augustine writes this about Mary: “With the exception of the holy Virgin Mary, in whose case, out of respect for the Lord, I do not wish there to be any further question as far as sin is concerned, since how can we know what great abundance of grace was conferred on her to conquer sin in every way, seeing that she merited to conceive and bear him who certainly had no sin at all?”
Read out of context, this bare quotation seems to prove that Augustine believed in the immaculate conception of Mary. In fact, it was Pelagius, the great heretic, who taught such a thing, not Augustine. Augustine believed that all humans, all the descendants of Adam, are conceived in sin, with the singular exception of Jesus Christ, who was born of the virgin mother, Mary.
In this particular writing, he is answering the Pelagian argument that there were many saints who lived a perfectly moral life. Augustine answers, in part:
“He then enumerates those ‘who not only lived without sin, but are described as having led holy lives, -- Abel, Enoch, Melchizedek, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joshua the son of Nun, Phinehas, Samuel, Nathan, Elijah, Joseph, Elisha, Micaiah, Daniel, Hananiah, Azariah, Mishael, Mordecai, Simeon, Joseph to whom the Virgin Mary was espoused, John.’ And he adds the names of some women, -- ‘Deborah, Anna the mother of Samuel, Judith, Esther, the other Anna, daughter of Phanuel, Elisabeth, and also the mother of our Lord and Saviour, for of her,’ he says, ‘we must needs allow that her piety had no sin in it.’ We must except the holy Virgin Mary, concerning whom I wish to raise no question when it touches the subject of sins, out of honour to the Lord; for from Him we know what abundance of grace for overcoming sin in every particular was conferred upon her who had the merit to conceive and bear Him who undoubtedly had no sin” (Augustine, On Nature and Grace, Against Pelagius).
Augustine argues that none of the saints mentioned by Pelagius, except Mary, “lived without sin.” He believed that Mary was given grace to overcome sin and lead a sinless life. He is speaking about Mary's conduct, and not about her conception!
Following Augustine, several scholastics also believed that Mary led a perfect life; and yet they denied the idea of her immaculate conception. Thomas Aquinas would be a good example. He believed that Mary was sinless throughout her life, “We must therefore confess simply that the Blessed Virgin committed no actual sin, neither mortal nor venial.” Yet he also affirmed that she contracted original sin at her conception: “For Christ did not contract original sin in any way whatever, but was holy in His very Conception, according to Lk. 1:35: ‘The Holy which shall be born of thee, shall be called the Son of God.’ But the Blessed Virgin did indeed contract original sin, but was cleansed therefrom before her birth from the womb” (Summa III: 27).
Elsewhere Augustine speaks directly about original sin:
“It is therefore an observed and settled fact, that no man born of a man and a woman, that is, by means of their bodily union, is seen to be free from sin. Whosoever, indeed, is free from sin, is free also from a conception and birth of this kind. Moreover, when expounding the Gospel according to Luke, he says: It was no cohabitation with a husband which opened the secrets of the Virgin’s womb; rather was it the Holy Ghost which infused immaculate seed into her unviolated womb. For the Lord Jesus alone of those who are born of woman is holy, inasmuch as He experienced not the contact of earthly corruption, by reason of the novelty of His immaculate birth; nay, He repelled it by His heavenly majesty” (Augustine, A Treatise on the Grace of Christ, and on Original Sin).
Augustine taught that no person born of natural procreation (‘of a man and a woman’) is free from sin. With the exception of Christ, everyone since Adam and Eve were born in this way, including Mary. Therefore it is implied that Mary too was not free from original sin since she was conceived by a man and woman. Jesus is the exceptional case because of His unique conception by the Holy Spirit. Augustine emphasizes that the Lord Jesus alone did not experience the contact of the earthly corruption.