Photius Jones’ Objection to the Immaculate Conception

I have seen the following point brandished about on several occasions, and I want give a critique of it:

“The reverse is in fact true, the IC doctrine is most illustrious example of irresistible grace (to sound Augustinian). Here’s the objection: if God CAN do that to Mary (in my view this isn’t a logical possibility even in the garden, unless God were to “create” an uncreated hypostasis), why doesn’t he just do this to everybody and save us all a whole lot of trouble?


To answer frankly, I don’t have an answer to this question.  I don’t know why God created the world the way He did, or how this hell hole we live in is the world best suited to carry out God’s will.  Nevertheless, I do have a few objections to this paragraph.

To get the quibbles out of the way first, I don’t think that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception completely blotted out Mary’s freedom to participate with said grace.  If she was sinless, it was because she cooperated with that abundance of grace that she was given.  Of course quibbles aside, the substance Mr. Jones’ objection is that if God could give Mary enough grace that she possibly could (and did) avoid sinning, why doesn’t He give others the same grace and save us all a bunch of trouble?  Mr. Jones presumedly thinks it is easier to deny the Immaculate Conception than to be stuck with such a problem. 

The problem is, Mr. Jones seems to be objecting to something that seems empirically obvious, something not necessarily related to the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.  It seems self-evident to me that God gives some people an abundance of graces that He does not give other people, graces which, with the cooperation of individuals, saves them from a multitude of sins.  St. Paul was about to kill a great number of Christians before God intervened.  The effect of that theophany was a complete change of St. Paul’s life.  He no longer persecuted Christians, and the very fact that He encountered God in this way served as a springboard towards virtue.  Mary, whether she was immaculately conceived or not, was given the privilege of seeing angels and bearing our Savior in her womb (I doubt Mary could ever doubt God’s existence after that one!)  The Apostles–who were scared out of their minds after the death of Jesus–were given the opportunity to see the resurrected Christ in his risen glory. 

Some modern day examples:  I am a convert.  God did not “compel” me to convert, but He revealled Himself to me in a way that so many of my numerous struggles with my faith immediately fell away.  I would probably not be Catholic today had Christ not intervened so directly in my life:  and yet, most people do not receive the metaphorical “smack in the head with a 2×4” like I did.  In addition, some saints seem to be graced from their youth with gifts from God, such as the ability to be an instrument of God’s miraculous intervention in the world e.g. St. Padre Pio.  In his later years, Padre Pio sometimes said that he does not know what God is thinking, but God sometimes allows him to “look off of His notebook.” 

God might not be able to guarantee that a person will cooperate with His grace so fully that they never sin (i.e. even a sinless Mary needed to cooperate with grace), but it seems obvious to me that God graces some people so much that, at the very least, they reduce their sinfulness drastically (in the case of St. Paul) and allows them to grow more deeply in virtue than they could have without the theophany.  These gifts are gratuitous, and have nothing to do with how well the person had previously cooperated with God’s grace e.g. St. Paul was no saint before God chose him to be the Apostle to the Gentiles; but of course, he reached sanctity afterwards, something that probably wouldn’t have happened without God’s gratuitous intervention.

On the flip side, I also know several people who seem to have had few opportunities to encounter Christ in their daily lives.  Not only do they not see miraculous things, but they see only the worst side of life.  At my current ministry, several of the kids grew up in AIDs-infested homes.  They encounter gang-violence every day, often watching their own relatives die before their eyes.  Most of them had sex before they ever entered high school, and some have seen such evils that they are self-proclaimed atheists by the age of 12.  So it seems like God gives some people so much grace that they would be idiots not to turn their lives around, and there are some people who seem like they are “on their own,” so to speak, to seek out and find Christ.

So here’s my question for Mr. Jones:  if it is possible for God to make such a difference in people’s lives–even without God compelling them to be virtuous by forcing consent of their wills, but by presenting Himself in theophanies to people–then why doesn’t He do so more often?  Why doesn’t God give every struggling atheist or militant persecutor of the Church the opportunity to hear his voice like St. Paul did?  Why doesn’t He allow them to “read off his notebook” like He did for Padre Pio?  As a matter of fact, why doesn’t God rearrange the stars in the sky so that they read “I, the Father, Son, and Spirit, exist” in every possible language?  Sure, some people may still be unconvinced  by such miracles, but I’ll bet a lot of people would be convinced, becoming ardent Orthodox in the process.  To use Mr. Jones’ own words, this would save us all a whole lot of trouble. 

Mr. Jones and I may disagree on whether God could give a person as much grace as Catholics say He gave Mary, but Mr. Jones seems to fall prey to his own objection.  I am at a loss as to how my objection here is substantially different than his objection to the Immaculate Conception.  I don’t understand why God does a lot of the things He does.  But one thing is certain:  there are a lot of things within God’s power that He chooses not to do.  This seems undeniably true, whether we are talking giving people enough grace that they potentially (or actually, in Mary’s case) remain sinless, or giving people the grace to cease doing many sinful things.  

I probably won’t ever know the answer to a lot of things on this side of the eschaton.  All I can do is have faith that God has all of our best interests in mind, and that He is leading all of us to our ultimate happiness, as long as we cooperate with Him.  Thus far, I have seen God’s providence working so clearly in my life that I have not yet been disappointed.  I don’t expect that to change.

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6 Comments on “Photius Jones’ Objection to the Immaculate Conception”

  1. The historical particularities of the biblical narrative always raises the kinds of questions raised by Daniel Jones. Why Abraham? Why Jacob? Why Moses? Why Israel? Why Jesus? If God can conceive Mary immaculately, why not everyone? An answer, of sorts, can no doubt be offered in response; but it will be a narrative answer, not a philosophical answer.

    The gospel does not eliminate the problem of theodicy. I wrestle with it every day of my life. The cross does not make the unfairness of life go away; it only makes it bearable.

  2. Quite so. See also my .

  3. acolyte Says:

    Compelled or determined? Are these the same? What Mary did was voluntary, but was it free? When you speak of freedom, do you mean a libertarian notion or a compatibilist notion? Aye, there’s the rub.

  4. phamilton Says:


    The question about Libertarian vs. compatibilist freedom is certainly interesting and relevent to related theological discussions, but entirely irrelevent to the question asked or to my response. Yes, Photius assumed that the grace Mary received was irresistible (which is, by the way, a very disputable claim in Catholics circles), but the question does not seem to have more or less weight depending upon whether God could determine everyone’s wills or not.

    Even if God could give everyone irrestible grace, the fact is that He doesn’t; Photius wants to know why. My response: If God can do a lot of things that are within His power which would make the world a better place, then why doesn’t He? I can think of thousands of ways that God could make the world a better place whether He has the power to determine wills or not. It doesn’t matter if God could force an atheist to change his mind by irresistible means or by nearly-irresistible means. God could make His own existence so obvious to the atheist via theophany that he would be an absolute idiot to continue in his old ways (assumedly, God would know exactly how much grace is needed to convert a stubborn atheist). And if the atheist somehow was so stubborn that he could still object, then we merely move the question: why didn’t God “get to work” on this atheist before he got to the point of being so stubborn?

    Irresistible grace or not, why are Catholics supposed to have an answer to Photius’ question while Orthodox are not? Or do the Orthodox have a definitive answer to my question that they only tell to those “on the inside”?

  5. acolyte Says:

    The notions of freedom in play are relevant since the success of your defense turns on which notion of freedom you have in mind. Catholics are supposed to have answers for the model that they propose. If they don’t that is certainly a reason for thinking that something about their view is seriously wrong, not to mention lacking in apologetic and existential appeal.

    And the Orthodox do think we have an answer to it, which is why the Orthodox rope pulls tighter. 😛

  6. phamilton Says:


    I’m not making a defense. The only statement that I am defending is that somehow God chooses not to act because it leads to our ultimate happiness. My “defense” to Photius’ question is a loud and resounding “hell if I know.” It doesn’t help answer my question as to how the Orthodox answer Photius’ own question by harping on the [supposed] faults of Catholicism. The Orthodox may or may not score a lot of points against Catholicism in other areas of theology with the account of freedom that they propose, but I’m entirely at a loss at to how it applies to his question. The question seems to have little to do with how humans are able to respond to God’s actions and everything to do with the fact that God chooses not to do what He is fully capable of doing.

    I’ll assume for a minute that Catholicism is dead wrong on all issues even remotely related to free will. I give no defense of Catholicism whatsoever. Now, I ask the Orthodox: if God is capable of doing what He did for St. Paul, then why doesn’t He? Assume that people have all the libertarian freedom that God could possibly want. What relevence does that have as to why God chooses not to do what is fully within His power to do? Mainly, make Himself known in such a way that every average Joe experiences God in such a way that they would only be fools to deny what is now readily apparent? I know it is in His power to push sinners towards sanctity (a very BIG push) because the Bible tells me so; so why doesn’t He do this for everyone and save us a whole lot of trouble?

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