The saying goes, there are only two perfect people who ever lived: Jesus and Mary, His mother. But could there be a third added to that number in the person of St. John the Baptist?
At the outset, I must emphasize that the Catholic Church has never taught that St. John the Baptist was born free of original sin. There is theological and scriptural speculation that he was, though. This speculation has never been condemned by the Church and one can either believe or not believe this theory and still be considered to be a Catholic in good standing with the Church.
Let us look at why someone may believe that St. John the Baptist was born free from original sin.
When the archangel Gabriel announces to Zechariah that St. John will be born to him, the archangel says, “he will be great in the sight of [the] Lord. He will drink neither wine nor strong drink. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb” (Luke 1:15). We understand that sin cannot dwell where God takes up residence. So if St. John the Baptist is prophesied to be full of the Holy Spirit from the womb of his mother, then there cannot be sin in his soul. This means that, at some point, God must have cleansed his soul of this first sin of our parents.
Now when might this cleansing from original sin have taken place? Let us look later in this same chapter from St. Luke’s Gospel. When Mary, now bearing Jesus in her womb, enters and greets Elizabeth, St. John the Baptist leaps in her womb (Luke 1:41). It is understood that St. John the Baptist leaps for joy because salvation is so near to us. The “Catholic Encyclopedia” goes one step further than this understanding. It states that at the moment St. John the Baptist leaps in his mother’s womb, that he was cleansed from original sin (www.newadvent.org/cathen/08486b.htm).
This cleansing from original sin would be different than the cleansing from original sin Mary received. It has been defined by the Church that Mary was immaculately conceived, meaning that from the first moment of her existence, Mary was cleansed from original sin. St. John the Baptist, in contrast, would have been conceived with original sin, but cleansed roughly 6-7 months after being conceived.
If this theory was true, it would shed clear light about why St. John the Baptist was so strong in his preaching against sin. Being so cleansed, he would understand from this perspective the true damage sin does to us, to our relationships, and to God. His firm insistence on repentance to all who came to him was then not just a calling from God, but a cry from his heart. Such a message would have the powerful effect the Gospels record that it had on the crowds that came out to see St. John the Baptist.
Father Mayo is pastor of St. Raphael the Archangel Parish in St. Louis.