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Immaculate Conception

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The last NZ Catholic reports the Advertising Standards Complaints Board not upholding complaints about the offensiveness of the Christmas billboard of St Matthew’s in the City.

I do not want to discuss the billboard here – there are plenty of other sites to do that. Nor the Easter billboard, which some regard as even more offensive. I want to look at a phrase in St Matthew’s statement to the Board:

We recognize that there are Christians who believe Mary was forever a virgin and immaculately conceived [emphasis mine]. We do not. These are legitimate theological differences within the Christian community. If differences of strongly held beliefs are to be relegated to being offensive by those who disagree, then free speech on any topic will be suppressed.

The point is that Mary’s immaculate conception has absolutely nothing to do with the billboard. The statement appears to be based on a misconception about what the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception actually is about, a confusion shared by a good number of Anglicans and protestants, and probably a surprising number of Roman Catholics.

The Immaculate Conception of Mary is NOT her Virginal conception of Jesus. The Immaculate Conception of Mary is about her conception in her mother’s womb. It is the belief that although the rest of us are conceived with Original Sin, God preserved Mary from this – she was conceived without Original Sin. Furthermore it is not a biological statement, as Mary’s virginal conception of Jesus entails. Mary’s immaculate conception does not imply her parents didn’t conceive her through sexual intercourse – unless, of course, you hold to sexual intercourse by a married couple being somehow sinful and that sin being somehow passed on to any resulting conception.

The belief in the Immaculate Conception of Mary goes with a belief that she was sinless her whole life. This, again, has no relationship with St Matthew’s billboard, unless, again, you regard sexual intercourse by a married couple to be sinful – a position that the Roman Catholic Church would certainly not endorse.

Justin Martyr and Irenaeus regarded Mary as the “new Eve”. The feast of Mary’s conception (December 8 ) traces to at least the seventh century. Bernard, Albert, Bonaventure, and Aquinas were either against it or very hesitant. Generally Franciscans were for it and Dominicans against it. The history turned in the fifteenth century from when it began to gain strong grounds. In 1854 it was defined as a dogma.

Anglicans celebrate two conceptions: that of Christ (March 25) and that of Mary (December 8 ). Here is the Church of England collect for the feast of The Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary:

Almighty and everlasting God,
who stooped to raise fallen humanity
through the child-bearing of blessed Mary:
grant that we, who have seen your glory
revealed in our human nature
and your love made perfect in our weakness,
may daily be renewed in your image
and conformed to the pattern of your Son
Jesus Christ our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

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10 Responses to Immaculate Conception

  1. I actually knew correctly about the Catholic doctrine of Immaculate Conception being about Mary’s lack of original sin.

    I did find the billboard very lacking in taste. It doesn’t speak to the Immaculate Conception to me, but to that other Catholic doctrine I always thought was odd–Mary as “ever virgin.” How fair to Joseph is THAT?!

    • I don’t know if it is any “fairer” to Mary than to Joseph, Sue. The tradition of the perpetual virginity of Mary is also present in Anglican/Episcopalian formularies which continue to title Mary a virgin for the rest of her life. I do not think Anglicans, for example, would protest if someone referred to the Blessed Virgin Mary standing at the foot of the cross.

  2. Fr Bosco, I understand the whole notion of the perpetual virginity of Mary, but isn’t the ‘V’ in ‘BVM’ used to mean something like ‘she who was a virgin when she bore Christ’, rather than ‘she who remains a virgin for ever’? Even if one subscribes to the belief that Jesus was born of a virgin, surely that does not require us to believe that Mary was forever a virgin, especially as Scripture talks about Jesus having brothers. And if you’re about to tell me that the Bible says ‘brother’ when it means ‘cousin’ (much like the way young chinese men address their favourite cousins these days because of China’s one child policy) whey then does Mary visit Elizabeth her cousin, not Elizabeth her sister?

    It seems to me that saying that Mary was always a virgin is the theological equivalent of kosher kitchens not serving lasagne so that the commandment ‘Thau shalt not boil a kid in its mother’s milk’ will always be observed. Isn’t it a matter of ‘fencing her off’ so that her vigin birth of Jesus won’t ever be questioned? And who makes goat lasagne anyway?

    • I am not about to argue here either for or against Mary’s perpetual virginity, Robert. I would be surprised if you can point me to a culture that continues to call a person a “virgin” after they stopped being one – as your (surely you must admit yourself) rather convoluted interpretation of what “Virgin” means in the phrase “Blessed Virgin Mary” would have. Paul wrote in Greek about James, the brother of Jesus, and had a perfectly good word to distinguish brother from cousin (whereas we can have a discussion about Aramaic usage). But if Joseph had children by a previous marriage, even in Greek would they not be called Jesus’ brothers and sisters?

      I’m sorry, relating the belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary to goat lasagne was an approach I struggle to follow 🙂

  3. They do at least appear to have caught on to the fact that it was Mary who was immaculately conceived, as opposed to Jesus, who was a virgin birth. I agree that it doesn’t appear immediately relevant to the billboard.

    • Kathleen, thanks for your comment, but I do not agree. I think it is possible to read their text as, “Mary … immaculately conceived [Jesus]”. Reading it otherwise, I posit, makes it not just appearing not “immediately relevant to the billboard” – but totally unrelated. IMO. [Boy I hope I got my number of negatives correct in that last sentence!]

  4. Outside of the fact that I see noting in Biblical material that even hints at such a tradition, and that the dogma is not found in the earliest Christian witnesses, my problem with the idea of the Immaculate Conception of Mary is that it seeks to isolate the curse of Adam’s sin from the incarnation of Jesus in such a way as to dilute the power and significance of the incarnation itself.

    1. It arises out of the notion that original sin is passed along via sex alone, rather than being an intrinsic part of the human condition.

    2. The Immaculate Conception supposes that the important factor in Mary’s participation in God’s plan of salvation is not her obedience such much as her sexual purity.
    2a. The idea also supposes that God chose the vessel for Jesus’ birth in advance by assuring that the vessel was “extra-pure” further removing the element of Mary’s choice.

    3. The doctrine leans (if not falling headlong) into the potential of classical heresy by making Christ into a divine creature who puts on human form. The significance of the incarnation is that in Christ we have the perfect, undiluted union of the complete natures of both God and humanity.

    4. In some ways, the doctrine is an error of good intentions. Those who hold it seek to emphasize the holiness of Christ with the idea that a) God would not think of using an ordinary, sin-infused womb (or worse could not–thus limiting God!) and b)that Jesus is somehow intrinsically “other” again, limiting the depth and value of the incarnation by assuming that Jesus was somehow exempt from all the “icky” parts of human life.

    5. The doctrine also implies that Mary role in the incarnation is not merely her faithfulness to God and her self-giving to God in bearing the Logos and in following Christ to his death and resurrection, but it elevates her to a person who herself is a divine-human being. In other words, it places her on a level equal to Christ. I suspect that this where a lot of co-redemptrix language that you see in certain RC circles comes from. From her conception to her assumption into heaven, this piety raises Mary to the level of Christ, and in some way assigns to her the aspects of incarnation that classical Christianity assigned to Jesus.

    That’s just for starters.

    Andrew

  5. I feel that believing that Mary remained a virgin does imply that sexual intercourse in marriage is sinful. There is no indication that Joseph had children by a previous wife. If he did where were they when he took Mary to Bethlehem for him and his family to be taxed? I agree with Robert about Mary having other children as it tells us in the Bible (though I don’t understand about Lasagne). I am a lifelong Sacramental Anglican and daughter of an Sacramental Anglican Priest who also believed that Mary had other children. I think that the case of calling Mary a virgin is about Jesus’s conception and you can’t refer to it not happening in other cultures as this virginal conception is a one off and therefore we do use the Virgin in BVM about her status at Jesus’s conception and birth. Joseph did not know her until after Jesus’s birth.

  6. I think also that the idea that God was a hard act to follow implies the Holy Spirit conceived Jesus in Mary as a man would have done is crude. I agree that they have misunderstood the doctrine as many people do. It is a very late doctrine and therefor not one that hs been agreed at all times and in all places and therefore should encourage Catholics to accept other new areas of doctrine which are more acceptable – like women priests! I am still not convinced on the perpetual virginity of Mary.

  7. Thanks – this is a misconception all too often heard.

    While I also was aware that the immaculate conception refers to Mary, I had never considered that one could be immaculately conceived through sex. That was quite helpful for you to point out.

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