Recently, in a group, a Roman Catholic told a joke which used the term the “Immaculate Conception”. The joke hinged on the idea that there was no sex, there was no father involved. That is NOT what the “Immaculate Conception” refers to. It is a common misconception – even, clearly, amongst well-educated Roman Catholics.
Yesterday (December 8) Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and others celebrated the Conception of The Blessed Virgin Mary.
So, firstly, the “Immaculate Conception” does not refer to Jesus’ Virginal Conception (Virgin Birth). December 8 celebrates the conception of Mary (nine months before celebrating Mary’s birth on September 8). The conception of Jesus is celebrated 25 March.
Nor does the “Immaculate Conception” refer to some sort of parallel to Jesus’ “conceived by the Holy Spirit”. Mary was conceived in the normal manner by her parents having sex.
The Roman Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary is founded on a particular concept of Original Sin. This understanding, developed by St Augustine, states (to keep it simple) that all humans, from the moment of our conception, carry the guilt of Adam and Eve’s sin. The Immaculate Conception is the claim that, from the moment of her (normal) conception, Mary was saved from this Original Sin.
Eastern Orthodoxy does not hold to Augustine’s model of Original Sin. Again to keep it simple, Eastern Orthodox hold that we experience the consequences of Adam and Eve’s Original Sin, but we do not carry the guilt. We are only, in that view, guilty of our own sins. Hence, the question of Mary’s immaculate conception does not arise if you do not hold to the Roman Catholic understanding of Original Sin. Old Catholics and Anglicans, then, are free (individually) to accept or reject the Immaculate Conception – it is not a position binding on them either way.
The extremely sad thing is, that for many people, “sin” and “sex” are understood as synonyms. [That is often the impression (read “obsession”) that the Anglican Church also gives.] “Living in sin” is understood to be about sex – not about cheating on your tax returns, gossiping, or not recycling. So when people hear that Mary was “conceived without sin” – it is sadly unsurprising that they understand this to mean “without sex”.
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.