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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