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The virgin birth (actually conception) of Jesus

The Roman Catholic doctrine
 of the Immaculate Conception

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The Immaculate Conception:

This is a mainly Roman Catholic doctrine. It is not directly related to the virgin conception/birth, but is often confused with it. Most people seem to believe that the dogma of the Immaculate Conception declares that Jesus was without original sin when he was conceived circa 6 BCE by Mary and the Holy Spirit. In fact, it is actually the almost uniquely Roman Catholic belief that about 20 BCE, Mary herself was conceived without original sin.

The dogma of the Immaculate Conception includes two additional factors:

bullet The Mary was filled with divine grace from the time of her conception.  Support for this belief is found in Luke 1:28 which states in the King James Version: "And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women." A literal translation of the angel's statement is "Rejoice, you who have been graced." This implies that Mary received grace at some earlier time in her life.
bullet That she lived her entire life life completely free of sin. 1
bullet Mary's immaculate conception was necessary in order for her to give birth later to Jesus without infecting him with original sin.
bullet Partly based on her immaculate conception, Mary is considered the mother of the Roman Catholic church and of all its members.

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The history of this doctrine:

Initially, the Christian church taught a belief that is close to modern conservative Protestantism: simply that Mary was a virgin at the time of the conception of Jesus.

Eadmer (1066-1124), amonk at Christ Church, Canterbury. England was one of the first proponents of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. He discussed it in his book "De Conceptione sanctae Mariae."

St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) and St. Bonaventure (1221-1274) "... believed that Mary was completely free from sin, but that she was not given this grace at the instant of her conception." Their beliefs were were supported by the Dominicans. 1

In 1476, Pope Sixtus IV established the feast of the Immaculate Conception to be observed annually on DEC-08 -- nine months before the Church celebrates the anniversary of Mary's birth. But the Roman Catholic laity and clergy was permitted to accept or reject the concept. This freedom was confirmed at the Council of Trent in the mid 16th century. However,  Oxford Franciscans William of Ware and Blessed John Duns Scotus supported the full doctrine.

By having Mary free of original sin resulted in both Mary's and Jesus' conceptions being miraculous. The concept of the immaculate conception -- that Mary was conceived without sin while a pre-embryo circa 20 BCE --- gained support in the church.

It was only in modern times that scientists determined that both the woman and man contributed genetic information to the production of offspring. In ancient times, the man was regarded as being totally responsible for the start of pregnancy. The only role of the woman was to nurture the growing embryo, and later the fetus. A good analogy is the act of planting a seed in earth. The woman's role was similar to that of the earth. The soil has no role other than furnishing nutrients to the seed and later to the plant.

When the woman's role in conception was discovered by medical scientists, the Roman Catholic Church faced a problem. For the first time, Mary was seen to play a direct role in Jesus' conception. Her contribution would have been expected to pass original sin onto Jesus -- an intolerable arrangement because the Church has taught that Jesus was without sin at his birth and during his life on earth.

The Church had two choices:

  1. To declare that Mary did not pass original sin onto Jesus at the time of his conception, or
  2. To declare that Mary herself was free of sin when she was conceived.1

They selected the latter route.

It is now a required belief for Roman Catholics. In 1854, Pope Pius IX proclaimed in his Bull Ineffabilis that:

"...We declare, pronounce and define that the doctrine which asserts that the Blessed Virgin Mary, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God, and in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, was preserved free from every stain of original sin is a doctrine revealed by God and, for this reason, must be firmly and constantly believed by all the faithful." 2

According to Wikipedia:

For the Roman Catholic Church the dogma of the Immaculate Conception gained additional significance from the apparitions of Our Lady of Lourdes in 1858. In Lourdes a 14-year-old girl, Bernadette Soubirous, claimed a beautiful lady appeared to her. The lady identified herself as 'the Immaculate Conception' and the faithful believe her to be the Blessed Virgin Mary."

"In the Roman Catholic Church, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception is a Holy Day of Obligation, except where conferences of bishops have decided, with the approval of the Holy See, not to maintain it as such. It is a public holiday in some countries where Roman Catholicism is predominant e.g. Italy. In the Philippines, although this is not a public holiday, the predominance of Catholic Schools make it almost a holiday."

This teaching is not found in the Eastern Orthodox churches, 3 or in the Anglican Communion -- except among Anglo-Catholics. To our knowledge, no Protestant denomination teaches this either.

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  1. "Immaculate Conception, Wikipedia, as at 2007-DEC-13, at:
  2. Pope John Paul II, "Immaculate conception defined by Pius IX," at: 
  3. Rev. George Mastrantonis, "The fundamental teachings of the Eastern Orthodox Church," at:

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Copyright 1996 to 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Essay last updated: 2007-DEC-18
Written by: B.A. Robinson

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