Original sin and anteaters in the Daily News

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Excitement is in the air in Gotham City this week following the introduction of a theology page in the Daily News. This is a welcome addition to the New York tabloid market, though I suspect the desire to inject high culture into the Daily News comes from the need for some gravitas to balance the reporting on the mayoral candidacy of Anthony Weiner — Oh the joy his election will bring to the scribes of New York!

The first installment in this new series began on 27 May 2013 and was entitled: “Mystery of anteater’s ‘Virgin birth’ solved.” It opened with a scientific riddle:

The mystery of how a female anteater fell pregnant despite being separated from her mate for more than 18 months is a step closer to being solved.

Speculation whether this was a unique example of mammalian asexual reproduction or parthenogenesis was set to one side however as the Daily News turned to answers from Catholic dogma.

Bosses at Connecticut’s LEO Zoological Conservation Center were left baffled after mom Armani gave birth to little Archie in April. The apparent “Virgin birth” stumped staff — as anteaters have a six-month gestation period and the critter had not been in contact with any males for more than triple that time. Workers wondered whether it was an immaculate anteater conception or if the male, Alf, had somehow sneaked into her pen sometime in October.

Deep questions here. The use of  an upper case V in Virgin and the lower case b in birth doubtless refers to the virgin birth of Jesus Christ. Did God become flesh in the form of Archie the Anteater? Think this is but a playful use of half-remembered catechisms? Perhaps, but the discussion continues in a theological light by reference to the “immaculate anteater conception”. However science, not the Holy Spirit seems to have been responsible for the miracle, the paper reports.

But center director Marcella Leone now believes the newcomer was actually conceived through “embryonic diapause” — when a mother puts a fertilized egg on hold in her uterus. It happens when environmental conditions aren’t right, so the mother can keep the egg safe until they are. Armadillos and sloths are known to do it, but anteaters have never been observed doing so, reports Greenwich Time.

The Daily News is not so dumb as to believe the virgin birth is the same thing as the immaculate conception. The virgin birth of Jesus is the belief that Jesus was conceived in the womb of his mother Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit and born while Mary remained a virgin. This is an article of faith among Christians (save for the odd Episcopal bishop here and there and among members of a few sects) and is stated in the Apostles Creed which begins:

I believe in God the Father Almighty,
Maker of heaven and earth:
And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord,
Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
Born of the Virgin Mary, …

The immaculate conception is a Catholic dogma that holds that Mary was born without the stain of original sin. This belief is not shared by all Christians. The catechism of the Catholic Church states on this point:

The Immaculate Conception

490 To become the mother of the Savior, Mary “was enriched by God with gifts appropriate to such a role.”132 The angel Gabriel at the moment of the annunciation salutes her as “full of grace”.133 In fact, in order for Mary to be able to give the free assent of her faith to the announcement of her vocation, it was necessary that she be wholly borne by God’s grace.

491 Through the centuries the Church has become ever more aware that Mary, “full of grace” through God,134 was redeemed from the moment of her conception. That is what the dogma of the Immaculate Conception confesses, as Pope Pius IX proclaimed in 1854:

The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.

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Protip: Immaculate Conception is not the Virgin Birth

Did you hear about the anteater that conceived a baby even though she had no male mate around? I mean, she had a mate, but he was removed from her area longer than the six months required to gestate a baby anteater. Theories for how this miracle happened include the very non-miraculous idea that the mommy anteater and daddy anteater mated through a fence and the somewhat more mysterious idea that the pregnancy was paused or that implantation was somehow delayed.

So of course this is a made-for-media story. As you can see in the image to this post (or anywhere it went out online), some went with the “immaculate conception” approach. Which is, you know, weird, since the immaculate conception has nothing to do with conceiving a baby without the presence of the male.

The Atlantic Wire figured out its error and mildly tried to correct it by appending a note that they were only repeating other people’s errors and by putting quotes around ‘Immaculately Conceived’ as a get-out-of-jail-free card.

First, let’s discuss the religious teachings in play since this is a routine problem. From Wikipedia:

The Immaculate Conception is a dogma of the Catholic Church maintaining that from the moment when she was conceived in the womb, the Blessed Virgin Mary was kept free of original sin and was filled with the sanctifying grace normally conferred during baptism.[1][2] It is one of the four dogmas in Roman Catholic Mariology. Mary is often called the Immaculata (the Immaculate One), particularly in artistic and cultural contexts.[3]

The Immaculate Conception should not be confused with the perpetual virginity of Mary or the virgin birth of Jesus; it refers to the conception of Mary by her mother, Saint Anne. Although the belief was widely held since at least Late Antiquity, the doctrine was not formally proclaimed until December 8, 1854, by Pope Pius IX in his papal bull Ineffabilis Deus. It is not formal doctrine except in the Roman Catholic Church.[4] The Feast of the Immaculate Conception is observed on December 8 in many Catholic countries as a holy day of obligation or patronal feast, and in some as a national public holiday.

Not perfect, but you get the idea. The Immaculate Conception refers to what Roman Catholics teach about Mary being conceived without original sin. The Virgin Birth refers to what most Christians teach about the circumstances of Jesus’ conception. Great. Can we stop having this error, then?

Here’s the note the Atlantic Wire appended to the piece:

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