Protip: Immaculate Conception is not the Virgin Birth

Protip: Immaculate Conception is not the Virgin Birth May 20, 2013

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:

*As has been pointed out to me, the “immaculate conception” refers to Mary being free from original sin upon her conception and not Mary being a virgin upon Jesus’s birth. It appears to have been used in the latter way in Chamoff’s piece and at the zoo.

If your friends all jumped off a bridge would you do that, too, Atlantic Wire? Wait, that doesn’t quite work. Point being, though, that just because another reporter and zoo officials are completely ignorant of what a saying means does not technically give you the go-ahead to repeat it. This is how societies crumble, everyone! OK, maybe not, but let’s be vigilant.

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10 responses to “Protip: Immaculate Conception is not the Virgin Birth”

  1. Thanks, Mollie. Amazing that it’s a confessional Lutheran who corrects the secular press on a Catholic dogma.

  2. Reminds me of the story of the young lady overheard praying in a church before an image of Mary: “Our Lady who conceived without sin, help me to sin without conceiving”.

  3. Everybody always gets this one wrong. It would appear that once something gets established in popular culture, that’s it – no possibility of change.

    But the error note for the “Atlantic Wire” is very weak – ‘yeah, we got it wrong but so did everyone else’? What’s wrong with simply admitting “We made a mistake”?

  4. The correct term for this phenomenon is parthenogenesis. While the word means the same thing as “virgin birth,” it does not connote any church doctrine. Don’t think it would be too hard for someone in a newsroom to dig up the term.


    • Well, I was once confronted by someone who triumphantly proclaimed, as a rebuttal of Stupid Religion, “I say Jesus was parthenogenesis!” So, of course, I asked how saying it in Greek changes it. “Because this is the twentieth century!” Praying for strength to the Lord the God of Lewis, Knox and Chesterton, I responded “What does the date have to do with it?” This elicited an incoherent tirade about “..scientific explanation….. get rid of kings, make God the chief engineer…” together with an unfathomable grudge against the Prince of Wales.

      • Incoherent is the word… Don’t suppose it would have made any difference to that person that all the offspring of parthenogenesis are female 🙂


  5. I regularly ask Roman Catholics to explain the doctrine of the I.C., and after numerous attempts finally found one who could. When I wondered aloud how she alone could explain it, she replied that she was a recent convert from Lutheranism!

    It’s probably true that atheists know more about the R.C. religion than do its adherents: R.C.’s basically accept the faith without much analysis, whereas Evangelicals will at least read the Bible and rely on it for justification. Of course, little of the Mariology is found in the Bible.

    • Cradle Catholics of the current generation have largely been the victims of Seventies catechetical theory, which held that learning anything specific in religion class would harsh our loving mellow. Even my parents weren’t aware of the depth of ignorance this left us in, because of course the old way was to educate Catholic kids non-stop, so as to be better able to love God and be prepared for Protestant hostility. They were trusting that this continued, but it didn’t. So yeah, pretty much everything I eventually learned, I learned in the library or from watching EWTN.

      Nevertheless, an average ignorant Catholic of this generation who doesn’t know any of the whys and wherefores, will still know a great deal about the Bible, theology, etc. if you use the right words and cues. Protestantism deliberately veered from those cues, and then chastises Cathollics for not knowing and using the same words. It’s very silly.

      And you don’t read much of the lectionary if you don’t know what Mariology is in the Bible. My primary problem arguing with Protestants early on was that I would assume they already knew the right verses and were looking for different ones, whereas they were actually just ignorant of the Catholic basics.

  6. So, now they have to account for not one…but two “miraculous” conceptions? Are they trying to make the arguement against them easier?