The National Catholic Review

The Feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary causes difficulties for this biblical scholar, for though biblical passages are read on the feast day, none of them clearly support the doctrine as promulgated by the Church. This is not to say that the Church, through its Tradition, does not have access to other means of revelatory support,  that which has been revealed to the Church through its history, theology and  reflection on the ancient and apostolic tradition, but what does one make of the scriptural readings for the Immaculate Conception?

First of all, none of the readings for the Immaculate Conception make reference to Mary’s conception, and no passage in the Old or New Testament does so either. The first reading, from Genesis 3, was thought in the past to reference Mary’s sinlessness directly, especially 3:15:

“I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will strike at your head,
while you strike at his heel” (Genesis 3:15, NAB; similar in NRSV)

The locus for the use of this text in establishing Mary’s sinlessness was found in the Vulgate’s (mis)translation of “he” for “she”: she will strike at your head. Translators today are of one accord that the reference is to “her offspring,” and so should be translated as “he.” Yet, even if the traditional understanding of this passage was maintained, there is no direct path from it to the Immaculate Conception.

What of the Gospel reading? The key line is in Luke 1:28, in which the NAB translates Gabriel’s greeting to Mary as “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you”. Questions about the traditional rendering of this verse abound, as seen in the NRSV translation, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” While I do not like the NRSV translation at all – a Greetings Mary, for instance, just does not have the proper connotations for prayer or last second football heaves –the NRSV translation raises issues as to how much theological weight should be placed on a simple Greek participle. I think that the term “grace” should appear in the translation, but what does “full of grace” mean? It does not clearly indicate on its own, and cannot be pressed to indicate, that Mary has been free of the stain of original sin.

The Feast of the Immaculate Conception develops throughout the history of the Church not simply from Scripture, but from the faithful in the Church and, only after I would argue, from the writings of the theologians reflecting on Scripture and the Tradition of the Church. This took place over many, many centuries before being promulgated as a doctrine of the Church. It arose from a reflection on the requisite holiness necessary for the task to which Mary had been called, and the sinlessness of Mary and the challenges to the teaching of the doctrine on original sin which this teaching posed were considered. Theologians both accepted and rejected aspects of the doctrine throughout its development.

One last question: what does all this mean as you reflect on these Scriptures? The teaching of Mary’s Immaculate Conception developed in the living Tradition of the Church as it reflected on the holiness necessary for the vocation to which she had been called and prepared and the Scriptures which occasioned this reflection. We should continue to reflect on her holiness too, as we prepare for the coming of Jesus, for we are a part of this same, living Tradition.

John W. Martens


Michael Barberi | 12/24/2009 - 8:32pm
Thank you Mr. Murtha for such clarity.  The Head of the Church has only used Infallible twice in the modern era.  Both times it was with respect to Mary:  her Immaculate Conception and Assumption.  At no other time has the Head of the Church used Infallibility for good reason. 
The fous of these series of commentaries was Mary's Immaculate Conception specifically, but Church Doctrine generally.   It also pointed to a larger issue: the devine wisdom of certain doctrines and the issue of conscience versus obedience. 
As you pointed out, sin affects us all, even the Head of the Church.  Our weaknesses however have never destroyed the fundlementals of our faith or the Church's progress in directing the faithfull in God's plan for us all.  However, the Church has issued many controversial encyclicals that served as guiding doctrine.  The most perplexing and controversial was Humane Vitae.  While I don't want to steer far afield from these commentaries, this is a good example of the issue of conscience versus obedience in doctrines in general and in Humanae Vitae specifically. 
The Head of the Church says artifical birth control is a mortal sin.  Yet the Bishops of most developed countries have issued contrary guidance on birth regulation.  They say let prayer and your conscience be your guide.  Hence, most if not all Catholics don't confess such practices as sin and receive Holy Communion each week.  Unfortunately, the Head of the Church has never issued practical and clear guidelines concerning this obvious difference between the Vatican's position and its Bishops.  The case is closed so to speak. 
The outcome of Humane Vitae, as well as other doctrines and encyclicals, has caused many Catholics to question Church Hierarchy in genearl and the Head of the Church specifically.  This has caused many Catholics and Priest to fall away from the Church, but not Christ.  It is a sorrowful situation but one I believe can be resolved with greater leadership and spiritual guidance.
My previous remarks do not require repeating again.  In conclusion, all of us must recognize doubt in certain Church Doctrines and Teachings, and pray for God's guiding light.
I enjoyed the many different points of view.  Have a blessed and joyous Christmas.
Patrick Murtha | 12/24/2009 - 9:31am
Mr. Raymer,

While the Catholic Church is an institution for the benefit of man, it is primarily a divine institution. That is why Christ said, "If my Kingdom were of this world, my servants would have fought to prevent me from falling into your hands." Also, because it is founded by God, for the service of God, and ultimately directed by God through His clergy, primarily and most especially the pope. (Now this does not guarantee that the clergy, and even the pope, will not sin. The Pope, only at certains, was promised infallibility but he was not promised indefectibility.)

I can assure you that I do not put my faith in flesh and blood. I understand that people fall - man is weak - but when I refer to the Church and the infallibility of the Pope, I speak about when the Pope speaks infallibly. That is when he uses the criteria that makes him infallible. (It has not been done for quite some time.) Because as Vatican I declared it only under those circumstances is the Holy Ghost guaranteed to prevent the pope from speaking or saying anything erroneously.

Furthermore, I do not doubt the Holy Ghost works in every man. But he works in them according their duty of state, giving them the grace of state. Therefore, a layman, for example, will not receive the insight of directing the Church as the priests will, as the bishops will, as the Holy Father will. And then, it is how they correspond to that grace, of course.

Have a merry Christmas and may the Christ Child direct us all, and most especially His Holiness Benedict XVI.

Michael Barberi | 12/22/2009 - 9:02pm
Mr. Murtha:
The Head of the Church was not ''promised'' Infallibiltiy.  It was Pope Pius IX that forced his ecumenical council to declare himself Infallible.  This is the same Pope that issued the infamous Syllabus of Errors and kinapped a young child and held him in the Vatican until adulthood.  Anyone who is familiar with the historical facts about these two events would question Infallibility.  This is not to say that Catholics should ignore the Head of the Church simply because some believe he is not infallible.  Far from it.  We take guidance from our Priests and Bishops and the Head of the Church because God put them over us.  However, we also take guidance from the Holy Spirit who lives in us.   
Catholics are bound to obey and accept the basic tenents of our faith.  This is what Jesus preached, and the Gospels made clear.  Many centuries after the Gospels were written however, the Church has struggled with theological and human issues that eventually became doctrine.  Many of these doctrines were crafted during periods of Church history dominated by ancient attitudes and beliefs that have since faded away.  The doctrines of Infallibilty and the Perpetual Virginity of Mary are doctrines that do not govern our salvation or the way Jesus expected us to live.  The most highly controversial doctrine is Humanae Vitae.  Most, if not all Catholics, do not confess to a priest the morttal sin of practicing artifical birth control.  They don't do this because they don't believe it is a mortal sin.  The Head of the Church does.  According to the Head of the Church, anyone who receives holy communion without confessing a mortal sin to a priest, commits a sacrilege.  Think about it.
To summarize:  When there is strong evidence of doubt with respect to certain Church doctrines, such as Infallibility, the Perpetual Virginity of Mary, and the Morality of Artificial Birth Regulation, conscious, guided by Church leaders, prayer and the Holy Spirit is our best spiritual advisor.
I also want to make clear that I made no insinuation that you are medival in mind and antiquated in spirit.  You have a right to your opinions and I respect them.  I just don't agree wiith the specitic issues you raised. 
John Raymer | 12/21/2009 - 9:39pm

Yes, our minds need to excercise control over our bodies for the good of the soul. Likewise the leaders of our church have been appointed over the body for the good of the collective soul of the Church. But as my body has aged, my mind has learned the perils of not paying attention to it. I have injured my shoulder and my knees. I must be careful of my diet and work schedule.

My mind has also learned to listen to the wind of the Spirit. When my will tries to push something through and ignors the spirit, then I suffer the consequences. I must always remember that the Spirit, while inside my mind, exists apart from it as well. In other words, the head and the Spirit are not always one.

I agree that we owe our priests, bishops and pope our homage and our loyalty. We must listen to them and obey them because God has appointed them over us. But God has also appointed our temporal leaders over us and some of our leaders have been rather wicked. But God still appointed them over us. So we have to be discerning and test the spirits, as St. Ignatius taught us.

So can the Church err? Absolutely it can and it does frequently - including in matters of faith and morals. It does because it is a human institution filled with the Holy Spirit, as are you and as am I. Recall that it was after Jesus gave St. Peter the Keys to the Kingdom (Mat. 16) that St. Peter denied Jesus three times (Mat. 26). We owe our leaders our obedience because God has appointed them over us, not because they are infallible.

St. Peter said "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God." Jesus said "Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in Heaven. ... and on this rock I will build my Church." The rock is the testimony of Christ through Peter's heart, not the power of St. Peter's flesh and blood. [Jesus did not say "and on you I will build"]

Jesus said the wise man built his house on the rock while the foolish man built his house on the sand. The rock is Peter's testimony, not his flesh and blood. I am concerned that you are building your house on the sand by putting your faith in the flesh and blood of the Church and its leaders rather than in Christ, the Son of the Living God. As I said above, the Spirit resides in me but it is not me and I have been known to ignor it. Likewise for our leaders, whom God has appointed over us.

I have very much enjoyed this entire exchange from the very beginning. It has been quite extraordinary and edifying.
Patrick Murtha | 12/21/2009 - 2:34pm
Mr. Barberi and Mr. Ashland,

It is not the dictates of a mob or the body, but the head that is to be followed. The Holy Spirit inspires the head. The Head of the Church was promised infallibility by Christ, not the body. Theologian, bishops, priests, and the laity may often be wrong, even if it is a vast majority of them. Is it not St. Peter in his epistle that warns against private interpretation: "Understanding this first, that no prophecy of scripture is made by private interpretation."

By Charity, meaning the love of God, by faith - not the empty faith of those who cry "Lord, Lord" but those who "do the will of My Father" - by prayer, and by works, and much more do we learn to live and love as Christ wants us to do. But all of this is bound in obedience to God and to His Universal Church.

You have only employed the ad hominum argument that I am medieval, I am antiquated in my views, and the band-wagon argument that you are right because so many agree with you.

It is true, however, that I am medieval in mind and antiquated in spirit, but that is only reasonable, because the Church, being Catholic, does not change the Truth that Christ has given to her to maintain. Therefore while you might claim the conscience as your guide, I claim the Church and the traditions of the Church as my guide. It is safer because as Moral Theology will tell you the conscience because of human weakness can err. In matters of faith and morals, the Catholic Church, the universal Church, cannot.
Michael Barberi | 12/18/2009 - 7:14pm
Brovo, Mr. Ashland,  BRAVO! 
Thank you for your words of encouragement and theological insight.  They speak volumes. I have always felt that the Spririt of God is the real teacher and counselor of us all.  He is indeed alive in the Church today.  He helps us defend the principles that unite us, and challange the things that divide us.   
It is disheartening to me that the Catholic Church is out of kilter with the opinion of so many of its Bishops, Priests, Theologians and members on various Church issues.  Our leaders are well intentioned.  However it is the entire membership of the Catholic Church which is the true body of Christ.  A Church with a head, but no body, or a body that does not respond well to its dictates, does not work.  With Faith and Prayer, we will learn to live and love as Jesus wanted us to do.  In time, the Spiirit will help our Church grow and change in Jesus's name. 
It is a time for courage, open-mindedness, scholarship, love, perserverence and prayer. 
Mike Ashland | 12/17/2009 - 3:44pm
These last two comments are really illustrative of where we are as church.  It gives me great hope to see these on the pages of a Catholic magazine; that there is still room for the Spirit to inspire and challenge us as Catholics.  Although you may find it a stretch, I have always thought that the story of the Caananite woman who chastises Jesus in Matt 15:21-28 an example of Jesus chastened and, if not changing his mind, certainly changing his actions.  I've returned to that passage often in my own faith when I felt certain or "right" or rigid about an idea.
Mr. Barberi points to one of the most contentious of issues, contraception, to illuminate the issue of conscience versus obedience-a brave effort.  In the last election cycle, I hosted a Catholic Voter's Conference in our archdiocese hoping to explore candidate positions vis a vis Catholic teaching.  Unfortunately the program was hijacked by those who demanded allegiance to the "truth" about this issue and the dialogue was nearly stillborn.
Perhaps there will never be a middle ground.  Much of our church's theology was born in the 4th century out of politics of power and bloody battles between bishoprics.  Whether the Holy Spirit took sides in those battles, I'm not sure.  But many of us continue to believe that the Spirit is still at work, today, and challenges us to discover each and every day how to love in the way that Jesus loved, even as he confronted and challenged the entrenchment of old laws and religious intransigence.
Michael Barberi | 12/17/2009 - 12:27am
Ms. Murtha:
I respect your opinion but I don't agree with it.  Scripture is indeed not clear at times.  That is understandable.  I agree that Scripture can never can be at odds with itself.  However, it is our humanity that shapes its interpretation.  For good reason, we are guided by the Church Hierarchy in terms of the tenents of the Church and the meaning of Scripture.  However, the Holy Spirit guides us all not just the Church Hierarchy.  The history that surrounded the many doctrines issued by the Church, such as the Infallibility or Bith Regulation, would make most people uncomfortable with blind acceptance.  History and scholarship called into question such doctrines in the 1800s, 1900s and today.  After many years of study and debate in the 1960s, the Pope's Council on Birth Regulation, which included 12 highly regarded Bishops from around the world, voted 75% for a change in the Church's position on birth regulation.  The Pope went with the minority report.  The outcry from Bishops, Priests, Theologians and its Members was over-whelming.  That is why every Bishop and Priest, when confronted with Humane Vitae and its grave moral dilemma, told their parishers to go with their conscious.  They still do.  They never discuss what the Church Hierachy really wanted its priests to say, for fear that 90% of its membership would likely leave the Church or at least the sermon.   
As good Catholics we are bound to believe and accept the fundlemental teachings of our Faith.   We are not bound to accept everything the Church teaches.   By doctrine I mean all Church teachings like Papal Infallibility etc.  Many good-intentioned spiritual advisors have the saying that you cannot be a caferteria Catholic.  You cannot simply pick and choose what you like and dislike.  While such advice is generally wise, its deeper meaning is superfiical and full of contradiction.  There are many examples where the Church has picked and choosen the teachings of its Fathers to satisfy its message.  We are all not perfect, nor is every Church doctrine.  When we all stand before God at the hour of our death, I doubt he will be adding up all the doctrines we believe in.  God will be most interested in our life and what we have done to follow his plan and his fundalmental teachings.  As for St. Augustine, his meaning of love was never limited to the tolerance of others.  His meaning of love is to approach all things with love, not hate, not alienation, but with an open and compassionate mind.  This does not mean you should agree with everyone simply because of love.  Far from it.  In matters of Church doctrine, where intellectual and spiritual reasoning spell doubt, your conscious demands liberty. 
I have an open mind and take seriously those who provide giudance and education.  I have changed my opinion of certain things many times.   However, there is nothing more demeaning than blind acceptance.  The fact that Catholic teachings are different than Protestant teachings, does not make us perfect.  When I was in Catholic elementary school (in the 1950s), I was told that if you were not Catholic you could not go to heaven (or you needed a miracle).  Thank God hose teachings of the Catholic Church have changed.  In that case, we clearly were going off the deep end.
As for the truth, I will leave that to God.  He alone is our best spiritual advisor.
Patrick Murtha | 12/16/2009 - 8:27pm
Mr. Barberi,

Scripture may not be clear, but it is never at odds with itself. St. Paul and St. James both agree on faith and works. For example St. James says, "faith without works is dead." St. Paul says, "I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith." Both demand faith and actions or work.

Because Scripture has one Author, God, it can never be at odds with itself. Sometimes, we humans with imperfect minds do not fully grasp the ideas of Scripture. For that reason, we always go to the Church and see what the Church states as doctrine or dogma and what has been taught unanimously by the Church Fathers.

As good Catholics we are bound, whether we like it or not, whether we can reason it or not, to believe the doctrines defined by the Catholic Church. That is one thing that distinguishes us from the Protestants; we have a Church that sets standards for us and keeps us from going off the deep end.

Lastly, when St. Augustine speaks about love, he is talking about Charity, which is the love of God and the love of neighbor for the sake of God. All things center around God. Often we interpret that "love" as merely the toleration of another or not opposing another because, in our foolish minds, we believe opposition is hateful. Nothing is more hateful than not trying to convince another of the truth.
Michael Barberi | 12/16/2009 - 6:04pm
I have read all the responses to my brief commentary about Mary's Perpetual Virginity.  I agree with Michael Bindner, but I want to thank all for their views and opinions.   
First, it was plausible that some respondants had some difficulty with the words I choose.  If so, some clarity.  It was not my intention to suggest that Mary and Joseph could not control their passion in marriage.  What I say is that Mary and Joseph had a normal, blessed and holy marriage.  As such, intercourse is a blessed expression of love between a man and a woman.  Jesus, Mary and Joseph are called the Holy Family and a role model for married people.  To argue that a couple who agrees to be separate in marriage is closer to God is not evidence that Mary and Joseph elected to do so.  Some people want to believe that Mary and Joseph clearly saw their role in God's plan and it was clear to them they must remain separate since that was the higher form of love and servitude.   This type of logic tends to demean the Holy Sacrament of Marriage and the role of women and sexuality.  The fact that the Church calls Mary ''Blessed'' for her perpetual virginity is the Church's perogitive.   Can only virigins can be called Blessed?  Was the only logical and spirutual choice for Mary, perpetual virginity?   A normal and blessed marriage, including intercouse and bearing other children, does not demean Mary's choosen role as the Mother of God.  The fact that perpetual virginity may be more exhalted cannot be used as solid evidence or logic that Mary elected this course of action.  The passages from Scripture used to agrue for her vow of lifetime virginity is not convincing.   Is perpetual virginity the only reason we can call Mary ''Blessed''?  Clearly, her life as we know it would support her being called Blessed. 
Second, Mary vowing her perpetual virgintiy to God by accepting her calling to be the Mother of God is not supported by Scripture.  Nor is there clear and compelling logic behind some Scripture passages used to agrue this point.  It is at best unclear and at worst not true.   
Third, some Scripture passages from St. Paul are contraversial and unclear.  Remember, St. Paul and St. James were at odds over the very foundations of our Catholic Religion, namely salvation through Faith Alone or through Faith and Works.  Some say that one leads to the other.   However, this issue has been debated by Church theologians for centuries.   My point is that some of passages from Scripture are very unclear. 
Lastly, I have read equally good arguments about the intrepretation of Scripture relative to whether Jesus had real brother and sisters.  The Catholic Church has one view, other Christian Churches have another.  Some believe one series of facts and interpretations, others another.  There is no clear winner in this debate.  Being a good Roman Catholic does not mean blindly accepting all doctrines of the Church.  There are many doubtful things:  Papal Infallibility, the Mortal Sin of Artificial Birth Regulation, to name a few.   People's opinions on various Church doctrines do not, by themselves, determine their salvation.  
In conclusion, I offer the eloquent epigram from St. Augustine as a guiding light:  ''In essentials Unity, in doubtful things Liberty, but in all things Love''.
Mike Ashland | 12/14/2009 - 12:52am
Mr. Murtha, I am rendered speechless by your rhetoric and reasoning.
I do believe the Taliban would not disagree.
Patrick Murtha | 12/13/2009 - 6:56pm
Mr. Ashland,

The problem with modern thought is equality. We are so obsessed with the idea that everything must be absolutely and entirely equal. But looking about us, we know that that is in itself impossible.

The very fact that we have authority set by God over us shows that there is going to be a certain amount of inequality. As Christ tells Pontius Pilate, "Thou shouldst not have any power against me, unless it were given thee from above." Christ himself recognizes that there is a hierarchy and there is an "inequality" of power. He even says earlier, "Render to Caesar the things which are Caesar's" and at another time he commands Peter to pay the tax. By these we understand that Christ submitted himself gladly to those in authority by his obedience to authority. (And really, he was above them too. But it was an example for us.)

This is only to show that God himself has ordained that there be a certain inequality in regards to people position on earth. Another example would be the centurion, whom Christ compliments for his faith, who had said, "For I also am a man subject to authority, having under me soldiers: and I say to one, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doth it." Another example can be taken from St. Paul, who, inspired by the Holy Ghost, tells Titus, "Admonish them to be subject to princes and powers, to obey at a word, to be ready to every good work." And finally St. Peter himself tells the servants of Rome, "be subject to your masters with all fear, not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward."

Now, since we know that from Scripture itself there is a certain order, certain authority, the question we can then ask is, does this hierarchical order or "inequality" apply to virgins and non-virgins. I answer you, yes. Why? Because Christ himself says that there are those who are spiritually ranked higher than others. Christ says this when Martha complains that Mary is not helping her with the house work; the Redeemer responds, "Martha, Martha, thou art careful, and art troubled about many things: But one thing is necessary. Mary hath chosen the best part, which shall not be taken away from her."

We have the example of Christ who sets St. Peter apart from the other Apostles and favors St. Peter, eventually by giving him the keys of the kingdom and making him the rock on which he founded his Church. Also St. John is considered the "beloved apostle" or as Scripture reads "the disciple whom Jesus loved." Tradition says that St. John was considered the beloved apostle because of his virginity, St. John being the only apostles not married.

Besides reading St. Paul, we know that God holds virgins in a higher state of sanctity from the Apocalypse where St. John describes the Lamb of God being surrounded by virgins following him whereever he goes. It is only the virgins, the text tells us, that sing a "new canticle," setting them apart from the rest of the saints.

Now because Christ raises the virgin above a married person, does not mean that Christ opposes marriage. It is a common misconception that we get whenever we place one thing above another. We tend to say that by praising one thing more than another, we are automatically defaming or belittling the other.

We know that Christ and St. Paul strongly support marriage. THe first miracle was at a marriage feast. Christ ends his parables with marriage feasts. St. Paul compares Christ and his Church to a bridegroom and bride.

What we must understand is that the virgin, by his or her vows and the sacrifice of virginity, earns a greater degree of sanctity and, as Christ says, "that shall not be taken away from her." St. Paul shows that marriage is good, but virginity is better. "Therefore, both he that giveth his virgin in marriage, doth well; and he that giveth her not, doth better." And again, "But if thou take a wife, thou hast not sinned. And if a virgin marry, she hath not sinned: nevertheless, such shall have tribulation of the flesh. But I spare you."

Perhaps what Scripture holds for people today is the importance of virginity, and only after that, the importance of the family where a man marries a woman for the sake of procreation. For we read in Tobias, "thou shalt take the virgin with the fear of the Lord, moved rather for love of children than for lust."
Mike Ashland | 12/13/2009 - 2:45pm
Allow me a moment of hissy-fit.
In today's Christian mega-churches preachers are obsessed with the "prosperity gospel."  Essentially it posits that if our relationship with God, or with Jesus, is good, God will provide whatever we need to be happy and successful.  The dark side of this theology is unspoken:  the poor must not be right with God.  And so these church communities knowingly-or unknowingly-fuel the chasm between haves and have-nots.
Patrick, I do wonder if your short and well-written treatise on virginity doesn't represent a similar Catholic quandary.  Is it possible to say that those who do not remain virgins are less close to God or redemption?  I reject this and most certainly would Jesus.
I went back to explore more deeply the scripture passages, catechism entries and some contemporary writings about the subject of Mary's virginity and even Joseph's ostensible abstinence.  It's an awful tangle, warping over and over again the clarity of scripture and laying layer upon layer of supposition to arrive at a most unnatural and, I think, de-humanizing conclusion about how we are to be intimate with each other.
In fact, this is in part where I was going with my first post on this John's article.  That the Catholic church has developed a theological, and so cultural, relationship with women and sexuality that is disassociated from the human condition:  reproduction, sexuality, attraction and love.  Its effect has been to marginalize women within and distill our presence in world culture to irrelevance.  We see the fruits of this in our declining church in the US.
If you and your theology are correct, sexual intercourse and procreation reside on a dark side, as poverty does in the "prosperity gospel."  As a church we must reject both, as did Jesus.  I hope that in Mary and Joseph we return to the scriptural celebration of marriage, of pregnancy and birth, and embrace the sexuality of this Holy couple that may have, indeed, produced brothers of Jesus.  What a glorious raising of marriage, of committed sexuality and of reproduction that would be.
I submit, again, that the Spirit must still blow in our age and we must find in Scripture, and more certainly in the words and actions of Our Lord, relevance to culture today. 
James Lindsay | 12/13/2009 - 11:03am
The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception fits in logically with the Incarnation (making the Gospel for today applicable). The free choice by God to save mankind by coming among us began with the immaculate creation of Mary. An echo of this is the free choice Mary had to respond. She continued to respond by relating to him the circumstances of his birth, which with the Scriptures, made Jesus the Man of Faith. This is what is relevant to us, not the personal relations within the Holy Family (which are rather clear in scripture, as the Protestants unceasingly point out to us).
John Raymer | 12/13/2009 - 9:22am
Most Protestants would reject the Immaculate Conception as a ''new doctrine'' - one that we have not ''heard from the beginning'' and without support in the scripture.

Protestants are generally ambivalent on the perpetual virginity. Some will argue that scripture speaks of the brothers and sisters of Jesus and will take that reading literally, all the while not taking a literal reading of ''This is my body.'' Others will accept the perpetual viginity as a long standing tradition but without scriptural support and without any real signficance.

But I also think most Protestants would have little trouble accepting that Mary and Joseph would have had the grace to live apart if that is how they thought God was calling them to live. While there may be little scriptural support for the perpetual viginity, I am not comfortable with arguments that would subjugate Mary and Joseph to their sexual passions. Surely the Mother of God, Full of Grace, and her husband, selected by God, could have controlled themselves in that matter.
Patrick Murtha | 12/13/2009 - 2:04am
Mr. Barberi,

The real question is not, did God expect Mary to remain a Virgin, but rather why did she do so. For the evidence is there. In today's age when mankind is seeking satisfaction left and right in sexuality, and often in the most perverse fashions, there are those who oppose her perpetual Virginity because they cannot fathom the idea that there is one greater who is not only a virgin all her life, but is the Virgin.

However, the assumptions that perhaps Mary had other children besides Christ is rendered unreasonable by various parts of Scripture and by reason itself.

Firstly, Christ's handing over Mary to his beloved disciple, "Behold thy mother. And from that hour, the disciple took her to his own" disproves any other children. For, if Mary had other children, they would have assumed the care of her.

Now we know that the Aramaic term for "brother" does not necessarily mean "brother" as in having the same parents. For in the Old Testament, Lot is called Abraham's nephew and at another time his brother. It is impossible for Lot to be Abraham's brother by the same parents because Abraham and Aran, Lot's father, were both brothers by the same father Thare. This is one incident that scripture shows the use of "brother" as a general term for close kin or simple closeness by certain, ties even of religion, such as is seen in multiple times in Deuteronomy.

Along the same lines, we find in the Canticle of Canticles that Christ refers to the Church as "my sister, my spouse." From here too, we deduce that such terms have not the same exact meaning as they do today. Unless, of course, we are to understand that Christ and the Church, who are symbolized in the Canticle of Canticles, are in an incestuous relationship-that would be blasphemy.

As for the virtue of virginity, St. Paul in First Corinthians, Chapter 7, speaks about virginity as bringing people closer to God than the wedded life can do. Christ required a human fosterfather; that was Joseph. However, Mary, who is the closest human being to God, would naturally desire that which brings her closest to her God. And that is virginity. As St. Paul says, "the unmarried woman and the virgin thinketh on the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit." (This statement is the very duty, the calling of Mary, to do nothing other than "think on the things of the Lord.") And again, "But more blessed shall she be, if she so remain" - unmarried that is. Because Mary kept her virginity even after Christ's birth until her death, we call her "Blessed" and the "Virgin of all virgins."

What is more is that Mary had vowed her virginity to God. Because God made her his mother, she is not released from her vow. When the angel comes to her and announces God's will for her, her statement "How can this be for I know not man?" tells us that she has vowed virginity for life For if Mary, as a woman by now espoused to Joseph, had not promised her virginity to God for life, she would have automatically assumed that the child, as seen from her words themselves, would have been St. Joseph's and would not have wondered because it would have been a perfectly natural act of nature. But since she had given her virginity to God forever, she wondered how it could be possible since she was and was going to continue in that state of virginity.

Furthermore, I must echo Joe K's thoughts on St. Joseph. Scripture calls him a "just man." Which is no small compliment to him. Because he is a just man, St. Joseph would have realized the great honor given to Mary by God. He would have understood that God had chosen Mary to the God's spouse, to bear God's Son. Therefore, he would not lessen the dignity of the Mother of God by making her simply a mother of man. Likewise, he realized that his task in life, which was no small one, was to protect Mary and the Christ Child, and provide a foster-father for the God-Man.

What is the reward of man for this work of Mary? We have received her as our Mother.
Anonymous | 12/12/2009 - 12:39am
Michael Barberi,
I am not sure if God "expected" Mary to remain a virgin but it is plausible that Joseph, after being told that Mary conceived a Child with the Holy Spirit, thus becoming the Ark of the Covenant, just like David, would have not come into this most sacred Ark of the Covenant.  Joseph was a good Jew.
This might shock men.  Men might think that Joseph is too good to possibly be a "real" role model.  I look to Joseph with Hope that I can be like him.  Giving my life to my wife and children.  Impossible?  See post 32.
Michael Barberi | 12/11/2009 - 9:42pm
I have no issue with the Church's teachings about the Immaculate Conception of Mary, even though Scripture does not provide solid evidence.  However, the story about Our Lady of Lordes is remarkable and supportive. 
The Perpetual Virginity of Mary is quite another matter.  Many Christian Churches as well as Roman Catholic theologians do not support this dogma.   One major agrument against its acceptance is the interpretation of the passages in the New Testament about the brothers and sisters of Jesus.  The Catholic Church believes these references refer to Jesus's cousins or the off-spring of Joseph's first marriage.  However, Scripture uses the words brothers and sisters and such interpretations about what such words meant in those days seem to fit the Church's dogma more than strong and convincing scholarship in support of Perpetual Virginity.  
Apart from this arguement, which goes nowhere in a debate, common sense plays an equally important role.  It is difficult for most Roman Catholics to believe that a young beautiful woman slept with her husband for many years, yet they never had intercourse.  There is nothing in Scripture that convinces anyone that God expected Mary, or that Mary assumed it to be her duty, to remain a virgin until her death.  I am open to enlighten rationale.
Michael J. Barberi
Mike Ashland | 12/11/2009 - 8:51pm
First, I must salute Sean for as fine a display of hermeneutics as I have ever seen with his use of the word concupiscence.  My goodness, I had to look the darn word up, though I knew it would be perfect from Sean's earlier writings.
I do not feel closer to Mary because of her own immaculate conception or her virgin pregnancy.  I fear that, like the concept of the Trinity, complexity was heaped onto scripture-scripture whose authors were writing for common people, and, as Isaac Newton put it, "...Scripture is reasonable and composed in the tongue of the vulgar."  Scripture wasn't written as mystery or convoluted intellectual exercise.
I guess, both in the case of Jesus and of Mary, I find myself drawn to and inspired by their human capacity for pain, suffering, disappointment, despair, anguish and joy, and the hope that their own human perfection means that I can live a life in that pursuit.
In every age we must re-examine Holy Scripture to discern what it is that God is communicating to us.  None of us should be surprised at what we hear.  What does God have in store for us?  Our measure is how we love "the one Lord" and how we love each other, as Jesus said.  Mary and Jesus hold a simple message and example for us.  I weary of the hair-splitting and intellectual gymnastics increasingly required, yearning instead to live within Mary and Jesus' expectations and inspirations.
Anonymous | 12/11/2009 - 3:51pm
1. By getting to know her son, Jesus, and asking him to give you the grace that is necessary.

2. By asking Jesus' mother, Mary, to ask her son to make it so.

I can think of no other way!
John Raymer | 12/11/2009 - 3:19pm
Sean, Yes, these discussions have been most helpful to me as well. There is a lot I have to absorb. I am going to save this string and ponder these things in my heart.

John, I am also came to the Catholic Church from a strongly Protestant background. I started watching ETWN in 1996 and started praying the Rosary about 2003. By 2006 I found myself standing up at the Easter Vigil receiving oil on my head.

Joe, I appreciate your short answer. So now I have to ask myself, how can I go about becoming more like Mary. Just wishing it will not get me there.

Patrick, your poem is most helpful. I am going to print it out and stick it on the wall next to my desk, between Angelus Domini and a Dilbert cartoon.

And to all the rest. Thank you very much for a great discussion.
Sean Keyworth | 12/11/2009 - 2:08am
Mr. Raymer,
I appreciate your question. 
1)  This dogma is personal for me because it shows that, as I said, ''God always gives us the grace we need for whatever He is calling us to...if we just choose to trust Him.''  Because of Mary's special role in God's plan for our salvation, He gave her this special grace. I know that whatever He is calling me to, He will provide exactly the grace I need.
That God chose Mary to receive this special grace to prepare her for what was going to come:  I need to reflect more on that myself.  Can I see examples of similar work by God-preparing me for what He was calling me to be?  Or can I even answer that question about myself?  Surely Mary didn't understand how God was working in her life, but Scripture says (several times, I believe) that she kept storing up things in her heart and pondering them.
2)  I was arguing the distinction between Mary (immaculately conceived) and the rest of us (born with Original Sin) because I think it is important to see and honor Mary's unique role.  Surely, we are all called to imitate Mary in bearing Christ to the world...but this is only as true as it is to say that we are called to be Christ to the world.  Yes, but I cannot take that statement and then claim that I am Jesus Christ.  Nor can I claim to be immaculately conceived
It is personal to me that Mary's special place as the Immaculate Conception not be diminished because a good son always wants to honor his mother.  I would echo some of Mr. Murtha's sentiments here.
3)  Finally, the Immaculate Conception is real and personal to me because of the prayers I say throughout my day.  One is the Miraculous Medal prayer.  I love to be able to call on Mary at any point in my day, when I need someone to pray for me, and say, "O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee."  This refers directly to the Immaculate Conception.   A second prayer is the Hail Mary.  When we say, "Holy Mary....pray for us sinners," we are calling on her who was conceived without sin and who did not sin during her life.
4)  On another note, may I suggest to everyone that reading about the types of Mary can make the Marian dogmas more vibrant.  (If you are unfamiliar, ''type'' is a theological term meaning that real events in the Old Testament parallel or foreshadow Christ's coming.)  The Immaculate Conception is correlated to the type of Mary as the New Eve.  Mary's role as our advocate is seen in the type of the queen mother to the Davidic kings of Israel, and we see her playing out this role at the wedding feast of Cana.
This discussion has helped me clarify my thoughts and feelings about the Blessed Mother.  So thanks to all.
Anonymous | 12/10/2009 - 7:19pm
Mary is the human that I hope to be!
Patrick Murtha | 12/10/2009 - 3:45pm
Mr. Raymer,

You ask a difficult question. For me it's difficult to answer because, I think, one must always keep the personal attached to the doctrinal. It is one of the things that separates us Catholics from the Protestants. They deal solely in the personal-personal interpretation, personal Savior, etc. On the other, we are believe in both the personal and the universal. That is the way of human nature.

But, if I speak personally, I speak of a matter that is still connected to universal truth. A true man loves his mother, wife, and sisters. Being true men, we will give those fair creatures-though human nature sometimes makes them frustrating-what is best for them-if we don't we ought to-to accomplish as easily as possible their mission in life, in short God's will for them.

God Himself loves Mary, the Sister-mother-spouse of God. God therefore wants her to be the best, to be that pearl beyond price, the spotless ark for the spotless Lamb of God. He, being God, has a perfect right to what is best of mankind. God, being more chivalrous than the best of us, has her conceived in her mother's womb without sin, already redeemed by the blood of the Knight of knights.

Who is she, with love-locked eyes,
Pure and mysterious as the sea?
She’s the maid made wonderfully wise,
Looking down to God on her knee.

John Raymer | 12/10/2009 - 12:38pm
JSB,Sean, John and the rest:

I know what to do with a cathedral. I was trained from my youth to appreciate the architecture and the iconography. I understand how those things are intended to draw us to God. I know how to pray in a cathedral and I know not to play basketball in a cathedral. But I am not sure what to do with the Immaculate Conception. I feel like a gum-chewing tourist in a tee shirt and flip flops, listening to an iPod playing ACDC while standing in the middle of St.Peter's, or was it Cinderella's Castle? Whatever. Go Jimmy Johnson!

I have read the Catechism. All that does is tell me what I have to believe. It does not help me appreciate it. I have meditated on the Immaculate Conception, which led me to my notion that we might all be immaculately conceived (see Post 7 above). I have talked to parishoners and heard some pieces on EWTN over the years but these have not helped much.

So while I know what the architects are trying to say with their cathedral, I do not seem to know what the Holy Spirit is trying to say with the Immaculate Conception. I am fine with mystery. But a mystery has to lead to a profound truth to be useful. I understand the mystery of the Incarnation, the Passion and the Eucharist, and they have deep meaning for me. But the Immaculate Conception seems kind of opaque.

So to help me out, can you all share what the Immaculate Conception means to you - not as a doctrinal statement - I can look that up, but as a testimony. How has the Immaculate Conception changed your life or contributed to who you are.

This would be most helpful to me.
Sean Keyworth | 12/10/2009 - 3:14am
Mr. Raymer,
Thanks for the open and honest discussion.
You say, ''Our death in Adam is an essential, fundamental part of what it means to be a real human.''  Thankfully, I heard my bishop preach something pertinent yesterday.  He pointed out that Adam and Eve were created fully human, yet were free of all sin from the moment of their creation.  This teaches us that sin is NOT the essence of what it means to be human.  True, the experience that we all have is wrapped up with the experience of sin; but Christ comes to redeem us and lift us out of sin-to become fully alive, fully human.
You say that Mary's Immaculate Conception shows us, ''what we could be through the grace of Jesus Christ.''  Amen.  For all of us are offered an equally astounding grace which erases our Original Sin and our actual sins.  This is not at the moment of our conception, but in Baptism.  And from our baptism on, we can all receive God's grace as surely as Mary did, and so we become free to choose not to sin, free to love, free to live as God intended us, free to be fully human.
Yet there is a difference between us and Mary.  We must daily pick up our cross with Christ and struggle against concupiscence.  Mary participated with Jesus in a different way, unique to her.  She did not take up her cross to battle concupiscence, but rather mothered the Son of God and then walked beside her Son as He carried the sins of the whole world.  This special job required special graces.  And God always gives us the grace we need for whatever He is calling us to...if we just choose to trust Him.
Mother Mary, pray for us and obtain for us the grace to trust God as you did, and to choose to follow wherever He calls us.
Lord, by Your passion and cross, You have set us free.  You are the savior of the world.  Grant us the courage each day to take up our crosses and follow You.

Jeff Bagnell | 12/9/2009 - 9:37pm
Don't know what to do with it?  That's like looking at a great cathedral and saying hmm, I don't know what to do with this."  You don't do anything with it, you contemplate and appreciate God's genius, love, creativity, etc.
Joseph Farrell | 12/9/2009 - 8:07pm
These are complex doctrines, but most of the problems you have with the perpetual virginity of Mary were worked out in the early councils which, as Catholics, we believe were guided by the Spirit.  So there's your answer on where he is leading.
If you wonder about what the meaning of the perpetual virginity of Mary and the Immaculate conception, I would recommend the Catechism of the Catholic Church.  The link to the below article of the CCC is especially helpful:
For further enlightenment on how these doctrines play a role in our lives as Catholics there is the great encyclical by Pope John Paul II, Redemporis Mater:
I hope that helps.
John Raymer | 12/9/2009 - 7:33pm
Sean and John,

Thank you for your kind comments and corrections. Neither am I a theologian, but a scientist. Yet I still have a Christological problem with having Mary be substantially different from the rest of us.

St. Paul said "In Adam all die but in Christ shall all be made alive," and "all have sinned and come short of the glory of God." I think "all" is a key word. Our death in Adam is an essential, fundamental part of what it means to be a real human. So where does that leave the Immaculate Conception, Original Sin, and the full humanity of Christ? We could say it is all a mystery, but that is neither satisfying nor very useful.

Most people I know - not theologians but educated, thoughtful parishioners - don't know what to do with the Immaculate Conception. They see it as a pious doctrine with little practical meaning in their lives. But that approach is not satisfying either. My question to you is "what is the Holy Spirit trying to tell us?"

As you (Sean) said "But God uses us all, and especially authors of Sacred Scripture, in ways that we don't expect or intend." So, likewise, I don't see why Mary, through her Immaculate Conception, is not showing us what we could be through the grace of Jesus Christ, rather than how vastly and fundamentally different she is from us.

May the Lord be with you and us all. Can you shed further light on my dilemma?
Patrick Murtha | 12/9/2009 - 6:55pm
Mr. Ashland,

In response to my post you said, "The word virgin you quote from Isaiah is originally written in Hebrew-almah, which is universally translated throughout the rest of scripture as woman, young woman, maiden or girl." It is very possible that the term may have multiple meanings. If we look at our own language, one term might have several connotations outside the primary definition.

Take our own word "virgin." One definition, which is the primary, is a person who has not had sexual intercourse. Another definition is simply a chaste unmarried woman, which, while the first is suggested in this definition, is not guaranteed. The same as in another definition: an unmarried person who has taken a vow of chastity. The list could continue.

Now I ask you this. If the sign, God is offering, is going to be simply that a woman, young woman, maiden, or girl shall conceive and bear a son, what is spectacular or marvelous in that? Absolutely nothing. What kind of sign is that? As far as a sign goes, it is quite idiotic. Women, even young women, bear children quite often, and I think the Lord is tuned into that fact.

The sign, especially if God is offering it, therefore must be something miraculous, something out of the ordinary, something outside the power of mankind. Now a virgin, a woman who has not had sex, conceiving, which means that even after the child is in her womb she must still be a virgin, is a real sign worthy of the power of God.

It is ridiculous to assume that God is simply saying, "Look, my sign to you is that a young girl or woman shall conceive a child." Any Hebrew at the time would respond, "Okay, Lord, so what?" It would be as ludicrous as saying, "For a sign, I am going to make the water wet."

Therefore, the word used in Isaias, which we translate to "virgin," and which the Church Fathers agree, must literally mean a virgin-a woman who has not had sexual intercourse-and that the maiden would remain a virgin even after the birth otherwise there is nothing marvelous or significant about a woman conceiving a child.
Mike Ashland | 12/9/2009 - 6:09pm
I deeply appreciate yours, and everyone's openness and scholarship on these issues.  I especially appreciate your blog (as you mention and post) on this passage from Isaiah.  I disagree in part, however, with the last paragraph-especially the intimation in the statement..."its divine intent made manifest through the work of human hands and minds" that all work of human hands and minds manifests divine intent.
To ascribe even the mistakes (intentional or not) of scripture copiers to divine intent in the first 4 centuries begs, then, a similar position regarding projects like The Conservative Bible Project or other abominations of interpretation.
Is the Spirit alive, still, in manifesting divine intent through discussion and interpretation of scripture, or is it all finished?  One cannot have it both ways.
I refer you to Mary F. Foskett, "A Virgin Conceived" and the popular works of Megan McKenna and Karen Armstrong as evidence of the impact of Mary's virginity.  This is culture, through which the Holy Spirit blows its divine wind-alive today and tomorrow and challenging us to continue to be reborn.  The role of women in society and church is changing and developing.  I am only desiring a continuing, living and challenging part for the Spirit in this new age.
Having strayed into another area entirely, I apologize and hope we can pick up this thread on another post more directly appropriate to the discernment of divine intent.  Thank you, John, for your notes about paidophthoreo and look forward to reading your new book.
Joseph Farrell | 12/9/2009 - 3:55pm
As John Martens states, women and the Church is always a valid area of discussion.  However, you are suggesting that Catholic Doctrine on the virgin birth is born out of the culture and not Divine Revelation.  To believe that something that the Church definitively teaches as revelatory is somehow of human origin is not Catholic thought.
Further, all Revelation should be seen as critical to the redemptive Christ.  Certainly this is true of the origins of the Second Person of the Trinity.  God does not reveal something to the Church that is unimportant.
Mike Ashland | 12/9/2009 - 2:31pm
The word virgin you quote from Isaiah is originally written in Hebrew-almah, which is universally translated throughout the rest of scripture as woman, young woman, maiden or girl.  The Hebrew word for virgin is bethulah, which is used elsewhere in Isaiah a number of times and is properly translated as virgin.  Isaiah did not use the word bethulah in the passage you quote.
All scripture was written, translated and re-produced within culture.  And culture, throughout the early history of our church during which doctrinal decisions were made, reflected a station of females that today would be-and should be-considered primitive and wrong.
I'm not suggesting that Mary could not have been or was or was not a virgin at Christ's conception.  I'm simply pointing out that
1.  It is not critical to the redemptive Christ, and
2.  It promulgates a cultural position about sex and females that continues to be destructive in our world and in our church, and
3.  We should be able to talk about it with scholarship.
Mike Ashland | 12/8/2009 - 8:15pm
Scripture makes no direct claim about the virginity of Mary.  Tradition does, however.  Tradition is born out of culture, which for much of the last 2000 years found women subservient to men, menstruation unclean and female sexuality suspect.  This is the culture out of which the Virgin Mary was born.  That a divine Jesus could not possibly be the fruit of human intercourse.
Setting aside for now the terrible internecine wars within the early church over that fact of divinity, does a virgin birth not distance us from the humanity of Jesus?  And is a Christ born of human intercourse less able to redeem or more?  Is human intercourse so base and sinful?
I recall sitting in a small room with lay leaders and Pope John Paul II, discussing the role of women and laity in church.  His devotion to the Holy Mother needed no miracles, it seemed to me, but rather it grew out of his love of her human courage to surrender to the will of God and her limitless love for her son.  We should celebrate every day-and especially on her feast day-the pregnancy, birth and motherhood of Mary, whose Son, Jesus' conception is miracle enough without virginity.
Bravo for writing an article that begs discussion and provokes the mind and spirit!
Patrick Murtha | 12/9/2009 - 11:57am
In response to Mike Ashland, Scripture does support the claim of Mary's virginity. In Isaias, God tells Achaz to ask of Him a sign. Achaz refuses saying that he will not tempt God. God then responds, saying "Hear ye therefore, O house of David: Is it a small thing for you to be grievous to men, that you are grievous to my God also? Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign. Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel."

Also, I do think it is a shame that John Martens did not act more prudently with his commentary as certain phrases may be used to cast a shadow of doubt upon the fact that Our Blessed Mother was immaculately conceived. And it only makes sense that since God was to be housed in her womb, that house be free and never touched by sin. Her being immaculately conceived would have been caused by the power of Christ's redeeming blood-such is the power of God.

The early Church and the Church Fathers have taught this. Pius IX's Ineffabilis Deus declares this:
Sean Keyworth | 12/8/2009 - 11:22am
Mr. Raymer,
The peace of our Lord be with you always.
You correctly state that, ''we cannot reject the Immaculate Conception as false or inadequate; we believe it to be revealed truth from the Holy Spirit.''  The truth that everyone has the stain we call Original Sin from the first moment of their existence, is likewise revealed truth from the Holy Spirit, which we cannot reject as false or inadequate. 
I think the logic that led you to your conclusion gets off track when you say that Mary's (and by extension Jesus') humility is incompatible with her special condition, which we know as the Immaculate Conception.  I am not a scholar, but these do not seem contradictory to me at all.  Consider that Mary had no way of knowing that she was unique in being freed from the spiritual defect of Original Sin from her conception, thanks to the merits her Son would win for her on the Cross.  So there is no reason for her to have any pride...especially when she looked at her own situation and saw that she was a poor, unmarried woman-quite an ordinary and lowly position in any age, but especially in that time.
To the contrary, I think that were Mary lacking in the fullness of grace which could only come from her Immaculate Conception, then she would not be capable of the perfect humility required by her as the Mother of God.  This is because the Original Sin that we are all born with is, among other things, an impediment to virtue.  None of us normal sinners could humbly accept the great mystery announced by the Archangel Gabriel in today's gospel reading, that she would bear a son who, ''will be great and will be called Son of the Most High...and of his Kingdom there will be no end.''
What you say about the innocence of babies in the womb would be beautiful, if understood as their innocence of actual sin.  Saying that all babies have Original Sin on their soul does not make them guilty of any actual sins; it is more like a spiritual disease or defect inherited by all of Adam's decendents.  Only the New Adam can cure us of it, and this only by being born a second time, of water and the Spirit.
Yet conception is indeed a great gift from God; it is most good.  You are right that when a baby is conceived through a sinful act by her parents, the guilt of this sin is not transferred to the baby.  In fact, the parent's sin is not only against God, each other, and themselves.  Significantly, they are sinning against their own newly conceived baby, since every child has the right to be conceived by two loving, committed, married parents through an act of true self giving.
Finally, your comment about David's statement in Psalm 51 may be true enough from David's perspective:  he was indeed, ''making a cry of deep despair and not a doctrinal statement.''  But God uses us all, and especially authors of Sacred Scripture, in ways that we don't expect or intend.  So I don't see why, ''in sin did my mother conceive me,'' could not have been intended by David in one way, yet intended by God as another confirmation of the doctrine of Original Sin.
Happy Feast of Our Blessed Mother, Mary, the Immaculate Conception!
Jeff Bagnell | 12/8/2009 - 9:48am
For edification on this great feast day I'd recommend renting the Song of Bernadette, the academy award winning film about Lourdes.  It is so well done.  Magnificent performances by Lee J. Cobb, Jennifer Jones, Vincent Price, etc. 
I love the scene when Bernadette's mother and aunt insist that she tell them who the lady is, and Bernadette responds, "she told me who she was but I didn't understand what she said."  They press her further to tell them what the lady said, and Bernadette innocently states, "She said, 'I am the Immaculate Conception.'" 
Very hard to watch that and not get the chills, in a very good way.
Joseph Farrell | 12/7/2009 - 11:35pm
I accept that this is a legitimate study of scripture.  I am far from a scripture scholar (or a scholar of any kind), but I am a seminarian who is accustomed to taking the teachings of the Church and working to understand from what wisdom the doctrine comes to us.
My major problem with this article is first of all its tone.  Rather than helping us to understand how the Church came to the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception using Bibilical and other Tradition-based means, the article spends the first 2/3 explaining why the Biblical basis is not credible and then throws it all to Tradition without much explanation.
Second, I take issue with the timing.  Here at the seminary we are in the midst of a great celebration of this feast.  Instead of finding something edifying and affirming to read, America posts this article as the lead on its ''Good Word'' blog.
I find it very iritating, and I know that a scholar of Mr. Marten's ability and a magazine of America's stature can do better in honoring Our Blessed Mother on this of all days.
John Raymer | 12/7/2009 - 9:27pm
The Immaculate Conception poses a special theological problem for me, which I then see as revealing an even more important truth.

Jesus' humanity and accessibility comes from the humility - the ordinariness, the lowliness - of his mother Mary. But if Mary was conceived in a way that was extra holy or extra pure, then Mary's humility would be false and insincere - she would not be the lowly handmaiden but a diva and her son a divine, after the manner of the pagans.

But we cannot reject the Immaculate Conception as false or inadequate; we believe it to be revealed truth from the Holy Spirit. So this leaves one solution - we are all conceived without sin!

Blessed Mary is the archetype of humanity and womanhood. As she is the Immaculate Conception, so are we. What is lacking is that we are too blind, too proud, too afraid to accept it. Blessed Mary shows us that conception is God's greatest gift to all of humanity. It is the greatest gift we can give to another person. God created it and it is most good, most holy, most immaculate! Even if we act in sin as we conceive another human being, even if we are in a state of the most mortal sin, the conception is immaculate and our sin is not tranferred to the child. This is why abortion is so terrible. If the sin were transferred, then ''ill-conceived'' babies would be sin incarnate, stained from the beginning and unworthy of life in a society of the righteous. Abortion would be an appropriate solution to keep society pure. But since all conception is immaculate - as modeled our Mother Blessed Mary - then every life is most holy from the beginning.

When we read Psalm 51 where David says ''in sin did my mother conceive me,'' we must realize that he was making a cry of deepest despair, not a doctrinal statement.
Jeff Bagnell | 12/7/2009 - 7:59pm
"Full of grace" is pretty clear - - and that was coming from an archangel, no less.  Missing from the article is any discussion of Mary's magnificat, i.e., "my soul doth magnify the Lord," and all the inferences that can be drawn from that kind of pronouncement.  
Fortunately, the Catholic Church is not crippled by a reliance solely on Scripture to discern religious truth.  We all know that were it not for the Church, we'd have no New Testament.  
Anonymous | 12/7/2009 - 7:19pm
I would also have to agree with Joe Farrell. Mr. Martens, there are many good arguments based on Scripture, Revelation, and logic. I am not a "biblical scholar" but I have read some of these accounts by "biblical scholars" It seems to me that a "biblical scholar" could have read these arguments and written a reflection from this point of view or are you so confident in your doubt that you can only write a reflection as a sceptic?
Peter Lakeonovich | 12/7/2009 - 7:10pm
I'm sorry, but I have to agree with Joe. Where is the mention of Our Lady of Lourdes saying to Saint Bernadette, "I am the Immaculate Conception," confirming what the Church already had begun to recognize as true? I would certainly give the author the benefit of the doubt in his motivations for writing this piece, but there is nothing in it worthy of the title - too empty for such a joy filled feast. A child in kindergarten knows this very well when, with a simple crayon, he writes, "I love you mom," on a Mother's day card and makes his mother the happiest woman in the world when he presents it to her. A biblical scholar can, and should want to, present something better for the Mother of us all. Happy feast day!
Joseph Farrell | 12/7/2009 - 3:18pm
Thanks for an article on Our Mother's greatest feast that seeks to poke Biblical holes in a key Marian doctrine of the Church.  I believe that "full of grace" has a much easier meaning to understand than you are willing to admit.
The doctrine of the Immaculate conception is discernable via Scripture, Revelation, and logic. 
Far be it for America to write something positive and spiritually edifying about the Blessed Mother on her feast.  While I have long enjoyed many aspects of this magazine, these sorts of articles are unhelpful to the faithful and inapporpriate for a Catholic magazine when one is approaching such a great celebration.
Patrick Murtha | 12/15/2009 - 8:19am
Mr. Raymer,

When Christ talks about order here in the world and in heaven with such phrases as "let him be least amoung you," He is saying that those who are in authority are to act like the least, like a servant. This fits into His statement at the Last Supper where he calls on the Apostles, the leaders of His Church, to serve, "You call me Master, and Lord; and you say well, for so I am. If then I being your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that as I have done to you, so you do also."

You misunderstand me if you think that I say that virgins themselves claim a higher degree of sanctity. Instead, they really claim nothing for themselves. (And here I am speaking about those who make the vows chastity for the love of God.) It is God who gives them that degree of sanctity based on their self-less attachment to him. They are the people to whom Christ says, "Friend, come up higher."

When St. Paul says, "But I speak this by permission, and not of commandment," he is saying that those who have not the strength or the grace to remain in the state of virginity (here he is not speaking of those who bind themselves by vows) are not obliged by the command of God to remain virgins, but are permitted to marry for the salvation of their souls.

Later in the same chapter, he says, "if they do not contain themselves, let them marry. For it is better to marry than to be burnt." He follows that with a command from God saying that a husband is forbidden to leave his wife and a wife to leave her husband.

To say that St. Paul's statements about virginity here are because of his own married life, as if he had a troubled married life, is wrong. For his commentary on marriage is absolutely beautiful. In Ephesians, he speaks about the relationship between a man and his wife, comparing them to Christ and the Church. He calls matrimony "a great sacrament." Furthermore he tells husbands, something that ought to be said more often today, to LOVE their wives as Christ loves his Church and to sacrifice their bodies for their wives.

In regards to the Apocalypse and "they are virgins," I answer that these were men who vowed virginity to Christ. There would be no need to make a distinction between them and others if the words merely implied all who were in heaven. Furthermore, there are the words "not defiled with women," which means no conjugal contact. Since there is obviously no sexual contact in heaven, as there is no longer need for procreation, it would be pointless for St. John to make such a comment. Instead, he is speaking about their lives on earth as being "the firstfruits to God and to the Lamb."
John Raymer | 12/14/2009 - 1:11pm

You raised some interesting points that warrant further discussion.

1. You are right, the Kingdom of the World is not one of equality. Neither is the Kingdom of Heaven. But if we listen to Jesus, the order of Heaven is opposite of the order of the world. ''He would would greatest among you, let him be least;'' ''The last shall be first and the first shall be last.'' So whenever we claim privlege on earth we can be assured we are condemning ourselves in heaven. So while there is an order in the World, and Christ advises us to respect it, Christ is also calling us, in the Church, to conceive by the Holy Spirit a new heavenly order in our hearts and bring it to incarnation in the world through our actions.

2. When a virgin claims ''a higher state of sanctity'' or a special grace by virtue of their virginity, then that is like when Jesus said ''They love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward.''

3. Much of your discussion is based on I Corinthians, Chapter 7. Verse 6 is the key verse: ''But I speak this by permission, and not of commandment.'' In other words, this is St. Paul's personal opinion based on his own personal experience in life. It was never intended to be a doctrinal statement. Many theologians have considered St. Paul's ''thorn in my flesh'' to be his wife. In other words, it would not be appropriate to consider that St. Paul's bad attitude toward marriage (and some would say toward women) would be an indication of heavenly graces.

4. Revelation 14 is interesting. ''and no man could learn that song but the hundred and forty and four thousand, which were redeemed from the earth. These are they which were not defiled with women; for they are virgins. These are they which follow the Lamb whithersoever he goeth. These were redeemed from among men, being the firstfruits unto God and to the Lamb.'' This passage is worth comparing to Matthew 22:30 ''For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven.'' The passage in Revelation refers specifically to they ''which were redeemed from the earth,'' which is the same as saying ''in the resurection.'' I do not think the discussion in Revelation 14 refers to virgins on earth but virgins in the resurection.

I look forward to hearing from you and hope this is helpful.
James Lindsay | 12/14/2009 - 12:24pm

When Paul was writing, he thought the end of time and the associated tribulations were immediately at hand. If he knew that there were millenia left, if not millenia of millenia (which would make sense, given the time scale of evolution to this point), he might have written a bit differently on sexual matters.

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