The Immaculate Virgin Conception of the Virgin Mary

In my book Important Dates in the Lives of Jesus and Mary, I conclude that the true date of the Immaculate Conception was November 8th.

In my booklet The Virginity of Jesus and Mary, I discuss the dogma of the Immaculate Conception as well as my speculative theological opinion that Mary’s conception was accomplished in a manner that was entirely miraculous and entirely virginal. Her parents, Saint Ann and Saint Joachim, were not virgins. They had conceived a child years earlier, Mary’s older sister, mentioned in the Gospel of John:

{19:25} And standing beside the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, and Mary of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene.

So Saint Ann was not a virgin. Mary was conceived of both Ann and Joachim, making them her true biological parents. Nevertheless, the conception of Mary was accomplished miraculously and virginally, without marital relations. This idea is speculative; it is not part of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. However, neither is this idea excluded by any dogma or teaching of the Church.

The claim is false and baseless that “the Church teaches” Mary was conceived in the usual way (marital relations). The claim is also false that the Church has condemned the idea of a virginal miraculous conception for Mary.

Objections and Replies
(an extract from my booklet)

Objection 1: According to the Catholic Encyclopedia (online, 1908 edition): “According to Ephiphanius it was maintained even in the fourth century by some enthusiasts that St. Anne conceived without the action of man. This error was revived in the West in the fifteenth century. (Anna concepit per osculum Joachimi.) In 1677 the Holy See condemned the error of Imperiali who taught that St. Anne in the conception and birth of Mary remained virgin (Benedict XIV, De Festis, II, 9).” [44]

Reply 1: First, concerning the “error of Imperiali” and St. Anne’s virginity: St. Ann and St. Joachim were not virgins. They conceived a child, in the usual way, years before the Virgin Mary. This sister of Mary is mentioned in Sacred Scripture: “And standing beside the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, and Mary of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene.” (John 19:25). Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich believed that the older sister of the Virgin Mary was conceived and born to Joachim and Ann about 19 years prior to the Virgin Mary’s Immaculate Conception. [45] Therefore, St. Anne was not a virgin.

Nevertheless, the Virgin Mary was conceived and born in a miraculous and virginal manner, even though St. Ann herself was not a virgin. Mary’s conception and birth were entirely virginal, because Mary herself is entirely virginal. Mary was not conceived and born of a virgin, but Mary was conceived and born in a manner which was entirely miraculous and entirely virginal.

Has the idea that St. Ann remained a virgin in the conception and birth of Mary been condemned? I cannot find any reference to support this claim. [See Addendum 1 below.] But it is true that St. Ann did not remain a virgin throughout her marriage to Joachim, since the Virgin Mary had an older sister (John 19:25). Thus, St. Ann could not have “remained a virgin,” if she was already not a virgin.

But this objection does not claim that the Holy See condemned the idea that Mary herself was conceived and born in a miraculous and virginal manner, but only the idea that Ann remained a virgin. The Holy See was likely aware of this teaching that Mary’s conception was miraculous and virginal, since it was known to be maintained by some persons as early as the fourth century and was revived again in the 15th century. Yet neither the Pope, nor an Ecumenical Council, nor an office of the Holy See has ever condemned the idea that the Virgin Mary was conceived and born in a miraculous virginal manner. In fact, the Sacred Magisterium has not yet decided this question definitively. It is presently an open theological question. (I believe that this question will be decided by the great Ecumenical Council of 2028 to 2032.)

The document cited in ‘Objection 1’ above (Benedict XIV, De Festis Domini Nostri Jesu Christi et Beatae Mariae Virginis) was written by Pope Benedict XIV. According to the theologian Rev. William G. Most, “This was written as a private theologian, not as Pope.” [46] Rev. William G. Most, writing about the tradition of the Rosary, also states: “Benedict XIV … wrote in favor of the papal tradition before his election as Pope.” [47] The footnote for the preceding quote reads: “Pope Benedict XIV, De Festis Domini Nostri Jesu Christi et Beatae Mariae Virginis, II, 12 (Pratt in typographia Aldina, 1843), IX, 294-98.” [48] Also, this document (De Festis….) could not have been written in 1677, for the author (who later became Pope Benedict XIV) was born about the year 1675. [49]

Therefore, the citation used in this ‘Objection 1,’ and in the Catholic Encyclopedia, is erroneous. The document in question was written prior to its author’s election as Pope, and so it is not a condemnation by the Holy See.

The Latin cited above, “Anna concepit per osculum Joachimi,” means ‘Anna conceived by the kiss of Joachim.’ This expression is a euphemistic way of saying that St. Ann conceived Mary in her womb, with Joachim as Mary’s biological father, but entirely without sexual relations. It does not mean that Joachim and Ann conceived by means of kissing. It correctly implies that Mary’s conception was miraculous and virginal.

The statement, “This error was revived in the West in the fifteenth century,” is no proof that this doctrine is in error. The 1908 version of the Catholic Encyclopedia makes this unsupported claim, but more recent editions of the Catholic Encyclopedia do not mention the idea at all. The Catholic Encyclopedia is not issued by the Church and is not an official document of the Magisterium.

ADDENDUM: I now have a copy of “De Festis” and the text states (in my translation of the Latin) as follows:

The father (and) mother of the Blessed Virgin are presently held to have been Saint Joachim (and) Saint Ann. Certainly, from the Italian writer named Imperialis the spurious book of deception ‘on the Tragedy and Birth of the Virgin’, a title which Christ endures, taught that in preparation for the birth of God, (her) mother Ann in fact retained (her) virginity though she had given birth to the Blessed Virgin, a privilege the mother communicated to (her) wonderful daughter, which error the Apostolic See condemned in the year 1677 according to [gives a series of citations to establish that this decision of the Holy See did occur.]

So the Holy See did condemn the claim that Saint Ann remained a virgin, and the claim that Mary’s virginity is a result of Saint Ann transferring this privilege to her. But the Holy See did not condemn the idea that Mary was conceived in a miraculous and virginal manner. My position is that Saint Ann was not a virgin when Mary was conceived and born. And the perfect virginity of Mary is a result of her role as the mother of our Savior, not a result of being the daughter of Saint Ann. So my position has not been condemned by the Holy See.

Objection 2: Saint Epiphanius, Bishop of Salamis (4th century), wrote against both the miraculous virgin conception and the miraculous virgin birth of Mary: “For even if the account and the traditions concerning Mary state that it was told to her father Joachim in the desert that his wife had conceived, <still> that did not happen without their coming together, nor without the man’s seed…. For it cannot be that anyone is born upon earth outside of the course of human nature; only <the Son?> was distinguished <in this respect ?>, and to him alone did nature allow this….” [50]

Reply 2: Saint Epiphanius was wrong in his belief that St. Joachim and St. Ann conceived the Virgin Mary in the usual manner and also wrong in his belief that St. Ann gave birth to the Virgin Mary in the usual manner. He gives no theological argument to support his belief. Blessed Ann Catherine Emmerich believed that the Virgin Mary was conceived and born in a miraculous virginal manner, based on her visions from God. St. Epiphanius was stating an opinion based on human reason, not on Tradition or Scripture, and not on private revelation.

Saint Epiphanius wrote the above quote in the context of criticizing a group of women, led by priestesses, who seemed to worship the Virgin Mary. He calls this group the “Collyridians,” (cake-eaters,) because they offered bread in Mary’s name in a religious ceremony. He correctly criticizes them for worshipping Mary, for having women priestesses, and for having a ceremony with bread offered to Mary (in poor imitation of the Eucharist). This group was wrong to worship Mary, because Mary is merely human, not Divine.

However, this group was not wrong in all things. Saint Epiphanius incorrectly criticizes them for saying, about Mary: “We honor the queen of heaven.” The Magisterium and the faithful have frequently referred to Mary as the Queen of Heaven. This group was also called the “Philomarianites,” (Mary lovers,) because of their love for the Virgin Mary. They were correct in loving Mary and in holding her in high regard. As the centuries have passed, Mary’s place in God’s plan has become ever-clearer.

It is not clear from what Saint Epiphanius says, whether or not the Collyridians actually believed that Mary was conceived in a miraculous and virginal manner. In writing about this group, Saint Epiphanius argues against this idea. He may have been refuting something that the group believed, which would be consistent with their exaltation of Mary, or, he may have been making the point that Mary is merely human.

Objection 3: The idea that Mary was conceived miraculously and virginally is found in certain non-canonical works, which have been condemned by the Church. Therefore, the idea itself is also condemned.

Reply 3: Non-canonical works from the early Church do not have God as their true author and so they are fallible. The Magisterium has not condemned these various non-canonical works per se, but has only taught that these works are the fallible works of human persons, not infallible Sacred Scripture. These works were written by some members of the early Church, who attempted to write about Christ and Mary and the things of faith. These works contain some truths, such as that Jesus is the Son of God and that He died for our Salvation. They also contain some errors, because they are the work of fallible human beings. The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas also contains some errors, for the same reason.

The numerous theological arguments in favor of a miraculous virgin conception and miraculous virgin birth for the Virgin Mary are based on Tradition and Scripture. None of the arguments are based on the apocryphal works of the early Church. Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich believed in the miraculous virgin conception and miraculous virgin birth of Mary based on her visions from God. Her writings and ideas are not from non-canonical works of the early Church, but are from her own experience of God.

The apocryphal and non-canonical work called The Gospel of the Nativity of Mary states: “Therefore, when she has grown up, just as she herself shall be miraculously born of a barren woman, so in an incomparable manner she, a virgin, shall bring forth the Son of the Most High, who shall be called Jesus, and who, according to the etymology of His name, shall be the Saviour of all nations.” [51] This work is a fallible work written in the time of the early Church. However, this particular quote contains a truth. The Virgin Mary did have a miraculous birth, just as Christ had a miraculous birth; yet these two births are properly called incomparable because Mary is merely human, whereas Christ is the Son of God.

Objection 4: Most Bishops and theologians do not teach that the Virgin Mary was conceived and born in a miraculous and virginal manner.

Reply 4: In the early Church, most Bishops and theologians did not believe or teach that Mary had an Immaculate Conception, free from the stain of original sin. St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Albert the Great — each a Doctor of the Church as well as a Saint — taught an incorrect understanding of the Virgin Mary’s conception. St. Thomas even wrote this idea in the Summa Theologica. Blessed John Duns Scotus was one of the first few theologians who argued strongly in favor of the correct doctrine. Yet, as the centuries passed, the Church grew in love for, and in knowledge of, the Virgin Mary. The people of God, including religious orders and ordained servants of God, gradually began to accept the idea of the Immaculate Conception. Many centuries after the idea was first proposed and debated, when finally most of the faithful had accepted the idea, the Magisterium next infallibly defined the correct doctrine on the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary. [52]

Furthermore, the Magisterium has never taught that the Virgin Mary had a conception and birth in the ordinary manner. Theologians and Bishops do not, in general, specifically teach that Mary had an ordinary conception and birth. The Catechism of the Catholic Church does not mention the question. There is no Papal encyclical or document of an Ecumenical Council which answers the question. It is an open question.

by
Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.

Endnotes:

[44] Frederick Holweck, ‘St. Anne’, The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, (New York: Robert Appleton Co., 1907) http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01538a.htm

[45] Emmerich, Life of the Blessed Virgin Mary, p. 22-27.

[46] Reverend William G. Most, Mary in Our Life, Appendix VI: The Brown Scapular, Endnote 22 reads as follows: “Pope Benedict XIV, De Festis, II, vi, 10 (IX, 271). This was written as a private theologian, not as Pope.” http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/most/getchap.cfm?WorkNum=213&ChapNum=31

[47] Reverend William G. Most, Mary in Our Life, Appendix V: St. Dominic as Author of the Rosary.

[48] Reverend William G. Most, Mary in Our Life, Appendix V: St. Dominic as Author of the Rosary, footnote 14.

[49] Patrick Healy, ‘Pope Benedict XIV’, The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, (New York: Robert Appleton Co., 1907) http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02432a.htm

[50] The Panarion of St. Epiphanius, Bishop of Salamis, Selected Passages, trans. and ed. Philip R. Amidon, S.J., (New York, New York: Oxford University Press, Inc. 1990), p. 354, n. 79.5.5 and 79.7.1. The editors marks and indicate “editorial restoration inserted in the text itself” and “editorial restoration or emendation included in the critical apparatus,” respectively.

[51] The Gospel of the Nativity of Mary, Wesley Center Online, Non-canonical Homepage, (Northwest Nazarene University: Wesley Center for Applied Theology, 1996), chapter 4; http://wesley.nnu.edu/noncanon/gospels/natmary.htm

[52] Pope Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus, Dec. 8, 1854.

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