FYI: ‘Immaculate Conception’ Does Not Mean What You Think It Means

You don’t have to be Catholic to have heard the phrase “Immaculate Conception.” References often appear in pop culture and even politics.

In the first season of the TV show “Glee,” the character Puck responds to his classmate Quinn’s refusal to admit that he is the father of her child by declaring, “Well, call the Vatican. We got ourselves another Immaculate Conception!”

Reviewers of the CW’s “Jane the Virgin” often describe the show as a modern take on the Immaculate Conception.

And during a January 2018 Fox News interview, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R- Fla.) said the timing around missing text messages between the FBI’s Peter Strzok and Lisa Page could be considered “the greatest coincidence since the Immaculate Conception.”

But there’s a problem with all of those references: They’re using “Immaculate Conception” wrong. 

It’s a common misconception (no pun intended) that “Immaculate Conception” refers to the Roman Catholic teaching that the Virgin Mary conceived Jesus without having sex. But that belief is known as the Virgin Birth of Jesus. 

“The Virgin Birth refers to Jesus being born of a woman who was a virgin,” the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author, told HuffPost. “His birth is miraculous because Mary conceived a child without having sexual relations with a man.”

Immaculate Conception instead refers to Mary’s conception in the womb of her mother, St. Anne. The idea is that Mary was conceived without the stain of original sin, or born free from original sin.

In 1854, Pope Pius IX proclaimed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception and stated: “The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.’”

So, Immaculate Conception is not about how Jesus was conceived. 

CNN anchor Chris Cuomo (who coincidentally attended Queens’ Immaculate Conception School as a child) pushed back on Gaetz’s allegations and his analogy in part by correcting his misuse of the phrase.

“The Immaculate Conception is not how Jesus was born,” Cuomo said. “It was the mother’s conception without original sin … If you’re going to make an analogy, at least know what you’re talking about, because you have to have a basis for these things.”

But, of course, Gaetz isn’t the only one to confuse the Immaculate Conception and the Virgin Birth. 

“It’s proven very confusing for people, perhaps because both of these beliefs have to do with conception. But in one case it’s Mary’s being conceived without sin, and in another Jesus’s being conceived without Mary’s having had sexual relations,” said Martin.

“It’s not made any easier by the fact that the Gospel reading on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception is the story of the Annunciation from the Gospel of Luke, that is, the time when the Angel Gabriel announces to Mary that she will give birth,” he added. “That really confuses people.”

And, of course, these concepts aren’t completely disparate. The belief that Mary was born without original sin certainly relates to the idea that she would go on to become the virgin mother of Jesus. 

“Both have to do with conception of course, but also the workings of God’s grace,” Martin noted. “While the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception has been declared as ‘infallible,’ it’s also, unfortunately, one of the most misunderstood doctrines among Catholics.”

So, if you thought the phrase “Immaculate Conception” referred to the idea of Mary conceiving Jesus without having sex, consider yourself Sunday-schooled.