15Dec Colombian Jesuit silenced over critical review of Pope’s book

Fr. Alfonso Llano Escobar, S.J. had learned the hard way that it doesn’t pay to critique your boss’s writings. Fr. Llano, whose weekly column Un alto en el camino (“A stop along the road”) had appeared in the major Colombian newspaper El Tiempo for 30 years, has been told that his writing career has come to an end.

In a message to the editorial board of the newspaper, Fr. Llano wrote that “Father Adolfo Nicolás, the superior general of the Jesuits, has ordered Father Alfonso Llano to consider his apostolic vocation as a writer to be over, has deprived him of his freedom of speech, and is demanding that he not even say goodbye and that he keep absolute silence.”

The priest columnist earned his silencing for a November 24th column in which he offered his views on Pope Benedict XVI’s new book, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, and specifically on the doctrine of the virginity of Mary. The column focuses on internal debate about the subject within the theological community and is worth translating in its entirety:

The Infancy of Jesus. That’s the title of the third volume of the trilogy on Jesus of Nazareth by theologian Joseph Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI. It has been published in nine languages, including Spanish, and will be published in a first global edition of one million copies. With a series of articles in the press and interviews on radio and television, I would like to guide readers of this book by the Pope, which offers a special difficulty — the virginity of Mary — which will give theologians and the media a lot to talk about.

To begin with, the latter are wondering why the Pope is going back to a point that seems now passé, namely, Mary’s virginity. Answer: for three reasons, one of which is obvious, and that is that theologian Ratzinger set out to write a trilogy on Jesus of Nazareth. He had already taken care of Jesus’ public life and his Passion, death, and Resurrection. He lacked this third volume, already announced, about Jesus’ infancy. And now he does it, a subject that necessarily leads him to talk about Mary’s virginity. Second, because Jesus is the central figure in the Catholic faith, and it’s the Pope’s duty to preach Jesus whether it’s convenient or inconvenient, in good times and bad, as Saint Paul advises Timothy (2 Tim 4:2). Third, because the subject of Mary’s virginity is being revisited by some Catholic theologians and requires clarification.

Talking about Jesus isn’t easy, because he’s a mystery, the central mystery of the Catholic faith, which confesses that Jesus is true (son of) man and true (son of) God. This double reality implies a double birth. Saint Paul, in the letter to the Philippians tells us that Jesus was a common man (Phil 2:6-7). Saint Matthew, the same one who tells us about Jesus’ divine conception (1:26), presents Jesus as the son of Mary and Joseph (13:53 ff.) and with several brothers and sisters. It’s appropriate to clarify that, in the judgment of North American Catholic biblical scholar John Meier, who has studied the problem in depth, in the four Gospels it’s about real blood brothers of Jesus (A Marginal Jew, I, 341). It’s time to leave behind the fairy tale that they’re Jesus’ cousins. This assumption is argued to safeguard Mary’s corporal virginity. The Pope cites the work of this great biblical scholar several times in his trilogy, without contradicting his interpretation of the corporal non-virginity of Mary.

So that the Pope’s position in this third volume can be understood, it’s useful to take into account that in theology there are two complementary ways to get to Jesus: a descending way, which is the one the Pope follows, and that the first four councils followed, which leans on John 1:14: “The Word became man”, a way that emphasizes Jesus’ divinity, as the Pope does; and the other way is ascending, which was the historical way, that starts with the man Jesus and ends with his exaltation as Son of God, according to which Mary had a big family.

In sum: the reader of this work by Ratzinger will find the affirmation of Mary’s virginity. Given that the Pope follows the descending path in this work, he emphasizes his divinity, which gives rise to the theological virginity of Mary (Mt 1:26) and silences his humanity, whose origin isn’t virginal (Mt 13:53 ff). In other words: Mary conceived the Son of God virginally, in the theological sense, without the intervention of Joseph, as is narrated in Matthew 1:26, by the work of the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, as mother of Jesus the man, just like us, she conceived him through an act of love with her legal spouse, Joseph, with whom she had four sons and several daughters (Mt 13:53 ff).

Let’s wait for the book and talk more knowledgeably.

Fr. Llano was told he had to publicly recant before he was completely silenced and he wrote one last column called “Mea Culpa!” on December 8th, in which he apologized to any readers who were offended or confused by his previous column. This final column consists of a series of quotes from Lumen Gentium about Mary and a couple from the Pope’s book, which the priest says he hopes will “bring peace of mind and restore the trust of the people of God in the teachings of the Church.” It’s as notable for what it leaves unsaid as what it says.

And now a great silence descends…


36 Responses

  1. george Calhoun

    “On the other hand, as mother of Jesus the man, just like us, she conceived him through an act of love with her legal spouse, Joseph, “.

    If she conceived as stated above then by definition Jesus could not be conceived by the power of the holy spirit and born of the virgin Mary As a priest he has a responsibility to teach the catholic faith, the quote above is not the catholic faith, it contradicts the creed and scripture.
    The fact that the ACP could possibly defend this is shocking. The Apostolic See has a responsibility to defend the deposit of faith, that’s what it is doing.

  2. Eamonn Keane

    Fr. Llano’s use of biblical passages to lend credence to his assertion that “as mother of Jesus the man,” Mary in the conception of Jesus, “conceived him through an act of love with her legal spouse, Joseph,” is expressive of a form of biblical scholarship that has been condemned by the teaching authority of the Catholic Church.

    A Catholic exegete, following the principles of biblical interpretation laid down by the Church, will approach the Gospel references to the virginal conception of Jesus already convinced that this is a truth contained in the deposit of faith. Hence the question of doubt and scepticism as applied to the historicity of the Gospel’s reference to the mystery of the virginal conception of our Lord will not arise.

    Basing himself on Sacred Scripture and on Sacred Tradition, Pope St. Gregory the Great said: “His [Christ’s] origin is different, but his [human] nature is the same. Human usage and custom were lacking, but by divine power a Virgin conceived, a Virgin bore, and Virgin she remained.” (Sermons 22:2).

    In reference to Mary’s Virginity, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) says: “Mary’s virginity manifests God’s absolute initiative in the Incarnation. Jesus has only God as Father. He was never estranged from the Father because of the human nature which he assumed. . . He is naturally Son of the Father as to his divinity and naturally son of his mother as to his humanity, but properly Son of the Father in both natures” (CCC, 503). Later the CCC adds that Mary “remained a virgin in conceiving her Son, a virgin in giving birth to him, a virgin in carrying him, a virgin in nursing him at her breast, always a virgin” (St. Augustine, Serm. 186, 1: PL 38, 999; CCC, 510).

    In her definitive teaching the Catholic Church gives interpretations of the data of faith that are to be held in an absolute way. This implies that in the development of doctrine the principle of non-contradiction has to be observed. Cardinal Newman illustrated his deep awareness of this reality when he said that Gospel faith is “a definite deposit, a treasure common to all, one and the same in every age, conceived in set words, such as to admit of being received, preserved, transmitted” (Parochial and Plain Sermons, II, Sermon 22)

    In both the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed, the Catholic Church professes its belief that Jesus “was born of the Virgin Mary.” It interprets this statement of faith to mean that Our Lord was conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary without the involvement of a human father, and that she remained a virgin in giving birth to him. This interpretation is “absolute” in that it cannot be reconciled with a contrary assertion positing that Mary did not remain a virgin either in the conception of our Lord, or in her giving birth to him.

    To affirm as “absolutely” true that the teaching regarding Jesus’ virginal conception as recounted in the Gospels refers to a biological fact, does not mean that this interpretation exhausts all meaning that the revealed mystery contains. It does however demand that any subsequent development of doctrine pertaining to this mystery not be in contradiction with what is already held definitively in regard to it. In other words, as Blessed Pope John Paul II said in regard to this Gospel revelation and dogma of faith, it “deprives of any foundation several recent interpretations which understand the virginal conception not in a physical or biological sense, but only as symbolic or metaphorical…” (Pope John Paul II, Virginal Conception Is Biological Fact, L’Osservatore Romano, 17 July 1996)
    On the basis of what has been said above regarding statements of faith being capable of expressing truth in ways that are absolutely true and determinative for subsequent doctrinal development, it is clear that Fr.Llano’s assertions about the nature of Jesus’ conception is contradictory of Catholic dogmatic teaching.

  3. Joe O'Leary

    The virginal conception is indeed the supreme test of Catholic identity. “No Catholic will deny it” St Augustine said.

    Most theologians remain discreetly silent about it. If conservative theologians really believed it, they would use “fides quaerens intellectum” to bring it into dialogue with genetics, for example.

    The Pope dismisses the parallel in Philo (roughly contemporary with Matthew and Luke) who refers to the virginal conception of Isaac by Sarah, saying it is merely allegorical.

  4. Veritas

    It seems to me that Fr. Escobar has too much time on his hands. Given Colombia’s many social problems it would appear he would be better employed in implementing the Church’s excellent social teachings, rather than indulging in deconstructionist waffle. I’m sure the Church’s many enemies will be only too happy to use his idle speculation for their dubious ends.

  5. John Ryan

    You know, this stuff about the virginity of Mary does worry me a great deal. I’m an accountant not a theologian so I think in an ordinary practical way. I can only place the situation of Joseph (head of the house) and Mary in line with the lives of myself and my spouse/wife of 54 years. I think this way, if Dorothy had said to me, following the birth of our first born, a beautiful daughter and a gift from God, like Jesus was, “John I want to remain a virgin from now on, although I love you to bits”, well then I would have been very sore about that, very sore indeed. I would have put up with the situation for a while, but would have reached the very normal stage of “blowing a fuse”, at the enormous frustration of a celibate life, when I was promised on our wedding day that we would be “one flesh”. Eventually, I would have called her the most unsatisfactory wife in recorded history, who had abrogated her vow to me and to God. The marriage would probably have ended shortly afterwards. That’s the heartfelt thoughts and feelings of a normal, faithful and loving husband. All I had to do after that was fit the facts to Joseph, (head of house) and Mary. I suggest you do the same and see what answers you get. Happy and disturbing thoughts.

  6. Joe O'Leary

    “Given Colombia’s many social problems it would appear he would be better employed in implementing the Church’s excellent social teachings, rather than indulging in deconstructionist waffle.”

    nothing deconstructionist about it; just clear statement of honest doubt. In countries where the Church’s social role is oppressive, such as the Philippines, such theological dissidence may be needed to clear the air of subservience and servility.

    Did anyone hear of the medical possibility that a twin brother could remain inside his twin’s womb and then be born later from his twin sister? Jesus in that case would be both son and sister of Mary, as with Isis and Osiris. That’s the sort of speculation that taking the virgin birth seriously as biological fact leads to.

  7. Bob Hayes

    John, I am not a theologian either. However, we do not need to be theologians in order to be open to Divine Revelation. What all humans – including theologians – understand of God is limited: He is largely beyond human comprehension. However, we have the Scriptures to help us grasp, in some way, Revelation. It is in Matthew 1:18-25 that we learn how an angel appeared to Joseph and explained God’s plan for the birth of Christ. Joseph did not have to contemplate Mary’s pregnancy (and their future relationship) alone and from a purely worldly perspective, which is the error in your analysis of how you would feel in similar circumstances. Revelation is about us discovering God; not about us trying to make God conform to our personal outlook.

  8. Veritas

    John, I’m also an accountant. Can I suggest ” She Gave The World Flesh ” by Scott Hahn. Think it might help your understanding of Catholic teaching on this subject. Best wishes.

  9. Stephen Edward

    John, you couldn’t have tolerated married chastity so Joseph couldn’t have done so either! What kind of argument is that? Are we to judge saints by your ability to match their heroic acts and sacrifices? Would you have substituted yourself for a fellow prisoner due to be executed in Auschwiz, if not then must we consider Saint Maximilian Kolbe’s sacrifice to be a pious fable?

  10. Eddie Finnegan

    Instead of depending on the standard knee-jerk reaction as in 1, 2 & 4 above, could George, Eamonn & ‘Veritas’ [‘Pravda’ in Russia, I believe] go back six years to Pope Benedict’s Foreword to his trilogy, ‘Jesus of Nazareth’, where he states with courage and openness:
    “It goes without saying that this book (i.e. all three volumes -ef) is in no way an exercise of the magisterium, but is solely an expression of my personal search “for the face of the Lord” (cf Ps 27:8). Everyone is free, then, to contradict me. I would only ask my readers for that initial goodwill without which there can be no understanding.
    – Rome, on the Feast of Saint Jerome, 30 September 2006: JOSEPH RATZINGER, BENEDICT XVI.”
    It was those three crystal clear sentences of Joseph Ratzinger’s statement that attracted me to his trilogy. It seems to me, in so far as one can judge from a fairly short column from El Tiempo that Fr Alfonso Llano has exercised “that initial goodwill without which there can be no understanding” to guide readers of ‘Jesus of Nazareth: the Infancy Narratives’.
    Clearly his superior general,Fr Adolfo, ?maybe with CDF backing? but with the much more important backing of Messrs Calhoun, Keane &Veritas, is much more papist than the Pope. Fr Alfonso had the courtesy to tell his readers: “Let’s wait for the book and talk more knowledgeably.” We must assume that Messrs Calhoun, Keane & Veritas have all read this third volume of the trilogy. I haven’t yet.
    Finally, notice my prejudiced assumption that ‘Veritas’ is male. It’s just my conviction that no woman of my acquaintance would assume the magisterial arrogance to call herself ‘Veritas’, however feminine the noun may be. But Veritas’s prejudice about Fr Llano Escobar and about Colombia is probably less excusable than mine. A modicum of what Pope Benedict called “that initial goodwill without which there can be no understanding” might have suggested to him that there’s much more to Colombia than social problems. When, after Medellin over two decades ago, some Colombians applied the Church’s excellent social teachings to those social problems they got squashed as mere marxists.

  11. Eddie Finnegan

    Well, that’s what happens, I suppose, when you get on a bit. My final sentence in 10 above has the phrase, “after Medellin over two decades ago”. The Medellin Conference I had in mind, which impressed me in my second year of teaching in Sierra Leone, was that of CELAM (Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Latin America); it took place in 1968 – well over four decades ago. Oh well, what’s a couple of decades here or there? Let’s view Liberation Theology and the Preferential Option for the Poor ‘sub specie aeternitatis’. And no, Sierra Leone isn’t in Latin America – let me do my own doting in my own way!

  12. Paddy Ferry

    A number of years ago Time magazine dedicated vitually a whole edition to the subject of ” Mary”, as it occasionally does on important subjects. In this particular edition there was a series of articles on Mary, the mother of Jesus and one of the contributors was the late great american catholic biblical scholar, Raymond E Brown, whom Time described as ” the greatest living expert on Mary in the United States”. In one of the articles he was asked for his views on the question of the virgin birth. His answer was that that question remains unresolved. Those who feel that this is an area of genuine doubt are certainly in very good company.

  13. Martin Harran

    I don’t have any problem with Mary virginally conceiving and giving birth to Jesus, what I struggle with is the reason why we should believe that she remained a virgin for the rest of her life despite her having entered into the contract of marriage.

    I can see no theological significance in that, it seems to me more to do with the hierarchy’s long standing distaste for sex tied in with the problem celibate males might have with the very idea of their mother – earthly or heavenly – engaging in such sordid activity!

  14. Eamonn Keane

    An essential working principle for Catholic scripture scholars is that the Bible be regarded as fundamentally one with the living tradition of the Church.
    In his treatment of the biblical basis for the Catholic dogma regarding the virginal conception and birth of Christ, Fr. Raymond Brown expressed doubt as to whether the Gospels of Matthew and Luke clearly affirm the historicity of the Virginal Conception. Brown stated that “the scientifically controllable biblical evidence leaves the question of the historicity of the Virginal Conception unsolved” (The Birth of the Messiah, New York: Doubleday, 1977, p. 527). In more common parlance, what Fr. Brown asserted is that on the basis of the biblical data, we cannot say for sure whether or not Jesus was Virginally Conceived.
    Blessed Pope John Paul II gave a marvellous catechesis on the Virginal Conception of Jesus during his Wednesday Audience on July 10, 1996. He said that “the virginal conception is a biological fact” and that “the Gospel accounts clearly teach that Jesus’ conception was the work of the Holy Spirit and not just a theological expression of his divine sonship.” Referring to the account of the Annunciation in St. Luke’s Gospel, the Holy Father said: “The structure of the Lucan text (cf. Lk 1: 26-38; 2:19, 51) resists any reductive interpretation. Its coherence does not validly support any mutilation of the terms or expressions which affirm the virginal conception brought about by the Holy Spirit.” In regard to the texts in Matthew, Blessed Pope John Paul II said: “The Evangelist Matthew, reporting the angel’s announcement to Joseph, affirms like Luke that the conception was ‘the work of the Holy Spirit’ (Mt 1:20) and excluded marital relations.” (L’Osservatore Romano, 17/796).
    Some biblical scholars assert that the references to the virginal conception of Jesus as recounted in the Gospels are nothing more that ancient myths used by the sacred authors to make a theological point, without them intending that they be taken as accounts of real events that occurred in history. In March 2012, the International Theological Commission published an English-language document entitled Theology Today: Perspectives, Principles and Criteria. Its publication was authorised by Cardinal William Levada, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Under a section of the document headed ‘The truth of God and the rationality of theology,’ we read:

    “Christianity claimed to teach the truth both about God and about human existence. Therefore, in their commitment to the truth, the Church Fathers deliberately distanced their theology from ‘mythical’ and ‘political’ theology, as the latter were understood at that time. Mythical theology told stories of the gods in a way that did not respect the transcendence of the divine; political theology was a purely sociological and utilitarian approach to religion which did not care about truth.”

  15. Veritas

    Eddie, please don’t dismiss as knee-jerk reactions those that dare to dissent. Also don’t be too hung up on the moniker Veritas. It was chosen for convenience and because I like the latin word. By the way, there is a world of difference between applying Catholic social teaching and embracing Marxist ideology. Happy Christmas and I’ll say a Hail Mary for you.

  16. John Ryan

    Bob, Veritas and Stephen: I do not doubt the virgin birth. Mary gave life to Jesus by a miracle. It’s the situation AFTER that birth that concerns me. Therefore, can we let the birth of Jesus be left at one side just for a moment and deal with the time AFTER that event? Joseph and Mary married at a normal Jewish wedding ceremony and Jewish tradition says that all weddings have contained words taken from Genesis, most probably including 2.24. Are you saying that their wedding was the one Jewish wedding that was different from any others? Are you saying that as a normal male human being, that he no aspirations as to having a normal, holy and healthy sexual experience with his wife, again making him different than any other Jewish man ever! Are you saying that as a normal Jewish male he had no aspirations to fathering from his own body, a male child; what is still considered today as the epitome for a Jewish father? Are you saying Joseph was celibate for the whole of his life? Thanks so much for your input and your words have raised even more questions than I had before. Stephen: Not couldn’t; but wouldn’t. Who do you see Joseph to be – a super human. Is there a Jewish husband out there who doesn’t pine for children, with his very soul, as I did? I don’t know this Joseph; he doesn’t seem real to me.

  17. Joe O'Leary

    “we learn how an angel appeared to Joseph”

    I think that when angels appear the scriptural author is giving readers a hint that he is not writing history but theology.

    The same is true of other items in the mythological panoply of Judaism at that time, such as the clouds in the Transfiguration and Ascension stories.

  18. Des Gilroy

    I am a great admirer and supporter of the ACP and regard the website as the best thing that has happened in Ireland in Catholic circles to enlighten us on developments within the Church. Well done to all concerned.

    However, I am disappointed by the headline and the lead into the piece by Charlie Meagher “Columbian Jesuit silenced over critical review of Popes book”. This is a headline of which any of our “red tops” would be proud. It is a headline so misleading that it gives critics of the ACP a bone on which to really chew for when one reads through the article there is absolutely nothing in it that justifies the headline.

    From the article it is quite clear that Fr Llano Escobar has been barred by his Jesuit superiors from writing because of his querying the doctrine of the virgin birth, not because of any criticism of the Pope’s book. Is not the virgin birth fundamental to Catholic belief and if Fr Llano rejects this teaching, is he not rejecting a belief that lies at the core of our faith?

    Already too many of our good priests are being silenced for querying non-doctrinal dictats from Rome on issues such as the role of women and celibacy. To be supportive of those who question core beliefs only distracts from the disgraceful treatment of the likes of Fr Tony Flannery and the other theologians who have been recently silenced.

  19. Rosaline

    Des (18), I totally agree with everything you said including your admiration for the ACP. I too felt very uncomfortable with this particular headline, (and, indeed, a few others) which might run the risk of giving the impression that the ACP is attempting to foster dissent in the church regarding some of our core beliefs. Surely this would be an unfortunate consequence.

  20. Joe O'Leary

    “Is not the virgin birth fundamental to Catholic belief and if Fr Llano rejects this teaching, is he not rejecting a belief that lies at the core of our faith?”

    That’s not the way most theologians today see it, as far as I can tell. They would put it low on the hierarchy of truths or see it as non-factual; hence their discreet silence.

  21. Joe O'Leary

    Barth was a strong defender of the VB: http://barthforbeginners.blogspot.fr/2011/03/some-reflections-on-karl-barth-and.html

  22. Bob Hayes

    Joe (17) and (20), if – as you appear to be suggesting – the Virgin Birth is open to question and, ‘other items in the mythological panoply of Judaism at that time, such as the clouds in the Transfiguration and Ascension stories’ are also questionable, what of the raising of Lazarus and the feeding of the five thousand? Are certain theologians and political agitators attempting to deprive Jesus of all signs of his divinity?

  23. Paddy Ferry

    And, Bob, (22), while we are at it, what about the Three Wise Men from the East?

  24. Terry

    Referring to the publicaton ‘The Gift of Scripture’ (2005) by the bishops of England Scotland and Wales, Henry Wansborough O.S.B. editor of the New Jerusalem Bible, wrote in the Tablet, ‘A few days before the promulgation of the Vatican II decree on Revelation, Dei Verbum, I had lunch at the English College in Rome with the bishops assembled for the Council and remember a remark from my episcopal neighbour: ‘Oh, you’re a student of the Bible, are you? I suppose that means you don’t believe in it!’ In the 40 years that have passed since then we have come a long way. Particularly encouraging (in the document) is the recognition of the debt to scholars of other traditions, when Catholic biblical scholarship was – as it is delicately understated – ‘hesitant about the wisdom of modern biblical method’. The reference is, of course, to the gagging of biblical scholarship in the Catholic Church. There was little interest in the historical origins and development of Scripture which impeded understanding of the gradual revelation of the word of God in changing historical situations.’
    Growing up in 1940’s, I was given the impression that the Bible was a Protestant book and possibly a dangerous book best left alone. At Mass, the gospels were read in Latin by the priest sotto voce with his back turned, while the congregation got on with their own personal devotions.
    When the Catholic scripture scholar Fr R.E. Brown died in 1990, the office of the Archbishop of Los Angeles issued the following appreciation:
    ‘The sudden death in 1990 of Father Raymond E. Brown, S.S. is a great loss to the Church and leaves an enormous void in the field of Catholic Biblical Scholarship in the United States and around the world. Father Brown was the only USA Biblical Scholar ever appointed to the Pontifical Biblical Society, first by Pope Paul VI and then by Pope John Paul II………But Father Raymond Brown was far more than a Biblical scholar. He was very much an outstanding priest, a man of prayer, and a man of the Church.’
    It was as though the comment at the end of the obituary was meant to reassure us of his orthodoxy. Whether or no, I have often wondered why he spent 20 years as Auburn Professor of Biblical Studies at Union Theological Seminary, an interdenominational Protestant college in New York, its first tenured Catholic professor. He remained there until retirement in 1990.

    In his inaugural lecture at Union Seminary in 1971 he had questioned whether it was possible to prove historically Mary’s virginal conception of Jesus (implying it wasn’t?). He was attacked in conservative Catholic newspapers and protesters disrupted some of his lectures. But he retained the support of the Vatican and the American bishops.

    In his book, the Birth of the Messiah, he says that Mark and his community seem unaware about the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ conception and birth. When Jesus returns to Nazareth (Mark 6:1), the local people ask, “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offence at him. Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honour, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”

    We note that there is no mention of Joseph who traditionally is believed to have died through old age some years previously. Nor does it seem that Jesus’ brothers and sisters are familiar with the remarkable circumstances surrounding his birth which Matthew and Luke relate some 20 years later. The media were quick to report that details in these accounts have been downgraded recently by Pope Benedict to the status of legend or myth in the third volume of his work on Jesus of Nazareth, so that the question now is where do we draw the line that separates myth from fact and where does it leave the question of the virginal conception. If Mark had considered the perpetual virginity of Mary was going to be an issue, surely he would have clarified the relationships between Jesus and his brothers and sisters instead of leaving them open to misunderstanding. Is it naive to wonder for example, with regard to the perpetual virginity of Mary, what could possibly count as evidence, or what possible circumstances could arise in which Mary and Joseph would want to make known the nature of their marital relations, their sex life, to anyone?

  25. Joe O'Leary

    To assess biblical narrative one needs deep knowledge of the literary genres within which the biblical authors worked. Theological fictions were part of the mode of communication at that time even in texts that presented themselves as selfconsciously historical. Luke’s narrations of the ascension and pentecost are clear example of pictorializations of what is elsewhere presented in more inward and spiritual terms (in the Johannine last discourses).

  26. Lloyd Allan MacPherson

    They say the devil is in the details. Truer words couldn’t be spoken. Virgin birth? Really? A miracle of miracles. There has been an apparent attempt to sway public opinion of the masses on our side. Ask any other religion who bears witness to Jesus, but is not Christian, and none of them regards Him as divine. A scholar? Yes. A prophet? Definitely. A man. Without a doubt. How could his story have persisted all this time? With a little smoke and mirrors, maybe? Yet we get focused on the unimportant details and maybe forget what his life and battle was all about. He was certainly against the empire forming in his region. He was probably a tax protester. He certainly didn’t approve of donations blindly fueling military might. If anything, he may have preferred it transparently going to the church for community development. Who knows. A lot is lost in translation as we all know. There are two things that remain unscathed: Roman history which tells us what it was like in that area back then and the Ten Commandments which could have certainly been used to attack an elitist agenda during the first century.

  27. Jerry Slevin

    Thank you ACP for drawing this to the attention of English language readers. The 85 year old Pope’s swift and severe reaction to a fair critic indicates to me he is losing his grip, as he apparently still tries to outsell his superior scholarly rival, Hans Kung, who cannot silence his critics by force. Once more, the Jesuit superiors bow too fast and too deep to Vatican intimidation. Is this the way to encourage needed Jesuit vocations?

  28. Joe O'Leary

    A French theological work denying the Virgin Birth a few years ago drew an outcry from Muslims.

    The divinity of Christ is a subtler truth than is usually thought. Surely it has more of a biblical basis than the portrait of Jesus as tax protester, anti-imperial activist, refusal of donations funding the military, etc.

  29. Frank Douglas

    The Virginity of Mary. Such an important topic!!!

  30. Aristophilos

    We side with Ray Brown, whom we knew personally.

    Pax et Lumen. Aristophilos

  31. Sean (Derry)

    The book, ‘The Ultimate Saints Guide to the Immaculate Conception [Kindle Edition]’ is currently free to download from Amazon (normal price £7.49). Here is a link: http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B00ALGJ6RG?ie=UTF8&ref=oce_digital
    It might be wise to consider what the saints said about Mary’s virginity (including St. Catherine Labouré, Saint Bridget of Sweden, St. Robert Bellarmine, Doctor of the Church, and the Early Church Fathers,) before giving too much weight to the thoughts of Fr. Alfonso Llano Escobar, S.J.

  32. Joe O'Leary

    The Rue du Bac and Notre-Dame des Victoires are surely holy places; but to enter them is to enter a deep cavern of pastness; Sean’s link gives a taste:

    “Our Lady’s own description of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, as revealed by Saint Bridget of Sweden.” Very iffy.

    “The virtually unknown story of Sts. Joachim and Ann and their unique role in salvation history.” Unknown because there is no historical information whatever about them.

    “Arguably the best apologetic work about the Immaculate Conception by St. Robert Bellarmine, Doctor of the Church.” Let’s not forget how wrong he was about Galileo.

    “Definitive evidence that the Immaculate Conception of Mary was proclaimed since the beginning of the Church.” No such evidence in the New Testament.

    One problem with the Imm. Conc. is that it supposes a quite complex theory of original sin which itself is in need of interpretation and correction. Without that theory it just means that Mary was a very good and holy woman.

  33. Sean (Derry)

    Re: my previous post, unfortunately the free offer on this book has expired now (still worth buying).

  34. Paddy Ferry

    Joe, am I right in thinking that there is not one iota of scriptural evedence to support the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception?

  35. Arthur Menu

    A most interesting discussion. I see three possibilities for how a virgin birth could occur that are compatible with biology. (1) Mary’s egg is stimulated to begin cell division. The child is a clone of Mary and genetically female (no Y chromosome). Owing to a hormonal imbalance the foetus develops male sex characteristics and is accepted as male upon birth. (2) God creates a sperm that fertilizes Mary’s egg, or God simply infuses a set of genes into Mary’s egg and starts cell division. (3) God directly creates an embryo in Mary’s womb, without using Mary’s egg. Each of these three is problematic in its own way. In the case of (1), in what sense does God merit being called the Father of Jesus? In the case of (2), what advantage is there to using God-created genes as opposed to Joseph’s genes? In the case of (3) Mary becomes a surrogate mother, not the biological mother of Jesus. All three possibilities share the disadvantage of not fitting well with Hebrews 2:17, that Jesus “had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect”. Presumably foetal development is a rather basic element of what it means to be human in every respect. I fear the Church is making the same mistake it made with Galileo, maintaining a position that more and more scientifically knowledgeable people will be unable to accept. People will not bother arguing against the Church’s position; they simply will not take the Church seriously. And by the way, many of our Protestant brothers and sisters do not believe in the virgin birth, and it doesn’t stop them being very fine Christians indeed.

  36. Cheryl-Helene

    A retired nun here in Quebec, living alone in her own house in secular fashion, gave us a homily she had written before Christmas, in which she stated that all Catholics should regard the ‘Magnificat of Mary’ as their own personal thanks to God. She also stated that through Christ we are all made divine. Personally, I love serious reading, but I find that the current Pope enjoys wavering between positions, often on the same page, and I never know what he really is trying to say. Of course, perhaps that style of communication came in with Vatican II. There must be fans of “The Theology of the Body” commenting here; also those, apparently, who do not know the accounts of many saintly couples in history who took vows of celibacy. I am in no doubt what the teachings of the Church are – eternally. O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to Thee. I recommend St. Bridget’s “Revelations” (complete); and “The Golden Legend” (13th century version) which was a favorite book of St. Catherine of Sienna. Our Lord, the Baby Jesus, was born of Holy Mary in unapproachable Light, without the shedding of blood, or the pains of childbirth. Amen.