Today’s feast seems a good time to say something about the minor furore that has followed Giles Fraser’s comment piece about what people insist on calling ‘the virgin birth’, but which I am going to call ‘the virginal conception’, which makes clearer what is actually at issue. As a Catholic I of course disagree with Fraser and affirm the doctrine, but his contribution is thoughtful and doesn’t deserve the opprobium that has been heaped upon it. Moreover, if his central claim is correct – that the doctrine of the virginal conception is incompatible with an affirmation of the value of human sexuality, and of female sexuality in particular – then there is a major problem for orthodox belief. Such a devaluation of the sexual would be flatly incompatible with our profession of the goodness of Creation. So I think it is vital that Fraser can be answered, as I trust he can.
First, however, a word about the line of many of his opponents. There is a curious confusion apparent in the bulk of the blogposts and commentaries that have appeared in response to Fraser. It’s clear that many people think that the doctrine of the Incarnation stands or falls with that of the virginal conception, that it is simply impossible that Christ be the Word made flesh if he were conceived sexually. This seems to me to imply a far more serious break with Christian tradition than anything Fraser wrote. It would have been perfectly possible for the Incarnate Word to have been conceived through sex. The alternative view really only makes sense if your view of the ‘Incarnation’ is not really of God being incarnate at all, but rather of the bringing into being of some kind of divine-human hybrid, with God taking the place of a human father. This kind of position is ruled out by Chalcedon‘s insistence that Christ’s two natures undergo ‘no confusion, no change, no division’. The doctrine of the virginal conception is not that the Father is Christ’s father, in a sense of the word ‘father’ identical to that in which David Beckham is Brooklyn’s father, but rather than Christ has no father (when he speaks of his Father he is describing the life of the Trinity, the mystery of God which is beyond our power to comprehend but which we share through grace. He is not explaining his biological origins.). The conception is a miracle.
Why does that miracle occur? Not because it is necessary, but because it is appropriate. It is a sign of that reality of which Christ himself is the perfect sign, the sacrament, the breaking through of God’s Kingdom into human history. “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds”. Something new has happened here, and it is fitting that it takes place in a way that makes that novelty apparent.
As such, the conception of Jesus is without a fully sufficient natural cause. However, something within the world is required for it to take place, and that is Mary’s assent: note, by the way, the free, autonomous, assent of a woman quite apart from any male approval or oversight. It is at this point that the talk of Mary’s purity, to which Fraser takes such exception, becomes relevant. Now I think the word is probably sullied beyond redemption with a twee Daily Mailesque colouring and needs to be jettisoned. But it’s important at least to grasp that the thought that purity is all about sex, or rather lack of sex, is a hangover from Victorian moralism and that the word can mean other things. The Beatitude declaring the pure in heart to be blessed is not a christological imprimatur for prudes. Rather what is being talked about is moral integrity, the unity of heart and actions.
It is in this expansive, ethical, sense that Mary needs to be pure for Jesus’ conception to take place. Nothing but a wholehearted ‘yes’ would suffice for the God who works with, rather than against, human freedom. Nothing else could signify the culmination of the prayers and longings of Israel. It had to issue from the depth of her being, without mixed motive or evasion. That is what was necessary. This is what the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, much confused with Fraser’s topic, claims was supplied by divine grace throughout Mary’s life, not to the injury but to the completion of her human freedom. Those two themes, divine grace and human freedom, in fact run through the story of Mary’s life, because the God who comes to us at Christmas is the God who wills us to love him in perfect freedom.