Can you please explain to me the Catholic teaching of the "immaculate conception"? Does this refer to the virgin birth?
UK Apologetics Reply:
No, it doesn't, although that is a common perception. All branches of Christianity - properly taught - support the virgin birth of Jesus (admittedly liberal Christianity does not, but that is not properly taught Christianity).
The Immaculate Conception refers to the belief that Mary was preserved from original sin, that it had no application to her. The belief is that a sanctifying grace was infused into her soul from the moment of her conception. So, according to this, Mary was sinless throughout her life just as Jesus was.
This all sounds very nice, the big problem is that the Bible never states any such thing. Even Thomas Aquinas, probably the main 'heavyweight' Catholic theologian, opposed this teaching as being unbiblical. But even he thought that Mary was probably sanctified in the womb.
Here we see the big difference between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. Protestantism always seeks direct biblical authority for any teaching, but Catholicism believes that any established tradition of their church (but only their church!), has equal authority to Scripture. This is because of how they read a few verses in Matthew 18:
"Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. "Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them." (Matthew 18:18-20).
Roman Catholicism has always seen this as applying to their own denomination alone, which - of course - they see as the only church which Christ established. Understood in the purely Catholic manner, one can see how they can interpret the decisions of any of their officially-sanctioned church councils as - necessarily - having divine approval. To Catholicism, the church is one humanly-organized body and institution - but with God's full approval. They reject the Protestant view of an invisible church (those who are truly converted, whose names are written in Heaven), and the visible church (humanly-organized, in several groupings, but including both false and true believers). Only their own sacraments - as administered by one of their own priests - are seen as capable of bestowing grace. While Vatican II softened this position a little, the organisation remains highly exclusivist and separatist.
There are some variations in the Protestant view of these verses but, generally speaking, they are seen as applying to the church, especially prior to the establishment and availability of the Bible canon. God would indeed back up such decisions of His people, but only as long as such people were truly walking with God. Moreover, congregational discipline was the main purpose and reason for this - certainly not doctrinal teaching nor interpretation! The whole context here - from verse 6 - pertains to discipline, and solving problems, among Christian believers.
Robin A. Brace. February 15th, 2012.