Catholic Church Denounces Virgin Mary Documentary

By Mike Wendling | July 7, 2008 | 8:12 PM EDT

(Correction: controversy revolves around Jesus' birth, not Immaculate Conception)

London ( - A Roman Catholic bishop has criticized a BBC documentary on the Virgin Mary, which casts doubt on the Catholic doctrine related to the birth of Jesus Christ.

The documentary, which aired on BBC television Sunday night, portrayed Mary as a downtrodden girl who at an early age entered into an arranged marriage with Joseph. More controversially, the film suggested that Jesus may have been conceived as the result of an illicit affair or of Mary's rape by a Roman soldier.

The Rev. Crispian Hollis, Bishop of Portsmouth and chairman of the Catholic media committee in England, called the program "unwelcome and troubling."

"I believe very strongly that programmes of this nature should maintain sensitivity to those whose cherished beliefs are concerned," he said. "The Virgin Mary is clearly a person whose life and times are immensely important to the whole of Christian history."

In a press statement, Hollis said that he would personally write to the BBC's director general to express his concerns on the behalf of Catholics in Britain.

"To include ... confused and unfounded guesswork, which carries with it crude and offensive speculation, is not only unscholarly but runs the risk of undermining the very integrity of the project itself," Hollis said.

"The Catholic Church is not afraid of critical examination but, at the same time, we guard the truths of our faith very jealously and we treasure the history and the lives of those who have played a critical part in its foundation," he said.

But the film's producer defended his portrayal of Mary. Alan Bookbinder, the head of the BBC's religion and ethics department, said the documentary gave viewers "sense of wonder at her miraculous story."

"Above all it shows a respect for the special place that Mary has in the hearts of believers," Bookbinder said.

In floating the rape theory, the program relies on an account by a second-century historian, but notes that the historian was probably part of an anti-Christian campaign.

Anglican poll

The documentary was broadcast on the same day as a British newspaper poll found widespread doubt about the virgin birth within the Anglican Church.

According to a poll conducted by the Sunday Telegraph, 27 percent of Church of England clergy do not believe in the biblical story of the birth of Jesus.

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