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Part 7: Mary, Ever Virgin
By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Jun 29, 2015)
The following is the seventh part of our Mary 101 series.
There is no Catholic belief about Mary that sounds stranger to modern ears than the doctrine of Mary's "perpetual virginity." Virginity itself is something so denigrated in our culture today that young people are encouraged by the media and entertainment industry to lose their own virginity as quickly as possible! Nothing seems more difficult to appreciate, therefore, than the Catholic doctrine that Mary remained a virgin before, during, and after the birth of her son Jesus.
The Tradition of the Church, however, is overwhelmingly in favor of this doctrine. In fact, this tradition is so well established that even the great Protestant Reformers (Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and, later, John Wesley), though they departed from the Catholic heritage on many things, yet retained their belief in Mary as the "Ever-Virgin" Mother of the Savior.
In the era of the ancient Church Fathers, St. Jerome claimed that the fourth century heretic Helvidius was the first one ever to argue that Mary had other children after Jesus was born. Also in the fourth century, St. Epiphanius of Cyprus insisted that the mere fact that Christians everywhere referred to Mary as "The Blessed Virgin" was proof enough that the tradition of her perpetual virginity was a reliable one.
Saints and Fathers, Popes and Councils
The early popes and Church councils also taught the doctrine of the Perpetual Virginity of Mary. Saint Pope Siricius, for example, explicitly endorsed this belief in 392 A.D. In the following century, St. Pope Leo the Great, in his famous work called the Tome, clearly stated: "She [Mary] brought Him forth without the loss of virginity, even as she conceived Him without its loss ... [Jesus Christ] was born from the Virgin's womb, because it was a miraculous birth." Leo's Tome was later confirmed by the bishops assembled at the Fourth Ecumenical Council of the Church at Chalcedon in 451 A.D. Then in 553 A.D., the bishops at the Fifth Ecumenical Council of the Church (the Second Council of Constantinople) affirmed that the divine Son of God, "incarnate of the holy and glorious Mother of God and ever-virgin Mary, was born of her." Later, in 649 A.D., the threefold character of Mary's virginity was defined as an article of faith by St. Pope Martin I at the Lateran Synod:
The blessed ever-virginal and immaculate Mary conceived, without seed, by the Holy Spirit, and without loss of integrity brought Him forth, and after His birth preserved her virginity inviolate.
In continuing to uphold the doctrine of the Perpetual Virginity of Mary, therefore, the Catholic Church today is doing no more than maintaining the consensus belief of the early Christian community. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us (entry 499):
The deepening of faith in the virginal motherhood led the Church to confess Mary's real and perpetual virginity even in the act of giving birth to the Son of God made man. In fact, Christ's birth "did not diminish his mother's virginal integrity but sanctified it." And so the liturgy of the Church celebrates Mary as Aeiparthenos, the "Ever-virgin."
Mary's Virginity Before the Birth of Jesus
Few Christians dispute the fact that Mary conceived Jesus in her womb by the Holy Spirit without human fatherhood, simply because this is the clear and explicit teaching of the New Testament (Mt 1:18-25; Lk 1:26-56). Saint Matthew tells us that this virginal conception is a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, as well as a sign of the true divinity of Christ (Is 7:14): "Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel (which means, God with us)."
Mary's Virginity Preserved During the Birth of Jesus
The belief that Mary remained a virgin even during the birth of her son, however, seems very strange to modern readers. Why were the early Christians so convinced of the truth of this doctrine? A good summary of their thinking is found in the 16th century in the Church's official Catechism of the Council of Trent, also known as The Roman Catechism (article 3):
For in a way wonderful beyond expression or conception, he [Jesus] is born of his Mother without any diminution of her maternal virginity. As he afterwards went forth from the sepulcher while it was closed and sealed, and entered the room in which his disciples were assembled, although "the doors were closed" (Jn 20:19), or, not to depart from natural events which we witness every day, as the rays of the sun penetrate the substance of glass without breaking or injuring it in the least: so, but in a more incomprehensible manner, did Jesus Christ come forth from his mother's womb without injury to her maternal virginity. ...
To Eve it was said: "In pain you shall bring forth children" (Gen 3:16). Mary was exempt from this law, for, preserving her virginal integrity inviolate, she brought forth Jesus the Son of God, without experiencing ... any sense of pain.
Here the Roman Catechism suggests two arguments for the preservation of Mary's virginity during childbirth. The first is that she was so "full of grace" (Lk 1:28) that she must have been exempt from the divine law of painful childbirth, a law which was one of the consequences of the fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (Gen 3:16). As we shall see, the words of the old Roman Catechism here foreshadow the truth of another doctrine about Mary: her Immaculate Conception (that is, the doctrine that she was full of grace from the very moment of her conception, and thereby exempt from original sin and its effects) — a doctrine that we shall discuss in future articles in this series.
Second, the Roman Catechism suggests that it is fitting that Mary's virginity should remain unbroken by the birth of Jesus. After all, her son is the divine Son of God, sent into the world to heal mankind from sin, and from all its evil effects: guilt and punishment, suffering and death. How could He who was sent for the healing of the world be born in a way that caused pain and bloodshed to His own mother? The very manner of the birth of the Prince of Peace and the Beloved Physician, therefore, must be exempt from directly causing hurt and harm. Catholic theologian John Saward explained the matter like this:
Why was it necessary for the Son of God to be born as man in a way that would not injure the integrity of His mother's virginity? The necessity is again one of fittingness, of harmony and thus of beauty, like the need to fit a third and a fifth alongside the root to achieve the lovely consonance of a major chord ... . The miracle of the Virgin Birth is in wonderful harmony with the saving purposes of the Incarnation of the Word. St. Thomas [Aquinas] argues that ... as He [Jesus] enters Mary's womb, so He leaves it — without hurt or harm of its maidenly wholeness (John Saward, The Cradle of Redeeming Love. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, pp. 212-213).
Mary's Virginity Preserved after the Birth of Jesus
Finally, there is the doctrine that Mary remained a virgin throughout the rest of her life. In fact, only an original, lifelong commitment on Mary's part to preserve her virginity makes sense of the words that she spoke to the angel Gabriel. After being told by the angel that she would "conceive in her womb and bear a son," Mary replied, "How can this be, since I have no husband?" (Lk 1:34). Catholic Biblical scholar Dr. Scott Hahn explains:
Now this would be an odd question if Mary had planned to have normal marital relations with her husband. The angel told her only that she would conceive a son, which is a commonplace event in marriage. ... Mary should have known exactly "how this shall be." It would happen in the normal course of nature.
But that, apparently, was beyond the realm of possibility for her. The unspoken assumption behind her question is that, even though she was betrothed, she should not have an opportunity to conceive a child. ... Some commentators speculate that Mary must have vowed virginity from an early age, and that Joseph knew of her vow, accepted it, and eventually took it on himself. ... We do find examples of celibacy in the time of Jesus, evidenced in the New Testament by Jesus himself, and by St. Paul [and by St. John the Baptist]. ...The Dead Sea Scrolls attest that celibacy was a common practice of some Israelite sects [such as the Essenes at Qumran, and the Therapeutae community of Jewish women in Egypt]. So it was not unthinkable that Mary could have vowed virginity. (Hahn, Hail, Holy Queen, pp. 106-107)
Besides, if Mary had conceived other children with Joseph after the birth of Jesus, why do we hear no mention of them in the story of the finding of Jesus in the Temple of Jerusalem in Luke 2:41-51? Luke tells us that his parents spent three days searching for him all over the city (2:46). Where were his (alleged) younger brothers and sisters during all that time? And if Jesus really had younger siblings, why, when he was dying on the Cross, did he entrust his mother into the care of the Beloved Disciple, St. John, rather than into the care of her next eldest son, according to Jewish family custom? (See Jn 19:25-27; we will say more about this Scripture passage in a later chapter of this book.) The evidence of the gospel story suggests, therefore, that Mary remained true to her vow of virginity throughout her life, and, along with Joseph, dedicated her entire life solely to her son, Jesus. As we shall see next time, the perpetual virginity of Mary is a clear sign of her total commitment and consecration to Christ's work of salvation.
Holiest Virgin, with all my heart I venerate you above all the angels and saints in paradise as the Daughter of the Eternal Father, and I consecrate to you my soul with all its powers.
Holiest Virgin, with all my heart I venerate you above all the angels and saints in paradise as the Mother of the only-begotten Son, and I consecrate to you my body with all its senses.
Holiest Virgin, with all my heart I venerate you above all the angels and saints in paradise as the beloved Spouse of the Holy Spirit, and I consecrate to you my heart and all its affections, praying to you to obtain for me from the Most Holy Trinity all the graces I need for my salvation. (Fr. Lawrence Lovasik, S.V.D.)
Questions for Discussion for Part Seven
1. What is the significance of the doctrine that Mary conceived Jesus in her womb while she was a virgin, by the Holy Spirit, without human fatherhood?
2. Why does the Church teach that Mary's virginity remained unbroken even during the birth of Jesus?
3. Why does the Church believe that Mary remained a virgin even after the birth of Jesus, and throughout her entire life?
Suggestions for Further Reading
• Matthew 1:18-25
• Read Catechism, entries 496-507
Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception.