MARY'S PERPETUAL VIRGINITY
Catholic Teaching on Mary's Perpetual Virginity
The Catholic teaching on Mary's perpetual virginity is that Mary, the Mother of God, retained her virginity before birth, during birth, and perpetually after the birth of Christ. Mary conceived as a virgin, gave birth as a virgin, and remained a virgin forever. This was the constant teaching of the Church, and it was formally stated by Pope Paul IV in his Apostolic Constitution, Cum Quorumdam Hominum, on August 7, 1555. It is not easy to find this document anymore, but the paragraph containing Pope Paul IV's teaching on Mary's perpetual virginity is preserved and may be read at Denzinger, #993.
The Virginal Conception of Christ
That Mary was a virgin and stayed a virgin when she conceived Christ is not unbiblical. It was foretold by Isaias the prophet: "Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel" (Isa 7:14). Isaias' prophecy was not much of a prophecy if it only meant that the Messiah would be conceived by a woman who was a virgin before conception but who lost her virginity at conception. That is the case with most women at their first conception. Isaias' prophecy has valuable meaning only if the mother of the Messiah was a virgin before conception and remained a virgin afterward.
That Mary remained a virgin when she conceived Christ is clear from the Gospel of St. Luke: "And Mary said to the angel: How shall this be done because I know not man? And the angel answering said to her: The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee. And therefore also the Holy which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God" (Luke 1:34–35). The words of the angel made it clear why Mary's virginity would not be violated in conceiving Christ. Mary would remain a virgin because her conception would not come from another man's seed but would take place by the power of the Holy Spirit.
St. Thomas Aquinas gave four reasons why it was appropriate for Christ to be conceived by a virgin. One reason was to exempt the humanity of Christ from contracting the stain of original sin. By being conceived by a virgin without the cooperation of a male parent, He avoided becoming a descendant of Adam by natural generation, thus avoiding original sin. See Summa Theologiae, Part III, Q. 27, Art. 1.
A little farther in the Summa St. Thomas carefully noted that although Christ was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, He did not, on account of it, become the Son of the Holy Spirit, nor did the Holy Spirit become His Father. In a true generation, the offspring would have to have the same essence as that of the parent, as when the Son was begotten by the Father. However, as man, Christ was not of the same essence as the Holy Spirit, so the Holy Spirit cannot be said to be His natural Father; but Christ, as man, was of the same essence as Mary, so Mary was truly His mother. The Holy Spirit provided the generative power of the male seed that was lacking in the generation of the Body of Christ in the Incarnation of the Son of God, but because Christ, as man, was not consubstantial with the Holy Spirit, He could not truly be called the Son of the Holy Spirit, nor the Holy Spirit His Father. See Summa Theologiae, Part III, Q. 32, Art. 3, Reply to Obj. 1. This matter was also defined by the local Council of Toledo (A.D. 675). See Denzinger, #282. Therefore, Christ, the Son of God, has only one Father.
The Virgin and Child
A tempera painting by Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510)
Image source link: commons.wikimedia.org
The Virginal Birth of Christ
Mary remained a virgin, not only in conceiving Christ but also in giving birth to Him. This has been the constant teaching of the Church and was expressly stated in the local Lateran Council of A.D. 649. See Denzinger, #256.
But what exactly does Christ's "virgin birth" mean? How does a woman remain a virgin while giving birth? Obviously, in Mary's case, virginity does not merely mean "not having sex." More than that, it means that her womb was never opened. It was closed during the conception of Christ, during the birth of Christ, and perpetually after the birth of Christ.
How does a woman give birth without opening the womb? By a miracle. As Christ, after His resurrection, was able to pass through closed doors (John 20:19), so during His nativity, Christ got out of Mary's womb while her womb remained shut, thus keeping her virginity intact. Of course, it was also through Mary's efforts that the nativity happened. She was not wholly passive when Christ was born. After all, it was she who delivered the Baby. Perhaps she was in an ecstasy of prayer when the miraculous birth took place, as St. Bridget of Sweden saw in her visions. See Revelations of St. Bridget, Ch. VIII, pp. 37–39.
Since the manner of Christ's birth was miraculous, many believe that the virgin birth happened painlessly. When one considers that God multiplied the pains of childbirth as a penalty for original sin (Gen 3:16), then it is easy to understand why she, who was conceived without original sin, should suffer no labor pains during childbirth.
Unlike the virginal conception of Christ, which is supported by St. Luke's Gospel, the virgin birth of Christ is not mentioned by any of the evangelists. Isaias' prophecy, "Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, ..." suggests it, as does Ezekiel's remark, which says, "This gate shall be shut; it shall not be opened, and no man shall pass through it: because the Lord, the God of Israel, hath entered in by it, and it shall be shut" (Ez 44:2); but nothing in Holy Scripture states the doctrine explicitly. Still, many of the Fathers teach this doctrine. Commenting on Ezekiel's remark, for example, St. Ambrose identifies the gate with Mary: Quae est haec porta nisi Maria? Ideo clausa, quia virgo... ("What is this gate, except Mary? Shut because a virgin...") De Institutione Virginis et Sanctae Mariae Virginitate Perpetua, Caput VIII, no. 52.
St. Thomas Aquinas gave three reasons why it was appropriate that Mary remained a virgin, not only in conceiving but also in giving birth. One reason was that, since He came into this world to take away all corruption, it was unfitting that in His birth He should corrupt His mother's virginity. Summa Theologiae, Part III, Q. 28, Art. 2.
Perpetual Virginity of Mary After Christ's Birth
Like the virginal birth of Christ, the perpetual virginity of Mary has very little biblical support, but it is firmly rooted in Sacred Tradition. The following are a few quotations from the Fathers:
St. Athanasius of Alexandria (A.D. 296-373), Second Discourse Against the Arians, #70: "Therefore let those who deny that the Son is from the Father by nature and proper to His Essence, deny also that He took true human flesh of Mary Ever-Virgin; for in neither case had it been of profit to us men, whether the Word were not true and naturally Son of God, or the flesh not true which He assumed." (Italics added for emphasis.)
St. Ambrose of Milan (A.D. 340-397), Letter 63, #111: "Imitate her, holy mothers, who in her only dearly beloved Son set forth so great an example of maternal virtue; for neither have you sweeter children, nor did the Virgin seek the consolation of being able to bear another son."
Pope St. Leo the Great (A.D. 395-461), Sermon 22, #2: "The origin is different but the nature like: not by intercourse with man but by the power of God was it brought about: for a Virgin conceived, a Virgin bore, and a Virgin she remained."
Notwithstanding the testimony of Sacred Tradition, many reject the Catholic belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary because there are biblical texts that seem to suggest that Mary bore other children after Christ.
First, there is a text in St. Matthew's Gospel that says, "When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph before they came together, she was found with child, of the Holy Ghost" (Matt 1:18). The heretic Helvidius took the phrase "before they came together" as hinting that Mary and Joseph came together afterward. (In the Hebrew text, "coming together" does not merely mean living together but also knowing each other intimately or sexually.) However, the biblical text merely wants to say that Christ was conceived before Mary and Joseph lived together; it does not imply that they "came together" (or had sex) after Christ was conceived or born. In the same manner, the sentence "Helvidius failed to do penance before he died" does not imply that he did penance after his death, which was impossible. See St. Jerome, The Perpetual Virginity of Blessed Mary, no. 4.
Second, there is also that statement from St. Matthew that says, "And he knew her not till she brought forth her firstborn son" (Matt 1:25). Again, Helvidius claimed that Christ was referred to as the firstborn because there were others that came after him and that the word "till" meant that Joseph didn't know Mary (sexually) until Christ was born, but he did afterward. Against these claims, St. Jerome responded by saying that Christ was Mary's firstborn, not because other children of Mary were born after Him but because there were none before Him. Likewise, the statement that Joseph did not know Mary "till" Christ was born does not imply that he knew her afterward. In the same way, the sentence, "Michal, the daughter of Saul, was childless till she died" (adapted from 2 Sam 6:23), does not mean that she had a child after death.
Third, there are many passages in the Holy Scripture that speak of the "brethren of the Lord"; for example, Matt 12:46; Matt 13:55; Mark 3:31–34; Mark 6:3; Luke 8:19–20; John 2:12, 7:3, 5, 10; Acts 1:14; 1 Cor. 9:5. Who were these, if not children of Mary? There are two possible answers:
First, they could be children of St. Joseph from a previous marriage and not children of Mary. In other words, they could be Christ's stepbrothers or stepsisters. This is based on the apocryphal book, The Protoevangelium of James, no. 9, where Joseph, after he was chosen by lot to be the widower who should take Mary for his wife, confessed that he already had children. Some scholars reject this idea because it is based on an apocryphal book; however, it is still not impossible that Christ had stepbrothers or stepsisters from St. Joseph.
Second, they could be cousins or relatives of our Lord rather than His siblings. There is no Hebrew or Aramaic word for cousin, so the word "brother" could have been used to refer to a cousin or relative. Thus, the Douay Bible referred to Lot as Abram's brother (in Gen 14:14), but Lot was actually Abram's nephew (according to Gen 11:26–27). For books that were originally written in Greek, the word adelphos was often used to denote a brother, but this word could also mean a friend, neighbor, countryman, fellow believer, etc., depending on the context. See, for instance, Acts 7:23 and 26. Even in English, the word "brother" is often used to denote someone who is not necessarily one's sibling.
The various uses of a word must be taken into account when reading Holy Scripture. It is incorrect to read a verse in Holy Scripture and then interpret the words in isolation from the rest of the text. Of course, the right way to interpret Holy Scripture is to read not just the verse but the entire chapter. Sometimes, it is also necessary to read the entire book or even the entire Bible. In Mt. 13:55, for example, James and Joseph were indeed referred to as the "brothers" of Jesus. Then in Mark 15:40, we read of a certain "Mary, the mother of James," as being with Mary Magdalen during the crucifixion. Was this Mary, the mother of James, the same woman as Mary, the mother of Jesus, who was also present during the crucifixion? If that is the case, then Jesus and James would be brothers. But don't just read Matthew and Mark. Also, read John. Because in John 19:25 it is stated that three Marys stood at the foot of the cross: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Jesus, and Mary's sister, who is also known as Mary of Clopas. Therefore, is it not now possible that James was the son of another Mary, Mary of Clopas, who happened to be Mary's sister? If that is the case, then that would make James and Jesus merely cousins. Therefore, one may not rightly conclude from reading Matthew 13:55 alone that Mary had other children besides Jesus.
The foregoing discussion does NOT prove that the "brethren of the Lord" cited in various places in the Bible were not also children of Mary. The discussion above only shows that this is not necessarily the case. However, other texts in Holy Scripture indicate that Christ is the only Child of Mary. For example, the story of the finding of Jesus at the temple (Luke 2:41–52) gives the impression that Jesus was an only child. If there were other children, why were they not with them on such a solemn day? At the cross, why did our Lord entrust the care of His mother to St. John if He had other brothers or sisters? It doesn't make sense! And isn't it disrespectful to the Holy Spirit, Who sanctified Mary's virginal womb, to believe that Mary conceived another child besides our Lord? In defending Mary's perpetual virginity, the Catholic Church defends the dignity of the Holy Spirit, Who has always loved Mary as His spouse. Defending the perpetual virginity of Mary is not about putting her on a pedestal. It is about defending the honor and dignity of the Divine Persons with Whom Mary had a special relationship.
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Christ Found in the Temple
Watercolor painting by James Jacques Joseph Tissot (1836-1902)
Image source link: marysrosaries.com
The fact that Christ was the only Child who came to Jerusalem with Mary and Joseph and the fact that Christ had no siblings who stood at the foot of the cross during His crucifixion do NOT prove that Mary had no other children besides Jesus. The facts cited indicate, but they do not prove, that Christ was Mary's only Child. Mary's perpetual virginity is an article of faith and cannot be rigorously demonstrated.
But there is one more clue from the Holy Scripture that provides moral certainty that Mary remained a virgin perpetually after the birth of Christ, and that was her response to the Angel Gabriel after she was told that she was to be the mother of God: "How shall this be done," she asked, "because I know not man?" (Luke 1:34) Because I know not man! At the time of the annunciation, Mary was already engaged to Joseph, although they were not yet living together. So, how could she justly say, "Because I know not man"? Some of the Church Fathers surmised that a probable explanation for this strange question was that Mary had previously vowed herself to God as a virgin. See, for example, St. Augustine, Of Holy Virginity, #4. If this was the case, then we have one more strong indication pointing to the truth of Mary's perpetual virginity.
Incidentally, many Protestants may not be aware that their major church founders—Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Wesley—also believed in the perpetual virginity of Mary! See Protestant Reformers on the Ever-Virginity of Mary.