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Part 7: Mary, Ever Virgin

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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.

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Access to further reading: - Jun 29, 2015

"Mattew 1:18-25--
The Birth of Jesus.*
Now this is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about. When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph,* but before they lived together, she was found with child through the holy Spirit.
Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man,* yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly.
j Such was his intention when, behold, the angel of the Lord* appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her.
She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus,* because he will save his people from their sins.”
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:

* k “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son,

and they shall name him Emmanuel,”

which means “God is with us.”
When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home.
He had no relations with her until she bore a son,* and he named him Jesus.l"

~United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Matthew 1:18-25:

"Mary's virginity

496 From the first formulations of her faith, the Church has confessed that Jesus was conceived solely by the power of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary, affirming also the corporeal aspect of this event: Jesus was conceived "by the Holy Spirit without human seed".146 The Fathers see in the virginal conception the sign that it truly was the Son of God who came in a humanity like our own. Thus St. Ignatius of Antioch at the beginning of the second century says:

You are firmly convinced about our Lord, who is truly of the race of David according to the flesh, Son of God according to the will and power of God, truly born of a virgin,. . . he was truly nailed to a tree for us in his flesh under Pontius Pilate. . . he truly suffered, as he is also truly risen.147

497 The Gospel accounts understand the virginal conception of Jesus as a divine work that surpasses all human understanding and possibility:148 "That which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit", said the angel to Joseph about Mary his fiancee.149 The Church sees here the fulfillment of the divine promise given through the prophet Isaiah: "Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son."150

498 People are sometimes troubled by the silence of St. Mark's Gospel and the New Testament Epistles about Jesus' virginal conception. Some might wonder if we were merely dealing with legends or theological constructs not claiming to be history. To this we must respond: Faith in the virginal conception of Jesus met with the lively opposition, mockery or incomprehension of non-believers, Jews and pagans alike;151 so it could hardly have been motivated by pagan mythology or by some adaptation to the ideas of the age. The meaning of this event is accessible only to faith, which understands in it the "connection of these mysteries with one another"152 in the totality of Christ's mysteries, from his Incarnation to his Passover. St. Ignatius of Antioch already bears witness to this connection: "Mary's virginity and giving birth, and even the Lord's death escaped the notice of the prince of this world: these three mysteries worthy of proclamation were accomplished in God's silence."153

Mary - "ever-virgin"

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.154 In fact, Christ's birth "did not diminish his mother's virginal integrity but sanctified it."155 And so the liturgy of the Church celebrates Mary as Aeiparthenos, the "Ever-virgin".156

500 Against this doctrine the objection is sometimes raised that the Bible mentions brothers and sisters of Jesus.157 The Church has always understood these passages as not referring to other children of the Virgin Mary. In fact James and Joseph, "brothers of Jesus", are the sons of another Mary, a disciple of Christ, whom St. Matthew significantly calls "the other Mary".158 They are close relations of Jesus, according to an Old Testament expression.159

501 Jesus is Mary's only son, but her spiritual motherhood extends to all men whom indeed he came to save: "The Son whom she brought forth is he whom God placed as the first-born among many brethren, that is, the faithful in whose generation and formation she co-operates with a mother's love."160

Mary's virginal motherhood in God's plan

502 The eyes of faith can discover in the context of the whole of Revelation the mysterious reasons why God in his saving plan wanted his Son to be born of a virgin. These reasons touch both on the person of Christ and his redemptive mission, and on the welcome Mary gave that mission on behalf of all men.

503 Mary's virginity manifests God's absolute initiative in the Incarnation. Jesus has only God as Father. "He was never estranged from the Father because of the human nature which he assumed. . . He is naturally Son of the Father as to his divinity and naturally son of his mother as to his humanity, but properly Son of the Father in both natures."161

504 Jesus is conceived by the Holy Spirit in the Virgin Mary's womb because he is the New Adam, who inaugurates the new creation: "The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven."162 From his conception, Christ's humanity is filled with the Holy Spirit, for God "gives him the Spirit without measure."163 From "his fullness" as the head of redeemed humanity "we have all received, grace upon grace."164

505 By his virginal conception, Jesus, the New Adam, ushers in the new birth of children adopted in the Holy Spirit through faith. "How can this be?"165 Participation in the divine life arises "not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God".166 The acceptance of this life is virginal because it is entirely the Spirit's gift to man. The spousal character of the human vocation in relation to God167 is fulfilled perfectly in Mary's virginal motherhood.

506 Mary is a virgin because her virginity is the sign of her faith "unadulterated by any doubt", and of her undivided gift of herself to God's will.168 It is her faith that enables her to become the mother of the Savior: "Mary is more blessed because she embraces faith in Christ than because she conceives the flesh of Christ."169

507 At once virgin and mother, Mary is the symbol and the most perfect realization of the Church: "the Church indeed. . . by receiving the word of God in faith becomes herself a mother. By preaching and Baptism she brings forth sons, who are conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of God, to a new and immortal life. She herself is a virgin, who keeps in its entirety and purity the faith she pledged to her spouse."170"

~Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed., par. 496-507