The following article is an excerpt from the recently published Marian anthology, Mariology: A Guide for Priests, Deacons, Seminarians, and Consecrated Persons, Seat of Wisdom Books, A Division of Queenship, 2008. Fifteen international Mariology experts contributed to the text. The book features a foreword by Archbishop Raymond L. Burke and has 17 chapters divided into four parts: 1. Mary in Scripture and the Early Church; 2. Marian Dogma; 3. Marian Doctrine; and 4. Marian Liturgy and Devotion. The book is now available from Queenship Publications. To obtain a copy, visit Visit and search on “Mariology: A Guide” to view the book in its entirety, or simply click here.
Asst. Ed

The mystery of the Incarnation is inseparable in the eternal plans of God from the virginal conception of the Son of God in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. While God could have brought about the enfleshment of the Word in any way that he chose, he concretely willed that the Word should become flesh by the power of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary (Et incarnatus est de Spiritu Sancto ex Maria Virgine). This fact transmitted to us in the gospels of St. Luke (1:26-38) and St. John (1:14) has been an integral part of the Church’s creed from the earliest days of her existence (1), and was solemnly ratified by the First Council of Constantinople in 381 to express, within the limits of human language, the mystery which the Church received, believes and transmits about the Incarnation of the Son of God (2). It is the Catholic Church’s perennial belief in the three facets of this mystery which immediately touch upon the role of Our Lady that is the specific object of this study: the fact that she was a virgin before (ante partum), during (in partu) and after the birth of Christ (post partum). The Catechism of the Catholic Church expresses this truth succinctly by stating that “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” (3).

Foundational Principles

At the very beginning I would like to make my own the declaration of Father John Saward in his excellent book, Cradle of Redeeming Love:

I make no claim to originality. Self-consciously original theology tends always to be heretical theology. Orthodox theology has, by contrast, a blessed familiarity, for it does no more than assist the faithful in understanding what they already believe; its surprises are the outcome not of human ingenuity but of divine infinitude, the sign of a Truth that is ever ancient and ever new (4).

The best approach to the Scripture texts which we will be considering is via the living Tradition of the Catholic Church, and in this regard I would like to cite this fundamental text from Dei Verbum, the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation:

The apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved in a continuous line of succession until the end of time. Hence the apostles, in handing on what they themselves had received, warn the faithful to maintain the traditions which they had learned either by word of mouth or by letter (cf. 2 Thess 2:15); and they warn them to fight hard for the faith that had been handed on to them once and for all (cf. Jude 3). What was handed on by the apostles comprises everything that serves to make the People of God live their lives in holiness and increase their faith. In this way the Church, in her doctrine, life and worship, perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes.

The Tradition that comes from the apostles makes progress in the Church, with the help of the Holy Spirit. There is a growth in insight into the realities and words that are being passed on. This comes about in various ways. It comes through the contemplation and study of believers who ponder these things in their hearts (cf. Lk 2:19 and 51). It comes from the intimate sense of spiritual realities which they experience. And it comes from the preaching of those who have received, along with their right of succession in the episcopate, the sure charism of truth. Thus as the centuries go by, the Church is always advancing towards the plenitude of divine truth, until eventually the words of God are fulfilled in her (5).

In these paragraphs we have two very important assertions: 1.) what we have received from the apostolic preaching must be handed on in its integrity and 2.) by the assistance of the Holy Spirit “there is a growth in insight into the realities and words that are being passed on.” On this matter the Catechism of the Catholic Church offers a helpful clarification: “Yet even if Revelation is already complete, it has not been made completely explicit; it remains for Christian faith gradually to grasp its full significance over the course of the centuries” (6).

In the course of this study we will see that there have been many intuitions regarding the virginal conception and birth of Christ in the course of the centuries, but not all of them have been genuine developments of the faith once delivered to the apostles. Some of these intuitions have proven to be aberrations, heresies which have distorted and misrepresented the faith. For this reason the Church has constant need of authoritative guidance in order to distinguish genuine developments from false ones. Hence

the task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office (Magisterium) of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. Yet this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it. At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this (Word of God) devotedly, guards it with dedication and expounds it faithfully. All that it proposes for belief as being divinely revealed is drawn from this single deposit of faith.

It is clear, therefore, that, in the supremely wise arrangement of God, sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture and the Magisterium of the Church are so connected and associated that one of them cannot stand without the others. Working together, each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit, they all contribute effectively to the salvation of souls (7).

The magisterial teaching of the Catholic Church as exercised by popes and councils, then, will provide the fundamental framework for this study, and in this regard we are fortunate to have recent authoritative statements of the Papal Magisterium on the three fundamental aspects of Mary’s perpetual virginity. Among these I assign a very important place to the discourse given by Pope John Paul II at Capua (near Naples) on May 24, 1992, to commemorate the 16th centenary of the Plenary Council of Capua, a discourse which recapitulates the tradition and offers us at the same time valuable orientations for our investigation. Among the literally thousands of other papal documents, addresses and homilies devoted primarily or partially to Our Lady by John Paul II, I would also signal for special attention the 70 Marian catecheses which he delivered at general audiences from September 6, 1995, to November 12, 1997. These constitute a valuable compendium of Mariology, touching upon all of the major themes and providing a useful summary of his own teaching, and a further consolidation of that of his predecessors and that of the Second Vatican Council. These catecheses may be justly regarded as an important exercise of the Ordinary Magisterium of the Roman pontiff and thus should be received by the faithful “with religious submission of mind and will” (cf. Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium 25) (8).

In treating of the Incarnation, which is inseparable from Mary’s divine maternity and virginity, we are dealing with a mystery of faith, a truth which admits of rational explanation, but which is so profound that we can never fully exhaust it. Father Saward puts it beautifully:

The human birth of the Son of God is a mystery in the strict theological sense: a divinely revealed reality that little ones can understand but not even learned ones can comprehend. Theological mysteries are truth and therefore light for the mind, but the truth is so vast, the light of such intensity, that the mind is dazzled and amazed. When a man meets a mystery of the faith, he finds not a deficiency but an excess of intelligibility: there is just too much to understand. Reverence for supernaturally revealed mysteries is therefore not reason’s abdication, but reason’s recognition, through faith, of a grandeur transcending its powers (9).

It will be noted that the above quote is in full harmony with what Pope John Paul II said in his magisterial discourse at Capua on May 24, 1992:

The theologian must approach the mystery of Mary’s fruitful virginity with a deep sense of veneration for God’s free, holy and sovereign action. Reading through the writings of the holy Fathers and the liturgical texts we notice that few of the saving mysteries have caused so much amazement, admiration or praise as the Incarnation of God’s Son in Mary’s virginal womb. …

The theologian, however, who approaches the mystery of Mary’s virginity with a heart full of faith and adoring respect, does not thereby forego the duty of studying the data of Revelation and showing their harmony and interrelationship; rather, following the Spirit, … he puts himself in the great and fruitful theological tradition of fides quærens intellectum.

When theological reflection becomes a moment of doxology and latria, the mystery of Mary’s virginity is disclosed, allowing one to catch a glimpse of other aspects and other depths (10).

One who is not willing to recognize that in attempting to scrutinize the mystery of the Incarnation he is treading on sacred ground (cf. Ex 3:5) and, therefore, must approach with reverence and awe, is doomed to remain in the darkness of agnosticism or worse. In fact, the concept of sacred ground brings us remarkably close to an allied notion very dear to the Fathers of the Church, viz. that Mary is terra virgo, the virgin earth from which emerged the Son of God (11). Her fruitful virginity cannot be separated from the blessed fruit of which it is the sign.

As we have already noted, the Catholic Tradition always witnesses to an indissoluble link between Mary’s virginity and the Incarnation of the Word. This is clearly attested to by John Paul II in his discourse at Capua:

For a fruitful theological reflection on Mary’s virginity it is first of all essential to have a correct point of departure. Actually, in its interwoven aspects the question of Mary’s virginity cannot be adequately treated by beginning with her person alone, her people’s culture or the social conditions of her time. The Fathers of the Church had already clearly seen that Mary’s virginity was a “Christological theme” before being a “Mariological question.” They observed that the virginity of the Mother is a requirement flowing from the divine nature of the Son; it is the concrete condition in which, according to a free and wise divine plan, the Incarnation of the eternal Son took place. … As a consequence, for Christian tradition Mary’s virginal womb, made fruitful by the divine Pneuma without human intervention (cf. Lk 1:34-35), became, like the wood of the Cross (cf. Mk 15:39) or the wrappings in the tomb (cf. Jn 20:5-8), a reason and sign for recognizing in Jesus of Nazareth the Son of God (12).

The fact that in studying the virginal conception and birth of Jesus Christ we are dealing first of all with a Christological theme is cogently brought home by John Henry Newman in one of his first Catholic sermons entitled “The Glories of Mary for the Sake of Her Son”:

They (the prerogatives with which the Church invests the Blessed Mother of God) are startling and difficult to those whose imagination is not accustomed to them, and whose reason has not reflected on them; but the more carefully and religiously they are dwelt on, the more, I am sure, will they be found essential to the Catholic faith, and integral to the worship of Christ. This simply is the point which I shall insist on—disputable indeed by aliens from the Church, but most clear to her children—that the glories of Mary are for the sake of Jesus; and that we praise and bless her as the first of creatures, that we may duly confess him as our sole Creator (13).

The link is indeed indissoluble, and further on in the same sermon Newman did not hesitate to draw a very specific conclusion from it which is far more readily verifiable today than when he uttered it: “Catholics who have honored the Mother, still worship the Son, while Protestants, who now have ceased to confess the Son, began then by scoffing at the Mother” (14).

The Mystery of the Virginal Conception

In his Marian catechesis of July 10, 1996, in which he dealt with the virginal conception as a biological fact, Pope John Paul II made this very straightforward declaration:

The Church has constantly held that Mary’s virginity is a truth of faith, as the Church has received and reflected on the witness of the gospels of Luke, of Matthew and probably also of John. In the episode of the Annunciation, the Evangelist Luke calls Mary a “virgin,” referring both to her intention to persevere in virginity, as well as to the divine plan which reconciled this intention with her miraculous motherhood. The affirmation of the virginal conception, due to the action of the Holy Spirit, excludes every hypothesis of natural parthenogenesis and rejects the attempts to explain Luke’s account as the development of a Jewish theme or as the derivation of a pagan mythological legend.

The structure of the Lucan text resists any reductive interpretation (cf. Lk. 1:26-38; 2:19, 51). Its coherence does not validly support any mutilation of the terms or expressions which affirm the virginal conception brought about by the Holy Spirit (15).

The Pope’s language is unmistakably clear. He discounts any attempt to explain the virginal conception of Jesus in terms of 1.) parthenogenesis (reproduction from an egg without male fertilization) (16), 2.) midrash (development of a Jewish theme) (17) or 3.) derivation of a pagan mythological legend (18). Further on in the same discourse he explicitly rejects a further, and lethal, hypothesis which undermines belief in the virginal conception of Jesus as the Church has always understood it: “The opinion—that the account of the virginal conception would instead be a theologoumenon, that is, a way of expressing a theological doctrine, that of Jesus’ divine sonship, or would be a mythological portrayal of him” (19).

Questionable Assumptions

Referring to the gospel references to the miraculous conception of Jesus as a theologoumenon is the result of the program of radical demythologizing of the gospels championed by Lutheran Scripture scholars Martin Dibelius (1883-1947), Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976), and their followers (20). According to them, the belief that Jesus had no human father was a theological fabrication of the early Christian community in order to heighten Jesus’ importance, in other words to “mythologize” him. Having established such assumptions, these scholars set about to demythologize the New Testament. Dibelius specifically maintained that the virginal conception is an entirely Christian legend resulting from a theologoumenon of Judeo-Hellenistic provenance. Bultmann went on to insist that it was a late excrescence which is in contradiction to the internal evidence of the gospels (21).

While I have no desire to judge the intentions of these men, neither, following the lead of the Holy Father, do I have any intention of giving them serious attention: a theory which flies in the face of the New Testament evidence and the unbroken testimony of the great Tradition may be readily dismissed—gratis asseritur, gratis negatur. In fact, much subsequent biblical scholarship since Dibelius and Bultmann first advanced their positions demonstrates precisely why the Pope deemed it necessary in that same catechesis to affirm that:

The uniform gospel witness testifies how faith in the virginal conception of Jesus was firmly rooted in various milieus of the early Church. This deprives of any foundation several recent interpretations which understand the virginal conception not in a physical or biological sense, but only as symbolic or metaphorical (22).

Unfortunately, once the demythologizing currents were in the air, it was only a matter of time before they were passed off as compatible with Catholic belief in the so-called Dutch Catechism of 1966 and in the writings of Hans Küng, Piet Schoonenberg, Edward Schillebeeckx and numerous other Catholic theologians (23).

Even more complex was the approach to the virginal conception of Jesus taken by the late noted American Sulpician exegete, Raymond Brown, S.S. (+1998). In a major essay on this topic he concluded thus:

My judgment, in conclusion, is that the totality of the scientifically controllable evidence leaves an unresolved problem—a conclusion that should not disappoint since I used the word “problem” in my title—and that is why I want to induce an honest, ecumenical discussion of it. Part of the difficulty is that past discussions have often been conducted by people who were interpreting ambiguous evidence to favor positions already taken (24).

In effect, Father Brown’s work in this area seems to have been based on a number of working principles which must be challenged: 1.) the assumption that what he considered the “scientifically controllable” study of the Scriptures, largely following the canons of the Bultmannian school, may be separate from, and independent of, the content of Catholic faith; 2.) the employment of a reductionistic and minimizing approach to Catholic dogma (25) and following from these 3.) an ecumenical methodology which might be described as consensus based on the “lowest common denominator” (26).

Where do such assumptions leave one? The answer, I’m afraid, is “nowhere.” This or that datum of the Tradition may or may not be true. About what is true we can have no real certitude. This is the reductio ad absurdum which so much post-Bultmannian exegesis leaves us with. This destabilizing approach to the Word of God provides no satisfactory basis for either the study of Scripture or the practice of genuine ecumenism (27). With regard to this state of affairs Father Saward offers some very astute remarks:

Sadly, Liberal Protestant and Modernist Biblical scholars have seemed, for a large part of the last two centuries, to be determined to separate the evangelists as far as possible, in space and time as well as in direct contact, from the Jesus whose life and teaching they set forth. First, the critics “prescind” from the dogmatic faith and Tradition of the Church, in order, so they allege, to attain a scientific reading of the texts. Secondly, they give prominence to what they take to be contradictions of fact or opinion between the sacred authors, or between the Bible and natural science. Thirdly, they destroy the historical identity of the evangelists. The gospels—so they claim—were written, not by recognized disciples of truth but by unknown and unknowable devisers of myth. The evangelists composed their narratives not in order to tell the honest truth about the Lord but to promote the religious interests (or “theologies,” as the critics like to say) of particular communities in the early Church. The Higher Critics are embarrassed by every physical marvel in the life of Jesus—his miracles, his bodily Resurrection, and the virginity of his Blessed Mother; like the Gnostics of old, they seem repelled by the Word’s deep descent into the world of matter (28).

These “Higher Critics,” as Father Saward justly concludes, “cannot teach us how to read the Holy Gospels” (29). They have not placed themselves, as the Pope exhorted theologians in Capua, “in the great and fruitful theological Tradition of fides quærens intellectum” precisely because they do not approach the mystery “with a heart full of faith and adoring respect” (30). Happily, however, there are exegetes who have acquired the necessary technical skills and who also stand “in the great and fruitful theological tradition.” From them we can learn, as we shall see.

The Biblical Witness

Let us turn once again to the Pope’s discourse in Capua.

In our day the Church has deemed it necessary to recall the reality of Christ’s virginal conception, pointing out that the texts of Luke 1:26-38 and Matthew 1:18-25 cannot be reduced to simple etiological accounts meant to make it easier for the faithful to believe in Christ’s divinity. More than the literary genre used by Matthew and Luke, they are instead the expression of a biblical tradition of apostolic origin.

To affirm the reality of Christ’s virginal conception does not mean that an apodictic proof of the rational sort can be provided for it. In fact, the virginal conception of Christ is a truth revealed by God, which the human person accepts through the obedience of faith (cf. Rom 16:26). Only the person who is willing to believe that God acts within the reality of this world and that with him “nothing is impossible” (Lk 1:37) can, with devout gratitude, accept the truths of the kenosis of God’s eternal Son, of his virginal conception-birth, of the universal salvific value of his death on the Cross and of the true Resurrection in his own body of him who was hung and died on the wood of the Cross (31).

In this illuminating statement the Pope makes several important points, among which are the following: 1.) the fundamental biblical texts regarding the virginal conception are Luke 1:26-38 and Matthew 1:18-25; 2.) they constitute “a biblical tradition of apostolic origin”; 3.) these texts do not provide “an apodictic proof of the rational sort,” rather they require faith in the God who reveals (32). This third point is very appropriately made in the light of the presuppositions of the kind of biblical studies represented by the Catholic-Protestant collaborative volume Mary in the New Testament. Such a foundational assertion was already made with great clarity in the Profession of Faith of the Eleventh Council of Toledo of 675, which declares that the virginal conception is “neither proved by reason nor demonstrated from precedent. Were it proved by reason, it would not be miraculous; were it demonstrated from precedent, it would not be unique” (33).

Father Ignace de la Potterie, S.J., provides a recent insight into Luke 1:31, arguably the first explicit reference to the virginal conception in the Lucan infancy narrative. The angel says to Mary “you will conceive in your womb,” but the words “in your womb” are omitted in many modern translations as being redundant (34). Where else does a woman conceive, except in her womb, many would ask, but Father de la Potterie argues that St. Luke was very particular about his vocabulary:

“To conceive in your womb” is a paradoxical and new formula which is only found here in the entire Bible. For what reason did Luke introduce this strange, totally new and seemingly redundant expression? The reason is evident enough. To speak of the ordinary conception of a woman the Old Testament habitually employed two formulas: “to receive in her womb,” e.g. Gen 25:22, Is 8:3, etc., in reference to the man from whom the woman receives the seed into her womb (the name of the man is sometimes indicated); or else “to have in her womb,” after the woman’s sexual relationship with the man, but here also, after having “received” the seed from the man; in this way it was indicated that a woman was now pregnant, e.g. Gen 38:25, Amos 1:3, etc (35).

He points out that the expression “conceive in your womb” has an indirect reference to the Greek text of Isaiah 7:14 and Matthew 1:23 (36) and he goes on to draw out the implications:

For Mary, by contrast (with Elizabeth) Luke employs twice the verb “to conceive,” but here with the addition of “in your womb”; the first text is precisely the one under consideration: “you will conceive in your womb” (1:31); further on, we read again: “… He was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb (of Mary)” (2:21). This formula “in your womb,” seemingly useless and pleonastic, is unique in the entire Bible; it is the sign of a particular meaning, a sign which becomes still more clear when we note that it is found uniquely in these two adjacent texts (1:31; 2:21) both of which concern Mary: they announce precisely her virginal conception.

From the perspective of salvation history and theology, these two “linguistic facts” (retaining the verb “to conceive,” but with the specification “in your womb” ) must have a double signification in the case of Mary: on the one hand, the use of the traditional verb “to conceive” commonly used for many other women, indicated for Mary also, the physical realism of a real bodily conception, not a mythical one as some would maintain (we are not dealing here with a theologoumenon). On the other hand, the expression “in your womb,” added for her alone, reveals that this physical conception had to be entirely within (in your womb), without the previous penetration of any “masculine semen” coming from without. Such a totally interior conception would have to be accomplished by a real power, certainly, but a non-physical one; it obviously required a fecundating action, but a spiritual one. Moreover, our text thus prepared and anticipated verse 1:35 where it would be explained that the Holy Spirit would descend on Mary, to activate in her, that is to say “in the womb” of Mary, a real, but purely interior conception. Such a conception, without sexual contact, due to the “power of the Most High,” must necessarily be a virginal conception (37).

… The conclusion of all of this is that the evangelist, in verse 1:31, is rigorously inspired by the formulas of the biblical tradition, but by way of some truly radical modifications he succeeds already here in stating the Christian newness: the virginal conception of Mary and the imposition on her son of the name of Jesus will henceforth allow the world to understand the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God. And this woman who subsequently brings forth her son Jesus virginally into the world thus becomes the Mother of God (38).

Now let us consider Luke 1:34, a text most crucial to our argument, in which Mary asks her question: “How shall this be since I do not know man?” Here is how John Paul II outlined the matter in his catechesis of July 24, 1996:

Such a query seems surprising, to say the least, if we call to mind the biblical accounts that relate the announcement of an extraordinary birth to a childless woman. Those cases concerned married women who were naturally sterile, to whom God gave the gift of a child through their normal conjugal life (1 Sam 1:19-20), in response to their anguished prayers (cf. Gen 15:2; 30:22-23; 1 Sam 1:10; Lk 1:13).

Mary received the angel’s message in a different situation. She was not a married woman with problems of sterility; by a voluntary choice she intended to remain a virgin. Therefore, her intention of virginity, the fruit of her love for the Lord, appeared to be an obstacle to the motherhood announced to her.

At first sight, Mary’s words would seem merely to express only her present state of virginity. … Nevertheless, the context in which the question was asked: “How can this be?” and the affirmation that follows: “since I do not know man,” emphasize both Mary’s present virginity and her intention to remain a virgin. The expression she used, with the verb in the present tense, reveals the permanence and continuity of her state. …

To some, Mary’s words and intentions appear improbable since in the Jewish world virginity was considered neither a value nor an ideal to be pursued. The same Old Testament writings confirm this in several well-known episodes and expressions (39).

This entire catechesis is strikingly incisive in its transmission of the Church’s Tradition as well as in its grasp of the state of much modern scholarship on this question (40). Interestingly, the Holy Father’s brief analysis of Our Lady’s declaration follows what I believe is still the classic and most complete analysis of the matter, that written by Father Geoffrey Graystone, S.M (41).

The Pope continues with an explanation of Mary’s resolve which indicates how the understanding of “full of grace” (κεχαριτωμένη) (42) has continued to develop under the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the Catholic Church:

However, the extraordinary case of the Virgin of Nazareth must not lead us into the error of tying her inner dispositions completely to the mentality of her surroundings, thereby eliminating the uniqueness of the mystery that came to pass in her. In particular, we must not forget that, from the very beginning of her life, Mary received a wondrous grace, recognized by the angel at the moment of the Annunciation. “Full of grace” (Lk 1:28). Mary was enriched with a perfection of holiness that, according to the Church’s interpretation, goes back to the very first moment of her existence. The unique privilege of the Immaculate Conception influences the whole development of the young woman of Nazareth’s spiritual life.

Thus, it should be maintained that Mary was guided to the ideal of virginity by an exceptional inspiration of (the) Holy Spirit (43).

Appropriately, in speaking of Mary’s intention of virginity the Pope points to “the uniqueness of the mystery that came to pass” in Mary, and this as a direct consequence of her Immaculate Conception.

Obviously it took time, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, for the Church as listener to the Word of God and teacher (Ecclesia discens et docens) to penetrate ever more deeply into the understanding of Mary’s determination to remain a virgin and of her virginal marriage to Joseph. Once again, the Holy Father summarizes the development of this tradition beautifully in his catechesis of August 21, 1996:

In presenting Mary as a “virgin,” the Gospel of Luke adds that she was “betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David” (Lk 1:27). These two pieces of information at first sight seem contradictory. The Greek word used in this passage does not indicate the situation of a woman who has contracted marriage and therefore lives in the marital state, but that of betrothal. Unlike what occurs in modern cultures, however, the ancient Jewish custom of betrothal provided for a contract and normally had definitive value. It actually introduced the betrothed to the marital state, even if the marriage was brought to full completion only when the young man took the girl to his home.

At the time of the Annunciation, Mary thus had the status of one betrothed. We can wonder why she would accept betrothal, since she had the intention of remaining a virgin forever. Luke is aware of this difficulty, but merely notes the situation without offering any explanation. The fact that the evangelist, while stressing Mary’s intention of virginity, also presents her as Joseph’s spouse is a sign of the historical reliability of the two pieces of information.

It may be presumed that at the time of their betrothal there was an understanding between Joseph and Mary about the plan to live as a virgin. Moreover, the Holy Spirit, who had inspired Mary to choose virginity in view of the mystery of the Incarnation and who wanted the latter to come about in a family setting suited to the child’s growth, was quite able to instill in Joseph the ideal of virginity as well (44).

The seeming contradiction between Mary’s disposition to remain a virgin and her betrothal to Joseph may cause endless difficulties for the “Higher Critics” and lead to strange hypotheses (45), but it can also lead faithful Christians to an ever more profound appreciation of the multifaceted mystery of the Incarnation, as the Pope indicated. Indeed, as he subsequently affirmed:

This type of marriage to which the Holy Spirit led Mary and Joseph can only be understood in the context of the saving plan and of a lofty spirituality. The concrete realization of the mystery of the Incarnation called for a virgin birth which would highlight the divine sonship and, at the same time, for a family that could provide for the normal development of the child’s personality (46).

The Mystery of the Virginal Birth

The words of the Holy Father cited above lead us appropriately to the mystery of the virgin birth which is described in this way in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

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” (47).

Tertullian (+c.200) put it succinctly: “It was necessary for the author of a new birth to be born in a new way” (48). Literally hundreds of similar illuminating statements such as this can be found throughout the entire Tradition (49). Effectively, this new birth “without corruption” has always been understood to refer to the “birth of the Child without bodily lesion of the Mother, and absence of all pain and afterbirth” (50). In summarizing the patristic, scholastic, and more recent tradition on this matter, Father Saward states:

According to the Church’s Doctors, this freedom from corruption means that the God-man leaves his Mother’s womb without opening it (utero clauso vel obsignato), without inflicting any injury to her bodily virginity (sine violatione claustri virginalis), and therefore without causing her any pain (51).

Evidently the same questionable assumptions which undermine belief in the virginal conception are at work in this area as well (52), with the addition of a major challenge which emerged with the publication of Dr. Albert Mitterer’s 1952 study Dogma und Biologie which questioned Our Lady’s physical integrity and the absence of pain (53). Mitterer’s work and the discussion which it provoked resulted in a monitum issued by the Holy Office (now Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) stating that “theological works are being published in which the delicate question of Mary’s virginity in partu is treated with a deplorable crudeness of expression and, what is more serious, in flagrant contradiction to the doctrinal tradition of the Church and to the sense of respect the faithful have” and thus prohibiting the publication of such dissertations in the future (54). Unfortunately, this prohibition has been effectively ignored by many well-known theologians (55), including the late Karl Rahner, S.J. (1904-1984) (56).

The Magisterium

The Church’s Magisterium has been entirely consistent and unflagging in upholding belief in Mary’s virginity in childbirth (57). In commenting on the restatement of this article of faith made in Lumen Gentium 57, and subsequently quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church 499, Father Fehlner states:

After the phrase “sanctified it” the Council appended references to indicate the precise sense in which virginal integrity at the time of Christ’s birth is to be understood. Three references are given by the Council in note 10: to canon 3 of the Lateran Synod of 649, to the Dogmatic Tome of Saint Leo the Great to Flavian, and to the passage of Saint Ambrose in his work on the education of virgins. …

From all the references which Vatican II might have chosen to illustrate the faith of the Church in Our Lady’s virginal integrity at childbirth these three, utterly unequivocal, are found in the definitive text. No clearer indication could have been given that this mystery, inseparable from the Nativity of the Savior, is of crucial importance to faith as such. Even the slightest question or doubt about the reality of meaning of that mystery, whether it concerns the Mother or the Child, cannot be tolerated (58).

In his discourse in Capua, Pope John Paul II noted a highly significant correlation with regard to patristic teaching on the virginitas in partu and the Resurrection, thus linking his Magisterium with the teaching of the Fathers:

It is a well-known fact that some Church Fathers set up a significant parallel between the begetting of Christ ex intacta Virgine (from the untouched Virgin) and his Resurrection ex intacto sepulcro (from the intact sepulcher). In the parallelism relative to the begetting of Christ, some Fathers put the emphasis on the virginal conception, others on the virgin birth, others on the subsequent perpetual virginity of the Mother, but they all testify to the conviction that between the two saving events—the generation-birth of Christ and his Resurrection from the dead—there exists an intrinsic connection which corresponds to a precise plan of God: a connection which the Church, led by the Spirit, has discovered, not created (59).

How important it is to grasp in this case—as well as with regard to all that has been conveyed thus far—that, under the guidance of the Spirit, the Church receives and discovers the truth, but does not create it.

In that same discourse the Holy Father points out precisely how the insight into this correlation comes about:

In adoring reflection on the mystery of the Incarnation of the Word, one discerns a particularly important relationship between the beginning and the end of Christ’s earthly life, that is, between his virginal conception and his Resurrection from the dead, two truths which are closely connected with faith in Jesus’ divinity.

They belong to the deposit of faith; they are professed by the whole Church; and they have been expressly stated in the creeds. History shows that doubts or uncertainty about one has inevitable repercussions on the other, just as, on the contrary, humble and strong assent to one of them fosters the warm acceptance of the other (60).

The Biblical Witness

Two very prominent Old Testament messianic texts point to the mystery of the virginal birth of Christ. The first occurs immediately after Genesis 3:15, known in the Tradition as the Protoevangelium, which speaks of the “woman,” the “New Eve” through whom redemption will come (61). In the following verse the Lord God addresses Eve stating “I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” Father Stefano Manelli’s comment on these two verses is very insightful:

The two verses of Genesis 3:15 and 16, so sharply contrasting one another, make it psychologically impossible for them to refer to one and the same person. Immediately after having spoken so solemnly of how the “woman” with her “seed” is to triumph over the serpent, God speaks of how Eve must endure suffering and humiliation for the rest of her life. On what grounds is it possible to understand in each the same “woman”? Nor, similarly, can one, with any kind of consistency, suppose in the same person, Eve, a plan of life to unfold simultaneously under the sign of victory (Gen. 3:15) and the sign of subjection to suffering and man (Gen. 3:16).

Rather, the point of departure for the logical development of this powerful and fruitful antithesis between Eve and Mary, noted by the earliest Fathers, such as St. Justin and St. Irenaeus, and commented upon down the centuries since, is the reality of that contrast between Eve and the “woman” of Genesis 3:15 (62).

The Roman Catechism (also known as The Catechism of the Council of Trent) draws out the Marian implications of verse 16:

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, as we have already said, any sense of pain (63).

With a genial intuition which can serve as a way of summarizing what we have just presented, Haymo of Halberstadt (+853) stated: “Just as she conceived without pleasure, so she gave birth without pain” (64).

The other major Old Testament prediction which sheds light on the mystery of the virgin birth is that of Isaiah 7:14 (65). I believe that John Saward is right in stating that “Isaiah prophesied that the Mother of Emmanuel would be a virgin not only in conceiving him in the womb (Ecce virgo concipiet) but also in bringing him forth from the womb (et virgo pariet, cf. Is 7:14)” (66).

With regard to the gospel witness, one should not be surprised that the Holy Spirit might continue to bring to light treasures once known to the saints, as well as those which can be acquired by pondering in one’s heart after the manner of the Virgin herself (cf. Lk 2:19, 51). In the light of the teaching of the Fathers, I find the reasoning of Ignace de la Potterie on the best translation of Luke 1:35b very cogent:

We discover, however, since the time of the Fathers up to the present, four different versions. One either makes “hagion” (holy) the subject and translates as Legrand does: “that is why the holy (child) who is to be born will be called Son of God”; or one makes of “hagios” an attribute of “will be,” as in the Jerusalem Bible and the lectionary: “And so the child will be holy and will be called Son of God”; or one also reads “holy” an attribute of “called”; this latter is the translation recently proposed by A. Médebielle in his article “Annunciation” in the Supplément au dictionnaire de la Bible: “This is why the one to be born will be called holy, Son of God.” These are the usual three translations. At the same time there is a fourth possibility which modern authors no longer think of, but which was very popular among the Fathers of the Church and during the Middle Ages. This reading, we think, is philologically the only one that is satisfactory; we then consider “holy,” not as a complement of “will be” (this word is not found in the Greek text), nor of “will be called”; “holy” is rather to be taken as the complement of “will be born.”

The word “holy,” in this instance, informs us about the manner in which the child will be born, that is to say in a “holy” manner. We therefore translate it so: “This is why the one who will be born holy will be called Son of God.” Here it is not a question of the future holiness of Jesus: that is totally outside of the perspective of the Annunciation and of the birth of the child. The child of Mary “will be born holy” in the levitical meaning: it is the birth of Jesus that will be “holy,” without blemish, intact, that is “pure” in the ritual sense. If we read the text in this way, we set up here a biblical argument favoring that which the theologians call “virginitas in partu,” the virginity of Mary while giving birth. The message of the angel to Mary contains then not only the announcement of the virginal conception, but also of the virginal birth of Jesus (67).

Father de la Potterie’s years of patient study have yielded other fruit in this area as well, especially his extensive analysis of John 1:13. Here I can only hope to indicate some of the major components of his argument, referring the interested reader to de la Potterie’s own exposition (68). In effect, what he proposes is that this controverted verse of the prologue to St. John’s Gospel should be translated thus:

He is not born of blood(s),
nor of the will of the flesh
nor of the will of man,
but he was begotten of God (69).

In defending this translation as a reference to the virginal conception and birth of Christ, the first major objection to be overcome is that the Greek manuscripts of St. John’s Gospel all give this text in the plural, as a reference to the children of God referred to in John 1.12: they “who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” Here is de la Potterie’s response:

Since the Greek manuscripts are fifty or one hundred years more recent, it is really too simple to want to relate to them, and ignore a period that precedes them. The reality is that all the texts from the second century witnessing to our passage have the singular. And in addition, it is interesting to notice that all these witnesses, when they are localized geographically, are not concentrated in one area, but are diffused all over the Mediterranean basin: in Asia Minor, most likely also in Palestine (Justin), at Rome (Hippolytus), in Gaul (Irenaeus), in Northern Africa (Tertullian), and at Alexandria in Egypt. That is a very important fact because it demonstrates that in the second century, during a time in which rapid means of communication did not yet exist, this text was universally read only in the singular. And this within one century of the composition of the fourth gospel.

We find that, for the first time, the plural form occurs only at the end of the second century; and these two or three witnesses are all concentrated at Alexandria in Egypt. One could conclude that the plural form took birth in this milieu, where the polemic battles with the Gnostics were in full force. …

Tertullian maintains then that the Valentinians have falsified the text of John 1:13 in order to be able, after the fact, to base their Gnostic doctrine of the rebirth of the “Spirituals” or “Perfect” on it.

But then, obviously the question arises: how did it happen that the singular original form was lost? This is not easy to answer because there are very few traces available. However, we believe—and this remains partially a hypothesis—that the reason for the change is above all to be looked for in the fact that the earliest Church Fathers, who were still reading the text in the singular, did not know how to explain the first of three negatives in verse 13: “non ex sanguinibus” (70).

In explaining the original sense of “non ex sanguinibus” de la Potterie has recourse to the doctoral thesis of Peter Hofrichter (71), who points out that

in several texts of the Old Testament, and later in the Jewish tradition, the word “blood” is also used in the plural for the loss of blood which is linked with a women’s period; that is with menstruation and childbirth, hence of a birth. The basic text for this is found in Leviticus 12:4-7 (72).

What conclusion can we make from this text for the interpretation of the first negation in verse 13 of the prologue: “not born of blood(s)”? In the context for the laws of purification it signifies that Jesus, in being born, did not cause an effusion of blood in his mother; in other words, at the birth of Jesus there would not have been any ritual impurity in his mother because in her there would not have taken place any shedding of blood. There would then be here a scriptural indication for what the theologians have in mind when they speak of the “virginitas in partu,” the virginity of the birthing of Jesus (73).

The author then goes on to cite the testimonies of Hippolytus, Ambrose, Jerome, John Damascene and Thomas Aquinas in support of his argumentation (74). Quite evidently, it is this thesis of Ignace de la Potterie which Pope John Paul II had in mind in his Marian catechesis of July 10, 1996:

This truth (of the virginal conception), according to a recent exegetical discovery, would be explicitly contained in verse 13 of the Prologue of John’s Gospel, which some ancient authoritative authors (for example, Irenaeus and Tertullian) present, not in the usual plural form, but in the singular: “He, who was born not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” This version in the singular would make the Johannine Prologue one of the major attestations of Jesus’ virginal conception, placed in the context of the mystery of the Incarnation (75).

It should simply be pointed out that Father de la Potterie’s “exegetical discovery” bears as much on the virginal birth as on the virginal conception, whereas the subject of the pope’s catechesis of July 10, 1996 was the conception.

The Allegorical Sense of Scripture

Constraint of space does not allow for an exposition of the Fathers on this subject. Here I wish simply to underscore that much of the patristic treatment of the virginal conception and birth of Christ is based on what the Catechism of the Catholic Church, following the tradition, calls the allegorical sense of Scripture (76). It is precisely the allegorical sense of Scripture which the Roman Catechism proposes with regard to our subject:

Since the mysteries of this admirable conception and nativity are so great and so numerous, it accorded with divine providence to signify them by many types and prophecies. Hence the Fathers of the Church understood many things which we meet in the Sacred Scriptures to relate to them, particularly that gate of the Sanctuary which Ezekiel saw closed (see Ezek 44:2). … Likewise the bush which Moses saw burn without being consumed (see Ex 3.2) (77).

It is by means of this allegorical sense, as John Saward tells us:

The Fathers find types of the virginity in partu in Ezekiel’s prophecy of the closed gate of the Temple (cf. Ezek 44:2) and in the “garden enclosed” and “fountain sealed up” of Solomon’s canticle (cf. Song 4:12). The reverence and modesty shown by the Fathers towards this beautiful mystery is in stark contrast with the prying crudeness of the heretics (78).

Suffice it here to quote the monumental reference by Pope St. Leo I to Our Lady’s virginity before, during, and after the birth of Christ: “It was decided by God’s almighty power that Mary should conceive as a virgin, give birth as a virgin, and remain a virgin” (79).

The Mystery of Mary’s Lifelong Virginity

This instinctive reverence and modesty of the Fathers of the Church regarding Our Lady’s virginity effectively led them to intuit her virginal union with Joseph. In his catechesis of August 28, 1996, Pope John Paul II enumerated four facts in support of the Church’s consistent belief in Mary’s virginity post partum. Here are the first two:

As regards her virginity after the birth, it must first of all be pointed out that there are no reasons for thinking that the will to remain a virgin, which Mary expressed at the moment of the Annunciation (cf. Lk 1:34) was then changed. Moreover, the immediate meaning of the words “Woman, behold your son!” “Behold your mother” (Jn 19:26), which Jesus addressed from the Cross to Mary and to his favorite disciple, imply that Mary had no other children (80).

Father Saward supports the second of the Pope’s arguments with this further affirmation:

One of the signs of the perpetual virginity of Our Lady in Scripture is our Lord’s entrusting of his Mother to the care of St. John. From Origen onwards, Catholic exegetes have argued that this shows that, after the death of Joseph, there was no one else within the immediate family to look after Mary, and that she therefore conceived no child but Jesus (81).

Here is it worth noting that Origen’s date of death is given as 253 (82) by Father Luigi Gambero, who also summarizes Origen’s teaching on Mary’s perpetual virginity (83).

The third fact to which the Pope pointed meets a common objection:

Those who deny her virginity after the birth thought they had found a convincing argument in the term “firstborn,” attributed to Jesus in the Gospel (Lk 2:7), almost as though this word implied that Mary had borne other children after Jesus. But the word “firstborn” literally means “a child not preceded by another” and, in itself, makes no reference to the existence of other children. Moreover, the evangelist stressed this characteristic of the child since certain obligations proper to Jewish law were linked to the birth of the first-born son, independently of whether the Mother might have given birth to other children. Thus, every only son was subject to these prescriptions because he was “begotten first” (cf. Lk 2:23) (84).

The fourth fact adduced by the Pope meets an even more common objection:

According to some, Mary’s virginity after the birth is denied by the Gospel texts which record the existence of four “brothers of Jesus”: James, Joseph, Simon and Judas (Mt 13:55-56; Mk 6:3) and of several sisters. It should be recalled that no specific term exists in Hebrew and Aramaic to express the word “cousin,” and that the terms “brother” and “sister” therefore included several degrees of relationship. The phrase “brothers of Jesus” indicates “the children” of a Mary who was a disciple of Christ (cf. Mt 27:56) and who is significantly described as “the other Mary” (Mt 28:1). “They are close relations of Jesus, according to an Old Testament expression” (CCC 500) (85).

It is, indeed, precisely the argument about the “brothers of Jesus” which has been most frequently invoked to argue against Mary’s perpetual virginity. Father Paul Haffner summarizes two major attacks on Mary’s virginity after the birth of Jesus that evoked responses which are now part of the Church’s doctrinal heritage:

During the decade between 383 and 392 it became necessary to defend the doctrine of Mary’s virginity post partum. The key antagonists in this struggle were primarily Helvidius and Bonosus. Helvidius did not make the tactical blunder of affirming that virginity is inferior to marriage and he did not appear to attack the Virgin Mary. He simply asserted that marriage and virginity are equal in honor, that Mary is doubly admirable for having been, in turn, virgin and mother of a family: virgin until the birth of Jesus, then mother of the brothers and sisters of Jesus spoken of is Scripture. St. Jerome defended the faith, and in the year 383 in his work Adversus Helvidium developed the thesis that virginity is superior to marriage; his key proof was that Mary would never have dreamed of relations with any man, no matter who. As witnesses to this doctrine, Jerome cited the Fathers Ignatius, Polycarp, Irenaeus, and Justin. For Jerome, the Lord’s brethren are children not of Mary but of her sister (86).

The other adversary, Bonosus, bishop of Naissus … proposed around the year 390 that Mary had had more than one child. St. Ambrose replied to this error. Adopting several Old Testament symbols of Mary’s perpetual virginity like the “closed gate” of Ezekiel, the “enclosed garden” and “sealed fountain” of the Song of Songs, he explained the New Testament texts misinterpreted by Bonosus (Mt 1:18-25). The brothers of Jesus are not children of Mary; they may have been Joseph’s. In any case, the term “brother” need not be interpreted in the literal modern sense of the word (87).

One of the principal reasons for convening the regional Council of Capua in 392 was to deal with the error of Bonosus. Mary’s perpetual virginity was reaffirmed and defended at this council, and it was precisely in commemoration of the sixteenth centenary of this council that the late Pope John Paul II visited Capua on May 24, 1992, and gave the discourse which I have frequently cited above. The interventions of Sts. Jerome and Ambrose proved definitive and eventually became part and parcel of the Church’s teaching on Mary’s perpetual virginity. Solemn form was given to this teaching at the Lateran Council held under Pope St. Martin I in 649, with the following canon:

If anyone does not, according to the holy Fathers, confess truly and properly that holy Mary, ever virgin and immaculate, is Mother of God, since this latter age she conceived in true reality without human seed from the Holy Spirit, God the Word himself, who before the ages was born of God the Father, and gave birth to him without corruption, her virginity remaining equally inviolate after the birth, let him be condemned (88).

This teaching has been consistently reiterated in successive magisterial declarations encapsulated in the phrase “Blessed Mary ever virgin,” (89) which we also recite in the Confiteor recited at Mass.

Concluding Considerations

Why is the Catholic Church’s teaching about Mary’s perpetual virginity important? First of all, it is important simply because it is the truth and, if received with reverence and faith, it will lead us to a deeper appreciation of the mystery of the Incarnation and the singular role which God assigned to the Mother of God. As the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council told us: “Having entered deeply into the history of salvation, Mary, in a way, unites in her person and re-echoes the most important doctrines of the faith” (90). The full truth about Mary provides an interpretive key to all Catholic doctrine. In his address at Capua, John Paul II insisted that the mystery of Mary’s perpetual virginity “primarily concerns the mysterium Christi and the mysterium Ecclesiae” (91). Inaccurate teaching about Our Lady’s virginity will have deleterious effects on the doctrine about Christ and the Church, whose model is Our Lady. History shows that denial of Our Lady’s perpetual virginity has not infrequently led to denial of the divinity of Christ, as Cardinal Newman pointed out. At Capua John Paul II made a particular point of linking “between the beginning and the end of Christ’s earthly life, that is, between his virginal conception and his Resurrection from the dead, two truths which are closely connected with faith in Jesus’ divinity” (92).

Secondly, and as a corollary of the above, our ever-deeper penetration into the mystery of Mary’s perpetual virginity will lead us to an ever-deeper veneration for her and, as the Fathers of the Council tell us: “When she is proclaimed and venerated, she prompts the faithful to come to her Son, to his sacrifice and to the love of the Father” (93). As John Paul II put it at Capua, genuine theological reflection on this truth of faith can become “a moment of doxology and latria” (94). Every truth about Mary is useful for leading us to Christ. Ad Iesum per Mariam.

Thirdly, our meditation on the mystery of Mary’s perpetual virginity can also lead us to a deeper appreciation of the profound meaning of virginity, of which she stands out as an eminent and singular exemplar (95). In his catechesis of August 7, 1996, Pope John Paul II beautifully drew out some of the most important implications:

In short, the choice of the virginal state is motivated by full adherence to Christ. This is particularly obvious in Mary. Although before the Annunciation she was not conscious of it, the Holy Spirit inspired her virginal consecration in view of Christ. Mary remained a virgin to welcome the Messiah and Savior with her whole being. The virginity begun in Mary thus reveals its own Christocentric dimension, essential also for virginity lived in the Church which finds its sublime model in the Mother of Christ. If her personal virginity, linked to the divine motherhood, remains an exceptional fact, it gives light and meaning to every gift of virginity.

How many young women in the Church’s history, as they contemplated the nobility and beauty of the virginal heart of the Lord’s Mother, have felt encouraged to respond generously to God’s call by embracing the ideal of virginity! “Precisely such virginity,” as I recalled in the Encyclical Redemptoris Mater, “after the example of the Virgin of Nazareth, is the source of a special spiritual fruitfulness: It is the source of motherhood in the Holy Spirit” (n. 43).

Mary’s virginal life inspires in the entire Christian people esteem for the gift of virginity and the desire that it should increase in the Church as a sign of God’s primacy over all reality and as a prophetic anticipation of the life to come (96).

At Capua the Pope offered a further clarification, insisting that Mary’s physical virginity (virginitas carnis) is a symbol of her virginity of heart (virginitas cordis):

The integrity of the doctrine requires that holy Mary’s virginitas cordis be highlighted with due emphasis. If, because of its symbolic values, virginitas carnis is important, the Mother of Jesus’ virginitas cordis is even more so. In her condition as a virgin she is the New Eve, the true Daughter of Zion, the perfect disciple, the consummate icon of the Church. Therefore, she fulfils in herself the ideal of perfect adherence to God’s plan, without compromise and without the defilement of falsehood or pride; the ideal of faithful fulfillment of the covenant, the violation of which on the part of Israel is compared to adultery by the prophets; the ideal of sincere acceptance of the Gospel message, in which the pure-hearted are called blest (cf. Mt 5:8) and virginity for the kingdom is extolled (cf. Mt 19:12); the ideal of rightly understanding the mystery of Christ—the Truth par excellence (cf. Jn 14:16)—and his doctrine, because of which the Church is also called virgin since she preserves the deposit of faith whole and incorrupt.

The Church has always taught that virginitas carnis has no value if falsehood and pride are nursed in the heart, if it lacks love (97).


(1) Heinrich Denzinger, S.I., Enchiridion Symbolorum Definitionum et Declarationum de Rebus Fidei et Morum: Edizione Bilingue (XXXVII) a cura di Peter Hünermann (Bologna: Edizioni Dehoniane, 2000) (=D-H ) 10-64; Jacques Dupuis, S.J. (ed.), The Christian Faith in the Doctrinal Documents of the Catholic Church, Originally Prepared by Josef Neuner, S.J., and Jacques Dupuis; Sixth Revised and Enlarged Edition (New York: Alba House, 1998) (=TCF) 2-11.

(2) D-H 150 (TCF 12).

(3) Catechism of the Catholic Church (= CCC) 499.

(4) John Saward, Cradle of Redeeming Love: The Theology of the Christmas Mystery (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2002) (=Saward) 14.

(5) Dei Verbum 8.

(6) CCC 66.

(7) Dei Verbum 10.

(8) These 70 discourses are available in English as Theotókos—Woman, Mother, Disciple: A Catechesis on Mary, Mother of God with a foreword by Eamon R. Carroll, O.Carm, S.T.D. (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 2000) (= MCat). The translation varies in only minor details from the translation provided in the English edition of L’Osservatore Romano (= ORE).

(9) Saward 47-48. Happily, the interested reader who would like to pursue the theological concept of mystery in greater depth may refer to the first chapter of Cradle of Redeeming Love where the author develops it in a masterly fashion and with particular reference to the mystery of the Incarnation (Saward 47-120).

(10) Acta Apostolicae Sedis (= AAS) 85 (1993) 664 (ORE 1244:13 (First number = cumulative edition number; second number = page).)

(11) Cf. Emmanuele Testa, O.F.M., Maria Terra Vergine, Vol. I: I rapporti della Madre di Dio con la SS. Trinità (Sec. I-IX) (Jerusalem: Franciscan Printing Press, 1984) 416-432. On St. Irenaeus’ treatment of Mary as the virgin earth for the New Adam, cf. François-Marie Léthel, O.C.D., Connaître l’amour du Christ qui surpasse toute connaissance: La Théologie des Saints (Venasque: Éditions du Carmel, 1989) 77-88.

(12) AAS 85 (1993) 663 (ORE 1244:13).

(13) Philip Boyce, O.C.D. (ed.), Mary: The Virgin Mary in the Life and Writings of John Henry Newman (Leominster, Herefordshire: Gracewing Publishing; Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001) (= Newman) 131-132.

(14) Newman 37. Cf. the strikingly similar comment made by Matthias Joseph Scheeben quoted in Saward 175.

(15) Insegnamenti di Giovanni Paolo II (= Inseg) XIX/2 (1996) 75 (ORE 1450:11; MCat 112).

(16) Cf. Salvatore M. Perrella, O.S.M., Maria Vergine e Madre. La verginità feconda di Maria tra fede, storia e teologia (Cinisello Balsamo: Edizione San Paolo, 2003) (= Perrella) 111-116. As Father Perrella points out on page 12, even though no cases of parthenogenesis can be adduced within the human species, if such were to be the case the sex of the one generated would have to be female. Dr. Catherine Brown Tkacz comes to the same conclusion in her article, “Reproductive Science and the Incarnation,” Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly 25 (Fall 2002) 17-19.

(17) Cf. Raymond E. Brown, S.S., The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. New Updated Edition (New York: Doubleday, 1993) (= Birth) 557-563.

(18) Cf. Perrella 108-110; Cf. Paul Haffner, The Mystery of Mary (Leominster, Herefordshire: Gracewing; Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 2004) (= Haffner) 139-140.

(19) Inseg XIX/2 (1996) 77 (ORE 1450:11; MCat 114).

(20) Cf. Haffner 26.

(21) Cf. Stefano De Fiores’ preface to Perrella, Maria Vergine e Madre 6-9.

(22) Inseg XIX/2 (1996) 76-77 (ORE 1450:11; MCat 114).

(23) Cf. De Fiores in Perrella, Maria Vergine e Madre 9-12: Brunero Gherardini, La Madre. Maria in una sintesi storico-teologica (Frigento (AV): Casa Mariana Editrice, 1989) (= Gherardini) 93-95.

(24) Raymond E. Brown, S.S., The Virginal Conception & Bodily Resurrection of Jesus (New York: Paulist Press, 1973) (= Virginal Conception) 66-76. He quoted that conclusion again in the appendix to his second edition of The Birth of the Messiah (p. 698) in the course of a further treatment of the “Historicity of the Virginal Conception” (pp. 698-708). I must humbly confess that that treatment baffles me as much as this statement in his earlier essay:

Please understand: I am not saying that there is no longer impressive evidence for the virginal conception—personally I think that it is far more impressive than many who deny the virginal conception will admit. Nor am I saying that the Catholic position is dependent on the impressiveness of the scientifically controllable evidence, for I have just mentioned the Catholic belief that the Holy Spirit can give to the Church a deeper perception than would be warranted by the evidence alone. I am simply asking whether for Catholics a modern evaluation of the evidence is irrelevant because the answer is already decided through past Church teaching. The very fact that theologians are discussing the limits of infallibility and how well the criteria for judging infallibility have been applied suggests that further investigation is not necessarily foreclosed (Virginal Conception, pp. 37-38).

(25) Similar to that of Francis A. Sullivan, S.J., who, while not directly denying Catholic dogma, was prepared to challenge its weight on the basis of his evaluation of how it was defined (On Father Sullivan’s work, cf. Perrella 52-55, 172, 217).

(26) While I appreciate the vast apparatus of Father Brown’s critical scholarship and the enormous accumulation of data which his publications have made available to the scholarly world, of which his monumental volume The Birth of the Messiah is an outstanding example, I cannot pass over his fundamental assumptions in silence precisely because of his towering influence in the world of biblical scholarship and his membership on the Pontifical Biblical Commission (Cf. John F. McCarthy, “The Pontifical Biblical Commission—Yesterday and Today,” Homiletic & Pastoral Review (January 2003) 8-13). His name, more than any other, is identified with the acclaimed collaborative assessment by Protestant and Roman Catholic scholars entitled Mary in the New Testament. While he was not its sole author, he was a principal participant, coordinator, discussion leader and editor, and, since the conclusions were always arrived at by the consensus of the participants, we may assume that he was in accord with the working hypotheses adopted. Here are some of them:

While we do not exclude the possibility and even the likelihood that some items of historical information about Jesus’ birth have come to Luke, we are not working with the hypothesis that he is giving us substantially the memoirs of Mary. Rather, the possibility that he constructed his narrative in the light of OT themes and stories will be stressed. …

Our contention, then, is that the Lucan Annunciation message is a reflection of the Christological language and formulas of the post-resurrectional church. To put it in another way, the angel’s words to Mary dramatize vividly what the church has said about Jesus after the Resurrection and about Jesus during his ministry after the baptism. Now this Christology has been carried back to Jesus at the very moment of conception in his mother’s womb. …

All of this means that (Lk) 1:32, 33, 35 are scarcely the explicit words of a Divine Revelation to Mary prior to Jesus’ birth; and hence one ought not to assume that Mary had explicit knowledge of Jesus as “the Son of God” during his lifetime. … We do not deny the possibility of a revelation to Mary at the conception of her son, but in the Lucan Annunciation we are hearing a revelation phrased in post-resurrectional language. …

Finally, in interpreting the virginal conception of Jesus as the begetting of God’s Son, we recognize that Luke is not talking about the incarnation of a pre-existent divine being (Raymond E. Brown, Karl P. Donfried, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, John Reumann (eds.), Mary in the New Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress Press; New York: Paulist Press, 1978) (= MNT) 11, 118-119, 122).

(27) For a critique of much of what has passed for ecumenism among Catholics in recent years cf. Brunero Gherardini, “Sulla Lettera Enciclica Ut Unum Sint di Papa Giovanni Paolo II,” Divinitas 40 (1997) 3-12; Una sola Fede—una sola Chiesa. La Chiesa Cattolica dinanz all’ecumensmo (Castelpetroso (IS): Casa Editrice Mariana, 2000).

(28) Saward 110.

(29) Saward 113.

(30) AAS 85 (1993) 664 (ORE 1244:13). For further reflection on the mystery of the virginal conception in terms of objections and reasons of fittingness, cf. Saward 184-206.

(31) AAS 85 (1993) 666-667 (ORE 1244:14).

(32) Cf. Dei Verbum 5. Cf. also the interesting discussion on this point in Vittorio Messori, Ipotesi su Maria: Fatti, indizi, enigmi (Milan: Edizioni Ares, 2005) (= Messori) 91-101, in which he asserts that the “Christian God proposes but does not impose, leaving always a margin of penumbra which permits denial and preserves man’s liberty (91).”

(33) D-H 533 (translation in Saward 187).

(34) Ignace de la Potterie, S.J., “‘Et voici que tu concevras en ton sein’ (Lc 1, 31): l’ange annonce à Marie sa conception virginale,” Marianum 61 (1999) (= “Et voici” ) 100.

(35) De la Potterie, “Et voice,” 101-102 (my trans.).

(36) De la Potterie, “Et voici” 101. Interestingly, Raymond Brown duly notes this terminology in Birth 145 (footnote 34) and 300 (footnote 11), but draws no conclusion.

(37) “Et voici” 102 (my trans.).

(38) “Et voici” 110 (my trans.).

(39) Inseg XIX/2 (1996) 103, 104 (ORE 1452:7; MCat 116, 117).

(40) Cf. Birth 298-309; MNT 114-126.

(41) Virgin of All Virgins: The Interpretation of Luke 1:34 (Rome: Doctoral Dissertation presentation to the Pontifical Biblical Commission, 1968).

(42) Cf. Ignace de la Potterie, S.J., Mary in the Mystery of the Covenant trans. by Bertrand Buby, S.M. (New York: Alba House, 1992) (= MMC) 17-20. Cf. also Ignace de la Potterie, S.J., “Kecharitoméne en Lc 1,28: Étude philologique,” Biblica 68 (1987) 357-382; “Kecharitoméne en Lc 1,28: Étude exégétique et théologique,” Biblica 68 (1987) 480-508; Ernesto della Corte, “Kecharitoméne (Lc 1, 28) Crux interpretum,” Marianum 52 (1990) 101-148.

(43) Inseg XIX/2 (1996) 105 (ORE 1452:7; MCat 118).

(44) Inseg XIX/2 (1996) 214-215 (ORE 1455:7; MCat 127-128).

(45) Cf. Birth 303-309; MNT 114-115. Manuel Miguens, O.F.M., considers the biblical evidence in responding to Raymond Brown’s provocative essay on “The Virginal Conception” in his The Virgin Birth: An Evaluation of Scriptural Evidence second edition (Boston: St. Paul Editions, 1981). It is only to be regretted that in the final section of the book he shows himself ready to accept a very “low” Christology.

(46) Inseg XIX/2 (1996) 215 (ORE 1455:7; MCat 128). It will be noted that in the above citations the Holy Father speaks of Mary’s intention of virginity, but not of an explicit “vow of virginity,” terminology used consistently in the Church’s great Tradition since St. Augustine. In his catechesis of August 7, 1996, however, the Holy Father pointed out that Our Lady’s intention became the inspiration for all subsequent consecrated virginity. Cf. Inseg XIX/2 (1996) 150-153 (ORE 1454:7; MCat 123-126). In consonance with the Tradition, I believe that a vow was not at all beyond the capacity of Our Lady and St. Joseph under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Cf. Haffner 138.

(47) CCC 499. Cf. Lumen Gentium 57 which likewise speaks of “the birth of Our Lord, who did not diminish his mother’s virginal integrity but sanctified it.”

(48) Nove nasci debebat novæ nativitatis dedicator. De Carne Christi 17, Corpus Christianorum Latinorum 2, 903.

(49) Cf. Saward 206-217; Haffner 150-156.

(50) Peter Damian Fehlner, Virgin Mother: The Great Sign (Washington, NJ: AMI Press, 1993) (= Fehlner) 1-2.

(51) Saward 206.

(52) Cf. Cardinal Leo Scheffczyk, Maria, Crocevia della Fede Cattolica trans. from German by Manfred Hauke (Lugano: Eupress, 2002) 88-90.

(53) Cf. Perrella 9, 204-205, 215-216; Fehlner 1-4.

(54) Cf. Ephemerides Mariologicæ 11 (1961) 137-138; René Laurentin, A Short Treatise on the Virgin Mary trans. Charles Neumann, S.M. (Washington, NJ: AMI Press, 1991) (= Treatise) 328-329. Cf. also the commentary in Fehlner 19-21.

(55) Cf. Fehlner 2-4; Perrella 204-218.

(56) “Virginitas in Partu,” Theological Investigations Vol. 4 (Baltimore: Helicon, 1966) 134-162. Cf. Haffner 157.

(57) Fehlner 6-20.

(58) Fehlner 21-22. Cf. D-H 503, 291, 294 (TCF 703, 609, 612); Patrologia Latina (= PL) 16, 320. Fehlner omits mention of a reference also made in this footnote to the Council of Chalcedon, Mansi 7, 462.

(59) AAS 85 (1993) 665 (ORE 1244:13).

(60) AAS 85 (1993) 554-665 (ORE 1244:13). In reflecting on this converging evidence (Cf. Perrella 222-226; Saward 237, 239-240) I cannot help but be struck by the juxtaposition of these same themes in the late Raymond E. Brown’s controversial essays published together under the title of The Virginal Conception & Bodily Resurrection of Jesus, which raise questions about these truths of faith. Quite evidently there is a profound link between these complimentary mysteries which touch the beginning and end of Christ’s earthly life. Those who treat them without “adoring reflection” and as expendable assumptions should not be surprised to arrive at a “shipwreck of the faith” (cf. 1 Tim. 2:19), or to lead others to it. Without any anathema, this is, nonetheless, the solemn warning of the Magisterium.

(61) Cf. the Pope John Paul II’s catechesis of January 24, 1996, Inseg XIX/1 (1996) 115-117 (ORE 1426:11; MCat 61-63).

(62) Stefano M. Manelli, F.I., All Generations Shall Call Me Blessed: Biblical Mariology, revised and enlarged second edition trans. by Peter Damian Fehlner, F.I. (New Bedford, MA: Academy of the Immaculate, 2005) (= Manelli) 26-27.

(63) Robert I. Bradley, S.J., and Eugene Kevane (eds.), The Roman Catechism (Boston, MA: St. Paul Editions, 1985) (= Roman Catechism) 50. Cf. also Treatise 64, 333, 338.

(64) Expositio in Apocalypsim 3, 12; PL 117:1081D-1082A (quoted in John Saward, The Way of the Lamb: The Spirit of Childhood and the End of the Age (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1999) 153 (footnote 9).

(65) Cf. Manelli 38-53.

(66) Saward 208. Cf. also Saward 210 (footnote 123); Manelli 44-50.

(67) MMC 31; cf. his entire treatment of this text in MMC 30-33 and also Saward 208.

(68) Cf. “Il parto verginale del Verbo incarnato: ‘Non ex sanguinibus … sed ex Deo natus est’ (Gv 1,13),” Marianum 45 (1983) 127-174; MMC 96-122.

(69) MMC 98; cf. also 96.

(70) MMC 99-101.

(71) Nicht aus Blut sondern monogen aus Gott geboren. Textkritische, dogmengeschichtliche und exegetische Untersuchung zu Joh 1, 13-14 (Würzburg: “Forschung zur Bible” 31, 1978).

(72) MMC 111.

(73) MMC 112.

(74) MMC 112-113. He cites even more authorities in his article “Il parto verginale del Verbo incarnato: ‘Non ex sanguinibus … sed ex Deo natus est’ (Gv 1,13),” Marianum 45 (1983) 153-158.

(75) Inseg XIX/2 (1996) 76 (ORE 1450:11; MCat 113).

(76) CCC 115-118.

(77) Roman Catechism 50.

(78) Saward 208. Cf. Saward passim 208-217. On Ezekiel 44:2, cf. Manelli 87-90.

(79) Sermo 22, 2; PL 54:195-196.

(80) Inseg XIX/2 (1996) 242 (ORE 1456:11; MCat 131).

(81) Saward 218.

(82) Luigi Gambero, S.M., Mary and the Fathers of the Church: The Blessed Virgin Mary in Patristic Thought, trans. Thomas Buffer (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999) (= Gambero) 71.

(83) Cf. Gambero 75-77.

(84) Inseg XIX/2 (1996) 242-243 (ORE 1456:11; MCat 131-132). Cf. Saward 224-225.

(85) Inseg XIX/2 (1996) 243 (ORE 1456:11; MCat 132). Cf. Saward 225-227.

(86) Haffner 161. For important texts from St. Jerome on this argument, cf. Gambero 205-212.

(87) Haffner 162. For major texts of St. Ambrose on this topic, cf. Gambero 190-193, 199-202.

(88) D-H 503 (TCF 703).

(89) Cf. the Second Council of Constantinople: D-H 422 (TCF 620/2); the Fourth Lateran Council: D-H 801 (TCF 20); the Second Council of Lyons: D-H 852 (TCF 23). Unfortunately there are still those who continue in various ways to undermine the Church’s perennial teaching on Mary’s perpetual virginity, like Monsignor John P. Meier who, in his book Jesus: A Marginal Jew, states:

Nevertheless, if—prescinding from the faith and later Church teaching—the historian or exegete is asked to render a judgment on the NT and patristic texts we have examined, viewed simply as historical sources, the most probable opinion is that the brothers and sisters of Jesus were true siblings (John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Volume One: The Roots of the Problem and the Person (New York: Doubleday, 1991) 331. This text is cited in Messori 508-509, but his entire last chapter is devoted to the question of the “brothers of Jesus,” which is remarkably well-handled; cf. Messori 507-528).

My first comment regards the patristic evidence. Tertullian did hold that the brothers of Jesus were born to Mary and Joseph after the birth of Jesus (Cf. Gambero 62-66), but his position was a minority position which did not prevail in the face of ongoing dogmatic development under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. As Father Haffner tells us, St. Hilary of Poitiers (+367), even before Sts. Jerome and Ambrose, “marked an important watershed in rejecting the errors of those who held that Mary had marital relations with Joseph after Jesus’ birth; for Hilary these are ‘irreligious individuals, utterly divorced from spiritual teaching’” (Haffner 160; cf. Gambero 184-185).

But, even more importantly, one must question the mentality which believes it possible to “prescind” from the faith and the Magisterium in order to render an opinion that those referred to as brothers and sisters of Jesus were other children of Mary. Here we may detect the same mindset of the late Raymond Brown, who wished effectively to distinguish between the faith and teaching of the Church and the “scientifically controllable evidence.” I submit that this approach is not acceptable for a Catholic theologian because it implies that the faith may be at odds with what is “scientifically controllable,” whereas in fact one is dealing here with the pseudo-science of Bultmann and his disciples. Further, such a position flies directly in the face of the guidelines which Pope John Paul II outlined at Capua regarding the theologian’s task vis-à-vis the Church’s teaching on Mary’s perpetual virginity.

(90) Lumen Gentium 65.

(91) AAS 85 (1993) 669 (ORE 1244:14).

(92) AAS 85 (1993) 665 (ORE 1244:13).

(93) Lumen Gentium 65.

(94) AAS 85 (1993) 664 (ORE 1244:13).

(95) Lumen Gentium 63.

(96) Inseg XIX/2 (1996) 152 (ORE 1454:7: MCat 125).

(97) AAS 85 (1993) 668-669 (ORE 1244:14).