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Mary’s Virginity During the Birth of Jesus: The Catholic Church’s Perennial Tradition

Updated: May 29, 2020

Unfortunately, there has been some recent confusion about the dogmatic teaching of Mary’s Virginity during the birth of Jesus, one of the three essential aspects of Our Lady’s Virginity, which was defined by Pope St. Martin I in 649 at the First Lateran Council. This second Marian Dogma, Our Lady’s Virginity before, during , and after the birth of Jesus, has always included the traditional patristic and magisterial understanding that Mary gave “miraculous birth” to Jesus (in the words of Pope Pius XII, Mystici Corporis, 1943), without any violation to her physical, external virginity. As the Fathers of the Church explained, as “light passes through glass without harming the glass”, so Jesus was born with Mary’s Virginity “in tact”, that is with the preservation of her physical virginity, so that the Perfect Virgin would be an example of Christian virginity, in heart and in body, for all later Christians called to the special vocation of Christian virginity.

As a recent discussion against the traditional and magisterial teaching of Mary’s Virginity during the Birth has recently surfaced in the Catholic Answers publication (cf. June, 2012, Sept/October 2012), we are publishing the following article by Msgr. Arthur Calkins, for over 20 years an official of the Vatican’s Ecclesia Dei, which, although originally written in response to previous erroneous statements against the Virginitas in PartuTraditional teaching, responds to many of the same objections raised by the more recent rejection of the Traditional teaching in the Catholic Answers articles (see article below).

The author, Fr. Ryland, (a truly wonderful and gifted priest as well as a cherished personal friend), seems to suggest that if Mary did not give natural birth to Jesus, that somehow this would violate an essential part of the Incarnation. Not only does this private position run contrary to the consensus Catholic patristic and magisterial tradition, which has the ultimate respect and illumination about the Incarnation and its redemptive qualities and parameters, but the author also fails to refer to the overriding Patristic Tradition and specific papal and magisterial references to the contrary, for example: the statement of Pope Pius XII as to the “Miraculous birth” (MC); the Tome of Pope St. Leo to Flavian: “Mary brought him forth with her virginity untouched…”; The Catechism of the Council of Trent, that Mary gave birth “without experiencing…any sense of pain” (RC 50); and the Church’s Liturgy, which states, “She who had given him birth without the pains of childbirth…”(BVM Collection of Masses, p. 117).

If the second part of defined doctrine does not refer to Mary’s physical virginity, why else would Pope St. Martin I specify her virginity during the birth? Surely it was not to guarantee that Mary was not experiencing any form of intercourse during the birth itself, a totally absurd, disrespectful, and absolutely unnecessary specification within the dogma. No, it was precisely to specify what Bl. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body makes clear: “the body expresses the person”. Mary’s Physical Virginity is a bodily expression of her perfect, interior virginity, in complete respect of the mystery of the Incarnation, and with the awareness that when one woman is to be both perfect Virgin and perfect Mother in relation to the one time historical event and mystery of the Word becoming Flesh, we have to expect exceptions.

– Dr. Mark Miravalle, Editor

In her interesting article “Reproductive Science and the Incarnation” (Fellowship of Catholic Scholars QuarterlyVol. 25, No. 4, Fall 2002, 11-25) Dr. Catherine Brown Tkacz offers a number of interesting correlations between the discoveries of reproductive science and the Church’s belief in the mystery of the Incarnation. Just as the Holy Spirit has continued to bring forth deeper insights into the meaning of this mystery (cf. Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation Dei Verbum, #8), so also the data of biological science, evaluated in the light of Scripture and Tradition, can help us to marvel at the inexhaustible richness of the mystery. The point is, of course, that the mystery can never be simply explained either by theology or by modern science. At the end of her essay Dr. Tkacz appropriately comments that “the mystery of Jesus’ Incarnation remains ineluctable and eternal” (p. 22).

Without taking away from the valuable insights which her article provides, I would nonetheless take issue with Dr. Tkacz’s treatment of Mary’s virginity in giving birth to Christ (commonly referred to as the virginitas in partu) on p. 21 and in endnotes #76 and #78 on p. 25. It must be admitted that the datum of the faith that Mary gave birth as a virgin, unfortunately, receives virtually no attention in contemporary catechesis or preaching.

Indeed, who can remember having heard of the “virgin birth” of Jesus, and not of his “virginal conception” or of his Mother’s “life-long virginity,” in a homily in the last forty years?

I. Datum of the Tradition

The fact is that the mystery of Mary’s virginity in giving birth to the Savior was preached and taught consistently by the Fathers and Doctors of the Church. One finds beautiful expositions of it in the homilies and catecheses of St. Gregory of Nyssa (+ c. 394), (1) St. Ambrose (+ 397), (2) St. John Chrysostom (+ 407), (3) St. Proclus of Constantinople (+ 446), (4) Theodotus of Ancyra (+ before 446), (5) St. Peter Chrysologus (+ 450), (6) Pope St. Leo the Great (+ 461), (7) Severus of Antioch (+ 538), (8) St. Romanos the Melodist (+ c. 560), (9) St. Venantius Fortunatus (+ c. 600), (10) and Pope St. Gregory the Great (+ 604) (11).

This preaching and teaching was not a mere matter of pious fantasizing, but rather it was a careful “handing on” of what had been received. The miraculous birth of Jesus in time was seen as a reflection of the mystery of his eternal generation by the Father. (12) As with all of the most important data which touched on the person of the Son of God, it became progressively clarified by the magisterium. Already during the pontificate of Pope St. Siricius (384-399) this matter was dealt with in the Plenary Council of Capua (392) and in the Synods of Rome and Milan in 393 (13) with St. Ambrose’s teaching on Mary’s “incorruption” in giving birth emerging as authoritative. (14)

In his De institutione virginum St. Ambrose introduced this mystery by quoting the beginning of the forty-fourth chapter of Ezekiel:

“Then he brought me back to the outer gate of the sanctuary, facing the east; but it was closed. He said to me: ‘This gate is to remain closed; it is not to be opened for anyone to enter by it; since the Lord, the God of Israel, has entered by it, it shall remain closed.'” … Who is this gate, if not Mary? Is it not closed because she is a virgin? Mary is the gate through which Christ entered this world, when he was brought forth in the virginal birth and the manner of His birth did not break the seals of virginity (quando virginali fusus est partu, et genitalia virginitatis claustra non solvit). (15) … There is a gate of the womb, although it is not always closed; indeed only one was able to remain closed, that through which the One born of the Virgin came forth without the loss of genital intactness (per quam sine dispendio claustrorum genitalium virginis partus exivit). (16)

St. Ambrose’ defense of the “virgin birth,” especially in this treatise, is so definitive that those who have subsequently sought to “re-interpret” the doctrine in the light of the criticism of Dr. Albert Mitterer (17) have found it necessary to take him on. (18)

II. The Magisterium

In 649 the Roman Synod which convened at the Lateran, whose teaching was approved as authoritative by Pope St. Martin I, anathematized anyone who would deny that Mary “gave birth to (God the Word) without corruption.” (19) In his Constitution Cum quorumdam hominum condemning the errors of Unitarianism Pope Paul IV admonished all those who deny that the Blessed Virgin Mary “did not retain her virginity intact before the birth, in the birth, and perpetually after the birth.” (20) The Roman Catechism also known as The Catechism of the Council of Trent followed suit with this clear teaching:

For in a way wonderful beyond expression or conception, he 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, as we have already said, any sense of pain. (21)

The Second Vatican Council presented this mystery succinctly by speaking of “the birth of Our Lord, who did not diminish his mother’s virginal integrity but sanctified it” (22) and the Catechism of the Catholic Churchrepeats that statement after clarifying 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. (23)

Those who would say that these recent professions of the mystery are minimal and non-binding need only examine the footnotes appended to each of them to discover that they are based on previous major declarations of the magisterium which have been considered definitive since the Patristic era. The text of Lumen Gentium cites the Lateran Synod of 649, the Tome of St. Leo the Great to Flavian (24) and the De institutione virginum of St. Ambrose. The Catechism gives two citations to the Tome to Flavian, (25) as well as citing the Second Council of Constantinople, (26) the Letter of Pope Pelagius I to Childebertus, (27) the Lateran Synod of 649, the Profession of Faith of the Synod of Toledo of 693 (28) and Pope Paul IV’s Constitution Cum quorumdam hominum.

III. Dr. Tkacz’ Comments

A. The Miraculous Nature of Christ’s Birth

Now back to Dr. Tkacz. She states that:

He (Christ) chose to traverse the birth canal. … He passed through her (Mary’s) cervix. Its strength had kept him securely in the uterus throughout gestation and now it widened to deliver him to wider life. He passed through the vagina, the organ with which every wife knows her husband. Jesus emerged through the labia, the vulva (21).

The good doctor reports as if she were an eye-witness, precisely on the assumption that there was nothing miraculous in the birth process of the Son of God. On the other hand Father Peter Damian Fehlner makes this very trenchant comment:

But on this question, viz. whether the virginity of our Lady in childbirth involves miraculous elements distinct from the virginal conception, there is an even more basic consideration. The Church has always insisted on this, antecedently to any theological reflection on the point. Belief precedes analysis; indeed sets very severe limits on our intellectual curiosity about the details of this singular birth. (29)

In this he is in fact echoing a major address which Pope John Paul II gave on 24 May, 1992, in Capua where he had gone to address a Mariological Congress organized to commemorate the 16th Centenary of the Plenary Council of Capua which had dealt specifically with Mary’s virginity in childbirth. On that occasion the Pope stated:

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. …