Our Lady’s Lifelong Virginity

The Fifth Ecumenical Council, Constantinople II (553), calls our Lady aeiparthenos, semper virgo, “ever-virgin,” the title with which she is acclaimed in the liturgies of both East and West. (1) According to the teaching of the Church, after conceiving and giving birth as a virgin, the Mother of God remained for ever a virgin. Her marriage to St. Joseph was a true one, endowed with all the goods of marriage, but it was never consummated. She and her spouse most chaste lived together in perfect and perpetual continence. The so-called brethren of the Lord mentioned in the Gospels are, therefore, not the physical children of Mary and Joseph but close relatives from the extended family. In the early centuries, the perpetual virginity of our Lady was denied by such heretics as Jovinian, Helvidius and the so-called Antidicomarianites and defended with chivalrous zeal by, among others, St. Ambrose, St. Jerome and St. Augustine. In 1555 Pope Paul IV condemned the denial of the perpetual virginity by rationalistic Protestants. (2)

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. (3) In the Tradition of the Church, from the earliest days, our Lady has been called “theVirgin,” suggesting that virginity was her defining attribute and permanent state. At the beginning of the second century, St. Ignatius of Antioch presents the virginity of Mary as an indispensable truth of the Faith, a deep mystery that eludes the grasp of the devil’s mind, “to be cried aloud” but “hidden from the prince of this world.” (4)

The Fathers and Doctors are agreed that our Lady’s words at the Annunciation—”How shall this be done, because I know not man?” (cf. Lk 1:34)—signify that, before the arrival of the angel, she has already resolved to remain a virgin throughout her life. (5) Many authors believe this resolution to have been, from the beginning, a formal and absolute vow of virginity. St. Thomas takes a slightly different view. In the Old Law, he says, both men and women were required to get married and have children, because the worship of the true God was to be spread through the physical increase of God’s people. For this reason, before her betrothal to Joseph, Mary did not vow virginity absolutely, but she did desire it, and vowed it conditionally, the condition being, “If it be pleasing to God.” After it had been made known to her that it was pleasing to God, (6) and before the Annunciation, she and St. Joseph together made the vow absolutely. (7)

In the Old Testament, lifelong virginity was not generally esteemed as a religious state of life. The vocation of the righteous Israelite, man or woman, was to marry and to have a large family, in order to swell the numbers of the chosen people. Faced with dying without marriage and offspring, Jephthah’s unmarried daughter bewails her virginity (cf. Judg 11:38). Now both before and during the earthly lifetime of our Lord, there were signs of a more positive attitude towards virginity as a religious state. The great prophets of the desert, Elijah and St. John the Baptist, were unmarried, and in the mysterious Essenes and Therapeutae we find whole communities devoted to prayer and asceticism. (8) However, Pope John Paul II insisted that we must not interpret our Lady’s desire or vow of virginity in this merely sociological way:

The unique privilege of the Immaculate Conception influenced 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 that same Holy Spirit who, in the course of the Church’s history, would spur many women to the way of virginal consecration…. Filled with the Lord’s exceptional gifts from the beginning of her life, she was oriented to a total gift of self—body and soul—to God, in the offering of herself as a virgin. (9)

The Pope suggested that our Lady accepted motherhood with the same divinely infused bridal love with which she desired virginity:

Mary accepted her election as Mother of the Son of God, guided by spousal love, the love that totally consecrates a human being to God. By virtue of this love, Mary wished to be always and in all things “given to God” (Deo donata), living in virginity.

The words “Behold the handmaid of the Lord” express the fact that from the outset she accepted and understood her own motherhood as a total gift of self, a gift of her person to the service of the saving plans of the Most High. And to the very end she lived her entire maternal sharing in the life of Jesus Christ, her Son, in a way that matched her vocation to virginity. (10)