The second dogma regarding the Blessed Virgin is the dogma of Mary’s Perpetual Virginity. This defined truth received generally unanimous acceptance among the early Church Fathers and was confirmed by papal and conciliar definitions.
The dogma of Mary’s Perpetual Virginity proclaims that the Blessed Virgin Mary was always a virgin, before, during, and after the birth of Jesus Christ. This threefold character of Mary’s virginity was declared in the definition of Pope St. Martin I at the Lateran Synod in 649 A.D., where he pronounced as an article of faith that:
The blessed ever-virginal and immaculate Mary conceived, without seed, by the Holy Spirit, and without loss of integrity brought Him forth, and after His birth preserved her virginity inviolate. (1)
Virginity Before the Birth of Jesus
Mary’s virginity before the birth of Jesus is explicitly revealed in Sacred Scripture. The prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 states: “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign. Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel.” Although the Hebrew word for “virgin” can also be translated “maiden,” the Old Testament use of maiden was likewise in a virginal context. Moreover, the New Testament fulfillment of the prophecy confirms inerrantly that indeed a virgin conceives and bears the redeeming “Emmanuel” or “God with us.” The Gospel of St. Luke tell us, “the Angel Gabriel was sent from God… to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary” (Lk 1:26-27). In the dialogue between the Angel Gabriel and Mary, we have a further confirmation of Mary’s virginity as Gabriel announces: “You will conceive in your womb and bear a Son” (Lk 1:31). Mary responds: “How will this be since I know not man?” (Lk 1:34). To “know” in this scriptural context is a reference to sexual relations.
The Archangel Gabriel responds: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Lk 1:35). The dialogue between Mary and Gabriel manifests both the virginity of Mary and the conception of Jesus in Mary’s womb by the miraculous overshadowing of the Holy Spirit.
The Apostles’ Creed professes Mary’s virginity before the birth of Jesus when it states that Jesus Christ “was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.” The early Fathers of the Church unanimously expressed their belief that Jesus had no human father and was conceived in Mary in a virginal and miraculous manner by the power of the Holy Spirit. The virginity before the birth was taught by St. Ignatius of Antioch (d.107), St. Justin the Martyr (d.165), St. Irenaeus of Lyon (d.202), and on and on, down the line of the early Church Fathers and continuing in the Church’s Tradition.
Virginity During the Birth of Jesus
The second aspect of this dogma refers to Mary’s physical virginity during the birth of Our Lord, Jesus Christ. Here we can take a more specific look into what the virginal birth of Jesus truly means.
The papal definition of Mary’s continued virginity during the birth of Christ refers to the event that at the appointed time of birth, Jesus left the womb of Mary without the loss of Mary’s physical virginity. The Church understands Mary’s virginity during the birth of Christ as an absence of any physical injury or violation to Mary’s virginal seal (in Latin, virginitas in partu) through a special divine action of the all-powerful God. This divine act would safeguard Mary’s physical virginity which is both symbol and part of her perfect, overall virginity; a virginity both internal and external, of soul and of body.
The Fathers of the Church overwhelmingly taught the “miraculous birth” of Jesus that resulted in no injury to the Blessed Virgin Mary’s physical integrity. St. Augustine stated: “It is not right that He who came to heal corruption should by His advent violate integrity.” (2) Later, St. Thomas Aquinas would defend the miraculous and painless (3) nature of Christ’s birth. (4) As light passes through glass without harming it, so too did Jesus pass through the womb of Mary without the opening of Mary’s womb and without any harm to the physical virginal seal of the Virgin, who was pure and the perfect tabernacle of the unborn Christ. (5)
Scripture implicitly affirms Mary’s virgin birthing of Our Lord in the great prophecy of Isaiah 7:14. The prophecy foretells that a virgin, beyond conceiving, will also bear a Son as a virgin: “Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son.” Therefore, it is not only a virgin’s conception, but also a virgin birth alluded to in Isaiah 7:14. Also, the papal proclamation of Pope St. Leo the Great in his famous Tome to Flavian makes clear that Mary’s physical virginity was protected in the process of the miraculous birth of Jesus Christ: “Mary brought Him forth, with her virginity untouched, as with her virginity untouched she conceived Him.” (6)
In his Papal Constitution, Cum quorumdam hominum (August 7, 1555), 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.” (7) The Catechism of the Council of Trent continued the succession of papal and conciliar teaching with this clear exposition of how Jesus is born without any injuring of Our Lady’s maternal virginity and without any experience of pain:
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. (8)
From the Magisterium, Pope Pius XII in his 1943 encyclical on the Mystical Body of Jesus testifies to the miraculous birth of Jesus: “It was she who gave miraculous birth to Christ our Lord.” (9) The Second Vatican Council confirms Mary’s virginity both before and during Jesus’ birth in these words:
This union of the mother with the Son in the work of salvation is made manifest from the time of Christ’s virginal conception…then also at the birth of our Lord, who did not diminish his mother’s virginal integrity but sanctified it… (Lumen Gentium, No. 57).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church repeats 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.” (10)
Virginity After the Birth of Jesus
Lastly, we examine Mary’s virginity after the birth of Jesus. This third aspect of Mary’s complete and perpetual virginity proclaims that Mary remained a virgin until the end of her earthly life, having no marital relations after Jesus’ birth, nor having any other children besides Jesus.
This element of the dogma of Mary’s virginity is deeply rooted in Church Tradition and was vigorously defended by the Church Fathers (for example, St. Ephraem, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, St. Jerome) (11) whenever early heretical sects denied it. It was explicitly taught with papal authority by Pope St. Siricius in 392 A.D., (12) by St. Leo the Great who said: “It was decided by God’s almighty power that Mary should conceive as a virgin, give birth as a virgin, and remain a virgin,” (13) and, as already mentioned, Pope Paul IV who rebuked anyone who would deny that the Blessed Virgin Mary “did not retain her virginity intact before the birth, in the birth, and perpetually after the birth.” (14) The Fifth General Council at Constantinople (Constantinople II) in 553 A.D. further granted the Mother of Jesus the title, “Perpetual Virgin.” (15)
Mary is also honored in the liturgy and in many documents of the Magisterium under the title of the “ever virgin Mother of God.” The Second Vatican Council continues this tradition where the Council refers to Mary as the “glorious ever Virgin Mary” (Lumen Gentium, No. 52).
An implicit reference to Mary’s virginity after birth can be found in Mary’s response to the Angel Gabriel: “How will this be since I know not man?” (Lk 1:34). Many Church Fathers understood Mary’s response to refer to a vow of perpetual virginity that she had already made, and in which she had offered herself as a complete gift to God. Mary’s response of “I know not man” would be comparable to someone today who responds to an invitation to a cigarette with the expression, “I do not smoke.” Not only does the person not desire to smoke now, but he does not smoke as a permanent disposition (inclusive of his intention not to smoke in the future). In the same way, the Virgin of Nazareth states, “I know not man,” referring to a permanent disposition of virginity, rather than just a temporary condition, which is based upon a permanent vow. Certainly such a vow to God would be continued on Mary’s part after the miraculous intervention of God to safeguard her virginity both before the birth of Christ and during the birth of Christ had been accomplished. (16)
As with Mary’s virginity before and during the birth of Christ, the Fathers powerfully defended the truth that Mary remained forever a virgin. Shining lights of the Church such as St. Augustine, St. Ambrose, St. Ephraem, St. Jerome, St. John Chrysostom, and St. Cyril of Alexandria, among many others, taught the fact of Mary’s perpetual virginity. (17) For anyone to deny this in the early Church was considered serious heresy. In fact, historically Mary’s perpetual virginity was denied only by those who also denied the divinity of Christ, including the Ebionites, Arians, and, more recently, rationalists of all sorts. (18)
Even the Protestant reformers taught the perpetual virginity of Mary. Martin Luther stated that “Mary realized she was the mother of the Son of God, and she did not desire to become the mother of the son of man, but to remain in this divine gift.” John Calvin, John Wesley and Ulrich Zwingli all agreed with him. (19)
Why was it appropriate that Mary should remain virginal after the birth of Our Lord? Clearly, it is in no way intended to infer that marital relations between people in sanctifying grace is not a good and meritorious act. Rather, there are several positive theological reasons why Mary should have remained and did remain virginal after the birth of Christ.
St. Thomas Aquinas explains that Jesus as God was the only-begotten Son of the Father, an only-begotten Son of such unfathomable dignity as God the Son. When Jesus became man, he likewise deserved to be an “only-begotten” Son of his human Mother. The singular nature refers to Christ’s special dignity as the God-man. Also, the virginal womb of Mary is the shrine of the Holy Spirit, and a human conception following the miraculous conception by the Holy Spirit would not respect its sacred and unique seed of precedence. St. Thomas adds that it would be unthinkable that Mary, after her miraculous virginal conception and her miraculous virginal birth, would forfeit her God-protected gift of virginity after the birth of Jesus. (20)
Mary was to be for all ages the perfect example of Christian discipleship in a complete gift of self to God, as well as a perfect model of the Church, which is both a virgin and a mother. Mary’s virginity would need to be preserved in imitation of the virginity of Jesus himself, and as a perfect example to later disciples of the Church that holy virginity is the highest objective vocational gift of self to God.
But again, Mary’s Perpetual Virginity possesses its greatest importance because it safeguards and respects the unprecedented and incomparably sacred event of God becoming man, “born of a woman” (Gal 4:4). Mary, therefore, did not have marital relations or other children to safeguard the uniqueness of the first Child.
The principal objection to Mary’s Perpetual Virginity is the scriptural references to the “brethren of the Lord” (cf. Mt 12:46ff, 13:55, Mk3:31ff, etc.) The Greek word for brother, “adelphos,” is often used in the Bible to mean cousin, close relative, or even “kinsman,” someone from one’s home town or village. There are, in fact, several instances in Sacred Scripture where “adelphos,” or its Hebrew parallel term “ah,” is used, and in a context where it cannot denote a blood brother relationship. For example, Lot and Abraham are referred to as “brothers” in Genesis 13:8, but a few verses earlier it is revealed that their relationship is actually one of cousins (cf. Gen 12:5). A similar parallel is evident when Jacob and Laban are called “brothers” (Gen 29:15), but they are actually uncle and nephew (cf. Gen 29:10). Certainly the one hundred and twenty “brothers” mentioned in Acts 1:15 did not all have the same
Moreover, had the Blessed Virgin had other children, Jesus would not have entrusted her to John at the foot of the cross (cf. Jn 19:26-27)—he would have given her into the care of her other sons or daughters, according to Jewish custom, and not to someone outside the family.
The term “brethren” of Jesus in the New Testament would thereby refer to his cousins, his near relatives, and possibly his close followers or his disciples, as Christians today still refer to each other as “brothers and sisters” in the Lord.
Another objection to Mary’s Perpetual Virginity is based on the reference to Christ as the “first-born” son of Mary (Lk 2:7). It has been argued that this must mean Mary had other children after Jesus. The term first-born, however, does not necessarily mean that other children must have followed the first-born. For every first child born to parents is a “first-born” child, regardless of whether other children follow or not. As St. Jerome stated: “Every only child is a first-born child, but not every first-born is an only child.” (21)
Finally, some would argue that if the marriage between Mary and Joseph was never consummated, then it would not have been a true marriage or would have been unnatural. However, the essence of the marriage bond between husband and wife is their complete and unconditional gift of self and union of heart, of which the physical union is a concrete sign. If for a good and holy reason husband and wife should choose to refrain from relations, either for a time or permanently (under exceptional circumstances), this would not invalidate a marriage or affect its true bond, which is rooted not in the physical but in the spiritual union of the spouses.
There are numerous examples in Scripture where God asks married couples to renounce relations. In the Old Testament we have Moses requesting continence from the Israelites in preparation for the arrival of God (Ex 19:15). The levitical priests were commanded by God to abstain during the time when they exercised their duties in the temple, and David and his men were only allowed to eat of the holy bread if they had been abstaining from women (1 Sam 21:5). In the New Testament, St. Paul also writes that on occasion abstinence could be helpful in aiding us in our prayer life (1 Cor 7:5). In all of these examples, we have present the theme of refraining from the marital act because of the presence of that which is holy or sacred. Again, there is nothing wrong and much beautiful in itself with the physical love of spouses expressed for one another, but these scriptural examples show that when men and women are near to God and what he is sanctified, it can also be appropriate for them to respond by giving of themselves directly and undividedly to God. If in these cases it was fitting that men and women should remain abstinent, it can hardly be surprising that present before the great miracle of the Incarnation, Mary and Joseph chose to
remain permanently virginal as well. (22)
This article was excerpted from Introduction to Mary: The Heart of Marian Doctrine and Devotion, Queenship, Third Edition, June 2006.
(1) DS 256.
(2) St. Augustine, Serm. 189, No.2; PL 38, 1005.
(3) Furthermore, it follows that Mary’s birth of Jesus would be a painless experience, since pain in childbirth is a punitive effect of original sin (cf. Gen 3:15). Mary, being free from the penalty of original sin due to her Immaculate Conception, would likewise be free from the penalty of a painful process of childbirth.
(4) St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, III, Q. 28, a. 2.
(5) Cf. Carol, Fundamentals, p, 147; Carol, “Mary’s Virginity in Partu,” Homiletic and Pastoral Review, 54, 1954.
(6) Pope St. Leo, Enchiridion Patristicum (EP) 2182.
(7) DS 1880; Jacques Dupuis, ed., The Christian Faith in the Doctrinal Documents of the
Catholic Church, sixth revised and enlarged edition, Alba House, 1998, No. 707.
(8) Robert I. Bradley, S.J. and Eugene Kevane, eds., The Roman Catechism, St. Paul Editions, 1985, 49-50.
(9) Pius XII, Encyclical Mystici Corporis, June 29, 1943, No. 110; Acta Apostolicae Sedis (AAS)35, 1943.
(10) Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 499.
(11) Cf. St. Ephraem, Explanatio evangelii concordantis, cap. 2, No. 6, cap. 5, No. 7, cap. 2, No. 11; Burghart, “Mary in Eastern Patristic Thought,” Mariology, II, pp. 114-115; St. Ambrose, De inst. Virg et S. Mariae virginitate perpetua; St. Jerome, De perpetua virginitate B. Mariae adv. Helvidium; St. Augustine, De haeresibus 56, 84; Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, p. 207.
(12) DS 91; cf. Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, p. 206.
(13) Pope St. Leo, Sermo 22, 2; PL 54, 195-196.
(14) DS 1880; Dupuis, The Christian Faith in the Doctrinal Documents of the Catholic Church No. 707.
(15) DS 214, 218, 227; cf. Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, p. 206.
(16) Cf. Collins, S.J., “Our Lady’s Vow of Virginity,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 5, 1943.
(17) Cf. Arthur B. Calkins, “The Virginitas in Partu,” Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Winter 2003) 10-13.
(18) Cf. Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, pp. 204.
(19) Martin Luther, Wiemar edition of Martin Luther’s Works, trans. William J. Cole, 11, p. 320; John Calvin, cf. Bernard Leeming, “Protestants and Our Lady,” Marian Library Studies, January 1967, p. 9; John Wesley, Letter to a Roman Catholic; Ulrich Zwingli, Zwingli Opera, Corpus Reformatorum, Vol. 1, 424.
(20) St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica III, Q. 28, a. 3.
(21) De perpetua virginitate B. Mariae, No. 10; PL 23:192B.
(22) Cf. J. Evert, “Mary’s Perpetual Virginity,” www.motherofallpeoples.com.