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Theological Defense of the Miraculous Birth

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. …

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. (30)

B. The Patristic Testimony

In Dr. Tkacz’ endnote #76 she rather lightly dismisses an article by Father Stanley Jaki on the virgin birth because he does not cite any Patristic texts in making his case. She opines that the miraculous nature of the birth of Christ “seems to me essentially modern, based on a pietistic thought that to honor Jesus one must dissociate him from human birth, as if birth were indecent” (p. 25). I trust that by now the reader will recognize that this doctrine is clearly taught by the Fathers (for reasons of space we must forego discussion of the Scriptural bases of the doctrine). Further, the miraculous nature of Jesus’ birth is not an indictment of human birth as being “indecent,” but rather fully congruent with the saving purposes of the Incarnation. As Pope St. Leo the Great preached:

The Lord Jesus Christ came to take away our maladies, not to contract them; to bring a remedy to our vices, not to succumb to them. … That is why it was necessary for Him to be born in new conditions (propter quod oportuit ut novo nasceretur ordine). … It was necessary that the integrity of the One being born preserve the pristine virginity of the one who gave birth. (31)

John Saward’s excellent study, Cradle of Redeeming Love, provides several illuminating pages on the fittingness of the miraculous nature of Jesus’ birth. (32)

C. The Seal of Virginity

In endnote #78 Dr. Tkacz states “Legend attributes an intact hymen to the Theotokos” and then goes on to quote from Taber’s Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary that the “rupture or absence (of the hymen) is not evidence of loss of virginity.” While a certain sense of delicacy, inspired by the 1960 Monitum of the Holy Office of 1960, (33) makes me hesitate a moment before taking issue with this statement, it needs to be dealt with. On this matter the late Father Juniper Carol, O.F.M. summarized quite clearly how the approach of the Fathers and the magisterium had come to be understood:

At the appropriate time, Our Blessed Lord left the womb of His Mother through the natural channels but in a miraculous way, that is, without in any manner opening any part of Mary’s body. In other words, there was no dilatation of the normal passage, no opening of the vagina, no breaking of the virginal hymen. (34)

In less specific biological language the Holy Father treated this issue in his discourse at Capua in 1992. He stated:

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 sepulchre). 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. (35)

With regard to Dr. Tkacz’ specific insistence, John Saward provides clarification from the Angelic Doctor:

St. Thomas says that the hymen pertains to virginity only per accidens, and that its rupture by any means other than sexual pleasure is no more destructive of virginity than the loss of a hand or foot (cf. ST 2a2æ q. 152, a. I, ad 3). However, he also holds that bodily integrity belongs to the perfection of virginity (see Quæstiones quodlibetales 6, q. 10, prol). (36)

Could we expect that God would do less for His Virgin Mother?

IV. Virginity of Flesh—Virginity of Heart

What does this doctrine mean? It certainly shouldn’t be taken in any way as lessening “the value and dignity of marriage” (37) asserts the Holy Father. Rather, he insists, it should be seen as pointing to the fact that the bodily integrity of Mary is a physical sign of her total spiritual virginity, that the virginity of her flesh is an indication of the virginity of her heart:

Therefore, she fulfills 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 single-hearted are called blest (cf. (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. 14:6)—and his doctrine, because of which the Church is also called a virgin since she preserves the deposit of faith whole and incorrupt. (38)

While remaining a mystery, the Virgin Birth is also a sign. It points back to the mystery of the eternal generation of the Son in the bosom of the Father and forward to the mystery of his Resurrection. It is a datum which it is beyond the capacity of science to explain, but it also underscores the profound truth of what the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council stated about Our Lady: “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” (Lumen Gentium 65). Where a truth about her is denied—deliberately or not—the fullness of Redemption is not proclaimed, God is deprived of the glory that belongs to him and the most perfect work of his creation, who is meant to be “a sure sign of hope and solace to the pilgrim people of God” (Lumen Gentium 68) is demeaned.

Published on December 16, 2011 by Msgr. Arthur B. Calkins in Marian Private Revelation

Msgr. Arthur B. Calkins is an official of the Pontifical Commission “Ecclesia Dei” in Rome, a contributing member of the Pontifical International Marian Academy and the author of Totus Tuus. He is internationally known for his numerous articles on Our Lady and for his scholarly work in the fields of dogmatic and spiritual theology.


(1) Luigi Gambero, S.M., Mary and the Fathers of the Church: The Blessed Virgin Mary in Patristic Thoughttrans. Thomas Buffer (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999) 154-156, 158-159.

(2) Gambero 192.

(3) John Saward, Cradle of Redeeming Love: The Theology of the Christmas Mystery

(San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2002) 209.

(4) Gambero 252-253.

(5) Gambero 265.

(6) Gambero 294-295.

(7) Gambero 304-309.

(8) Gambero 314.

(9) Gambero 331-332.

(10) Gambero 364.

(11) Peter Damian Fehlner, F.I., Virgin Mother The Great Sign (Washington, NJ: AMI Press, 1993) 13.

(12) Cf. John Saward, Cradle of Redeeming Love: The Theology of the Christmas Mystery (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2002) 212-213.

(13) Cf. Fehlner, Virgin Mother 6-9.

(14) Cf. Fehlner, Virgin Mother 8-11.

(15) Domenico Casagrande, Enchiridion Marianum Biblicum Patristicum (Rome: Figlie della Chiesa, 1974) 368 (W. A. Jurgens, The Faith of the Early Fathers, Vol. 2

(Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1979) 172 (#1327)).

(16) Casagrande 369, Fehlner, Virgin Mother 9 (trans. slightly altered).

(17) Cf. Fehlner, Virgin Mother 1.

(18) Cf. Karl Rahner, S.J., “Virginitas in Partu: A contribution to the problem of the development of dogma and of tradition” in Theological Investigations 4 (Baltimore: Helicon Press, 1966) 134 ff. and the response by James T. O’Connor, “Ambrose and Karl Rahner: Reflections on the “Virginitas in Partu” in Mater Fidei et Fidelium: Collected Essays to Honor Theodore Koehler on His 80th Birthday (Marian Library Studies) (n.s.) Vol. 17-23 (1985-1991) 726-731; John R. Meyer, “Ambrose’s exegesis of Luke 2, 22-24 and Mary’s virginitas in partu” Marianum 62 (2000) 169-192 and the response by Peter Damian Fehlner, F.I., “Virginitas in Partu” in Immaculata Mediatrix 2 (2002) 241-246.

(19) 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) #503 (henceforth referred to as D-H); J. Neuner, S.J. & J. Dupuis, S.J. (eds.), The Christian Faith in the Doctrinal Documents of the Catholic Church Sixth Revised and Enlarged Edition edited by Jacques Dupuis (NY: Alba House, 1998) #703 (henceforth referred to as TCF). For commentary, cf. Fehlner, Virgin Mother 14-16.

(20) D-H #1880; TCF #707.

(21) Robert I. Bradley, S.J. and Eugene Kevane (eds.), The Roman Catechism (Boston, MA: St. Paul Editions, 1985) 49-50.

(22) Lumen Gentium #57.

(23) Catechism of the Catholic Church #499.

(24) D-H #294; TCF #612.

(25) D-H #291; TCF #609; D-H #294; TCF #612.

(26) D-H #427; TCF #620/6.

(27) D-H #442.

(28) D-H #571.

(29) Fehlner, Virgin Mother 4.

(30) Acta Apostolicæ Sedis (henceforth referred to as AAS) 85 (1993) 664, L’Osservatore Romano (English edition, henceforth referred to as ORE) 10 June 1992, p. 13.

(31) In nativitate Domini, sermo 2, no. 2. Enchiridion Marianum 924, English translation in Saward 213, n. 133.

(32) Cf. Saward 212-217.

(33) Cf. Ephemerides Mariologicæ 11 (1961) 137-138, René Laurentin, A Short Treatise on the Virgin Marytrans. Charles Neumann, S.M. (Washington, NJ: AMI Press, 1991) 328-329, and commentary in Fehlner, Virgin Mother 19-21.

(34) Homiletic & Pastoral Review 54 (1954) 446.

(35) AAS 85 (1993) 665, ORE 10 June 1992, p. 13.

(36) Saward 212, n. 128.

(37) AAS 85 (1993) 669, ORE 10 June 1992, p. 14.

(38) AAS 85 (1993) 668-669, ORE 10 June 1992, p. 14.

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