Virginity During the Birth

Updated: May 30, 2020

It is of divine faith for Catholics to hold that our Lady not only conceived the divine Word as man “without seed, by the Holy Spirit” but also gave birth to Him “without corruption.” (1) 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. (2) Pope St Leo the Great teaches the doctrine of our Lady’s virginity in partu in his famous Tome, which was read and approved at the Council of Chalcedon:

“Mary brought Him forth, with her virginity preserved, as with her virginity preserved she had conceived Him.” (3) The Catechism speaks of our Lady’s virginity being preserved “even in the act of giving birth to the Son of God” (etiam in partu Filii Dei) and quotes the strong reaffirmation of the dogma by the Second Vatican Council: “Christ’s birth ‘did not diminish his mother’s virginal integrity but sanctified it’.” (4) In 1992, on the sixteenth centenary of the Council of Capua, Pope John Paul II vigorously proclaimed the virginity of our Lady in partu, comparing our Lord’s birth from the “intact virgin” with His Resurrection from the “intact tomb.” (5)

This faith, so boldly affirmed by popes and councils, is beautifully enunciated in the liturgical prayers of Christian West and East. In the Byzantine liturgy, on the feast of her Synaxis, the Theotokos speaks thus to her Child: “As thou hast found my womb, so thou hast left it.” (6)

And, on Christmas Day, the Church herself directly addresses our Lady: “According to His good pleasure, by a strange self-emptying, He passed through thy womb, yet kept it sealed.” (7) The Roman rite is no less explicit: “Blessed Mary, Mother of God, whose womb abideth intact, has today given birth to the Savior of the world.” (8) Moreover, throughout the Christmas Octave, a special communicantes in the Roman Canon commemorates “that most sacred night (or day) in which the inviolate virginity of Blessed Mary brought the Savior into this world.”

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). The angel Gabriel tells our Lady, in words that in the Greek have a strange syntactical structure, “The Holy (agion) which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God” (Lk 1:35). It is hard to parse the neuter adjective. Some scholars have argued that it should be taken adverbially, as a description of the way in which our Lord’s birth is holy, that is, sanctified and sanctifying. This seems to be the sense of St Cyril of Jerusalem’s statement: “His birth was pure, undefiled.” (9) The Fathers find types of the virginity in partu in Ezekiel’s prophecy of the closed gate of the Temple (cf. Ex 44:2) and in the “garden enclosed” and “fountain sealed up” of Solomon’s canticle (cf. Song 4:12). (10) The reverence and modesty shown by the Fathers towards this beautiful mystery is in stark contrast with the prying crudeness of the heretics. St John Chrysostom, for example, is content to assert the fact of the miraculous preservation of our Lady’s virginity during childbirth and refuses to delve into the details. (11) It was probably the Arian controversy that brought the miraculous birth to the forefront of the Catholic mind. That controversy was concerned chiefly with the true Divinity of the Son, and thus with His eternal generation from the Father. However, the Fathers found it necessary to bring His temporal birth into the discussion. The Arians, especially in the radical Eunomian party, were rationalists, presuming to enclose God in a definition. Against such arrogant folly, the Fathers cited the miracle of the Virgin Birth: How can men claim to have fathomed the infinite abyss of the divine and eternal generation of the Word from the Father when even His human and temporal birth from the Virgin is such an enigma? (12)

In the late fourth century, the doctrine of the virginity in partu was denied by Jovinian, a monk turned playboy, whose attack on the maidenly motherhood of Mary was part of a wider campaign against the consecrated state of virginity. Jovinian’s heresy was condemned by synods held in Rome and Milan. The Synod of Milan, under the chairmanship of St Ambrose, invoked the words of the Apostles’ Creed, natus ex Maria Virgine, which imply that the very act of giving birth to her Son, not just her conceiving of Him, was maidenly in its manner. (13)

The chief objection raised by the heretics to the virginity in partu is that, in the eyes of its adversaries, it makes our Lord’s human birth and thus His human nature itself seem unreal.

Does the doctrine not betray Gnostic or Manichean disdain for the flesh? Was it not a Gnostic, Valentinus, who taught that the Son of God merely “passed through” His Mother, as through a channel? (14)