This week, we’ll take a closer look at the second Marian Dogma declared by the Magisterium, which is Mary’s perpetual, or three-fold, virginity. This dogma was confirmed at the Second Council of Constantinople in 553 AD and then later pronounced by Pope Martin I at the First Lateran Council in 640 AD. By three-fold virginity, we mean that Mary was a virgin before the birth of Jesus, during the birth of Jesus, and after the birth of Jesus. I will explain what each of those mean in more detail and clarify some common questions.
To start, Mary was a virgin before she conceived and bore Jesus. This is something all Christian religions agree on and is not much of a hurdle to get across. We look to Tradition for our first source of authenticity on this matter. The Apostles’ Creed, which was developed in the very early Church, proclaims, we believe in Jesus “…who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary…” This shows that even the earliest Christians understood the Savior to be born of a virgin. We can also look to Scripture for the foundations of this belief. Isaiah 7:14 tells us, “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” Then, after the Angel Gabriel appears to Mary to tell her she will conceive and bear a son, her response is, “How will this be, since I do not know man?” (Luke 1:34). Here, she is alluding to her virginity. She is not doubting the word of the angel, but merely asking how it will come about since it will not be in the natural way. Gabriel explains that the Holy Spirit will descend upon her in order for the conception to occur. So, between both Tradition and Scripture, it is not a far leap for Christians to agree on the state of Mary’s virginity before the birth of Christ.
The second way the Church defines Mary’s virginity is that it was preserved during the birth of Jesus. This is a point that is a little less understood and I hope to clarify here. When we talk about virginity in this sense, we are not talking about sexual intercourse, as that would be strange in this context. What we mean is that her virginal integrity was kept intact during the birth of Jesus. Last week we discussed how what we proclaim to be true about Mary, is to protect what is true about Jesus. Jesus is God and it is contrary to the nature of God to corrupt or defile anything. St. Thomas Aquinas quotes St. Augustine in his Tertia saying, “It is not right that he who came to heal corruption, should by his coming violate integrity. Jesus was born by divine power without physical violation of Mary’s virginity.” Think about any other scenario where God enters into something or someone. Does He corrupt it, or does he sanctify it? For example, when God breathed life into Adam, He did not corrupt him. When the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles at Pentecost, He did not corrupt them. When the Eucharist enters into your body, you are not corrupted, but elevated. So, it is clear to see that this truth about Mary had to be declared in order to protect the divine nature of Jesus Christ. Now, the challenge for us is understanding how Jesus was born without corrupting Mary’s virginal integrity. The early Church fathers – including St. Clement of Alexandria, St. Ambrose, and St. Epiphanius – describe the birth as a miraculous birth, using the image of light passing through glass without harming the glass. We won’t fully understand how the birth of Jesus occurred until we get to heaven, but for now, we can have faith in the God of miracles and trust that he did not corrupt Mary’s virginal integrity.
Finally, we have the third part of Mary’s perpetual virginity, which is that she remained a virgin after the birth of Jesus. This is the part that many non-Catholic Christians, and even some Catholics, have trouble with accepting. Catholic Bible scholars advocate that Mary took a vow of virginity, which was not uncommon at the time. Joseph would have known this and agreed to it prior to the marriage. When she says, “I do not know man,” she is talking about a permanent state of being for herself. I once heard this example: If someone offers you a cigarette and you responded, “no thank you, I don’t smoke,” you wouldn’t mean that you just don’t smoke right now. You mean that you have the permanent condition of not being a smoker. Likewise, Mary is not indicating that she is just a virgin for right now, but that it is a permanent state for her life. Using Tradition to support this claim, we also have early Church fathers defending her perpetual virginity including, Ephraim, Origen, and St. Augustine. Remember that her virginity was sanctified by God, not destroyed, so she would want to preserve this. This is not to say that intercourse between two married people is somehow a form of corruption, but instead, it made her virginity even more special, elevated, and worthy of preservation. By preserving her virginal state, she is saying that she values her sexual and bodily nature, and that she gives it back to the Lord as a gift. This is such a hard concept for many today due to our culture’s corruption of what sex should be, but it was not a far leap for Mary in the culture she was living in at the time.
Of course, you’ll hear a couple of objections to Mary’s perpetual virginity, which I’ll now address. In Matthew 1:18, we see that “Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found to be with child…” and in Matthew 1:25, we see that Joseph “knew her not until she had borne a son…” The word “before” in the first quote indicates that he did not have relations with her before she bore a son. That makes sense. However, we must clarify that the word “until” does not necessarily mean that it happened afterwards. We have other scriptures that support this understanding. In 2 Samuel verse 23, we read, “And Michal the daughter of Saul had no child until the day of her death.” Are we to assume she had a child after her death? No, the word “until’ only establishes what has not yet taken place. The second common objection to Mary’s perpetual virginity is that in Mark 6:3 and Matthew 13:55, Jesus is described as having brothers. The original Greek word used in the text was adelphos, which was used to describe brother, cousin, near relative, or kinsman. It does not necessarily indicate a blood brother. Again, we see in other places in scripture where the word adelphos was used in reference to someone who is not a blood brother. In Genesis 13:8, Lot is called Abraham’s brother in the Greek, but you will probably see kinsman in your translation. In Genesis 29:10, Jacob is referred to as the adelphos of Laban, which again is not a blood brother, but rather more of a cousin relationship. Additionally, do we not call our fellow Christians our brothers and sisters in Christ? The final common objection to Mary’s perpetual virginity is the idea that it negates the marriage of Mary and Joseph. Again, a vow of virginity was not an uncommon practice for different Jewish sects at the time. The objection is also a misunderstanding of marriage to imply that sex is a necessary component. While it is a wonderful and beautiful gift in marriage, it is not necessary for a marriage to exist. Again, this is so hard for many to grasp in our culture these days. Marriage really is the uniting of two wills with Christ in an unconditional gift of self, “til death do us part.” Think of it this way: at the conclusion of a wedding ceremony, when the priest pronounces the bride and groom as husband and wife, are they not really married because the union has not yet been consummated? Of course not. They are already bound to one another for the rest of their lives. Yes, a marriage can be annulled when it has not been consummated, but that is more as an indication that their wills and hearts were not really united in the first place. So, Mary and Joseph were truly and validly married until the end.
Hopefully, you now have a deeper understanding of Mary’s virginity. The Church teaches this because it protects our understanding of who God is by highlighting how He more than just does not corrupt, He also sanctifies, elevates, and glorifies. Meditate on this dogma and see what it moves or inspires in you.BACK TO LIST