Mary's Virginity During Jesus' Birth

Author: Fr. William Saunders


Father William Saunders

Mary's Virginity During Jesus' Birth

The Pro-Life Memorial which was dedicated on June 26 in Emmitsburg, Md., portraying Our Lady laying on a bed of straw after having delivered baby Jesus is not in line with the teaching of our Roman Catholic faith. Our Lady was a virgin before, during and after the birth of Jesus. Mary's holy body was totally intact during the birth of Jesus. Please respond—A reader in Leesburg

We as Catholics firmly believe that Mary is "ever virgin." The Catechism of the Catholic Church asserts, "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." This statement reflects a more precise dogmatic statement issued at the First Lateran Council: "If anyone does not, according to the holy Fathers, confess truly and properly that holy Mary, ever virgin and immaculate, is Mother of God, since in this latter age she conceived in true reality without human seed from the Holy Spirit, God the Word Himself, who before the ages was begotten of God the Father, and gave birth to Him without injury, her virginity remaining equally inviolate after the birth, let him be condemned." Underlying this statement is the Church's consistent defense of the Incarnation: Jesus, second person of the Holy Trinity, true God from eternity, consubstantial with the Father, entered this world through the Blessed Virgin Mary who had conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit; therefore, we believe Jesus is true God and true man, with both a divine and human nature.

The perpetual virginity of Mary, as stated in the reader's comments, has traditionally been defended and examined in three parts: Mary's conception of Christ (<virginitas ante partum>); her giving birth to Christ (<virginitas in partu>); and her remaining a virgin after the birth of Christ (<virginitas post partum>). This formulation was used by many of the early Church Fathers—St. Augustine, St. Peter Chrysologus, Pope St. Leo the Great, St. Gregory Nazianzus and St. Gregory Nyssa.

Mary's virginity prior to the conception of Christ is quite clear from the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Luke, where she is clearly identified as "a virgin." Moreover, when the Archangel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would bear the Messiah, she responded, "How can this be since I do not know man?" indicating her virginity.

At the other end of the spectrum is Mary's virginity after the birth of Christ. In a previous article, concerning whether Jesus had blood brothers and sisters, this question was dealt with in detail. (ACH 7/21/94) Succinctly, we as Catholics believe that Mary and Joseph did not have other children after the birth of Christ. No evidence exists either in Sacred Scripture or Tradition to believe otherwise.

The troublesome part is the middle—Mary's virginity in giving birth to Christ. We remember that one of the sufferings inherited because of original sin is that of "child bearing pains": The Lord God said to Eve, "I will intensify the pangs of your childbearing; in pain shall you bring forth children." (Gen 3:16) Since Mary was free of original sin by her Immaculate Conception, she would be free of "child bearing pain." In wrestling with this belief, the early Church Fathers then struggled to explain this virginity. The Western Fathers seemed to emphasize Mary's physical integrity; for instance, Pope St. Leo the Great said, "She (Mary) brought Him forth without the loss of virginity, even as she conceived him without its loss...(Jesus Christ was) born from the Virgin's womb because it was a miraculous birth." On the other hand, the Eastern Fathers emphasized Mary's joy and freedom from pain in giving birth to Jesus, the Son of God. In either case, remember, the Gospel of St. Luke simply stated, "She gave birth..."

In the 1950s, Albert Mitterer cautioned against so emphasizing the physical quality of virginity that one lost sight of the goodness of Mary's role as mother and her giving birth to Jesus. Freedom from "child bearing pain" does not necessarily entail freedom from the act of child bearing. Dr. Ludwig Ott stated, "It seems hardly possible to demonstrate that the dignity of the Son of God or the dignity of the Mother of God demands a miraculous birth."

Father Karl Rahner, without delving into all of the anatomical details, focused on the spiritual reality of Mary's virginity: Mary bore the Son of God. Her childbearing must have been essentially different from other women since she was free of the effects of original sin. Her virginity, childbearing and motherhood are together in union with the will of God.

Please note that the Church never has authoritatively ruled on the interpretation or specifics of <virginitas in partu>. Moreover, on July 27, 1960, the Holy Office (now the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) warned again discussing this issue in a way "...clearly opposed to the traditional doctrine of the Church and the devotional sense of the faithful."

In all, we need to emphasize and revere both the virginity and motherhood of Mary. <The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church> of Vatican II asserted: "For in the mystery of the Church, which is itself rightly called mother and virgin, the Blessed Virgin stands out in eminent and singular fashion as exemplar both of virgin and mother."

I do not think that the artist in question meant any disrespect to our Blessed Mother or was espousing any erroneous theology. Frankly, the sculpture does not depict a particular time after Jesus was born. On a purely whimsical note that occurred as I pondered this question, I think that if I were Mary on that first Christmas and had endured a long ride to Bethlehem, had to prepare a stable to spend the night, had to deal with an ox and an ass and who knows what other creature, had to be hospitable to angels and shepherds alike, I think I would lie down too.

Father Saunders is president of Notre Dame Institute and associate pastor of Queen of Apostles Parish, both in Alexandria, Va.

This article appeared in the August 11, 1994 issue of "The Arlington Catholic Herald."

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