In Part 1 of our examination of the Church's teaching of the Perpetual Virginity of Mary, we looked at the common objections to the teaching based on misinterpretations of the biblical texts that seem to indicate that Mary had other children. Having shown that the biblical "evidence" against Mary's perpetual virginity is inconclusive, at best, and, further, showing the dearth of historical testimony to such a position, let us turn our attention now to what else the Bible has to say with regard to the subject of Mary's Perpetual Virginity, as well as look at the Church's historical testimony regarding this doctrine. Finally, we will conclude by discussing what we can learn from this teaching in order to help us grow in our Christian faith.
"Material Sufficiency", not "Formal Sufficiency" of Scripture
The first thing to note, with regard to the biblical proof for Mary's perpetual virginity (or any Catholic teaching, for that matter), is that Catholics do not believe in the concept of "Sola Scriptura"--that is, we do not believe that the Bible must specifically teach something for it to be a part of the Faith, nor do we believe that the Bible alone is the sole infallible judge of all such doctrines. That said, many Catholics including myself believe that everything the Church teaches is, at least implicitly or by way of logical extension, contained in the Bible. That is, we believe in the "material sufficiency" of Scripture, but not in its "formal sufficiency". Since most non-Catholic Christians believe in Sola Scriptura, it is important when defending the Catholic faith, to show that, a) the Church does not contradict the Bible, when properly understood, and b) that Scripture does, in fact, point to a particular Catholic teaching, even if it never explicitly asserts it.
This is the case with various Christian teachings, such as the Trinity itself, or the two natures of Christ--divine and human. Catholic doctrines such as Purgatory or praying to the saints also have implicit support in Scripture, though they are never explicitly taught. It is also the case with Mary's Perpetual Virginity. Nowhere does the Bible emphatically state that Mary never had marital relations with Joseph, or that she was consecrated to virginity for her life. However, like the Trinity, the Bible does provide certain indications that Mary had intended to, and had followed through on the intention to, remain a virgin her whole life. Moreover, the Bible also attests to the fittingness of such a state when it teaches that virginity is a higher state of life than regular married life.
Exhibit A: The Annunciation
So where does the Bible imply that Mary had intended always to be a virgin? Let us look first at Luke 1:26-38, the account of the Annunciation:
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the House of David; and the virgin's name was Mary. He went in and said to her, 'Rejoice, you who enjoy God's favour! The Lord is with you.' She was deeply disturbed by these words, and asked herself what this greeting could mean, but the angel said to her, 'Mary, do not be afraid; you have won God's favour. Look! You are to conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you must name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor, David; he will rule over the house of Jacob forever and his reign will have no end.' Mary said to the angel, 'But how can this come about, since I have no knowledge of man?' The angel answered, 'The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will cover you with its shadow. And so the child will be holy and will be called Son of God. And I tell you this too: your cousin Elizabeth also, in her old age, has conceived a son, and she whom people called barren is now in her sixth month, for nothing is impossible to God.' Mary said, 'You see before you the Lord's servant, let it happen to me as you have said.' And the angel left her (NJB).Mary's Question
When the angel announces to Mary that God wants her to bear a son, she asks either a very poignant or a very stupid question, depending on what side of the Perpetual Virginity fence one is on: "How can this be, for I have no knowledge of man?" (v. 34). Luke had told us in verse 27 that at the time that Gabriel appeared to Mary, she was already betrothed to Joseph. Had Mary expected to enter into a normal marriage with Joseph, surely she would know by that time how babies are made. Surely her parents weren't so negligent as all that! Nevertheless, she is genuinely puzzled by the angel's announcement. Recall that the angel Gabriel had only told her that she would conceive--not when this would occur. Logically, had Mary been intending to have a normal relationship with Joseph, she would have assumed that such a birth would take place in the normal way of things. That she felt it necessary to ask how this was to happen clearly implies that not only had she not had any previous "knowledge of man", but that she clearly intended not to with Joseph, either.
Angelic Visitation as Sign of Conception's Impossibility
A second point to draw from this passage, is the fact of its very occurrence. Every time an angel announces the conception of a baby, that child is to be someone great in God's plan (consider Isaac, Samson, Samuel, and John the Baptist). The other key thing, however, in every other angelic announcement, was that it was physically impossible for the child's mother to conceive. In every other case, the mother was barren. In two of the four cases, the mother had also undergone menopause. And in each situation, this difficulty was very clearly stated by the sacred authors. When we come to Mary, however, while other similarities are present, Luke does not tell us that Mary is barren. Rather, Mary herself tells us why it would be impossible for her to conceive, thus warranting angelic visitation--and that takes us back again to her odd question. Not only was she a virgin when Gabriel showed up, it was a state of life to which she had consecrated herself.
Thus, Mary's question is crucial to understanding the Perpetual Virginity. If she had not intended to remain ever-virgin, what other meaning could her question have had?
Exhibit B: Jesus Gives Mary to John's Care
Going from the beginning of Jesus' earthly life, we jump now to the end of it. The second biblical text indicating Mary's perpetual virginity is also the one which I find most compelling. John 19:25-27 tells us,
Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala. Seeing his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing near her, Jesus said to his mother, 'Woman, this is your son.' Then to the disciple he said, 'This is your mother.' And from that hour the disciple took her into his home (NJB).Care For Parents: It's the Law
We mentioned this text in the article about Mary being the Mother of God, in the context of her being the Mother of all Christians, as well. But this passage also indicates her perpetual virginity, as well, for if Mary had had other sons, it would have been their duty, under the Law, to take care of their mother (see Exodus 20:12, Prov. 23:22, Sirach 3:12ff, and, in the New Testament, 1 Tim. 5:8). Yet Jesus' last act from the Cross is to entrust her to the care of John the Apostle, who is nowhere indicated to be any relation of Jesus whatsoever. Doing this would have been a grave insult to James, Joses, Simon, and Judas, were they actually Jesus' brothers and the sons of Mary. He essentially would be disowning them from His family, as would Mary herself, by accepting this arrangement!
Not Qualified Due to Lack of Faith?
Now, some object that Jesus' brothers didn't believe in Him until after the resurrection (cf. John 7:3-10), and that is why Jesus didn't entrust His mother to them. But this objection makes no sense, since they were still, ostensibly, Mary's children, and honour- and law-bound to care for her. Furthermore, at least some of them did, in fact, believe in Jesus after His resurrection (consider James and Jude, authors of their respective epistles), and Jesus, in His divine foreknowledge, would have known that. Thus, there was no reason for Jesus to not have entrusted them with the care of Mary, unless, in fact, they were not His brothers and her children, and therefore had no legal claim on them to care for her! As such, the fact that Jesus felt it to be necessary to entrust Mary to John quite definitively indicates that she had no other children. This, combined with her otherwise unusual question in Luke 1:34, shows rather clearly, if implicitly, that Mary was perpetually a virgin.
Exhibit C: Virginity the Higher Calling
While these two are the most direct passages with regards to Mary's perpetual virginity, there are a few other points to consider before leaving the question of the Bible's position. First, while the Bible affirms that marital relations and childbearing are definitely good things, there are passages that tell us that virginity is a higher calling. Revelation 14:1-5 describes a group of people known as the 144,000. While their identity is far from certain (to the chagrin of the Jehovah's Witnesses), there are some definite descriptors about them which make them worthy to be numbered in this group. Verse four begins the description: "These are the ones who have kept their virginity and not been defiled with women..." Their life of perpetual virginity heads the list of qualifications for the specific honour awarded to them in this passage--to have learned "a new hymn" and to sing it "in the presence of the four living creatures and the elders" (v. 3). Furthermore, St. Paul writes at length about the blessing and the merits of a celibate life, as freeing one to be more able to devote him- or herself fully to the will of God (1 Corinthians 7). He begins this chapter by saying, "Yes, it is a good thing for a man not to touch a woman" (v. 1). Later on, he explicitly states, "If someone with strong passions thinks that he is behaving badly towards his fiancee and that things should take their due course, he should follow his desires. There is no sin in it; they should marry. But if he stands firm in his resolution, without any compulsion but with full control of his own will, and decides to let her remain as his fiancee, then he is acting well. In other words, he who marries his fiancee is doing well, and he who does not, better still" (vv. 36-38, emphasis mine). Finally, Jesus Himself advocates celibacy for those to whom it is given:
The disciples said to him, 'If that is how things are between husband and wife, it is advisable not to marry.' But he replied, 'It is not everyone who can accept what I have said, but only those to whom it is granted. There are eunuchs born so from their mother's womb, there are eunuchs made so by human agency and there are eunuchs who have made themselves so for the sake of the kingdom of Heaven. Let anyone accept this who can' (Matthew 19:10-12).From these three passages, we see that virginity is a higher state than married life, though it is not the call of every person. Being, however, that Mary herself is the highest honoured of all human beings, it is greatly fitting that God would have graced her to live according to a higher state of life.
Exhibit D: Old Testament Typology
Further, the early Church Fathers have seen in Ezekiel 44:1-3 a type of Mary. In chapter 43, Ezekiel sees the Lord enter into the new Jerusalem from the Eastern Gate, and proceed to show to Ezekiel the New Temple. In chapter 44, Ezekiel writes,
He brought me back to the outer east gate of the sanctuary. It was shut. Yahweh said to me, 'This gate will be kept shut. No one may open it or go through it, since Yahweh, God of Israel, has been through it. And so it must be kept shut. The prince himself, however, may sit there to take his meal in the presence of Yahweh. He must enter and leave through the porch of the gate.'The Fathers allegorically interpreted this as Mary's virginal conception of Jesus--that is, the Holy Spirit, who is Yahweh, the God of Israel, had "been through" the "gate" of Mary when He overshadowed her; thus, it was fitting that no one else should do so. Only the "Prince", Jesus, Son of God and Prince of Peace, would be permitted to "sit there and to take his meal", that is, to derive His nourishment in Mary's womb, and then "leave through the porch of the gate" at His birth. Do not mistake me to mean that Ezekiel 44 is a prophecy of Mary's perpetual virginity. Rather, it is a type of it, just as the Bronze Serpent of Numbers 21:4-9 was a type of the Crucifixion (cf. John 3:14-15).
Finally, another type in Scripture clearly connects to Mary's perpetual virginity. That is, the type of the Ark of the Covenant, fulfilled in Mary, which we discussed at length during the Rosary series. That is, as Mary fulfils the type of the Ark, in that the Ark held the 10 Commandments, the Manna, and Aaron's priestly rod which budded, so Mary held in her womb the Law Giver, the Bread of Life, and the true High Priest in Jesus Christ, so too as the Ark was the holiest of all sacred objects, Mary is the holiest of all God's people, and, finally, as no one could touch the Ark, so Mary was "untouched", perpetually a virgin.
This, then, summarises the "positive" biblical proof for Mary's perpetual virginity. I personally found it quite compelling when I was becoming a Catholic. Moreover, the Church has always found it compelling, as it has consistently, from the earliest times, upheld belief in Mary's perpetual virginity. As we mentioned in the last article, the early Christian writing, The Protoevangelium of James, written probably around AD 120, was composed primarily as a defense of Mary's perpetual virginity. About it, Origen would later write,
"The Book [the Protoevangelium] of James [records] that the brethren of Jesus were sons of Joseph by a former wife, whom he married before Mary. Now those who say so wish to preserve the honor of Mary in virginity to the end, so that body of hers which was appointed to minister to the Word . . . might not know intercourse with a man after the Holy Spirit came into her and the power from on high overshadowed her. And I think it in harmony with reason that Jesus was the firstfruit among men of the purity which consists in [perpetual] chastity, and Mary was among women. For it were not pious to ascribe to any other than to her the firstfruit of virginity" (Commentary on Matthew 2:17 [A.D. 248]).Later, in AD 354, St. Hilary of Poitiers, in his Commentary on Matthew, would argue for Mary's perpetual virginity based on Jesus' giving Mary to John's care at the crucifixion. St. Epiphanius of Salamis argued for Mary's perpetual virginity from her very name, for even by his time (AD 375), Mary was always known as "the Virgin Mary" or "the Blessed Virgin Mary". He states, "And to holy Mary, 'Virgin' is invariably added, for that holy woman remains undefiled" (Medicine Chest Against All Heresies 78:6 [A.D. 375]).
We mentioned in the last article as well St. Jerome's treatise, Against Helvidius: The Perpetual Virginity of Mary, which he wrote around 383. In it, he himself marshals Sts. Ignatius, Polycarp, Irenaeus, and Justin Martyr in defense of Mary's Perpetual Virginity. Other notable defenders of and believers in this doctrine include St. Ambrose of Milan, St. Augustine, St. Cyril of Alexandria, Pope Siricius I, and Pope Leo I, among many others, whom it would be tedious for me to quote at length. Of course, Catholic Answers already did that, here.
Official Church Promulgation
With this much historical weight behind it, it seems almost unnecessary for the Church to have officially promulgated it at an Ecumenical Council. Yet, it was declared at the Second Council of Constantinople. In AD 553, at the Council of Constantinople, the Church labeled as heretics those who denied "that nativity of these latter days when the Word of God came down from the heavens and was made flesh of holy and glorious Mary, mother of God and ever-virgin, and was born from her" (Anathemas against the 'Three Chapters' 2). After the Second Council of Constantinople, the title was universally accepted and promulgated by the Church. Later, in AD 649, Pope Martin I convened the Lateran Council, which issued this statement:
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 born of God the Father, and gave birth to Him without corruption, her virginity remaining equally inviolate after the birth, let him be condemned.Hostile Witnesses
Thus belief in Mary's Perpetual Virginity was universally held by the Catholic Church, and, after the Schism of 1054, the Orthodox Church continued to teach and believe it, as well. In fact, all of the early Reformers, such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, and even John Wesley are on record as affirming the teaching. (For the Zwingli quotations, follow the link and scroll to the end of Calvin's section.)
The unanimity of belief, compounded with the Scriptural evidence for it, serve to overwhelmingly attest to the truth of Mary's Perpetual Virginity. In light of this, on what grounds does anyone fail to uphold that Mary was, in fact, Ever-virgin?
Implications of Mary's Perpetual Virginity
Nevertheless, some people still object to the doctrine, despite the abundant evidence, asking "what difference does it make?" This question implies that since a particular teaching does not specifically pertain to one's salvation, that it is somehow "negotiable", or "less true". However, such an opinion opens the door to questioning which doctrines are necessary to be believed in order to be saved, and which ones aren't. It is a question that has many different answers depending on to whose faith-tradition one belongs. Further, the truth of a doctrine is not dependent upon its relevance.
Safeguards Belief in Jesus' Virgin Birth
But the fact is, there are various implications to Mary's Perpetual Virginity for us. The first, as I mentioned in the Indroductory Post, is that it serves to safeguard belief in the virgin birth of Jesus. While belief in Jesus' virgin birth is not dependent upon belief in Mary's perpetual virginity, it's interesting to note that, according to Diarmaid MacCulloch (Anglican deacon and historian of the Reformation), during the Renaissance, Protestant rationalists began to deny the perpetual virginity in order to deny Jesus' virgin birth. They seemed to understand that the two stood or fell together. Thus the Reformers mentioned above regarded Mary's perpetual virginity as "the guarantee of the Incarnation of Christ."
Testifies to Higher Calling of Virginity
Belief in Mary's perpetual virginity also bears witness to us of the exaltedness of the celibate state. I mentioned above in the biblical defense of the doctrine that while the Bible (and the Church) does not view marriage and marital relations as bad or sinful, it does maintain that virginity is the higher calling. Mary is, therefore, the perfect exemplar of that calling, and an inspiration to those who pursue that vocation in their own lives.
Beacon of Purity
Finally, Mary stands, as ever-virgin, as a beacon against the degraded sexual mores of our culture. Where society screams sex, sex, sex, Mary points the way to a more blessed purity. While people would have us believe that we are just animals with instincts that demand satisfaction, and that we cannot control our baser desires and therefore should simply give in, Mary shows us by her example that this need not be the case. Moreover, through her prayers for us, she wins us the graces to persevere in purity and chastity. Let us thus turn and petition Mary for her prayers on our behalf in the words of the late Fr. John Hardon, S.J:
Immaculate Virgin Mary, I confide my chastity to your maternal heart. I ask your help to guard my senses, especially the eyes, for an unchaste eye is the messenger of an unchaste heart. Knowing my pride, I pray for that humility which invites the mercy of God. Knowing that I am human, I shall not be surprised at the urge of concupiscence, but trusting in your care I rely on your protection and all the graces that I need from your divine Son. Amen.
(Category: Catholic Distinctives: Mary, Mother of God.)