Mary Ever Virgin
One day fairly early in my Catholic teaching career, a student raised a question about the importance of Mary’s virginity, and I responded that the doctrine was very important for this reason: “If Mary had sexual relations prior to the birth of Christ, it would call into question Christ’s Divine paternity.” This exchange took place in an apologetics class I used to teach at Christendom College. During the ensuing discussion, some other students wanted to know what the importance of Mary’s virginity was in partu.
What? Oh, it wasn’t the Latin that troubled me. I simply had always focused on the ante partum and post partum virginity of Mary—her virginity before and after the birth of Christ. It had never occurred to me to think about Mary’s virginity during the birth (in partu). The students, who had all completed Christendom’s first-year course in Catholic doctrine, knew precisely what the Church taught, but wondered about its significance. Their apologetics teacher, who lacked the benefit of a systematic Catholic education, sensed the significance, but didn’t recall the fullness of the Church’s teaching.
Fortunately, I did what any good teacher should do. I neither blustered nor starting spinning out my own opinions about what the Church probably taught, or ought to have taught, and why. I said I wanted to look into it a little more, and we’d take it up again in the next class. The incident took place roughly thirty years ago, but I haven't forgotten what I learned.
The Church teaches that Mary is perpetually virgin, that she retained her virginity before, during and after the birth of Christ, which makes even the physical reality of Christ’s birth in some senses miraculous. The virginity of Mary in both conception and giving birth was at least hinted at in the first chapter of St. Matthew’s gospel, for the evangelist saw the virgin birth as a fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14, which he quotes: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel” (Mt 1:23, emphasis added). But most of our evidence comes from tradition.
The Eastern Fathers consistently emphasized Mary’s experience of joy and freedom from pain in giving birth to Christ, and the Western Fathers clearly taught Mary’s in partu virginity as a preservation of her bodily integrity and exemption from the ordinary pangs of childbirth. After all, the bringing forth of children in pain was a consequence of the Fall, and both the Fathers and later theologians have specifically seen the virgin birth as one of several signs that Mary was immaculately conceived, and therefore exempt from both concupiscence and the pains of childbirth. Pope St. Leo the Great taught Mary’s virginal conception and virginal birth in 449, and this teaching was adopted at the Council of Chalcedon.
The tradition is universal that Mary remained a virgin, and had no other children, after the birth of Jesus. Tradition holds that the "brethren" mentioned in Scripture are cousins (the term for "brethren" was frequently widely applied at that time). The ancient formula for Mary's threefold virginity “ante partum, in partu, post partum” was already well-established by the fourth century. Some theologians, including Protestants such as Martin Luther, have seen a proof text for post partum virginity in Ezekiel 44:2 applied to Mary: “This gate shall remain shut; it shall not be opened, and no one shall enter by it; for the Lord, the God of Israel, has entered by it; therefore it shall remain shut.” Throughout the liturgical and doctrinal tradition of the Church, Our Lady has been frequently referred to as “the glorious ever Virgin Mary.” The phrase appears in the ancient Eucharistic Prayer I, and was reaffirmed very recently at Vatican II.
Mary’s three-fold virginity is not only appropriate to her as the immaculately-conceived Mother of God, but serves as a symbol of the sacramental fruitfulness of the Church’s spiritual motherhood. It also signifies the importance of consecrated virginity and celibacy, through which many devote themselves more wholeheartedly to the service of God. All of this is worth serious meditation: Ante partum, in partu, and post partum—in case you didn’t know.
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