One of the most contested doctrines of the Catholic Church is Mary’s perpetual virginity. Not only do many non-Catholic Christians not believe it, but a fair share of Catholics as well. As the Church celebrates Our Lady’s yes to God, it is good to visit this doctrine because knowledge of Our Lady only serves to further “illumine our faith in Christ” (CCC 487).
In a hyper-sexed culture, it is easy to miss just what is meant when the Catechism says that the Church “confesses Mary’s real and perpetual virginity” (CCC 499). We tend to think that it simply means that she never had sex. While that is certainly true, this makes virginity a wholly negative thing and robs it of its richness. We call Our Lady, “Virgin of Virgins” because her virginity is not just that she didn’t have sex, but something that defines her spirit of total purity. This purity of course includes bodily integrity and purity but also touched her soul as well. She had the virtue of virginity which means she was magnificent in her chastity by leaving herself free to be given completely to God. Because she also had a virginity of heart (i.e. the Immaculate Conception) led to the fruit of her womb being the very Son of God. So closely are these aspects of virginity related that Msgr. Scheeben in his book Mariology says that we may speak of Mary’s purity of both body and soul enabling her to have a bridal motherhood of Christ because she is able to share one flesh with her Son who is a divine Person.
Given this understanding of virginity, why is it necessary that Mary be perpetually a virgin? To be clear, when the Church invokes Mary as “Ever-Virgin” she is saying that Mary was a virgin at the Annunciation, remained a virgin at the Nativity, and was a virgin at the Assumption. First we will look at each of these three periods and show how divine revelation agrees with this.
When St. Gabriel visits Our Lady to announce the Good News, she responds by asking, “How can this be, since I know not man?” (Lk 1:34). There is no other way to interpret this question from a married woman except that she did not have carnal knowledge of her husband and had taken a vow of virginity. This particular aspect is what most people think is meant by the profession of the Creed that Jesus was “Born of the Virgin Mary.” But there is a deeper and more important meaning to that particular profession that relates to the actual birth of Our Lord.
The Catechism makes it a point to say that “Mary’s real and perpetual virginity (consists) even in the act of giving birth to the Son of God made man” (CCC 499, emphasis added). Why does it point this out? First it is meant to oppose the rationalist’s denial of the miraculous. While Christ’s conception was miraculous, it remained hidden. His birth too was miraculous and we know at least one other person (St. Joseph) witnessed this. In order for Mary’s virginal bodily integrity to be maintained, Our Lord could not have passed through the birth canal. Instead He must have been born in a miraculous manner. Recalling that one of the curses that Eve was given after the Fall was that child-birth would be painful and that Our Lady did not have Original Sin and thus was not subject to this curse and suffered no birth pains, then we can see how it must be so that Our Lord’s birth was through the usual means.
Further in the Catechism paragraph I already quoted (CCC 499) it says that “Christ’s birth ‘did not diminish his mother’s virginal integrity but sanctified it.’” This points out a very important principle. Everything that God touches is made (or remains) whole and holy. This shows the attempt to lower Mary necessarily diminishes God as well.
The second reason that supports the virgin birth is found in Isaiah’s prophecy in which he says, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Imman’u-el.” (Is 7:14). Notice how it is the virgin who both conceives and gives birth. This is why Matthew uses this as a proof-text supporting his Messianic claims about Jesus (c.f. Mt. 1:22-23). The Jews were expecting a virginal conception and birth.
What about the maintenance of her virginity even after the birth of Our Lord? There are many well written arguments showing how the claims that Jesus had brothers and sisters is easily explained by the broad use of the Greek word for brother (adelphos) and the fact that Jesus turned His mother’s care over to someone who was not His brother as part of His last testament. I will not rehash those here. Instead the focus should be more “offensive” in nature by appealing to Sacred Scripture. First, as was mentioned above, it is clear that Mary had the intention to remain a virgin. There is no reason to think that she somehow changed her mind after the birth of Our Lord. She had given herself totally to God, He had received that gift and made it fruitful and so that would have only strengthened her resolve.
The Fathers of the Church have always interpreted Ezekiel 44:3, “This gate shall be shut. It shall not be opened and no man shall pass through it because the Lord God of Israel has entered by it” as referring to Our Lady as well.
Given this, why is it that I said the perpetual virginity of Mary must be so? First, the Son came so that He could reveal the Trinity. In revealing Himself as the only-begotten Son of the Father, He too must have been the only Begotten Son in time. The second reason is even more compelling. All generations call Mary blessed because she testifies “to the great things God has done for her.” Perhaps the greatest thing done to her is bringing about the Incarnation while maintaining her virginity. If that virginal integrity was lost, then she no longer testifies to this great thing. Even in heaven Our Lady shows forth her splendor-filled virginity. Let us praise God and seek the powerful intercession of His Mother—we fly to you, O Virgin of Virgins, Our Mother.