The perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary is a dogma of the Catholic Church and has been so recognized explicitly since the 5th century. Three points are included in the dogma: the virginal conception of Jesus by Mary without any human father, the virginal birth of the child from the womb of His mother without injury to the bodily integrity of Mary, and Mary's observance of virginity afterward throughout her earthly life. The three points are treated in that order in the present article.
It is important to keep this dogma in its proper theological perspective. The theological significance of Mary's virginity must never be obscured by physiological or biological considerations. Mary's virginity is indeed a physical and real fact; and the Church rejected, from the very beginning, the heresy of docetism, which held that Christ's body was a mere appearance. Nevertheless the theological and spiritual significance of virginity is an integral part of the Catholic belief. Its significance is seen first of all as totally relative to her divine Son and to the special nature of her dedication to the unique world event of the redemption. Hence the Fathers of the Church, with true insight, have exalted the "new birth" and its miraculous character less as a privilege of Mary than as a glory of Christ and the beginning of the regenerated human race. Her dignity as mother of god is her supreme privilege; and once the dignity of her relationship of maternity to the Son of God is profoundly recognized, wonder at corollary privileges, such as her virginity, tends to fade. Belief in Christ's divinity furnishes an antecedent basis for expecting sublime and wonderful privileges regarding the manner of His entry into the world and the unique human instrument He chose to be His mother.
It is important also for theological perspective to appreciate the development of these beliefs from the first seeds of doctrine sown in the original deposit of revelation, to the full flowering of belief in the Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Belief in the virginal conception of Jesus did enjoy fully explicit formulation in the catechesis of the Church from the time of the redaction of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. But belief in the virginal parturition of Mary and the preservation of her virginity ever after did not achieve universal recognition in the writings of the Fathers until the end of the 4th century and the beginning of the 5th.
Virginity in Conception. The doctrine that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary without any human father entered early and without incident into the public teaching of the Church.
Teaching of the Church. The doctrine was proclaimed by the earliest Fathers: Ignatius, Justin, Irenaeus, Aristides. It also appears in the early Roman baptismal profession of faith as attested in Hippolytus's Apostolic Tradition (c. 215), which probably reflects even earlier professions of the 1st century [P. Palmer, Mary in the Documents of the Church (Westminster, Md. 1952) 4].
This doctrine was never in dispute in the Catholic Church. The belief, when attacked from outside, found capable defenders in Justin, Irenaeus, and Origen; and its denial was considered from the beginning as heresy. By the 4th century the doctrine is found in the creed of Constantinople I. It was taught in the authoritative letter of St. Leo to the Council of Chalcedon, held in 451, and it was defined by the great regional Council of the Lateran in 649, the acts of which were accepted by Constantinople III in 681. From its universal proposition in the creeds of the Church ever since, it is clear that, although it has never been expressly defined by a general council, it is in every sense of the word a dogma of the faith in virtue of the ordinary and universal teaching authority of the Church. [See A. Van Hove, "Is Maria's maagdelijkkeid een eigenlijk geloofsdogma?" Coll. Mechl. 45 (1960) 283–287.]
Fathers. St. Ignatius of Antioch repeatedly proclaims the virginal conception of Jesus as an undoubted truth of the faith. "And the Prince of this world was in ignorance of the virginity of Mary and her childbearing and also of the death of the Lord—three mysteries loudly proclaimed to the world, though accomplished in the stillness of God" [Eph. 19.1; Ancient Christian Writers ed.J. Quasten et al. (Westminster, Md.–London 1946) 1:67]. Aristides of Athens (c. 125), the first Apologist, wrote to the Emperor Hadrian, professing the virginal conception as an article of Christian belief (Apol. 2). Justin Martyr, a generation later, interpreted Is 7.14 of the virginal conception (Patrologia Graeca 6:381). Irenaeus proclaimed it a doctrine of the Church received from the Apostles (Adv. haer. 3.21.3–4; Patrologia Graeca 7:945). Origen defended it against the supposedly Jewish calumny of the conception of Jesus through adultery (C. Celsum 1.32; Patrologia Latina 11:720–721). Tertullian, who denied the virginal childbirth and the virginity of Mary after Bethlehem, held the virginal conception as a truth of faith (Corpus scriptorum ecclesiasticorum latinorum 70:17–18). It would be superfluous to cite further, since the witness of the Fathers to the virginal conception is unanimous and unquestioned.
Sacred Scripture. There seems to be no doubt that the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke were later additions to the original body of the apostolic catechesis, the content of which began with the advent of John the Baptist and ended with the Ascension. But this fact in no way hinders the genuineness and authenticity of the place of these narratives in the written Gospels of Matthew and Luke. External and internal criticism render their authenticity certain. The written Gospels were undoubtedly intended to begin with the infancy narratives.
Matthew teaches the supernatural and virginal conception of Jesus by bluntly stating in 1.18 that after betrothal Mary was found pregnant and that her pregnancy was due to the supernatural intervention of the Holy Spirit. Matthew goes on to reaffirm this fact and to establish the legal paternity of Jesus the messiah as son of david
through the medium of Joseph's difficulty arising from the discovery of the pregnancy of his betrothed, in which he had had no part. He is freed from the anguish of his mind by the command of the angel to accept Mary as his wife and thus to establish the legal paternity of Jesus as Son of David by imposing on Him the name Jesus. He receives the assurance of the angel that Mary's conception is the work of the Holy Spirit. "Do not be afraid, Joseph, son of David, to take to thee Mary thy wife, for that which is begotten in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Jesus; for he shall save his people from their sins" (Mt1.20–21). One of the problems in Matthew's narrative is the use of Is 7.14 as a prophecy of the virginal conception. Modern opinion tends to the view that Matthew saw the true meaning of the prophecy only in the light of its fulfillment. The rabbinic interpretation of the prophecy in the era immediately before Christ gives no evidence that a virginal conception of the Messiah was expected, even though the Septuagint (LXX) had rendered the Hebrew ‘almâ (see alma) by παρθένος, the technical word in Greek for virgin. Recent exegesis of the strictly literal sense of the text and comparison with Ugaritic writing tend to confirm this view. It is also confirmed by the fact that much of the early Jewish opposition to Christianity centered on the Virgin Birth. When Matthew sees here the fulfillment of the prophecy, this might possibly be explained on the basis of the somewhat loose rabbinic usage of the term fulfillment.
St. Luke's treatment of the virginal conception is presented in the form of a Midrash, that is, in the form of a meditation on the salvation history against a background of the ideas and terms of the OT. Mary is the culmination of the long line of the devout, humble poor of Israel, the true remnant. She is the handmaid of the Lord, exalting God and exalted by Him because of her humble submission. It is her stupendous privilege to become the true sanctuary of the presence of God in Israel, the true Ark of the Covenant, the mother of the true Emmanuel. God has already shown His power and mercy to the lowly in the miraculous conception of John the Baptist by Elizabeth in her old age. Mary, in the annunciation scene, is greeted by the angel with the joyous proclamation that she is to be the mother of the Messiah. Her reaction poses the problem of her mind. "How shall this happen, since I do not know man?" (Lk 1.34) There is no doubt at all about the meaning of the angel's answer (Lk 1.35). It is that the omnipotence of God will cause the conception of her child and that the conception will therefore be virginal, without any human father.
Theological Reflection. When, after the fact, one looks for reasons, he finds the Fathers of the Church pointing out analogies with the eternal birth of the son of god before all ages. St. Thomas Aquinas, summing up their thought, sees in the virginal human conception a distant reflection of the immaculate purity of the eternal generation of the divine word and a safeguard of the exclusive character of the divine paternity (Summa theologiae 3a, 28.1–3). The avoidance of the transmission of original sin has also been invoked, but the validity of this reason seems open to question.
Virginity in Parturition. The doctrine that Mary remained a virgin in giving birth to Jesus involves the preservation of her bodily virginal integrity intact and her exemption from the ordinary pangs of childbirth. Both features are strongly attested in tradition and are presented as miraculous. The element of the preservation was predominant among the Western Fathers. The element of joy and freedom from the pangs of childbirth was more accentuated in the East. The preservation of bodily integrity is more strongly attested in tradition as a whole. In regard to the manner of preservation, many of the Fathers represent the birth as taking place from the closed womb without its being opened. They use the expression "closed and sealed womb," using the scriptural illustration of the enclosed garden, the sealed fountain (Ct 4.12), and the closed door (Ez 44.1–2). They illustrate it by comparison with the emergence of Christ from the closed sepulcher and His entry into the upper room through closed doors.
Teaching of the Church. The first explicit formulation is found in the letter of the Synod of Milan to Pope Siricius in 390:
But if they do not believe the teaching of the priests let them believe the oracles of Christ, let them believe the admonitions of the angels saying: "For nothing is impossible with God" [Lk 1.37]. Let them believe the Apostles' Creed which the Church of Rome ever guards and preserves inviolate…. This is the virgin who conceived in herwomb and as a virgin bore a son. For thus it is written: "Behold a virgin shall conceive in the womb and shall bear a son" [Is 7.14]. He has said not only that a virgin shall conceive but also that a virgin shall give birth. Now, who is that gate of the temple, that outer gate toward the east, which remains closed "and no-one," he says, "shall pass through it, except the God of Israel alone" [Ez 44.2]? Is not Mary this portal through which the Redeemer entered into this world? … This portal is the blessed Mary of whom it is written that "the Lord shall pass through it and it shall be closed" [Ez 44.2] after birth, because a virgin did conceive and give birth. What then is there impossible of belief if, contrary to the natural way of birth, Mary has given birth and remained a virgin, when contrary to the course of nature, "the sea looked and fled and the waters of the Jordan turned back towards their source" [Ps 113A (114).3]? [St. Ambrose, Epist. 42.4; Patrologia Latina 16:1125–26]
The letter represents the teaching of Ambrose and his suffragans, who signed the letter. It is noteworthy for its references to the Scriptures and to the faith of the Roman Church as expressed in the Apostles' Creed concerning Mary's virginity in parturition.
About 50 years later, in 449, St. Leo the Great, in his letter to Flavian, Archbishop of Constantinople, in preparation for the Council of Chalcedon, stated: "… she brought Him forth without the loss of virginity, even as she conceived Him without its loss…. [Jesus Christwas] born from the virgin's womb, because it was a miraculous birth …" (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum 291, 294). The authoritative statement of the pope and the wholehearted reception of his teaching by the Council manifests the secure acceptance of the belief at that time in both the East and West.
In 649 the Lateran synod, apparently without discussion, included the virginal parturition in its definition of the maternity of Mary:
If anyone does not, in accord with the holy Fathers, acknowledge … that Mary is the holy mother of God, ever virgin and without stain, inasmuch as she specially and truly conceived of the Holy Ghost, without seed, in the fullness of time God the Word Himself, who was born of God the Father before all ages, and without corruption brought Him forth, her virginity remaining intact also after His birth, let him be condemned. (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum 503)
In 1555 Paul IV condemned the denial of the virginity of Mary in, during, and after the birth of Jesus (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum 1880).
Mary's virginity in giving birth is proposed in the Church's liturgy in both the East and the West (J. B. Carol, ed., Mariology 1:200, 208, 236, 260, 278). In the Roman liturgy the Preface of the feasts of the Blessed Virgin proclaimed that she "both conceived her onlybegotten Son by the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit, and, with the glory of her virginity remaining, brought forth into the world the eternal light, Jesus Christ." The doctrine is proposed in some of the major catechisms, such as the Catechism of the Council of Trent.
Tradition. The teaching of the Fathers in both East and West achieved universality and unanimity on this point c. 375 to 425, the period between the decline of Arianism and the outbreak of nestorianism. Their concordant witness is impressive. Zeno of Verona (d. c. 375) uses the triple formula affirming Mary's virginity before, in, and after the birth of Jesus (Patrologia Latina 11:303, 414–415). Ambrose has been cited above. Augustine strongly attests the doctrine (Patrologia Latina 38:1010, 999, 1008, 1019); Peter Chrysologus uses the triple formula (Patrologia Latina 52:521); St. Leo the Great's testimony has been already mentioned. In the East, Proclus, Archbishop of Constantinople (Patrologia Graeca 65:693), Cyril of Alexandria (Patrologia Graeca 76: 1129), John Chrysostom, (Patrologia Graeca 56:390), Theodoret (under Cyril's name in Migne, Patrologia Graeca 75:1460–61), and Ephrem of Syria in his Hymns on Blessed Mary (Hymni de beata Maria, ed. Lamy 2:567), offer abundant witness to the doctrine. Two centuries earlier, the doctrine had not achieved this obligatory character. Tertullian denied it (Corpus scriptorum ecclesiasticorum latinorum 70: 246–247), and perhaps also Origen (see J. B. Carol, ed., Mariology 2:270–271), while Clement of Alexandria affirmed the doctrine, though not as binding. This early state of the doctrine helps to explain why St. Jerome in his time, in his Adversus Helvidium (Patrologia Latina 23:201), described Christ's birth in terms similar to Tertullian's. However, virginity in birth was not the point at issue, and the passage is possibly hypothetical. Jerome's position has remained enigmatic, despite the fact that at the end of his career, in his Dialogus adversus Pelagianos (Patrologia Latina 23:538) and in his letter to Pammachius (Patrologia Latina 22:510), he gives some evidence of rejoining the concord of the Fathers in affirming Mary's virginity in childbirth.
To understand this situation one must remember that Tertullian's denial was an exaggeration of his zeal in defense of the reality of Christ's body against the Docetists. Jovinian's denial was a repercussion of his excessive zeal in exalting marriage to the level of virginity in order to combat the ascetic movement of the time. In regard to the present dogma, the process was completed by the time of the Council of ephesus in 431. The turning point had been the denial of Jovinian, which occasioned the vigorous defense by St. Ambrose.
Patristic evidence for the belief in the earlier centuries is sparse. Clement of Alexandria clearly held the doctrine, though apparently in dependence on the Apocryphals and not as necessary to orthodoxy (Strom. 7.16; Die griechischen christlichen Schriftsteller der ersten drei Jahrhunderte Clem. 3:66). Irenaeus has an allusion to the belief in his Proof of the Apostolic Preaching (Ancient Christian Writers 16:83), in his explanation of Is 66.7, and a possible allusion in his phrase "Purus, pure puram aperiens vulvam" ("the Pure One, purely opening the pure womb") in Adv. haer. 4.33.11 (Patrologia Graeca 7: 1080). Before Irenaeus there is only the faintly possible allusion in Ignatius's letter to the Ephesians: "the virginity of Mary and her childbearing and also of the death of the Lord—three mysteries loudly proclaimed to the world, though accomplished in the stillness of God" (Ancient Christian Writers 1:67).
It would be helpful if one could fill the gap in early tradition by the Apocryphals—the Protoevangelium of James, the Odes of Solomon, and the Vision of Isaia —which recount the story of Mary's virginity in childbirth in great but legendary detail. But they are not patristic testimony. J. C. Plumpe, though recognizing that they are not patristic teaching but evidence of the trends of the Christian piety of the times, nevertheless attaches considerable importance to them as a chain of witnesses for the period between Irenaeus and Ignatius [Theological Studies 9 (1948) 567]. Laurentin, however, considers their influence on the development of the dogma in the 4th century to be negligible. Hence, instead of seeking in vain to fill the gaps in the historical record, it seems better to conclude with Laurentin that the corporal virginity, like the Assumption of the Virgin, is part of a mystery the implications of which are gradually discovered by the intuition of faith.
Sacred Scripture. There is no clear text of Sacred Scripture concerning Mary's virginity in childbirth. G. Jouassard remarks that Anastasius the Sinaite had noted this in the 8th century (Du Manoir 1:138). Ambrose interpreted Is 7.14 to mean virginity in birth as well as in conception. Modern scriptural opinion fails to see this meaning in the literal sense of the text. Consequently, if there is a scriptural basis here, it must be sought in a typical or plenary sense as discerned by tradition. This has not yet been adequately established. The Fathers have rather worked out the privilege as one of Christ's, an anticipation of His Resurrection freedom from subjection to the laws of the corporal world. Mary, too, as the new Eve, blessed among women (Lk 1.28) in contrast with the malediction of the first Eve, is seen by the Fathers as free from the punishments of Gn 3.16, which include the pangs of childbirth. They strongly assert that the birth of Christ, like His conception, was miraculous. There are therefore indications of a basis in Scripture for the belief, but no direct statements. The suggestions that Luke was hinting at the Virgin Birth by mentioning that Mary herself wrapped the child in swaddling clothes and laid Him in a manger (Lk 2.7) are not too convincing. The patristic references to the closed door of Ez 44.1–2 and the sealed fountain of Sg 4.12 are more commonly considered to be no more than accommodations of Sacred Scripture.
Theological Significance. The virginal birth of Christ in the perspective of the Fathers has its primary significance as a privilege of Christ Himself. It reflects the glory of His eternal birth, and it is an anticipated eschatological realization of the new birth of humanity begun in Him. From the standpoint of Mary, it is a privilege of her role as the new Eve, exempt from the curse and sorrows of the first Eve. It is part of her full and intimate sharing in the triumph of her Son over sin and its consequences. It is one of the ways in which she is blessed among women and contrasted with the maledictions of Eve. The perfect preservation of Mary's virginity is also involved in her role as model of virgins, a title with which the Church has saluted her from the early centuries. It is viewed as miraculous, and the ultimate reason for it is not to be sought in natural explanations but in the power of God. The tendency to seek a natural explanation of the parturition has appeared at various times in the history of the dogma. Paschasius Radbertus in the 9th century refuted an error that stated that the birth of Christ had to, and did, take place in the ordinary way of all mothers in order that the birth of Christ might be called a true birth. Durandus, in the 14th century, to bolster his theory of the impossibility of the compenetration of two bodies, explained the birth by a miraculous dilation of the membranes without any loss of corporal integrity. His view was severely censured by many theologians. In the middle of the 20th century, Albert Mitterer, in his Dogma und Biologie der heiligen Familie, took the position that the opening of the womb and its consequences pertain not to virginity but to maternity. The denial of them would seem to derogate from the true maternity of Mary. In so doing, he seems to empty the virginity in parturition of any specific content. Mitterer put forth his views for the consideration of theologians, while recognizing that the definitive word on the matter must be sought in tradition. His views received a sympathetic reception from many theologians but sharp criticism from others.
A similar controversy took place in the United States in 1953–54, in regard to the permissibility of solutions akin to that of Durandus. The reaction to such a suggestion seems to have been preponderantly unfavorable [Homiletic and Pastoral Review 54 (1953) 219–223, 446–447, 636–638; American Ecclesiastical Review 130 (1954) 46–53].
In the course of these controversies more than one writer saw fit to deplore the tendency of abandoning the theological level for the biological. The Holy Office seems to have had this partly in mind when it issued an instruction to the superiors general of religious institutes (July 27, 1960), mentioning that "several theological studies have been published in which the delicate problem of Mary's virginity in partu is dealt with in unbecoming terms and, what is worse, in a manner that is clearly opposed to the traditional doctrine of the Church and to the devotional sense of the faithful."
A number of studies of tradition on this matter, since made, have confirmed abundantly the dogmatic data of the preservation of the bodily integrity and the absence of the pangs of childbirth. Apparently the investigation of the binding dogmatic character of the manner of birth, namely, from the closed womb, has not been so decisive, even though it is the only one proposed by the Fathers and is very frequent in their writings, not only in the 5th century but from then to the end of the patristic age.
Virginity after the Birth of Christ. The meaning of this part of the dogma is that Mary had no conjugal relations or any other voluntary use of the generative faculties after the birth of Christ. Joined to this, in the Catholic concept of the perpetual virginity, though not explicitly part of the dogma as defined, is the "virginity of mind," the motivation and resolve by which virginity is freely chosen for the love and service of God.
Teaching of the Church. This dogma has never been made the object of a direct definition by a general council. However, St. Leo the Great set forth this teaching in his dogmatic letter to Flavian, and it was accepted by the Council of Chalcedon in 451. The Lateran Council of 649 included this belief in its definition of the divine maternity. Although not ecumenical in the strict sense, the Council gave a clear manifestation of the magisterium's ordinary teaching under Pope Martin I. It attested the doctrine of the East and of the West and found acceptance without question in Constantinople III in 681. By that time, the belief had been in possession for two and a half centuries. Subsequent expression of the dogma is found in the profession of faith of Nicephorus of Constantinople, made to Pope Leo II in 811, and in the condemnation of the Unitarian error on this subject in 1555, which repeated the teaching of the Lateran Council.
Fathers. Patristic testimony to this belief appeared earlier than that for Mary's virginity in childbirth, but showed the same overall pattern of development. The doctrine was apparently denied by Tertullian (Corpus scriptorum ecclesiasticorum latinorum 47.393; 70:208–212). Also in the first half of the 3rd century, however, Origen showed the sentiment of the Church in Egypt and Palestine by his statement to the effect that sound doctrine in regard to Mary would not claim that she had any other son than Jesus. Both Origen and Clement of Alexandria explained the "brethren of the Lord" as children of Joseph by a previous marriage, at least in the sense that this was a current opinion of their time. Origen stated that those who held this opinion wished to protect the perpetual virginity of Mary (Die griechischen christlichen Schriftsteller der ersten drei Jahrhunderte 10:21–22). A century later, Hilary of Poitiers characterized adversaries of the perpetual virginity as "irreligious and very far removed from spiritual teaching" (Patrologia Latina 9:921–922). Basil the Great, replying to the denial of the belief by Eunomius, the Arian Bishop of Cyzicus, said that although only Mary's virginity in conception was a binding dogma, nevertheless: "The friends of Christ refuse to admit that the Mother of God ever ceased to be a virgin" (Patrologia Graeca 31:1468). Epiphanius in his Panarion stigmatized the denial of this belief as "unheard of insanity and preposterous novelty" (Patrologia Graeca 42:705). Gregory of Nyssa defended the belief with an appeal to Lk 1.34, which he interpreted as involving the intention of perpetual virginity (Patrologia Graeca 46:1140–41). Zeno of Verona in the same period used the triple formula: "Mary conceived as a virgin incorrupt; after conception she gave birth as a virgin; after childbirth she remained a virgin" (Patrologia Latina 11:414–415).
In the middle of the 4th century the term "ever virgin" was in use and spread rapidly. When Helvidius denied the belief in support of his contention of the equality of marriage and virginity, Jerome replied in his treatise Adversus Helvidium (383), effectively demolishing the arguments of his opponent and solving the objections from Sacred Scripture (Patrologia Latina 23:183–206). When Bonosus, Bishop of Naissus (c. 390), renewed the denial, St. Ambrose defended the belief in his De institutione virginis and was influential in securing the condemnation of Bonosus by the bishops of Illyria. From the close of the 4th century, belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary is recognized as obligatory by the concordant teaching of the Fathers. The triple formula of Mary's virginity before, in, and after the birth of Jesus is standard usage in Augustine (Patrologia Latina 38:1008), Peter Chrysologus (Patrologia Latina 52:521), and Leo the Great (Patrologia Latina 54:195). In the process of this development the influence of the ascetic movement, in the times of both Origen and Jerome, undoubtedly helped to form a climate favorable to the consideration of the perpetual virginity of Mary. The Fathers first saw her virginity after Bethlehem as a belief in consonance with their whole picture of the Mother of Christ. Only later came the increasing penetration that linked it to the other truths of faith as a binding belief. St. Jerome utilized the Scriptures in defense of it. St. Augustine and perhaps St. Gregory of Nyssa saw an implication in Lk 1.34, Mary's reply to the angel: "How shall this happen, since I do not know man?" Augustine was convinced that Mary would not have spoken thus unless she had previously dedicated her virginity to God. This view, though it received somewhat slim patristic support, encountered no denial and received universal acceptance by theologians in the Middle Ages. Cajetan's opinion excepted, it remained the common opinion. That this conviction has a valid basis in the text of Luke, one has Lagrange's statement: "The immense majority of Catholic exegetes has always understood οὐ γινώσκω ("I know not") in an absolute sense, excluding the future as well as the present" (Évangile selon saint Luc, 7th ed., 33). Even Alfred Loisy, the Modernist, recognized the implication in Luke: "Luke represents Joseph and Mary as having the dispositions of two Christian spouses who preserve their continence in marriage" [Les Évangiles synoptiques (Ceffonds 1907) 1:291]. Among recent Catholic exegetes, R. Laurentin contends that, short of twisting the text, such an interpretation is inescapable. A number of Protestant exegetes, though in the minority, agree with the Catholic interpretation (J. B. Carol, ed., Mariology 2:237).
In more recent years the question has come under discussion among Catholics for the first time since Cajetan. Quite a number of Catholic scholars have come to reject the use of Lk 1.34 as implying such a resolution of virginity. There is no intention of impugning the fact of such a resolution on the part of Mary, simultaneous with, or consequent upon, the Annunciation; but there is simply a refusal to see such a resolution implied in Mary's question. No ecclesiastical censure has been imposed on their views, and attention has been called to the fact that the encyclical of Pius XII on virginity [Acta Apostolicae Sedis 46 (1954) 162] has no reference to such a vow in spite of its exaltation of Mary as model of virgins.
The implication of Mary's intention of virginity in Lk 1.34 is the most commonly utilized basis in the sources for the dogma of Mary's perpetual virginity; but it can hardly be the whole basis, since it refers to the intention of virginity, and does not state the fulfillment. Other indications, such as the title virgin, twice used by Luke in the same context, along with the virginal character of Mary in the new-Eve parallel of tradition, are other probable sources of the doctrine.
Recent Discussions. Certain aspects concerning the mystery have been the special subject of theological discussion during recent years. Difficulties have been raised by biblical scholars, Roman Catholic exegetes among them, regarding the historicity of the virginal conception of Christ as recorded in the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke. New theories have been proposed about the interpretation of Mary's virginity in parturition, of her "vow" to remain a virgin throughout life. Some important developments have also taken place in the Christological symbolism and spiritual significance of Mary's virginity.
Historicity. The problems regarding the historicity of Mary's virginal conception center around three main issues: (1) the dubious historical status of the infancy narratives in general; (2) the fact that the rest of the NT is silent in the matter; and (3) the implication in virginal conception of a "high" Christology, since knowledge that he had no human father would have meant a premature realization of his divine origins, a diminution of his humanness according to modern Christological theories. Consequently it has been proposed that the virginal conception is a theologoumenon, i.e. a theological symbol, to support the later Christological belief that Jesus was God's Son from the moment of his conception.
Other Catholic exegetes and theologians have responded to such difficulties in accord with such lines of argumentation as the following. In principle historicity is compatible with any literary genre and the evangelists indeed record the virginal conception as a fact. If Joseph were the human father of Jesus, this certainly would have been made clear in a Jewish narrative which attaches great importance to paternity. Likewise, the silence in the rest of the NT is to be interpreted in favor of the virginal conception's being a fact because reference is never made to Joseph but only to Mary as the parent of Jesus. Further, to exegete the virginal conception as a Christological theologoumenon invented by the early Christians and evangelists is to create the even greater problems of determining whence they derived the notion and how they would reconcile it with their belief that Jesus as the Messiah must be "of the seed of David."
Virgin In Partu. Concerning the virginity of Mary in giving birth to Christ, more recent theologizing avoids the concrete details of birth pangs, etc., as quite irrelevant to the religious meaning of the revealed mystery. Rather, the emphasis is upon Mary as the subject of a unique act of childbearing. She bore her Son as the virginal Mother of God (theotokos ) and the immaculate woman of faith filled with divine grace and free from the influence of any sin and concupiscence. Such an interpretation of the Fathers' sayings about the genetic details represents a development of the dogma. Similarly there is a growing tendency to interpret Lk 1.34, "And Mary said to the angel, 'How can this be, since I have no husband?'," as a Lucan literary device to give Gabriel an opening for the second part of his message, that Mary's conception will be virginal. Unlike these who hold the traditional theory that Mary had vowed to remain a virgin all her life prior to the Annunciation, an increasing number of exegetes are of the opinion that she realized only after it that God willed her perpetual virginity as a total consecration to the service of his Son. Thus Mary is the first person in salvation history, and her spouse Joseph is the second, to choose lifelong virginity out of love for Jesus.
Symbolism of the Virgin Birth. The interpretation of Mary's virginity as a historical reality is in complete conformity with its rich symbolic value, especially in relation to Christ. The theological tradition from Augustine through Aquinas abounds with such reasons of fittingness for Mary's virginity as Christ's having but one Father in heaven and that his members are born of a virgin Church through the spiritual regeneration of Baptism. This Christocentric and ecclesio-typical emphasis is characteristic of contemporary Mariology. Concerning Mary's virginity it helps preclude any interpretation of it as a negative attitude toward sexual love in marriage. At the same time the religious significance of her virginal Motherhood of God is being developed to deepen the Christian doctrines of grace revealed in the complete gratuitousness of the Incarnation and of the eschatological value of consecrated virginity for the sake of God's reign.
See Also: mary, blessed virgin, articles on.
Bibliography: k. schelkle and o. semmelroth, Handbuch theologischer Grundbegriffe, ed. h. fries (Munich 1962–63) 2:111–122. j. b. carol, Mariology, 3 v. (Milwaukee 1954–61). j.g. machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ (New York 1930). r. laurentin, Structure et théologie du Luc I–II (Études bibliques 1957); Court traié de théologie mariale (4th ed. Paris 1959); "Le Mystère de la naissance virginale," Ephemerides Mariologicae 10 (1960) 345–373. d'h. du manoir, ed., Maria, 6 v. (Paris 1949–61). a. mitterer, Dogma und Biologie der heiligen Familie (Vienna 1952). m. j. scheeben, Mariology, tr. t. l. geukers, 2 v. (St. Louis 1946–47). j. j. collins, "Our Lady's Vow of Virginity," The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 5 (1943) 371–380. p. gaechter, "The Chronology from Mary's Betrothal to the Birth of Christ," Theological Studies 2 (1941) 145–170, 347–368. e. p. nugent, "The Closed Womb of the Mother of God," Ephemerides Mariologicae 8 (1958) 249–270. Estudios Marianos 21 (1960). Marian Studies 7 (1956); 12 (1961). [l. g. owens] r. e. brown, The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus (New York 1973). r. e. brown et al., Mary in the New Testament (New York, Philadelphia, Toronto 1978). j. f. craghan, "The Gospel Witness to Mary's 'Ante Partum' Virginity" Marian Studies 21 (1970) 28–68. j. a. fitzmyer, "The Virginal Conception of Jesus in the New Testament," Theological Studies 34 (1973) 541–575. f. m. jelly, "Mary's Virginity in the Symbols and Councils," Marian Studies 21 (1970) 69–93. j. mchugh, The Mother of Jesus in the New Testament (New York 1975). m. miguens, The Virgin Birth: An Evaluation of Scriptural Evidence (Westminister, Md. 1975). k rahner, "Virginitas in Partu: A Contribution to the Problem of the Development of Dogma and of Tradition," Theological Investigations 4, tr. k. smyth (Baltimore 1966) 134–162.
[l. g. owens/
f. m. jelly]
In Christianity, virgin birth assumed a special centrality parallel to the role of virginity itself. Christ assumed human form, that is became incarnate, when the Word of God penetrated Mary, a virgin, and thus made her fertile. (Some early sources suggest that Mary herself had been conceived without intercourse on the part of her mother Anna; this is the Immaculate Conception and not virgin birth.) Paul mentions only that Jesus was born from a woman (Galatians 4: 4); but the Gospels of Matthew (1: 18–25) and Luke (1: 26–38) emphasize that no human was involved in his conception: God himself, through his Spirit, generated his Son. Interpretations of this phenomenon vary widely, and were subject of many debates throughout the first centuries of Christianity. At stake was, for example, whether or not Mary had been a virgin before, during, or again after her birth; this was relevant in order to ascertain whether Christ had just assumed the form of a human being temporarily, or had fully become human. Since the councils of Ephesos (431) and Chalcedon (451), Mary is seen as theotokos, as ‘God-bearer’, and therefore as having been a virgin at all stages. The great medieval scholar Thomas Aquinas, among many others, re-examined the pro and contra of this definition, and declared that Mary must have been a virgin because of the ‘honour of the Father, who sent Christ’, and the ‘nature of the Son’, that is their divinity — however, he did not think that Mary was a virgin while giving birth. Mary's virginity despite her motherhood remained a central and well-liked tenet of faith in Christianity. It was not challenged in the Reformation, though the reform principles considerably lessened its centrality, together with that of Mary herself. However, as a symbol of Christ's divinity, and as such a unique act, his virgin birth retains its theological power.
See also Christianity and the body; virginity.
Virgin Birth of Christ
Among modern Christians belief in the virgin birth is often taken as a touchstone of orthodoxy, both by Catholics, for whom it is involved with mariology, and Protestants. Some liberal theologians have criticized the doctrine as setting Christ's humanity apart from ours. They have also drawn attention to the widespread claim of virgin births in many religions (e.g. Mahāmāyā and the Buddha, Kuntī/Pṛtha and Karna, Zoroaster and the saviour, Saoshyant), and have suggested that this is a reverential theme introduced for apologetic reasons. Even stronger criticisms have been made by feminist writers and theologians, who point out that Mary is not even accorded the participation of parthenogenesis if perpetual virginity (see above) is affirmed.