This is the text of a paper I wrote for my Origins of the Catholic Faith class:
Marian theology is perhaps one of the hardest aspects of the Catholic Faith for almost any type of Protestant to grasp. Indeed, for most of my tenure as an Anglo-Catholic I found it elusive, though I was open to learning, and in fact wanted to understand why the Church found it so important. By varying degrees, I came to an understanding and then eventually belief in the different dogmas. The Assumption was never particularly troublesome given that other figures in the Bible besides Christ, such as Elijah, had been taken into heaven. The Immaculate Conception was much harder to grasp as it seemed to impinge upon the uniqueness of Christ from the framework from which I was operating. Eventually, a Catholic friend of mine was able to explain it in a way I could grasp. However, far and away the most difficult dogma for me to grasp was the perpetual virginity of Mary. In this brief paper I will discuss the objections I once had to this dogma, the resolution I found to them and the significance which Mary’s perpetual virginity plays.
In his book Hail Holy Queen, Scott Hahn points out some of the common objections to the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity. The first objection, which I have found most non-Catholics immediately point to, is the references in parts of the New Testament to Jesus’ “brethren.”1. Hahn points out that this is a non-issue, as, in Hebrew culture, the word for “brother” has a broader meaning than in English, incorporating cousins as well as half and step-siblings.2. Indeed, my first semester of college, I discovered that this bears out when I took an anthropology class and learned that different language and culture groups have varying systems of greater and lesser complexity designating relationships within a family, and that the particular system Hahn describes here seems to be fairly typical of cultures which speak Semitic languages such as Hebrew and Aramaic.3. The other common objection, which was the bigger stumbling block for me, was Matthew 1:25 which says that Joseph “knew her not until she had borne a son,” which seems to imply that Joseph “knew” (a common Hebrew expression for sexual intercourse) Mary at some point. Hahn cites examples of Church Fathers in the fourth and fifth centuries such as Epiphanius and Jerome addressing these objections.4. St. Jerome argues that the use of the word “until” does not imply that an action has to occur- such as when Jesus said He is with us until the end of the age; that does not mean that when the age ends, He will cease to be with us.5. My primary concern here, which I did not feel this addressed, was a concern that perhaps some rigorously ascetical Gnostic thinking which thought marital relations were intrinsically wrong had somehow crept into the thinking of the Church. My desire was to understand why the Church held this doctrine and why it was important.
At this point, I came across another book which in its own way resolved my concerns which reading Scott Hahn’s book had not answered. John Maximovitch, a saint of the Russian Orthodox Church, wrote a book on the Eastern Orthodox approach to Mary. In the introduction by Fr. Seraphim Rose, himself a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy raised in a Protestant family, Fr. Rose discusses his own experience dealing with skepticism about Marian doctrine, and how the words of one sincere abbess “struck him to the heart” that one had to trust the Church.6
With tears she entreated her nuns and the pilgrims who had come for the feast to accept entirely what the Church hands down to us, taking such pains to preserve this tradition sacredly all these centuries – and not to choose for oneself what is “important” and what is “dispensable”; for by thinking oneself wiser than the tradition, one may end by losing the tradition.7
I was myself struck by this in relation to Mary’s perpetual virginity because even though I was trying to be faithful, I was guilty of picking and choosing in a sense, given that on the whole I had found that the Catholic Church had faithfully proclaimed and defended the Faith, and had, moreover, wrestled with the deepest challenges brought to her faithfully and reasonably. So on reading this, I could not but submit to the Church’s wisdom in this regard, trusting that her reasons were as sound here as elsewhere in matters of the faith, and that surely Gnostic thought had nothing to do with why She held Mary’s ever-virginity as important.
Maximovitch himself presented the same arguments that Scott Hahn did in the section specifically pertaining to the perpetual virginity.8 However, elsewhere, he made an argument which I felt really spoke to my concerns, as he presented it that Mary consecrated herself to virginity out of humility and a realization of the frailty of her humanity and of her utter dependence upon God.
The Virgin Mary, having Given Herself entirely up to God, even though She repulsed from Herself every impulse to sin, still she felt the weakness of human nature more powerfully than others and ardently desired the coming of the Saviour. In Her humility She considered Herself unworthy to be even the servant-girl of the Virgin Who was to give Him birth. So that nothing might distract her from prayer and heedfulness to Herself, Mary gave to God a vow not to become married, in order to please only Him Her whole life long.9
Clearly in this line of thinking is not the anti-incarnational, proud spirituality of the Gnostics, but an image consistent with the humble Virgin of the Gospels who says “Be it done to me according to your word.”
My concerns about Gnosticism thus laid aside, and having accepted the traditional teaching of the Church regarding Mary’s perpetual virginity, the question as to why it was important remained. For me, no easy answers in this regard came, but I would simply reflect occasionally upon what I had read about Marian theology. Even in preparing to write this paper and looking back over the books discussed above – and particularly Scott Hahn’s book – I realize how much rich material I had already imbibed which prepared me for fruitful reflection on the significance of Mary’s perpetual virginity. In the book The Teaching of Christ it is put simply and eloquently when it says:
Accepting by faith Mary’s perpetual virginity as a fact, one should humbly seek out the meaning that makes it a fruitful mystery and much more than a physical fact…We are not dealing here with simply physiological questions, or signs and wonders; what is in question is an important part of God’s plan of redemption. Unless we see this we might miss the meaning of Mary’s virginity. Moreover, to interpret the dogma as a purely spiritual symbol or as a myth would be to fail to recognize the crucial historical dimension of Christian faith. Our faith seeks to contemplate the significance of real historical events.10
The Church has a rich scriptural tradition regarding the Blessed Virgin Mary. Scott Hahn points out that the early Church – even within the New Testament – understood “Mary and Jesus to be a reprise of the God’s first creation. Saint Paul spoke of Adam as a type of Jesus (Rom. 5:14) and of Jesus as the new Adam, or the “last Adam” (1 Cor. 15:21-22, 45-49).”11. Quickly, the Church saw Mary as the New Eve, as both Saints Justin Martyr and Irenaeus of the second century argued.12 As Scott Hahn puts it, borrowing the language of Genesis regarding Eve, “The New Eve… fulfills the promise of the old to be, more perfectly, the mother of all the living.”13 Scripturally, it is important to note that Jesus several times addresses Mary as “Woman,” echoing Adam’s naming of Eve in the original creation before the Fall.14
Another significant scriptural theme is the Ark of the Covenant as a typological sign of the Blessed Virgin. Indeed, Scott Hahn notes that at the end of Revelation 11 it speaks of the Ark of the Covenant appearing in the heavenly temple, and immediately it goes on to speak in the following verses of the sign of a woman: “John has shown us the ark of the covenant – and it is a woman.”15 It is generally accepted that this woman on one level represents the Church “which labors to give birth to believers in every age.”16 Tying in with the theme of the New Eve – the mother of all the living – and connected with this sign of the Church, Mary can be seen as the perfect type of the Church.
“If…Christ and ecclesia are the hermeneutical center of the scriptural narration, then and only then is the place fixed where Mary’s motherhood becomes theologically significant as the ultimate personal concretization of Church. At the moment where she pronounces her Yes, Mary is Israel in person; she is the Church in person as a person.”17
Here then is where we find deep theological significance to Mary’s perpetual Virginity. Like the Church, and as Her perfect type as Mother of all Christians, Mary is a Virgin mother who labors through her intercessions for the “birth and formation of divine life in the souls of the redeemed.”18 The eschatological dimension becomes important here – along with the closely related dogma of the Assumption – as we look forward to that day when God will bring to consummation the fullness of the plans for His Virgin Bride, the Church, in the new creation. Since we believe that Mary was raised in Christ body and soul into heaven, the Second Vatican Council notes in Lumen Gentium that:
…The Mother of Jesus in the glory she possesses in body and soul in heaven is the image and beginning of the Church as it is to be perfected in the world to come. Likewise she shines forth on earth, until the day of the Lord shall come (cf. 2 Pet. 3:10), a sign of certain hope and comfort to the pilgrim people of God.19
Moreover, Joseph Ratzinger sees Marian theology and her perpetual virginity as corrective to many of the errors we see today concerning sexuality and the human person.20
“Mary’s virginity, no less than her maternity, confirms that the “biological” is human, that the whole man stands before God, and that the fact of being human only as male and female is included in faith’s eschatological demand and its eschatological hope. It is no accident that virginity – although as a form of life it is also possible, and intended for, the man – is first patterned on the woman, the true keeper of the seal of creation, and has its normative, plenary form – which the man can, so to say, only imitate – in her.”21
This is only a cursory glance at some of the rich implications of the dogma of Mary’s perpetual virginity. However, it never ceases to amaze me how God can use precisely those areas which are stumbling blocks, such as Marian theology to one from a Protestant background, to lead one into a richer and more proper understanding of the Faith, of which the Marian dogmas, such as Mary’s perpetual virginity, are in fact a beautiful safeguard.
Hahn, Scott. Hail Holy Queen: The Mother of God in the Word of God. New York: Doubleday, 2001.
Maximovitch, St. John. The Orthodox Veneration of Mary The Birthgiver of God. 6th ed. Trans. Fr. Seraphim Rose. Platina, CA: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 2004.
Ratzinger, Joseph Cardinal, and Hans Urs Von Balthasar. Mary: The Church at the Source. Trans. Adrian Walker. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005.
The Second Vatican Council. “Lumen Gentium.” 1964. Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents. New Revised Edition. Ed. Austin Flannery, O.P. Vol. 1. Northport, NY: Costello Publishing Compnay, Inc., 1996.
Wuerl, Bishop Donald W., Ronald Lawler, Thomas Lawler and Kris Stubna. The Teaching of Christ: A Catholic Catechism for Adults. 5th Ed. Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor , Inc., 2005.
1. Hahn, 103-104.
2. Hahn, 104.
3. I do not have access to the textbook to cite the specific section since I have not owned a copy of it since December 2003, however it would be one of the prior editions to this textbook:
Ember, Carol R., Melvin R. Ember, and Peter N. Peregrine. Anthropology. 13th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2010.
4. Hahn, 105-107.
5. Hahn, 105-106.
6. Maximovitch, 11-12.
7. Maximovitch, 11.
8. Maximovitch, 31-33.
9. Maximovitch, 65.
10. Wuerl, 100.
11. Hahn, 32.
12. Hahn, 39-43
13. Hahn, 59.
14. Hahn, 37.
15. Hahn, 51-55
16. Hahn, 55.
17. Ratzinger and Von Balthasar, 30.
18. Wuerl, 101; Ratzinger and Von Balthasar, 58-59.
19. Lumen Gentium, 68
20. Ratzinger and Von Balthasar, 31-33.
21. Ratzinger and Von Balthasar, 33