Why do Catholics care about the perpetual Virginity of Mary? And does the doctrine make any sense, or does it just reflect an unhealthy disdain for marital sex?
Now, I should clarify here that I’m not focusing today on whether Mary was a virgin throughout her life. The best evidence for that is (1) her strange response to the Archangel Gabriel’s declaration that she and her husband were going to have a child (Luke 1:34); (2) the fact that the couple remained celibate throughout the pregnancy, despite not being told to do so by the angel (Matthew 1:24-25); (3) the fact that the so-called “brothers” of Jesus have different mothers and fathers than He does (and therefore, are obviously not literally His half-siblings); (4) the fact that Jesus entrusts her to the care of St. John, a non-relative, on Good Friday, which would be unthinkable if she had children with whom she could live (John 19:26-27); (5) the Temple Gate prophecy of Ezekiel 44; and (6) virtually unanimous Christian witness from the earliest days of the Church (so much so that even those writing against the doctrine are forced to concede the existence of the “tradition being very loud supporting the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity”).
Rather, today, I want to look at the why of Mary’s perpetual virginity: both why she was a virgin, and why Catholics care. After all, why shouldn’t a married woman, like St. Mary, engage in sexual relations with her husband? Such relations aren’t just not sinful: they’re good. The Bible says from the start that the two sexes exist because “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Genesis 1:18). In light of that, the Catholic interest in celibacy in general, and in the perpetual Virginity of Mary in particular, looks sort of creepy and unhealthy… not to mention, entirely unbiblical. GotQuestions is hardly alone when it roots its arguments against Mary’s perpetual virginity in an ad hominem attack on the Catholic Church’s allegedly unbiblical views on sexuality:
It is the official position of the Roman Catholic Church that Jesus’ mother Mary remained a virgin for her entire life. Is this concept biblical? Before we look at specific Scriptures, it is important to understand why the Roman Catholic Church believes in the perpetual virginity of Mary. The Roman Catholic Church views Mary as “the Mother of God” and “Queen of Heaven.” Catholics believe Mary to have an exalted place in Heaven, with the closest access to Jesus and God the Father. Such a concept is nowhere taught in Scripture. Further, even if Mary did occupy such an exalted position, her having sexual intercourse would not have prevented her from gaining such a position. Sex in marriage is not sinful. Mary would have in no way defiled herself by having sexual relations with Joseph her husband. The entire concept of the perpetual virginity of Mary is based on an unbiblical teaching, Mary as Queen of Heaven, and on an unbiblical understanding of sex.
But is this a good understanding of the Catholic understanding of sexuality and virginity? And is the Church’s real understanding actually unbiblical? The answer to both questions is resoundingly negative (the other stuff, about Mary as Queen of Heaven, is simply an irrelevant non sequitur, so I’m focusing only on the two cogent arguments being raised).
To answer the first, that Catholics think that there’s something inherently sinful or dirty about sex, I’d point to the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony. Unlike most Protestants, Catholics believe that marriage isn’t just a good, but an actual Sacrament, a channel of God’s grace. The Code of Canon Law describes it this way:
The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life and which is ordered by its nature to the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring, has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament between the baptized.
And (with all of the romance you might imagine from the Code of Canon Law), it’s clear that the consummation of marriage is brought about through sexual intercourse:
A valid marriage between the baptized is called ratum tantum if it has not been consummated; it is called ratum et consummatum if the spouses have performed between themselves in a human fashion a conjugal act which is suitable in itself for the procreation of offspring, to which marriage is ordered by its nature and by which the spouses become one flesh.
So marital sex isn’t just not bad, it’s good, and it’s what marriage is ordered to by its nature, and it’s what makes the two spouses become one flesh. And of course, the lived experience of faithful Catholics bears out the reality of this teaching: devout Catholic families are frequently (and famously) large families, not exactly running away from marital intercourse.
At this point, your confusion on the Virgin Mary might have deepened. If marital sex isn’t bad, if it is indeed good, why wouldn’t the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph have an ordinary sexual relationship?
Because as highly exalted as marriage and marital sex are, there’s an even higher good of virginity. Jesus Christ says as much in Matthew 19:10-12, after presenting the Christian teaching on the indissolubility of marriage:
The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is not expedient to marry.” But he said to them, “Not all men can receive this precept, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it.”
So some people are given the grace to live celibately for the sake of the Kingdom of God, and the one is able to, should. The obvious question at this point should be, does that include the Virgin Mary? Or is Christ calling His celibate followers to a higher state of life than the one to which He called the Mother of God?
St. Paul likewise presents virginity as an even higher good than marriage: “he who marries his betrothed does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better.” And one of the reasons that he gives is that the celibate is able to focus fully on the Lord , without the worldly troubles that naturally result from family life (1 Corinthians 7:27-28, 32-34):
Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek marriage. But if you marry, you do not sin, and if a girl marries she does not sin. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that. […] I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman or girl is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please her husband.
But how does this apply to the Virgin Mary? After all, she was undoubtedly married. From the time of the the earliest Christians forward, it was understood that she lived both of these seemingly-contradictory things. How? By having a single Son who is God. So her focus on her family didn’t distract her from the things of the Lord because her family was literally centered around the Lord Himself. It’s this that makes the Holy Family unique: Joseph and Mary are married for the exact same reason that religious celibates remain unmarried – to give their attention fully and completely to God.
But it’s the Book of Revelation that presents one of the clearest reasons for why Mary was perpetually a Virgin. It’s Revelation 14:1-5, in which St. John reports this vision of the 144,000:
Then I looked, and lo, on Mount Zion stood the Lamb, and with him a hundred and forty-four thousand who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads. And I heard a voice from heaven like the sound of many waters and like the sound of loud thunder; the voice I heard was like the sound of harpers playing on their harps, and they sing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders. No one could learn that song except the hundred and forty-four thousand who had been redeemed from the earth. It is these who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are chaste; it is these who follow the Lamb wherever he goes; these have been redeemed from mankind as first fruits for God and the Lamb, and in their mouth no lie was found, for they are spotless.
At first blush, this sounds anti-sex and anti-woman. It’s not. The point of the passage is that these are the celibates who have been set aside entirely for God. They are purely and completely dedicated to Him. The word “holy” properly means “consecrated” or “dedicated or devoted to the service of God, the church, or religion.” It’s a thing given to God entirely. And the Jews recognized from the start that it was wrong to take a holy thing and use it for ordinary purposes.
Take the Ark of the Covenant, for example. The Glory of God overshadowed the Ark, and it was where God would visit His people in a unique way. It was therefore too holy to be touched (2 Samuel 6:6-7), much less used as a bookshelf. In saying that, we’re not saying anything against bookshelves. They’re perfectly good (as a nerd, I have a healthy respect for bookshelves). But we are recognizing that there’s a higher good at play, and that mingling the sacred and profane (in the literal sense of “unholy, not consecrated”). So it is with the Virgin Mary. St. Luke in particular presents her as the Ark of the New Covenant. If the old Ark was too holy even to touch, how much more was the new Ark, Mary, bodily consecrated to God?
Returning to the 144,000, they are virgins because they’re consecrated to God. But their exterior, bodily consecration to God – their exterior holiness – was itself a sign of a more important, interior consecration. They were externally “undefiled” as a symbol of the fact that they were spiritually “spotless.” So it is with the Virgin Mary.
So to recap:
- Jesus and St. Paul present virginity as the highest state of life, above even marriage (which is itself good, and glorifies God).
- Virginity and celibacy are good because they permit the individual to focus entirely upon God.
- Heaven honors those whose exterior consecration to God, in the form of celibate virginity, manifested their interior consecration to God, spiritual spotlessness.
Given this, it makes sense both that (a) the Virgin Mary would be called to this sort of radical consecration, and that (b) Christians would care about Mary’s perpetual Virginity, and its connection to her sinlessness. She was given a unique role in salvation history. The life-giving Flesh of Christ was taken from her and God Himself was nourished in her womb. Unsurprisingly, we see Mary as radically consecrated to God both interiorly and exteriorly, physically and spiritually virginal.
And it’s possible to say all of this without in any way belittling the authentic good of marriage. Quite the contrary, the greater the good of marriage, the greater the good its voluntary renunciation for the sake of the Kingdom of God: just as the good of fasting presupposes the goodness of eating, the good of celibate virginity presupposes the goodness of marital intercourse.