Why Care About the Perpetual Virginity of Mary?

Simone Martini, Annunciation Triptych (1333)
Simone Martini, Annunciation Triptych (1333)

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:

  1. Jesus and St. Paul present virginity as the highest state of life, above even marriage (which is itself good, and glorifies God).
  2. Virginity and celibacy are good because they permit the individual to focus entirely upon God.
  3. 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.

18 Comments

  1. The first part of the post was rather well done, but there is a strong element of cognitive dissonance creeping in the second half of the post. If you would have ended by describing marital sex as good, then it would have been a strong argument. The juxtaposition of the sacrament of marriage with “an even higher good of virginity” raises all kinds of questions about the nature and function of the seven Roman sacraments, but I will spare you all my heretical Lutheran questions for today. Rather, the Catholic Catechism seems to be saying something different than Joe is here about the two. “Both the sacrament of Matrimony and virginity for the Kingdom of God come from the Lord himself. It is he who gives them meaning and grants them the grace which is indispensable for living them out in conformity with his will. Esteem of virginity for the sake of the kingdom and the Christian understanding of marriage ARE INSEPARABLE, AND THEY REINFORCE EACH OTHER” (page 422, line 1620 of the Catechism, with emphasis added)

    A better way to articulate all of this is Vocation. We can better understand Jesus and Paul’s words about marriage and virginity under the guidance of vocation. It is not that one is better than the other. Neither should one be esteemed above the other or called a “higher good.” God calls us all to various ministries, stations in life, and family situations. Joe’s call of celibacy is a fine vocation because he is called by God, but the factory worker, teacher, garbage truck driver, and governor all have a valid calling (vocation) from God as well. I am deeply shaped by a Lutheran understanding of vocation, and Joe is deeply shaped by a Roman understanding of vocation. It should be no surprise that the man aspiring to a celibate life dedicated to God would see it as a higher good and the man who has embraced the married life would see it as equally valid.

    1. Christ doesn’t beat around the bush in praising Mary’s contemplation as higher than Martha’s activity, and He does this without condemning St. Martha. Likewise, both Jesus and St. Paul clearly present virginity as an even better good than marriage… without condemning marriage in any way.

      The Catechism agrees with this point. CCC 1620 goes on to say “Whoever denigrates marriage also diminishes the glory of virginity. Whoever praises it makes virginity more admirable and resplendent. What appears good only in comparison with evil would not be truly good. The most excellent good is something even better than what is admitted to be good.

      That’s my exact point at the end of this point: “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.”

      The Catechism also (in CCC 506) makes the connection between Mary’s virginity and the purity of her faith and devotion: “Mary is a virgin because her virginity is the sign of her faith ‘unadulterated by any doubt’, and of her undivided gift of herself to God’s will. It is her faith that enables her to become the mother of the Savior: ‘Mary is more blessed because she embraces faith in Christ than because she conceives the flesh of Christ.'”‘

      There’s also no contradiction between saying that virginity is objectively higher, while acknowledging that it might not be a particular individual’s calling. That’s why Christ says “Not all men can receive this precept, but only those to whom it is given. […] He who is able to receive this, let him receive it.” Even your occupational example suggests this. A pastor of souls is called to an objectively higher good than someone called to be a garbage truck driver,* but that doesn’t mean that everyone is called to be a pastor or that no one is called to be a garbageman.

      I.X.,

      Joe

      *To deny this would seem to suggest that tending to human souls is of no higher value than tending to garbage.

  2. I will certainly yield to on the understanding of Catholic Catechism.

    With human eyes, it might seem like being a priest or pastor is of greater importance than being a garbage man. Yet, it is God who has called both and sees both with greater vision than what we have. All have been called, and all are part of the body of Christ. St. Paul argues that all are needed for the body of Christ, with each member having a part and belonging to the whole. “But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.” ~1 Cor 12:18-20

    We should probably argue this over some BBQ. I will facebook about getting together in person before you leave for the summer.

    1. That’s definitely not fair! You can’t just mention that you fellows will be talking theology over a BBQ and simply exclude us!

      1. If they want to get the theology right, they should probably argue over a 6 day fast…like St. Antony of Egypt used to do. 🙂

    2. This response is to be treasured for it exhibits in very few words the galactic distance between Christianity of Divine Revelation abs the amthropocentrism of Lutheranism into which morass the modernists have plunged us

      The Lutheran rev does not understand Holy Orders and the change effected in its recipient

      1. Hmmm. Perhaps this can be resolved by an appeal to the ordo caritatis, no?
        Whilst the cure of souls is objectively a greater good than the collection of garbage, St Thérèse of Lisieux correctly reminds us that small things done with great love work towards and participate in the salvation of the world (when united in Faith and Hope) to the sacrificial Charity of Christ.
        Accordingly, a garbage man might well be at a higher level of charity than the priest (only God can judge) and so, in Heaven, will enjoy a greater and more intense degree of beatitude than the one ordained with the priestly character.

        And let’s be careful neither to reduce the priesthood to a mere function (an ontological change does occur) nor an excessive maximising of what being ‘in persona christi’ means: it is efficacious, then, when the priest is doing the soteriological work of the sacraments and activities on view to that finality. A more maximising line ends up with the absurdities of the École Française on this question viz a priest ALWAYS acts in persona christi after his ordination. So, when he blows his nose, it is in persona christi… Well, you get my point.

        In relation to Our Lady’s Perpeptual Virginity I think we need to be eschatological about this. Our Lady is the culmination of both Virginal Bride and Fruitful Mother. Other commentators have correctly identified that she is All God’s – and St Joseph would have understood this and not sought relations with her. Our Lady is the culmination of Israel Faithful Bride (at last!) of a Faithful Husband – God – which is what all of human history is on view to (the Mariage Feast of the Lamb). It’s a wedding feast – the Bride is Virginal. And, crucially, SO IS THE BRIDEGROOM. So, in some way, virginity must reflect something of the nature of God. And my intuition tells me it is something to do with newness: Behold I make all things new. I am the Alpha… Newness here in that timeless ‘now’ of God’s Being and newness in that Chestertonian sense of ‘we have sinned and are older than our Father.’ So, innocent, therefore. But not because sex is a bad thing, a guilty thing. But because virginity is that state of seeing and being for the first time.
        But Our Lady is also the fulfilment of Eve’s vocation to be Mother of the living – in this case Mother of the One who is Life itself – and through Him of all sinners at the foot of the Cross.
        Accordingly, the Virginal Mother is very important since the Church herself must be entirely dedicated to Our Lord (and no other ‘husband’) whilst also fruitful in having many members.
        Moreover, on a purely pastoral level I think it rather appropriate that Our Lady ‘understands’ both being a parent and being a (celibate) virgin for those who seek her intercession.

        Lastly it might be worth distinguishing between the non-vowed celibacy of secular clergy and the vowed chastity of religious men and women. It is the latter that expresses more perfectly the virginity of Our Lord (and Our Lady) with all of its religious implications. Clerical celibacy of the non-religious secular clergy is a discipline, a requirement. It is not the same thing as the chaste priest of a religious priest. It is not part of the essence of the priesthood: since the Church in her non-latin branches accepts married clergy – amongst the Maronites and Melkites and the Ordinariate, for example. It is fitting – eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven – that the Lord’s Priests be celibate but it needs to be distinguished from the priestly character that ordination confers on their soul and which is neither dependent nor affected by the celibacy of the recipient.

        Just my two bits.

  3. It’s helpful, I’ve found, to emphasize that virginity is worse than marriage naturally. Naturally speaking, virginity is just a lack–a state of lacking a certain biological fulfillment. Virginity is higher than marriage *only* because, as St. John Paul (and Jesus!) said, it is “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:12). In that passage of Matthew, Jesus contrasts marriage, which is from the beginning, with consecrated virginity, which is both from and for the kingdom of heaven. Christ clearly affirms–as His main point–that marriage is good; but by the very nature of the comparison He makes, the second term must be better than the first. (And, of course, if both states are good and necessary, they must necessarily reinforce each other.)

    Further, in the Theology of the Body (79), St. John Paul points out that to understand *why* virginity can be uniquely “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven,” to understand why it’s not simply one penitential renunciation among other possibilities, we have to look to the theme of marriage between Christ and the Church: consecrated virginity is a way of participating directly in this eschatological marriage, of giving oneself to “the Bridegroom of the Church, Bridegroom of souls” (79.9) in anticipation of the day when “God will be all in all” and “they neither marry nor are given in marriage” (1 Cor. 15:28; Matt. 22:30). (If one considers this deeply, it is becomes almost unthinkable that the Mother of God should not been a perpetual virgin.)

    And as St. Paul says, a consecrated celibate must be “anxious about what is the Lord’s” (1 Cor. 7:32). St. John Paul says that entails a concern for “the whole world” and especially “the Church and everything that contributes toward its growth” (TOB 83:8). So consecrated celibates, by the nature of their vocation, must care for and support the married–and even encourage marriage!

    * * *

    It is quite clear from the Bible that, in general, certain gifts have greater dignity than others, although they are nonetheless all good and necessary, true gifts that reinforce each other. This is the whole thrust of St. Paul’s metaphor of the body in 1 Corinthians 12. (Indeed, he says that “those parts of the body which we think less honorable we invest with the greater honor” [1 Cor. 12:23], indicating again that the higher vocations by nature serve the lower! As Jesus said, “He who is greatest among you shall be your servant” [Matt. 23:11].) And St. Paul does not hesitate to speak explicitly of “higher gifts” (1 Cor. 12:31).

    1. Thank you, Ruben, for your comment. I appreciate the idea of various callings (celibacy and marriage) reinforcing each other as both are good.

  4. One question I have is: To what degree would Mary have been considered to be ‘married to God’ due in consequence to the acceptance of her proposal by means of St. Gabriel and the consequent incarnation of God into this world?

    She herself might have had the same question in mind, as well as St. Joseph.

    When a woman becomes pregnant, and sin is not involved, it would be presumed that the pregnancy is a consequence of being married to the father of the child. If the child has part of the characteristics of the father and part of the mother and the same child publicly identifies his parents as ‘father’ and ‘mother’; and excluding sin, would it not signify in some real way, THOUGH IT MIGHT BE SPIRITUAL that they were indeed ‘married’ mysterious though it may be?

    I would think that Mary considered this, and hence would be very careful not to offend God the Father by having any type of physical intimacy with St. Joseph. And St. Joseph also, being termed a ‘just man’, I think would have been very sensitive regarding Mary’s singular relationship with the God, would also have opted for a celibate relationship.

    With the entire Holy Family, Jesus, Mary and Joseph, there are life circumstances very much out of the ordinary that must be considered. The Holy Family is in a category, or order, of their own. One Catholic author, writing about 100 years ago and with an imprimatur on his work, termed the order of the Holy Family as ‘the order of the ‘Hypostatic Union’. And he makes a lot of sense in his treatise defining the Holy Family in this way.

    In all ways, Mary must be distinguished from other people; and mainly for this reason: She was categorically described, defined, and named by an Archangel as “Full of Grace”. Who else besides Jesus has ever been so described in the history of the world? And I think when an Archangel uses the adjective ‘full’, it is because it signifies ‘full’ .

    So, actually, I think Mary’s perpetual virginity is easier to understand than the virginity of any other Christian Saint in history. Her reasons and motives for such virginity are clearly greater.

  5. Does anyone consider that Mary’s primary vocation in life seems to be that of keeping the knowledge of Jesus ‘top secret’ until ‘His hour’ had finally come wherein it was proper that He might be known publicly? (and fulfilled at Cana). And this public revelation of Jesus was to be a full 30 years after His birth? Moreover, that hundreds of babies in Bethlehem had been murdered very shortly after the birth of Jesus, due to the loose lips of the visiting Magi, could only have multiplied the concern of Mary and Joseph for Jesus’ safety in the future.

    Is this not another reason why Mary would choose to stay a virgin? Her job of protecting Jesus was already an exceedingly difficult one, and with other children it would have been exponentially harder for her. She would have needed to keep the secret even from these other potential children also.

    These are just some practical considerations concerning motives that the Mother of God might have had regarding her vocation of perpetual virginity.

  6. To reinforce the idea that Joseph and Mary’s special vocation(including celibacy) was highly focused on the safety of Jesus, it is for this very concern that they decided to live in Nazareth instead of Joseph’s town of Bethlehem:

    “…behold an angel of the Lord appeared in sleep to Joseph in Egypt, [20] Saying: Arise, and take the child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel. For they are dead that sought the life of the child.

    [21] Who arose, and took the child and his mother, and came into the land of Israel. [22] But hearing that Archelaus reigned in Judea in the room of Herod his father, he was afraid to go thither: and being warned in sleep retired into the quarters of Galilee. [23] And coming he dwelt in a city called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was said by prophets: That he shall be called a Nazarene.” (Matt. 2:19)

    We might further reflect on the great obscurity of town of Nazareth at that time, making it a perfect place to keep a very low profile. Consider the words of Nathanael, the 5th apostle to follow Jesus, on hearing of Jesus’ home town:

    “Philip findeth Nathanael, and saith to him: We have found him of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets did write, Jesus the son of Joseph of Nazareth. [46] And Nathanael said to him: Can any thing of good come from Nazareth?

    With such a concern for Jesus and His physical safety, and with the real possibility that future escapes might again be needed to protect Him, does it not seem reasonable that both decided to remain celibate (for the Kingdom of God) and focus on their primary objective??

  7. This entire thread is very helpful as I try to understand the Doctrine of Mary’s Perpetual Virginity and its importance. I am still working on apprehending the importance of this doctrine.The importance of the virgin birth is clear to me. But it seems to me that Mary’s calling is not to virginity but to marriage and motherhood. I say this not to argue but as I try to understand. So I wonder if anyone here might address the unique situation of God calling Mary and Joseph to a celibate marriage?

    1. After re-reading the comments above, I think you have addressed my question about Mary and Joseph’s marriage. Thank you. Any further thoughts on why this doctrine is important to teach are still appreciated.

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