We as Catholics firmly believe that Mary is “ever virgin.” The Catechism asserts, “The deepening of faith in the virginal motherhood led the Church to confess Mary’s real and perpetual virginity even in the act of giving birth to the Son of God made man” (#499). Given this teaching, the perpetual virginity of Mary has traditionally been defended and examined in three parts: Mary’s conception of Christ (virginitas ante partum); her giving birth to Christ (virginitas in partu); and her remaining a virgin after the birth of Christ (virginitas post partum). This formulation was used by many of the early Church Fathers– St. Augustine, St. Peter Chrysologus, Pope St. Leo the Great, St. Gregory Nazianzus, and St. Gregory Nyssa. For example, the Catechism quotes St. Augustine’s elaboration: Mary “remained a virgin in conceiving her Son, a virgin in giving birth to Him, a virgin in carrying Him, a virgin in nursing Him at her breast, always a virgin” (#510).
Mary’s virginity prior to the conception of Christ is quite clear from the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Luke where she is clearly identified as “a virgin” (cf. Luke 1:26-27, Matthew 1:18). Moreover, when Archangel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would be the mother of the Messiah, she responded, “How can this be since I do not know man?” indicating her virginity.
At the other end of the spectrum is Mary’s virginity after the birth of Christ. In a previous article concerning whether Jesus had blood brothers and sisters, this question was dealt with in detail. Succinctly, we as Catholics believe that Mary and Joseph did not have other children after the birth of Christ. No evidence exists either in Sacred Scripture or Tradition to believe otherwise.
The troublesome part is the middle– Mary’s virginity in giving birth to Christ. We remember that one of the sufferings inherited because of original sin is that of “child bearing pains”: The Lord God said to Eve, “I will intensify the pangs of your childbearing; in pain shall you bring forth children” (Genesis 3:16). Since Mary was free of original sin by her immaculate conception, she would consequently be free of “child bearing pain.” In wrestling with this belief, the early Church Fathers then struggled to explain the meaning of this virginity in partu. The majority of Western Fathers seemed to emphasize Mary’s physical integrity. For instance, Pope St. Leo the Great said, “…She [Mary] brought him forth without the loss of virginity, even as she conceived him without its loss…. [Jesus Christ was] born from the Virgin’s womb because it was a miraculous birth….” They compared the birth of our Lord to Him miraculously emerging from the closed tomb or appearing suddenly in the upper room although the doors were locked. Some Fathers used the analogy of the birth of our Lord to a ray of sun shining through a glass: just as the glass remains “unaltered” by the ray, so did Mary by the birth of our Lord. (Even Pope Pius XII in his encyclical Mystici Corporis (1943) asserted, “It was [Mary] who gave miraculous birth to Christ our Lord….”)
On the other hand, the Eastern Fathers emphasized Mary’s joy and freedom from pain in giving birth to Jesus, the Son of God. They looked upon Mary as the New Eve, free of the pain of original sin. Moreover, they did not want to lose the notion of Mary being a mother in the full sense of the term. Remember, the Gospel of St. Luke simply states, “She gave birth…” (Luke 2:7), which does not demand a miraculous birth process.
Officially, the Church has upheld the perpetual virginity of Mary. Pope Siricius in 390 wrote: “This is the virgin who conceived in her womb and as a virgin bore a son.” The Council of Chalcedon (451) ratified the teaching of Pope Leo I regarding that Mary is ever-virgin. The Lateran Council (649) (not one of the general councils) stated: “If anyone does not, according to the holy Fathers, confess truly and properly that holy Mary, ever virgin and immaculate, is Mother of God, since in this latter age she conceived in true reality without human seed from the Holy Spirit, God the Word Himself, who before the ages was begotten of God the Father, and gave birth to Him without injury, her virginity remaining equally inviolate after the birth, let him be condemned.” In 1555, Pope Paul IV affirmed the virginity of Mary before, during, and after the birth of the Lord. However, the Church has not defined specifically how Mary is virgin in partu.
In the 1950s, great controversy arose among theologians over the interpretation of virgin in partu. Albert Mitterer cautioned against so emphasizing the physical quality of virginity that one lost sight of the goodness of Mary’s role as mother and her giving birth to Jesus. Freedom from “child bearing pain” does not necessarily entail freedom from the act of child bearing. Dr. Ludwig Ott stated, “It seems hardly possible to demonstrate that the dignity of the Son of God or the dignity of the Mother of God demands a miraculous birth.”
Fr. Karl Rahner, without delving into all of the anatomical details, focused on the spiritual reality of Mary’s virginity: Mary bore the Son of God. Her childbearing must have been essentially different from other women since she was free of the effects of original sin. Therefore, her virginity, childbearing, and motherhood are together in union with the will of God.
Finally, on July 27, 1960, the Holy Office (now the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) warned, “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.” Frankly, a discussion of virginitas in partu which focuses on anatomical minutia not only loses sight of the beautiful theology of the incarnation but also becomes embarrassing.
In all, we need to emphasize and revere both the virginity and motherhood of Mary. The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Vatican II asserted that Christ’s birth “did not diminish His mother’s virginal integrity but sanctified it” (#57). Accordingly, “in the mystery of the Church, which is itself rightly called mother and virgin, the Blessed Virgin stands out in eminent and singular fashion as exemplar both of virgin and mother” (#63).